Fifty years ago was a day that changed the Boston Marathon forever, the day the Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb hid behind some bushes near the starting line, then jumped into the all-men’s race undetected by the officials. This modest but daring invasion soon snowballed into the participation of women in marathons around the world and ultimately the inclusion of a women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics, won my Joan Benoit.
Gibbs and Benoit are profiled along with 20 other women running pioneers in “First Ladies of Running.” There are no sprinters among them, but middle-distance runner Grace Butcher is included as the first modern American 800-meter runner during the late 1950s, as is Julia Chase who became the first woman in a Connecticut 5-mile race in 1961, while running in her Smith College gym uniform.
Author Amby Burfoot has known many of the women he profiles both as a fellow runner (1968 Boston Marathon champion), but also as editor-at-large of Runner’s World magazine. At the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon he ran alongside Oprah Winfrey and gained her permission for a cover photo that graced the bestselling issue in Runner’s World history.
Here’s an excerpt from First Ladies of Running:
“The first three miles of the Olympic Marathon felt awkward and unnatural to Joan [Benoit]. She and the other top women weren’t used to racing among women only. They were much more accustomed to running with men in the big mega-marathons around the world. Paradoxically, the small field produced more bumping and jostling. It seemed as if all 50 runners wanted to stick as close as possible to each other. That wasn’t Joan’s style. ‘I felt hemmed in with the pack,’ she recalls. ‘I couldn’t stride properly when I was surrounded by everyone else. The pace was too slow. I wasn’t efficient at that pace. I felt it was time to go, even if that made me the pacesetter. Right after I broke free, we reached the first water station, but I was darned if I was going to get in a crowd again just for a drink, so I skipped it.’
“Much to Joan’s surprise, the gaggle of tough, fast women behind her failed to give chase.”