The Real Story of the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon

Gibb splits her time between San Diego, where she’s an ALS researcher at UC San Diego, and Boston, where she makes commissioned bronze sculptures of portraits and athletes. Photo: Scott Draper

Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old journalism major from Syracuse who finished an hour behind Gibb in 1967, was wearing a race number obtained by pretending she was a man on her race application and using only her first and middle initials. She became the face of women’s running when photos of enraged race director Jock Semple trying to physically remove her from the race ricocheted around the world.

Switzer went on to a successful career as an author, speaker and TV commentator, won the 1974 New York City Marathon, finished second in Boston in 1975, and earned Runner’s World’s Female Runner of the Decade (1967–77) award, an Emmy for her work as a commentator and wrote several best-selling books. In the process, she also became known as “the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”

For a dozen years, Gibb wasn’t aware her legacy had been “stolen,” as she puts it. She was busy completing her degree, getting her marriage annulled, applying to medical school, going to law school, remarrying and having a son in 1975.

Then, in 1979, while watching the Boston Marathon on TV with her family, she heard the announcer say, “In a moment, we’ll have a little piece about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.” The next thing they saw was Switzer, and stories about Semple trying to boot her out of the ’67 race.

Thus began the decade-long process of calling and writing letters to TV stations, magazines and book publishers.

“But still, 99 percent of the problem was Switzer going all over the country claiming that she was the first woman to run Boston,” Gibb says. “If you asked her directly, she’d say, ‘Oh no, Bobbi ran the year before me.’  But then she’d go on TV and be introduced as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”

In the early ’80s, Gibb sent a complaint to “Ms.” magazine about an incorrect article and got a call from Marlene Simmons, the author. “She said, ‘I knew you were the first, but they asked me to ignore that,’” Gibb says.

Simmons wrote more articles—correct ones—and the tide turned a bit. Gibb started to get more recognition.

Eventually the Boston Marathon had recognized Gibb as well. She was retroactively awarded first-place medals for her 1966, ’67 and ’68 races, invited to do the 1986, ’96 and 2001 races on her 20th, 30th and 35th anniversaries, and was inducted into the Boston Marathon Hall of Fame. This year, on the 50th anniversary of her historic run, Gibb will serve as the Grand Marshal of the race.

“Not only did Bobbi Gibb’s run lead to women’s participation in marathoning, but it also proved that courage and determination can lead to change,” says Joann Flaminio, president of the Boston Athletic Association. “Throughout Boston Marathon week we will be honoring Bobbi and the impact women have had on the sport of road racing.”

Today, still remarkably healthy and athletic, Gibb runs an hour a day. She lives a bicoastal life, working as an ALS researcher at UC San Diego and making commissioned bronze sculptures of portraits and athletes from her art-filled home in Boston. And even though not all women around the world may know her name, the impact of her run on April 19, 1966, still reverberates. Women can now be found in every nook and cranny of sports. Last year, 45 percent of the Boston Marathon’s 26,598 finishers were female. It is widely reported that women make up the majority of runners at all race distances.

“When I grew up, women were passive,” Gibb says. “They sat on the sidelines as guys ran and surfed. But I imagined female role models who were fast, beautiful, strong and self-assured—like today’s women. I did what I could to help move things in this direction.”

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