A THOUSAND or so women, led by 1984 Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson and world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen, will run today in the Boston Marathon. Their race-within-a-race will be the focus of intense media attention, and the first one to finish will receive $45,000 - the same as the men's winner. Quite a difference from the scene 23 years ago when Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb made history as the first female to run the famous 26-mile, 385-yard race from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boston. The winner got only a laurel wreath and a bowl of beef stew in those days - and women weren't even allowed to compete for these honors!

In a sense, today's explosion in women's distance running all began here in 1966. A scattered few women had run marathons elsewhere over the years (including one who crashed the 1896 event in Athens, running the course in 4 hours), but no one had paid much attention. The world took notice, however, when a young college student hid in the bushes near the start of the most famous marathon of them all, jumped into the pack as it went past her, and proceeded to demolish the belief that women just couldn't endure such an event.

``When I wrote for an application, I never dreamed I'd be refused,'' Gibb recalled from her home in the seaside town of Rockport, north of Boston.

``I got a reply saying women were ineligible, and furthermore that they were physiologically unable to run a marathon. ... It was all the more reason I had to run.''

Gibb ran the race in an unofficial 3 hours, 21 minutes, 40 seconds, launching the battle that culminated in the sanctioning of women's marathons in 1972, the women's Olympic marathon in 1984, and the tens of thousands of women now running such races worldwide.

As a young girl growing up in suburban Winchester, Mass., Gibb enjoyed running. At first it was just in school sports, and perhaps it would have stayed that way except for a teen-age romance.

``My boyfriend was on the cross-country team,'' Gibb recalls. ``I followed him around, and pretty soon I found that I could keep up with him. I hadn't even heard of the marathon.'' She saw the race for the first time in 1964: ``I was enthralled,'' she says. ``I really identified with those runners. ... And I said, `I have to be part of this. I have to be with these people.' It never occurred to me that they were all men.''

There were no women's running shoes on the market then, so Gibb settled for leather nurses' shoes. She trained in earnest for 1965, but an injury postponed her debut a year. She trained harder, testing herself that fall by running 65 miles in two days over an equestrian course.

That winter, while going to college in California, ``I ran in the mountains,'' she says. ``I took the bus to the desert and ran for miles and miles. I ran barefoot along the beaches.''

Then she found out that while she was ready for the marathon, it was not yet ready for her. Undeterred, she bought a pair of running shoes (someone had finally pointed out that she could wear boys' shoes), rode a bus across country for four days, and got ready to make history.

``I hid in the bushes, and when the guys came by I eased into the pack,'' she says. ``I had a hooded sweat shirt over my running clothes to disguise my sex, but pretty soon the guys around me realized it. I heard them saying `Is that a girl?' `Hey, are you a girl?' I laughed, and they said, `This is great, I love it.'

``It was getting hot, but I was afraid if I took the sweat shirt off, somebody might throw me out. The guys said it was a free road, and they wouldn't let anybody try. So I took it off, and the crowds went crazy. Women were screaming encouragement, and I got a lot of support from everybody - the runners, the crowds, even the policemen. And at the finish the governor [John Volpe] shook my hand.''

In 1967 Gibb again ran unofficially and again was the first woman to finish, but she was upstaged by the famous scene in which officials tried to tear the number off Kathy Switzer's shirt. Switzer, then a student at Syracuse University, obtained a number by using only her initial on the application.

Gibb ran once more in 1968, again finishing first among the women, who by then numbered five. But since then, she has been too busy with her law practice, painting, and sculpting to train much for competitive races.

``I never did really like the competition,'' she says. ``And I don't like running on pavement. I like running in the woods. It's so exhilarating there - the air, the sky, the earth, the sun, the trees. This aspect of running hasn't caught on as much as the competitive and monetary aspect of it, which is a shame. I just love to run - not for competition, but for the joy of it.''

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