Imagine lining up at the beginning of a marathon and, piled on top of your usual stomach-churning nervousness is the knowledge that, if you’re discovered running the race, you’ll be chucked off the course.
This is the reality that Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb faced at the beginning of the 1966 Boston Marathon, as she loitered near the starting pen in her baggy jumper, hood pulled up over her blonde hair. And her offense? Not being a man.
Because in 1966 women were still not allowed to run the marathon. They, in fact, were not officially allowed to run any event over 1.5 miles because – guess what? Their wombs might fall out. Remember that fun fact when you watch five-time Olympian Jo Pavey compete for a World Champs place in the London Marathon next month, or read about the achievements of record-breaking ultra marathoner Lizzy Hawker, or turn on the TV to see the female Kenyan elites battle it out at the Berlin Marathon in September.
Gibb’s race in Boston has become the stuff of running legend: how she disguised herself in a baggy hoodie and hid in some bushes close to the starting pen before sneaking into the middle of the pack; how the men running alongside her, delighted, promised to block anyone who tried to hustle her off; how Bostonians caught wind of her daring and came out to cheer her on; how by the time she crossed the finish line, 3 hours and 21 minutes later, she was a celebrity and a feminist champion.
By completing the marathon Gibb proved to the world what she already knew; that women had strength and then some, and the men who sought to “protect” the weaker sex were about to be shown just what they could achieve. Not only did she beat more than half of the field that day, but she did it in ill-fitting (men’s) trainers, and (thanks to a total lack of coaching) without realising that she was meant to drink water through the race. Her training was about as low-tech as it comes, even for the 60s. She says that she just “loved to run”, and so that’s what she did, for miles and miles through the woods in Massachusetts.
For her, it was “sort of a spiritual thing. […] I could get away from society and its rigid ideals.” She was struck by how miserable the women she knew were, housewives who self-medicated to deal with their lack of free will, hemmed in by restrictive laws and morality of the day. Gibb’s means of escape opened the gates for thousands of other women to find their own freedom through running.
Boston finally allowed women to enter in 1972, although both Bobbi and others continued to run the race in the 5 years between, refusing to be left watching behind the barriers.
Over 50 years on, most of us couldn’t imagine dealing with the wilful, blatant prejudice that Gibb and her contemporaries faced, but as a women, your luck still depends on where you were born. Only under the threat of boycott did Saudi Arabia finally send two female athletes to the Olympics in 2012, and that isn’t reflective of a more relaxed attitude in the extremely conservative country.
So the next time you line up at the start of race, butterflies storming in your stomach, take a moment to think of Gibb and the other women like her, who all forged a path so that we can take our opportunities, and our freedom, for granted.