17 April 2013

Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon is on everybody's lips this week, of course. I in no way want to downplay the extent of the loss and pain that people felt, but feel that the story of Bobbi Gibb deserves to be out there.

Young Bobbi Gibb. Source: Bobbi Gibb

Gibb lives part of the year in San Diego, where she went to school, and part of the year in Massachusetts, where she was born. I first heard about her in passing last year, and, curious, looked her up. Once I found out that she lived in San Diego, I asked her to meet with me to do an interview so I could profile her.

She has never really sought the spotlight, but she is very accessible. It turned out that she works at the Salk Institute, just across the street from my school, so we met in a café and talked for hours. She is a lively, fascinating, and engaging speaker; it was difficult, writing her profile, to winnow down the information to the best quotes.

Gibb first saw the Boston Marathon in 1964. Her father had taken her to see the runners at the marathon, and she fell in love, deeply and irrationally, and immediately began training.  The conventional wisdom at that time was that women would damage their bodies if they ran more than a mile and a half, but she knew she could do it, so she ran a little farther each day, waiting to collapse or for her ovaries to fall out, until she was running thirty to forty miles a day.  "I was very strong," she said.  She applied to the 1966 marathon, but her application was rejected by the Boston Athletic Administration because they were unwilling to take on the liability of a woman runner.

That is when her plan formed.  She hid in the bushes at the start of the race, slipping into the pack after the gun went off, and finished ahead of two-thirds of the men.  She was young, beautiful, and fast, and her story made international headlines.

One headline: "Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon." Source: Bobbi Gibb

Gibb was grand marshal of the parade this year, along with the first winner of the officially-sanctioned women's division race in 1972.  That meant she was at the race's finish when the bombs went off.  "Horrible," she texted me, because the phones weren't working in those awful hours after the explosions.  "It was horrible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families."

What should have been a triumphant and happy day was forever marred by those explosions.  But that doesn't mean that her story should disappear under its weight.  Bobbi Gibb was and remains a hero to those who challenge the status quo. At nearly 70, she looks and seems much younger, and she's still running every day.

I ran four miles with her just before she left for Boston, and could only keep up with her through sheer force of will.

You can find the audio and text of the story I did for The California Report on the indomitable Bobbi Gibb here: http://www.californiareport.org/archive/R201304150850/b

Here is the text of the story.

Bobbi Gibb found one of the great loves of her life in her early 20s.
“I saw the [Boston] Marathon for the first time in '64 with my dad, and then I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I mean, it was totally irrational, like falling in love. There was no money in it, there was no reason to run, it was totally outside the social and cultural norm for a woman to run, and it barely was in the social norm for men to run.”

Gibb, who was born and raised in Massachusetts, already had been running for as long as she could remember. As a child, she would run out into the woods, pausing to rest under trees, count clouds and commune with nature.

“It was always kind of a way of expressing joy,” she said. “I'd see a field or a beach and I'd just run like a dog.”

The Boston Marathon, then the best-known marathon outside the Olympics, was more than simply an elite race to her. In fact, to Gibb, the marathon wasn't a race at all -- it was a joyful annual ceremony.

“It hardly even occurred to me that it was an actual sporting event,” she said. “To me, it was like a celebration of spring.”

Men only
What Gibb didn't know was that she wouldn't be allowed to compete. She was born in 1942 and came of age during a time when women were supposed to want nothing more than to stay at home and be housewives, and they certainly never did anything as unseemly or potentially sweaty as running.

Gibb knew about the social pressures, but had no idea that the Boston Marathon was actually closed to women until she sent an application in 1966 from San Diego, where she was attending UC San Diego. By then, she had been training for the marathon for two years.

“I had no idea how to train,” she said. “I had no running books. There were no running clothes for women. I wore nursing shoes because I had been a nurse's aide – that was my first job after high school and they were sturdy shoes.”

She had also been waiting during that time to see if something horrible would happen to her physically, because the conventional wisdom of the time was that running more than a mile and a half was potentially deadly to women. She pushed herself more and more, until she was running 40 or 50 miles a day in her clunky nurse shoes.

“I got a letter back from Will Cloney [then the director of the Boston Marathon] that said women are not physiologically able to run marathon distances, and we wouldn't want to take the medical liability.

“And that's what everyone thought. I mean, this was a universal truth. Women can't be doctors, it's too much stress. Women can't be lawyers, it's too much stress. Women can't be in the government.... women can't run long distance. Women can't do anything except stay home and clean the house. It was like being in a cage. It was horrible.... It was just everywhere. It was ubiquitous.”

Gibb said that running was more than something that simply gave her happiness at that point. It was also an escape, the only way she could escape the anger and frustration she experienced daily at being bombarded with messages that she was weak, irrational, stupid and a secondary citizen.

“You can't be who you are. You can't do what you love, because you belong to a certain class of people that we consider inferior. So you're inferior, and you can't do this. ‘It's for your own good! It's for your own good, dear,’ ” she said mockingly.

Then she realized she had been given a brilliant opportunity to change things -- not in a huge, overarching way but in a tiny way that could have an enormous effect, and in the best way she knew how. Gibb would run the Boston Marathon, application or no application, feminine inferiority or no feminine inferiority.

“If I can show that a woman can run 26 miles, and run it well  -- stride for stride with the men -- that is going to throw all the rest of the prejudices and all the misconceptions and all of the so-called reasons for keeping women down that have existed for the past how many centuries? Centuries of this stuff! And so I sort of chuckled to myself and thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun! I'm going to turn the whole thing on its head.’ ”

She spent nearly a week on a bus to get from San Diego to Massachusetts and when she got there the day before the 1966 Boston Marathon, she announced her plan to her parents, who thought she had suffered a break with reality and was suffering from delusions. Her father stormed out of the house, but Gibb managed to convince her mother to take her to the starting point of the marathon.

“That was really a turning point [in our relationship], because it was the first time she ever was on my side to help me become more of who I was, really was, and not just fit into the mold, and also I convinced her. I said, ‘Mom, this is going to set women free, because people are going to see that women can do this stuff.’

“I wanted to show that women could run, but I also wanted to kind of inspire the idea that ordinary people can run. I was like, boy, I feel so good when I run, if everybody could feel like this, this sense of joy and physical well-being and strength and autonomy you have when you run, how much better the world would be, you know?”

Crashing the Marathon
She borrowed an old pair of her brother's Bermuda shorts, put on a swimsuit and a hooded sweater over it, laced on her running shoes, and went with nervousness and great anticipation to crash the Boston Marathon.

“I figured, ‘I'll hide in the bushes as near to the pen as I can get.’ And then I had a blue hooded sweatshirt on and I said, ‘Well, I'll get into the race and then I'll kind of see where to go from there.’ So the gun went off and I jumped into the middle of the pack.”

She ran with the pack of men until she heard the comments from behind her, and realized the men behind her had figured out she was a young woman. It had taken about 30 seconds. She knew they could easily shoulder her out or report her, so instead of ignoring them she turned around and smiled. To her surprise, delight and a little chagrin, the crowd of men welcomed her.

“We got talking and they said, ‘Gee, I wish my girlfriend would run. I wish my wife would run.’ They wanted to share their love of running with the women in their lives.”

At this point, Gibb recalled, she started to get hot. She wanted to take off her sweatshirt, but knew her body and long bright blonde hair would give her away to the judges, the crowd and everybody else.

“If I take it off, I said, they might throw me out. The guys said, ‘We won't let them throw you out. It's a free road.’

"That was another item on my agenda, to end this stupid war of the sexes. Why do we have to be fighting a war of the sexes? We're on the same side in this! Men can have feelings. Women can have physical bodies that are strong.... you can be who you are.”

The Big Reveal
She took off her sweatshirt and the crowd went wild. Reporters quickly figured out that a woman was in the race and started phoning ahead; a local radio station started broadcasting regular updates about where “the girl” was in the race. As Gibb ran by the crowds, she saw their reactions. Men were cheering and clapping, and women were jumping wildly up and down and weeping.
“I thought, “Oh my God, this is incredible,’ ” Gibb said, her voice warming. “This is really blowing peoples' minds. I mean, women didn't know they could do this!” She finished ahead of two-thirds of the marathon runners, dehydrated and exhausted.

Of course, change didn't happen all at once. “HUB BRIDE FIRST GAL TO RUN MARATHON,” trumpeted one headline.

But little by little, more women came. Gibb ran the next year, as did a second woman, Kathrine Switzer. The year after that, Gibb ran the marathon again, with several more women. She applied and was turned down for medical school, went to law school instead, became a lawyer, pursued her art, had a baby, wrote a book, changed careers (she now researches neuromuscular disorders for labs in San Diego and Boston. and just finished writing a second book) and through all that she kept running.

In 1972, six years after Gibb first ran the marathon, the Amateur Athletic Association changed the rules so that women could run in an officially sanctioned race in Boston. The rest is history.

Gibb is still as lithe and lean as the 22-year-old who ran that first race. She now splits her time between San Diego and Massachusetts, and she never stopped running. She hopes to train for the 2016 Boston Marathon, where she will run to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the time she took her first steps down the long path to equality.