Advertisement

You've Come 26.2 Miles, Baby : Roberta Gibb and K. Switzer Made Boston Marathon a Coed Course

April 16, 1995|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — It was a warm April morning, and she was leaning on a stone pillar on Hayden Road, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and trying hard to look like somebody waiting for a bus.

Nearby, men milled about in shorts, then gathered and were sent on their way by a pistol shot. As they ran toward the green in Hopkinton, Mass., and on to Boston, Roberta Gibb slipped in among them.

Five hundred men and Roberta Gibb in the Boston Marathon.

It was 1966.

There was no Olympic race longer than 200 meters for women and there hadn't been one from 1928-48, because after that last long race, 800 meters in 1928 in Amsterdam, the top three finishers, all of whom had beaten the world record by as much as two seconds, looked beat themselves.

"You have to remember that in those days, there were people who were saying, 'If you run a race like that, you can never have children,' " said Kathrine Switzer, who came to Boston in 1967 in a celebrated--and at the time cursed--effort. "They said your uterus would fall out and you would never attract a man."

Bobbi Gibb, a Boston native who had moved to San Diego, knew nothing of that.

She was not trying to knock down any gates in 1966. Until February of that year, when her application to run was rejected, she didn't even know there was a gate. It was the '60s, a time for draft-card and bra burning, but she was feminine, not a feminist. She was a 23-year-old Navy wife, occasional poet, aspiring sculptor and future lawyer who liked running. And here was a lot of running.

"A friend of my father's told me about the Boston Marathon, and I couldn't believe it--26 miles long?" she says. "I went out in 1964 to look at the race and I fell in love with it. People seemed to have this real earthy quality I was looking for.

"All I saw was people. It never occurred to me that there were never any women allowed or there weren't any women running. I had never run into any discrimination. I had gone to school with boys in my class. I just didn't know."

She found out quickly enough.

As she ran that April Monday, she wondered and worried. Unschooled in the sport, she ran in a swimsuit and shorts, as she had on San Diego's beaches, and boys' running shoes.

Water stations were passed.

"I had been told in high school that if you drank water when you exercised, you got cramps," Gibb said.

And dinner the night before lay heavy on her stomach.

"I figured you needed protein for energy," she said, "so I ate a huge roast beef dinner."

She had spent four days on the bus from San Diego, arriving just before the race. She was tired and scared.

And a curiosity.

"I was running along, and after a few minutes, the guys behind me were studying me," Gibb said. "They said, 'Hmmm, that looks like a woman.' I turned around and laughed. 'Well, it is a girl.' They were very receptive. I don't know what I would have done if they had said, 'Get out of here,' but they didn't. They said, 'This is great, a woman. I wish my girlfriend would run.'

"I said, 'I wish I could take off this hood, but I'm afraid they'll throw me out of the race. But if I don't, I'll die of the heat.' They said, 'Oh, well, it's a free road and we won't let them throw you out.' "

She threw off the sweatshirt.

"I'd see a policeman at a corner and say, 'Oh, boy, wonder if I'm going to get by him,' " Gibb said. "But they'd all laugh and say, 'Hey, girlie, he went thataway.' Or, 'If you'll slow down a bit, he can catch you.' "

She was in no danger of being thrown out. She wasn't an official entrant, so to Boston Marathon officials she was a non-person.

And as she ran, she began to get the idea that she wasn't just getting 26.2 miles of exercise.

"There was a woman standing at Wellesley," she said. "She was sort of a plump woman with her children and her husband, and she started saying, 'Ave Maria, Ave Maria, Ave Maria.' "

Amen.

As Gibb ran under the finish line, somebody threw a blanket over her. Her time was 3 hours 21 minutes 40 seconds, 126th among the 500 runners.

The men went off to warm up with the traditional bowl of beef stew. She was left standing at the finish line.

Gibb had pinned a $10-bill inside her swimsuit, so she took a taxi to her parents' home, where she found reporters and photographers trying to make certain she was a woman. They took pictures of her making fudge in the kitchen, a woman's place.

A few days later, Switzer, a student at Lynchburg College in Virginia, interviewed a Boston Marathon runner and decided it was something she wanted to try. The runner, Robert Moss, had been beaten by Roberta Gibb by more than a mile.

Switzer had run the mile with the Lynchburg men's track team, and when the Associated Press in Richmond, Va., picked up the story, she got a letter that said, "God will strike you dead."

She transferred to Syracuse University and began to train with Arnie Briggs, who had run Boston several times and told her that a woman couldn't do it. Roberta Gibb, he said, had joined the race at Wellesley, well into the course.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|