Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tom Derderian on Bobbi Gibb

Tom Derderian wrote the definitive book about the Boston Marathon entitled, BOSTON Marathon, The History of the World’s Premier Running Event. When he autographed a copy of the book for me in 1993 he was very gracious: “For Frank Niro III. If you hadn’t got me interested in the Marathon in the sixties this book would never have happened”. Tom’s well researched description of the 1966 race is a masterpiece, in my opinion, so I won’t try to replicate it in my own book. I’ll just share it with you, as is.

Here is what he had to say in his book about Roberta Gibb’s 1966 Boston Marathon performance:

“An intruder hid in the bushes in Hopkinton, watching the men run by in the 1966 Boston Marathon. For a year she had been planning to inject herself into the race. When half of the runners had passed she emerged from behind her forsythia and slipped into the stream. She wore a black stretch nylon bathing suit. Her hair flowed long and blond. She had come by bus from California and looked every bit the surfing goddess. But what she looked like was not what she was. She covered the bottom half of her bathing with her brother’s ill-fitting khaki Bermuda shorts. Her only other clothing was a new pair of canvas running shoes. She had been doing her training in nurses’ shoes. Roberta Louise Gibb called herself Bobbi. Because she had just married a sailor named Bingay, some called her Mrs. Bingay, but that was not an appellation that sat well with her. Once the world noticed what she was doing, neither her life nor the Boston Marathon would ever be the same. But for several miles no one noticed.

When she first got the idea to run in the Boston Marathon she had not intended to be stealthy. She had written to the BAA for an application to enter. She received a reply telling her that women were not able to run marathons and were not allowed to enter the race. But she wanted to do it. She liked to run. She was 23 years old, and she felt good and free when she ran. Fearing that someone would see her and prevent her from running, she hid in the bushes along the Boston course. Like a child listening to adult conversation and fearful of being sent to bed, she tried to call no attention to herself. But she would have to overcome her shyness to make her point.

Her point was not political. She did not concern herself with legal arguments, yet she would one day become a lawyer. After 69 highly publicized Boston Marathons, decades after women had swum the English Channel and flown solo over the oceans, this one particular woman decided to run the Boston Marathon. No other had tried. Why did she do it?

Bobbi Gibb both was and was not an athlete. She moved for slightly different purposes. Although Kelley and many men lost themselves in contemplation during long runs in the woods they were above all competitive athletes in training. Bobbi Gibb was not a competitor. Bobbie Gibb was an artist. When she ran she felt connected with everything. She felt an awe and sheer joy in being. Her context was different from that of the men around her. When she looked out from behind her bushes she saw in the stream of runners a stream of consciousness, not a race, not a competition. She slipped into the stream to join that consciousness, to be part of the whole, not to prove anything political or to beat men at their own game, but to play. She was like a little sister wanting nothing more than to play with her brothers and their friends.

The running world had no hospitality for women in 1966. Myths abounded that kept them out. It is not surprising that the first women to run in the Boston Marathon came obliquely to the event and slipped in unnoticed. The history of women’s long distance running is particularly disturbing.

In 1752 a four-mile women’s race was promoted in London. Great numbers turned out to watch it. Part of the crowd came because the promoters intended to have the women run nude, supposedly in the style of the ancient Greeks. But the women refused to run naked, interest waned, and the race was not repeated. Such exhibitions remained in the public mind in the place reserved for unimportant oddities like circuses and freak shows. Athletics as technically measured and timed events did not begin for men until the mid-1800s. At country picnics women ran in full Victorian regalia but often in joke events like spoon races (carrying an egg in a spoon).

The first 70 years of worldwide women’s marathoning can be detailed in a paragraph. In 1896, a Greed woman named Melpomene was said to have run in the first Olympic marathon. It took her 4-1/2 hours. In 1918 Marie Ledru ran in a French marathon and finished in 38th place. In 1926 Violet Piercy of the United Kingdom ran a marathon in 3:40:22; in 1964, Dale Greig, also of the United Kingdom, ran 3:27 and Mildred Sampson of New Zealand ran a 3:19. Two years later Bobbi Gibb hid in the bushes. That’s all the history, or herstory, there is. Why had so few women tried the marathon, and why had no women attempted the Boston Marathon before 1966?

There was ample inspiration for women in the form of splendid role models. Amelia Earhart, the first lady of the air, held press headlines for a decade as a ‘first woman’. In 1928 she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. Alone that year she flew her airplane across the North American continent. Her 1932 solo Atlantic flight was second to Lindbergh’s by man or woman. Earhart was a big media star. She had her own clothing line. Songs and books praised her. She wrote, “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Women were highly regarded as long-distance swimmers. Surely there could be no doubt a bout a woman’s capacity to endure when in 1927 Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel 2 hours faster than anyone else, woman or man. In track and field there were heroines in Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Francina “Fanny” Blankers-Koen from the 1932 and 1948 Olympics. But there were virtually no women long-distance runners.

In the face of inspiration and example a strong prejudice grew up against long-distance running by women. It was hysteria in the minds of male track-and-field administrators that can be traced to a single event in 1928. In the Amsterdam Olympics Lina Radke of Germany won the 800 meters in the world record of 2:16.8. That record stood for 32 years. It lasted so long because no woman could contest it: After the 1928 Olympics women were forbidden to compete in races longer than 200 meters.

That 1928 race was tight and exciting. Second place was less than a second and third was only two-tenths of a second behind that. Several women seemed to collapse after the race. They probably looked like the men did after their 800-meter race. But the sight of women sweating, gasping for breath, and bent over with hands on their knees was too much for squeamish male observers. The London Daily Mail quoted doctors who said such “feats of endurance” by women made them “become old too soon”. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Count de Baillet-Latour, wanted to eliminate all women’s sports from the Olympics. The longest Olympic race for women was 200 meters until the 800 meters in Rome in 1960. Bobbi Gibb, though, knew none of this.

In her training she had run alone on beaches, over grass, or through the woods. Gibb had trained through the woods in the middle of Cape Ann in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where her relatives had a summer place and she had spent her childhood summers. She ran through a strange and wild place there called Dogtown. Dogtown is on top of the granite rocks of the cape where the glaciers scraped off the soil; people have not lived there since 1600. The colonists had feared weather and Indian attacks along the coast, so they moved upland onto the thin, dry ground. By the 1700s people left for lands of rich topsoil and dependable wells. In 1966, you could, with care, find the foundations of their houses. With ease you could find blueberries, birds, and rabbits. It is a place where said only dogs dwelled. Gibb liked to run there. She would run quickly up and down the hills and duck under the hemlocks. She imagined herself an animal and at one with the woods, the rocks, the cat briars.

As she ran, even the smallest grains of dust and the patterns in the road took on a beauty and a meaning to Gibb as she felt herself a part of the incomprehensibly wondrous whole. She liked to think of William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Gibb had all the talent to beat most of the men, and in that regard she was indeed an athlete, but she had certainly not trained in a scientific way. She had no coach and was not part of a team. She had always been quick in school games like field hockey. She could spring, she could jump, she could duck and dodge. She was a student at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts school when she had first watched the marathon a year earlier and decided to run. She had gone with her father and though it was such a splendid celebration that she wanted to join. She ran with some men at Tufts University; where her father was a professor. That was where she met Bingay, who was a runner, who became a sailor, who became her husband. Before she went off to California to be married on February 5, she told her parents she would be back to run the marathon. Her only other long-distance running race was a 2-day 100-mile equestrian cross-country race. She did not know any better and tried to run against horses. Her knees gave out after 65 miles. At that point she was ahead of some of the horses.

Gibb was not in the mainstream of running, so she did know that women were racing a half mile or less. She had thought the marathon was open to every person in the world who signed up. But after her official rejection she would run as an outlaw. She had trained as much as 40 miles in a day. “My outrage turned to humor as I thought how many preconceived prejudices would crumble when I trotted right along for 26 miles.”

Gibb did not get permission but it did not really matter to her. After a 4-day bus ride and the purchase of running shoes with gumrubber soles, she slipped into the stream and within a few miles felt acceptance by the male runners. After 5 miles she heard, “It’s a girl. Is that really a girl? Pardon me...” Bobbie turned around laughing. “Hey, it’s a girl...Fantastic. I wish my wife would run. Good for you. Are you going the whole way?” “I hope so, if they don’t throw me out.”

At Wellesley College, women crowded the course. They saw one of their own and cheered wildly. Word spread among the crowd that a woman was actually running the Boston Marathon. At every intersection Gibb got more and more encouragement. For this attention she was not prepared.

She had trained alone, without a coach or program or training partners, and got to know herself and her own physical abilities; she did not know what to expect from other people. She was not prepared for the press attention at the finish line either. There is no ‘race’ story to tell about the first woman in the Boston Marathon because she did not have any competition. She ran an even pace and had a pleasant time. For Gibb the excitement occurred after the race.

Bobbi Gibb made big headlines and big photos in the Boston papers. “Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon” and “Blond Wife, 23, Runs Marathon.” Yet she could not join the other runners for their traditional bowl of beef stew in the Prudential cafeteria: Women were not allowed. Photographers followed her home, and one of the shots showed her at home later on race day in the kitchen, making fudge with a friend.

What did Jock Semple and Will Cloney think about Bobbi Gibb’s running the marathon? No much. She was not officially in the race. She had not entered. She did not wear a number. Her progress was not monitored at the checkpoints. In their minds she had not participated, although she may have run on the public roads from Hopkinton to Boston. Because she did not interfere with the progress of the race they had no intention of throwing her out. In fact, they never saw her.”

(The above was reprinted from BOSTON Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event by Tom Derderian.)

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