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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

‘We knew the world was never going to be the same’: The trailblazing women of the Boston Marathon

Kellyn Taylor
Illustration Kellyn Taylor

In Boston, at the oldest annual marathon in the world, men ran 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston St for 69 years before the first woman stepped foot onto the course. Even then, women were not officially allowed to register for the marathon until 1972, six years after that gender barrier was broken. 

1966 marked the first time a woman had ever run in the marathon, though Bobbi Gibb did not register for the race nor run with a number. 

While Gibb always loved running, she didn’t discover the thrill of marathons until she was 21 years old. Born in Cambridge, one of her friend’s parents knew she loved to run and suggested she watch the nearby Boston race. After watching the men in action, Gibb made up her mind to run alongside them one day. 

Gibb began training, running across the United States on a transcontinental trip. Once she decided she was ready, Gibb applied for a bib number, to which the Boston Athletic Association replied, “Women [were] not physiologically able to run marathons.” The longest approved distance for women to run at the time was a mile and a half. 

Gibb was determined to show the wrongness of these beliefs.

“My running took on this sort of social significance,” Gibb said to Olympics.com in an interview on May 10, 2023. “I was going to change the way people thought about women.”

On April 19, 1966, at age 23, Gibb hid in the bushes near the starting line in Hopkinton. When the gun fired, she jumped into the race and ran with the men. Despite fears of being kicked off the course when her identity was discovered, Gibb remembers the other runners as protective. A local radio station noticed her dressed in her brother’s clothes as well and started covering her run. Soon Gibb had fans lining the course. Women at Wellesley College, an all-female school, cheered her on as she passed by, causing Gibb to start crying.

“At the moment we knew the world was never going to be the same,” Gibb told the Olympics.com podcast. “There’s no going back.”

Gibb finished the race in 3:21:40 (ahead of two-thirds of the runners), and shook the governor of Massachusetts’ hand as her bravery made headlines worldwide. 

The next year, in 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. Registering as K. V. Switzer, she was mistaken as a man by race organizers and given a bib number.

Switzer grew up in Virginia and ran a mile each day as a teenager, loving the feelings of empowerment and confidence that running gave her. She participated in short-distance track events available to women at Lynchburg College. After transferring to Syracuse University to study journalism, Switzer began training with the men’s cross-country team as the institution didn’t have a women’s team. Her coach Arnie, who had run the Boston Marathon 15 times, would tell her stories about the marathon. 

According to a story described on her website, one day Switzer said, “Oh, let’s quit talking about the Boston Marathon and run the damn thing!”

Her coach fired back,“No woman can run the Boston Marathon.” 

Switzer’s response was, “Why not?”

Switzer highlighted Gibb’s finish the previous year as a precedent, countering Arnie’s belief that women were too fragile to run such a long distance. She lined up on April 19, 1967, ready to run, with Arnie by her side.

Sporting the now infamous bib number 261, Switzer was ambushed four miles in by Jock Semple, a marathon co-director with a history of physically attacking runners he did not believe were serious about Boston. He pushed Arnie to the ground in an attempt to get to Switzer. Semple tried to grab her bib, shouting, “Get the hell out of my race,” but was blocked by Switzer’s then-boyfriend Tom Miller. Switzer finished the race in 4:20:00.

Once these two pioneering women finished the race alongside the men, it was only a matter of time before female runners received permission to race. In 1971, the AAU sanctioned that women were officially allowed to register for the marathon if they could meet the men’s qualifying time of 3:30:00. Nina Kuscsik’s win the following spring made her the first official women’s champion, of only eight that ran (and finished!) in 1972. 

Both Gibb and Switzer have run Boston again—the former running unofficially in ‘67 and ‘68, and officially being recognized for those three unofficial runs on the thirtieth anniversary of her first race in 1996; the latter running her personal best of 2:51:00 in 1975 as well as running 50 years after her historic run, at age 70, proudly displaying bib 261 as a woman. The two are now 81 and 77, respectively, and will most likely be doing meet-and-greets instead of running this year. However, the field of qualified runners for 2024 will not disappoint.

22,019 of the 33,058 runners who applied for the 128th Boston Marathon qualified to compete on April 15, 2024. 

Hellen Obiri won the 2023 Boston Marathon Women’s Open Division and will be defending her title this year, attempting to beat a time of 2:21:38. Obiri, originally from Kenya, is a two-time Olympic silver medalist and one of nineteen women competing with personal bests under 2:23:00.

Also racing this year is Desiree Linden, 2018 Boston champion, who holds the third-fastest time ever by an American woman in the race at 2:22:28. She’s joined by Emma Bates, who holds the second-fastest at 2:22:10 and finished last year in fifth place. The 2024 Boston Marathon features the strongest group of female runners in race history—Tadu Teshome of Ethiopia holds the fastest marathon time by a woman competing this year, at 2:17:36.

Athletes will be competing for the over $1 million prize on Monday, April 15, 2024, and will finish just down the street from the Little Building at the Boston Public Library. The Copley T-station on the Green line will be closed for the day, so plan your spectating accordingly! 

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About the Contributor
Anna Knepley
Anna Knepley, Sports Editor
Anna Knepley (she/her) is a freshman journalism major from just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. She currently serves as the assistant sports editor. Outside of the Beacon, she can be found hanging out with friends, exploring the city and writing for the CPLA newsletter. 

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