Next month, about 30,000 runners will take to the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, for one of the world’s oldest and most famous races, the Boston Marathon. Nearly half the competitors in the 26.2-mile race will be women. But for most of the race’s 119-year history, only men were officially allowed to compete.
A woman named Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb helped change that in 1966, when she snuck into the marathon and finished ahead of most of the men. “Word went out around the world that a woman had done the impossible,” says Gibb. “It changed the way men thought about women.”
THE RIGHT TO RUN
Gibb saw her first Boston Marathon in 1964, while running through her neighborhood. She was inspired to run the race herself. For nearly two years, Gibb trained to build the energy and strength she’d need to finish. But when she sent in an application for the 1966 race, it was rejected.
At the time, the longest official races for women were only 1.5 miles. Many people didn’t think women were physically capable of running longer distances. Running a marathon was also seen as “unladylike.”
But the 23-year-old Gibb refused to let go of her dream. She came up with a plan to run the race anyway. On April 19, she showed up at the marathon wearing her brother’s shorts and a baggy hooded sweatshirt to disguise that she was a woman.
Gibb hid in the bushes near the starting line. When the race began, she jumped into the pack. Shortly into the race, Gibb took off her sweatshirt. To her surprise, the crowd cheered when they realized she was a woman. Gibb finished the race in 3 hours and 21 minutes—faster than two thirds of the male runners.
LEADING THE WAY
Gibb opened the door for future female long-distance runners. In the years that followed, she and other women ran in the Boston Marathon, even though the rules still prohibited women from running in the race. Finally, in 1972, the marathon was officially opened to women.
“It was bold of me to say, ‘I’m going to take on society and all its false beliefs,’” says Gibb. “It shows you what one person can do.”