(Originally published on March 15, 2016 | Updated on March 29, 2018)
In February of 1966, 23-year-old Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb opened her mailbox and eagerly tore open the letter from the Boston Athletic Association, expecting to see her race number. Instead, she found that her request for an application to that year’s Boston Marathon had been denied. She couldn’t believe the words she read.
“This is an AAU Men’s Division race only,” wrote race director Will Cloney. “Women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”
Gibb was outraged. Fifty years ago, opportunities for females in the work world and society in general were limited—but in running? Not physiologically able? “I could run 30 miles at a stretch!” she says.
A lifelong runner, Gibb ran in the woods as a kid in the Boston suburbs, played field hockey in high school and ran 7 or 8 miles a day with her cross-country runner boyfriend at Tufts University for no reason other than running made her feel “as free as a bird—such a sense of peace and wholeness and health.” She had been training for Boston for two years, ever since she’d watched the 1964 race. Standing enthralled at Wellesley College (Mile 13) as the runners passed by, she made a secret promise to herself: I will train. I will raise my mileage. I will do this!
So after running nearly every day for 700 days, getting married, moving to San Diego and even logging two 30-milers, she was ready for Boston—only to find out that women were banned.
“At that point, I could have said, ‘Well, too bad—I guess I won’t run.’” she says. “But instead, I said, ‘All the more reason to run it!’”
And when she did, she changed the world.
“People don’t realize what it was like back then,” says Gibb, 73, who today works as a neuroscience researcher at the University of California San Diego and makes sculptures in San Diego and Boston. “It was hard for a woman to become a doctor or lawyer, run a business, live on her own. A woman couldn’t get a mortgage or even have a credit card in her own name. It was really claustrophobic. As a teenager, I’d see all these unhappy suburban housewives taking tranquilizers and drinking to alleviate the pain of not being themselves. And now, on top of it, we aren’t even allowed to run?”
Gibb hadn’t planned to run the Boston Marathon to make a statement. But now, fired up by her rejection letter, that changed.
“I saw that this moment was bigger than me,” she says. “Once I did it, they’d not only change the rules, but change attitudes. It would throw into question other misbeliefs about what women were capable of.”
In April, Gibb curled up in a Greyhound bus seat for four days, heading 3,000 miles east from San Diego. She arrived the day before the race in Winchester, her childhood home in suburban Boston, and broke the news to her parents.
“My dad was angry,” she says.” Even though he was an MIT professor who had always encouraged me to reach for my dreams, he thought I was nuts, that I’d get hurt. But my mom understood. She had been frustrated her whole life—a gifted, intelligent woman who wasn’t able to do anything but be a housewife. She agreed that this would be important.” With a kiss for luck, mother dropped daughter off in the starting-line town of Hopkinton the morning of April 19, 1966.