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5 Lessons You Can Learn from the First Women of the Boston Marathon

The 2023 Boston Marathon just came to a close. As we embrace the celebrations going on for those who entered the race, it's important to reflect on two runners that set the stage for this legendary race—especially for women. 

It all started when U.S. Olympic Team Manager, and Boston Athletic Association member, John Graham was inspired to create a marathon in the Boston area. After much care, rallying, and organization, the first race kicked off in April of 1897.  Fifteen men lined up at the starting line, and only one emerged as the victor—John J. McDermott of New York. McDermott ran a 2:55:10 Marathon in Boston, setting the first record for the race. He previously won the only other marathon on U.S. soil in October 1896 in New York. 

The race would continue to be dominated by titans of men for the next 70 years. That is until Roberta 'Bobbi' Gibb crossed the finish line in 1966. Gibb disguised herself by wearing men's shoes, a hoodie, and her brother's bermuda shorts. She hid behind the start line and blended into the pack after the shotgun blasted. Eventually, the other racers caught on that they were racing next to a woman. Gibb stated, "I turned around and they said: 'It is a woman! Wow, this is fantastic!'"

At the time, it was believed that women did not have the strength or mentality to complete a full marathon race. In fact, the Amateur Athletics Union had a ruling that stated women could not run more than 1.5 miles. Gibb didn't let any of this stop her.

As word spread through the race that a woman entered, Gibb stated, "The guys were really supportive. They said. 'We won't let them throw you out. It's a free road.'"

The following year, Katherine Switzer took on a rully crowd to set the stage for the first women's race. Despite attempts by race officials to remove her from the race before and even during the race, Switzer prevailed with a time of 3:25:51. 

"I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women's sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I'd never run Boston."

Here are five lessons that young girls can learn from these astounding athletes:

1. Break down barriers

Katherine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both refused to let societal barriers hold them back from achieving their goals. They defied expectations for women at that time and challenged the status quo, ultimately paving the way for future generations of female athletes to run the race.

2. Stand up for what you believe in

Switzer could have easily given up and not challenged the race officials who tried to remove her from the marathon. Instead, she stood up for what she believed, and continued to race—even physically fighting people off of her who were trying to pull her out of the race.

3. Embrace challenges

Switzer and Gibb's decisions to run the Boston Marathon as a woman were a huge challenge, but they didn't shy away from it. Instead, they embraced the challenge and used it as an opportunity to prove that women could run just as well as men. By disguising their names upon entry, and Bobbi even changing her appearance, they were able to jump into the race, creating an equal playing field for women and men in sports.

4. Perseverance

Both women showed perseverance in the face of adversity is an inspiring lesson for youth athletes—especially young girls. Despite facing numerous obstacles and setbacks, they continued to pursue their dreams and ultimately achieved great success of crossing the finish line. Gibb noted that the men's shoes she wore that day were slightly too big. It was felt in the final miles of the race. However, she persevered and told herself, "If I failed to finish, I would set women back another 50 years—maybe more."

In her final training days, Switzer prevailed, completing 31 miles just to ensure she could finish Boston, which showed when Jock Semple, the race co-director, pulled her numbers off and attempted to physically pull her out of the race on mile two. 

5. Empowerment

By breaking down barriers and challenging expectations, Switzer and Gibb empowered themselves and other women to pursue their passions and achieve their goals. Gibb went on to become a lawyer—another field predominately dominated by men at the time. She is still running today, even in her 70s.

Switzer went on to be an activist and author, pursuing women's rights to be included. Their stories are a powerful reminder that women can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

Honoring their legacy along with other women athletes alike is a way you can continue to move the needle for women's sports.


  • "50 Years Later, Finally Paying Tribute to Bobbi Gibb, First Woman to Run Boston Marathon.", Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
  • Editors, History com. "First Boston Marathon Held." HISTORY,
  • Funayama, Naoko. "First Woman to Run Boston Marathon Recounts How She Snuck into All-Men's Race." WCVB, 15 Mar. 2023, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.
  • "History | Boston Athletic Association.",
  • Ross, Ailsa. "The Woman Who Crashed the Boston Marathon." JSTOR Daily, 18 Mar. 2018,
  • Switzer, Kathrine. “The Real Story - Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman.” Kathrine Switzer - Marathon Woman, 2013,
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