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On second thought

Memoirs of marathon’s first lady

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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The headlines amuse her now, all these decades later, because Bobbi Gibb has run so many more thousands of miles and lived so many more lives since that warm April day in 1966.

“I’ve had many lives, dozens of different lives,’’ a wistful, engaging Gibb said the other day, speaking by phone from her home on the North Shore, where she still runs an hour or two per day at the edge of the Atlantic. “That was a big day. But it’s only a part of it, really. I love to create, learn, think, just figure things out.’’

Roberta Gibb, to be honored Tuesday night at The Tradition, a ceremony that each year showcases our region’s greatest athletes, was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, on April 19, 1966. Though that honor is often mistakenly placed on Kathrine Switzer’s shoulders — the same shoulders that irascible Jock Semple targeted to wrestle the interloping Switzer out of the race in ’67 — Gibb was the maverick, the first woman to run the 26 miles and 385 yards from Hopkinton to Boston.

And, oh, the headlines that followed the next morning.

“Girl Finishes Marathon,’’ read the Boston Globe’s, with staff writer Herb Ralby detailing the accomplishments of the “23-year-old petite blonde’’ from Winchester.

“Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon,’’ proclaimed the tabloid Record American. A Winchester High graduate, Gibb only three months earlier had married William Bingay, a fellow runner whom she had met while they were students at Tufts.

“Another story ran a picture of me after the race, and the headline was, ‘Chick ‘n’ Legs,’ ’’ recalled Gibb. “It was a play on ‘chicken legs,’ I guess. And the narrative . . . it was about me putting on a dress after the race and going home to make fudge.

“Well, I did put on a polka-dot dress, and I did like fudge — still do, in fact. All of it was true, but not very enlightened. The whole idea being conveyed was about women being in their place.

“Remember, it was a time when if a woman had a profession, people kind of looked at her with pity, she was a weirdo, sort of, ‘Poor thing, why isn’t she home, being a wife, having kids?’ ’’

Gibb, then living in San Diego, took a four-day Greyhound bus ride across the country, arriving in Boston the night before the race. Her parents, Tom and Jean, had no idea she was coming home. Her brother Paul, whose floral-print Bermuda shorts she borrowed from the family laundry pile the next morning to wear in the race, was out of town.

Freshly arrived in Copley Square that night on the bus, Gibb first phoned her parents in Winchester, and her arrival proved to be only a part of their surprise. She was here, she told her mother, to be the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.

She had trained for two years to do it, going so far as to enter a three-day, 100-mile horse race in Vermont — on foot, not horseback — to help prepare for Heartbreak Hill. So what if Will Cloney, the race director, sent her that rejection letter, flatly stating that women were “physiologically unable’’ to run such a long distance. She was home. She was going to run Boston. Tomorrow.

“Total silence at the other end of the phone,’’ said Gibb, recalling her mother’s initial response. “My parents thought I’d gone nuts, that I was delusional.

“The morning of the race, my father stormed out of the house. He didn’t want me to do it. I had to convince my mother that I wasn’t totally mad. At first, she didn’t understand, until I said, ‘Look, mom, I’m doing this for myself, but I’m also doing it for all women.’

“I think that struck a chord with her. A beautiful woman, my mother, and she got it.’’

In the early-morning hours of April 19, mother and daughter set off in the family’s gray Chevy, making their way to the Hopkinton start line, driving the course in reverse. Anxious enough already, it didn’t help Gibb that she devoured a huge home-cooked roast beef dinner with accompanying apple pie topped with cheese the night before.

“I didn’t know anything about carbo loading,’’ she said. “All my training was by myself, most of it in the woods. That roast beef sat in my stomach like a cannonball the whole race. Heck, I didn’t even know I was supposed to drink water. I went the full 26 miles without a thing to drink.’’

Denied an entry number, and the only woman near the start line wearing running shoes (boys, size 6, fresh out of the box), Gibb had run a couple of miles to limber up that morning. She then hid in a hollow near the start line, eventually jumping out from a cluster of bushes to join the field of some 500 men after about half had bolted east.

What would all those men say? How would they treat her? All the way cross-country on the Greyhound bus, Gibb worried. Somewhat to her dismay, and totally to her delight, she said, the boys club turned out to be inclusive.

“Couldn’t have done it without them,’’ said Gibb, who quickly tossed off her brother’s hooded blue sweatshirt and ran the race in a one-piece bathing suit, Paul’s shorts pinched around her waist with a piece of string. “They could tell right away I was a girl, and I didn’t know if they were going to shoulder me out, call the police, or what.

“But they loved it. Some of them were saying, ‘Hey, that’s great, I wish my girlfriend would run.’ They were so encouraging.

“I think it’s pretty basic: If a woman does something worthy of respect, then men will respect her.’’

All these years later, one of Gibb’s most vivid memories is that of a woman, surrounded by a bunch of toddlers, sitting on the sidewalk near Wellesley College.

“She looked Italian, and when I went by, she shouted, ‘Ave Maria! Ave Maria!’ ’’ said Gibb. “People were crying as I passed. I think they sensed the moment. And the Wellesley girls went crazy.

“They formed this ‘Screech Tunnel’ for all the runners to run through. When we got close, the guys were telling me, ‘Hey, watch, this is the best part.’ The guys kept calling it the ‘Tunnel of Love.’ When we got there, and the Wellesley girls saw that a girl was actually running, the place went nuts.’’

Gibb, dehydrated, and her feet horribly blistered, finished the marathon in 3 hours, 21 minutes, 4 seconds, with roughly two-thirds of the male field finishing in her wake. She shook Governor John Volpe’s hand at the finish line, then was hustled to the Lenox Hotel to meet the press. She was denied the traditional postrace bowl of stew, then quietly disappeared into the crowd and later took a cab home.

“I wanted to keep it low-key,’’ she recalled. “I didn’t want anyone feeling threatened. I didn’t want to look strident. It was important to me that I just quietly demonstrate the truth and let people draw whatever conclusions they wanted to make.’’

As the cab tooled around the corner to her family’s home, she was startled by the number of parked cars along nearby streets. Odd, she thought, for someone to be having a party on a Monday night. When the cab finally came to a stop, she realized all the hubbub was at her house.

“My poor parents,’’ she recalled. “I walk in and there they are, just bewildered, with no idea what to say to the press.’’

Switzer, outfitted with her illegal entry number, ran the following year, increasing the female field by 100 percent. A few more ran in ’68. Gibb was the first female across the finish line all three years. Finally, in 1972, the Boston Athletic Association accepted official entries for a women’s division and in 1996 it made official Gibb’s three victories in the nonsanctioned era.

Gibb went on to earn a law degree, marry three times, raise a son, become a sculptor and writer, and today continues to add to her “dozens of lives,’’ splitting her time between homes here and in San Diego.

Much of her time is spent on research for the University of Massachusetts, trying to unlock the mysteries of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS. It’s a different run, with no map, finish line unknown.

Gibb remembered her father, a Tufts chemistry professor, at one point amid the mayhem at her house the night of April 19 telling a reporter, “Oh, we knew she could do it.’’ It was the same man who earlier that day had left the house in a huff, miffed that his only daughter had the audacity to run Boston.

“I put my arms around him,’’ said Gibb, “and I said, ‘Yeah, Dad, I did it. And it’s all because of those Gibb legs.’ ’’

Those legs broke new ground, smashed stereotypes, paved a way. Gibb gets to take a Tradition bow Tuesday night at the Garden, a belated and understated victory lap for a woman who quietly demonstrated the truth.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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