A Conversation with the Woman Who Changed Distance Running Forever

Rate this story:

REI contributor and self-proclaimed "Running Bum" Morgan Sjogren talks with Bobbi Gibb, the first women to run the Boston Marathon, about their shared passion for road trips, running, and the outdoors.

I’m on the phone with running legend Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, which she accomplished in 1964. She went on to set the tone for gender equality in distance running and beyond. To prepare for Boston, Gibb hit the road and traveled west in her pale yellow VW van, accompanied by her Malamut dog, Mut.

At this point in our conversation, we hadn’t even touched on the fact that I have been traveling around the Southwest in my yellow Jeep with my two mutts, Matterhorn and Roam, while training for upcoming spring and summer trail races. Instead, we are still talking about our eccentric childhoods living (literally!) in our backyards.

Gibb: I love the outside. Ever since I was a kid. I always loved to run in the woods and camp, to sleep outside under the stars. I used to sleep outside in my backyard.

Sjogren: Me too! I started running when I was nine, and I slept outside in the backyard for the majority of high school. I just loved it. What inspired you to do this, Bobbi?

Gibb: I loved pioneers, American Indians, and John Muir—I thought they were the coolest people living in harmony with nature. And I decided to sleep outside in my backyard for an entire year (in New England) to truly experience the four seasons. I wanted to feel what it is to be a part of this planet in this solar system and on this universe.  

Sjogren: Yeah, the frontier and native history have always been a major inspiration to me as well. Native running traditions were the focal point of my latest trips and a story I just wrote.

Gibb: Why did you sleep outside growing up, Morgan?

Sjogren: I first started sleeping outside because growing up in the California desert, it was cooler in the backyard than inside the house when summer temperatures were over 100 degrees. I discovered that it was a lot of fun, and I found myself at peace closer to the ground, where my mind was quieter and able to go to creative places. Being inside always felt too confined for those beautiful things that needed to be free.

 So why did you hit the road, Bobbi?

Gibb: My parents went on sabbatical to Europe when I was in my 20s and they left the van with me—I was finally free! I wanted to see it all and be a part of it. We are all made of atoms that come from supernovas [stars]. We are intimately a part of nature. It’s all related. That’s why I was camping out, the exquisite beauty and the sense of love. I wanted to be a part of it. Why are you on your trip Morgan?

Sjogren: There are so many new places I want to see and experience, especially on two feet through running. When I move through the landscape like that, each encounter with nature uncovers something new about it and myself. It’s a symbiotic relationship for learning and growth, which extends into the world around me—the desire to protect the places I love and help other people as well. The endless beauty in the wilderness blows me away every day, and I’m just so damn curious. I always want to see what’s around the next bend, over the next ridgeline, at the top of that mountain.

So where did you go on your trip?

Gibb: I started in New England and worked my way west. First to the Great Plains where I asked farmers if I could camp on their property. Then to the Rocky Mountains where I ran up and down the mountains. I felt myself getting stronger the farther west I got. In Nevada, I saw more stars than I had ever seen before and it made me think, how is this all here? It’s a miracle. From Nevada, I went over the Sierra Nevadas to Stinson Beach [San Francisco]. I jumped in the Pacific Ocean and vowed I would come back to live in California (which I did).

Sjogren: Ah the stars in Nevada are incredible. You know, it’s amazing but I have been more places in the last two weeks than most people go in a year. It sounds impossible to fit in so many trips in such a short time, but it’s been so seamless. When you are simply focused on running, eating, art, sleeping, and driving….

Gibb: Time expands when you are living in the present moment.

Sjogren: Yes, exactly! When I remove the distractions, suddenly there is time for me to run on a beautiful trail, write a story, get plenty of rest, and drive to Utah before bedtime.

So tell me how you trained and ran during your trip. What was your game plan?

Gibb: The more I ran on this trip, I knew I was getting strong, like a wild animal. I knew this wasn’t the norm for women. I had no coach, no watch, no book or plan. I made tons of mistakes like not hydrating or carb-loading. I just had the inner directive to get out and run every day no matter what, even in the rain, snow, sleet, and heat.

Sjogren: That’s so cool. I’m training for the U.S. Mountain running championships in a very similar way. It’s all about finding the joy in running to bring out the best in yourself. The trails do that to you. Running up mountains is the best training out there for fitness and your soul. What made you decide to run Boston, Bobbi?

Gibb: My friend’s Dad told me about the Boston Marathon, so I went to watch. At the time, I ran about five miles a day. The runners were all like wild animals and it moved me from the inside. It was totally irrational, like falling in love. I decided right there that I would run it next year. I figured once I ran it they would open the race up to women. At the time, it was believed that running farther than a few miles would harm a woman’s reproductive system. I felt if I could explode this false belief about women, which holds all of society back, I could set women free. Which it did. 

Sjogren: Thank you. I am so grateful for your leap because it certainly has made a huge impact on my life. I know not many women ran back then, so did you encounter a lot of stigmas about being a single young woman on the road? I’m still amazed at how many people express concern to me in 2017, and I always ask them—well have you ever even gone camping?

Gibb: (Laughs) People have so many fears. I think they watch too much news and become irrational.

Even though being outside in nature is healing, people can still be unconscious and full of hate and fear instead of seeing the love, beauty, and miracles. These are the types of people who asked me if I brought a gun with me.

And oh gosh no, I never would. But it’s important to be careful. I mostly worried about drunk folks or people on the wrong kind of drugs. You should always pay very close attention and make sure you’re not being followed. If you are, make sure you circle around and lose ‘em! 

 

Sjogren: Great advice. Tell me about your most memorable run or experience on the road.

Gibb: I camped out on a hill in Nevada. Off the dirt road to get there was a sign that said, “No services for 100 miles,” like this is the end of civilization. I just had to go there. It was so exciting, to be able to see Mother Earth and what it was like before human beings messed it up. I drove way out into the hills, and the stars were a spiritual experience. I woke up in the morning and saw these faint blue mountains in the distance. I thought, I wonder if I can run to the top of that peak? I had no idea how far it was, brought no water, I just ran and ran and ran. All day long. Finally, I stood on top of that mountain hours later and looked back where I came from, which was now a faint blue hill in the distance. I ran back down the mountain toward my van, and on the way a herd of wild horses began to run with me. They formed a circle around me and Mut. It was incredible. Eventually, they started to run with us again and follow us in this primal valley. It was one of the most amazing runs of my life. And yeah, afterward I was pretty tired. 

Sjogren: That gives me goosebumps. What a gift to experience a run like that. Did you take any photos on your trip?

Gibb: Oh no, I was too busy experiencing the world. I would spend my days running, driving, buying groceries, sleeping, and painting… making art. 

Sjogren: Did you ever get lonely on the road?

Gibb: Oh no. I felt so connected with nature, this universe. I’d go to coffee shops and truck stops to eat, though, and meet all kinds of different people across the country.

Sjogren: I love meeting people–especially at coffee shops, campgrounds, hot springs, and out on the trails. I love to hear their stories, everyone has at least one good story. 

Gibb: When I got to Stinson Beach at the end of my 40-day trip, I made a campfire and slept right on the beach. There were other people hanging out there who joined me and we became friends.

So how do you make a living?

Sjogren: I do several things remotely like writing, strategic marketing, social media, and even some fitness modeling. How did you fund your trip?

Gibb: I taught at a camp for Syrian and Lebanese girls on Cape Cod. I made $500. My trip lasted from July until September, when I had to go back to school. How long will you be traveling?

Sjogren: I’m not sure yet. I really like this life. There’s so much to see.

Gibb: Yes there is. I still can’t believe that there is someone else who ran and slept in the backyard as a kid, and then grew up to travel in her car and run all over the place with her dogs. 

After our call, I immediately ordered a copy of Bobbi’s memoir, Wind in the Fire, for reading materials on my upcoming adventures. A few days later, the dogs and I hit the road and headed west. We drove up and across Arizona and arrived at dusk in Nevada to set up camp and sleep under the stars. The same stars that Bobbi marveled at during her trip west decades before.

[ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

No more articles