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For centuries the city of Boston has lived comfortably with its unchallenged reputation as the Land of Stodge, but for all its bans and blue laws the town also plays host to one of the most forward-looking sporting festivals in the world, the 70-year-old Boston Marathon. It is about the only major sporting event that anyone can enter—anyone, that is, but a woman. Now, even that last barrier, unofficially at least, has fallen. Last week a tidy-looking and pretty 23-year-old blonde named Roberta Gibb Bingay not only started but also covered the 26-mile, 385-yard course at a clip fast enough to finish ahead of no fewer than 290 of the event's 415 starters. Her remarkable feat all but eclipsed another turned in by an astonishing four-man delegation from Japan that swept the first four places in the race. How jarring an effect Mrs. Bingay's example of feminine endurance had on countless male egos can easily be guessed. But even if she fails to convince a single housewife that she is as capable as her husband of spading up the garden, the performance should do much to phase out the old-fashioned notion that a female is too frail for distance running.
I was just in. it for the fun," says Roberta, who takes her crusading very casually, "but I did want to make people see something different that would shake them up a little bit, maybe change some traditional attitudes."
Not that anyone should imagine that the lady simply stepped out on the road at the start of the race in exurban Hopkinton entirely lacking in preparation. Mrs. Bingay, in fact, trains almost as rigorously as any top male distance runner. The daughter of a professor of chemistry at Tufts University, she is from the Boston suburb of Winchester. Even before she married him last February, she used to work out with a Tufts distance runner named William Bingay. Now the Bingays live in San Diego, where husband Bill is stationed at the naval base. Roberta trains in the hills and on the golf courses around town, two hours a day, seven days a week, with an occasional five-hour tour thrown into the schedule to keep her from getting lazy. Oddly, until last week she had never before run in a race, even for girls only.
"Competition never interested me," she says. "I liked running just as a way of relaxing and of absorbing the beauties of nature."
The idea of running in a marathon first began to tickle Roberta's esthetic fancy only a year ago when she watched the Boston race for the first time. "I liked it," she says. "I saw all those men running along the road, and they seemed like such exotic animals. I began to wonder about what sort of person would run in such a race."
Since she is now living almost 3,000 miles away, finding out at firsthand this year did not occur to Mrs. Bingay until she discovered that the race date coincided with an already scheduled trip back home to visit her parents. A sailor's salary leaves little room in the budget for transcontinental plane fares, so Roberta took the bus. It was a cramped, four-day trip that brought her to Winchester at 6 p.m. Monday night, just 18 hours before the marathon was to begin. She was up early, ate a breakfast of cheese, milk and orange juice and persuaded her mother to drive her out to the starting line. Women are not permitted to enter the race officially, so, wearing a pair of white Bermuda shorts and a hooded blue sweat shirt over a black, one-piece bathing suit, Roberta hid behind bushes in Hopkinton Common and then jumped out to join the huge throng of runners after all the official cars and buses had churned by. Her early pace was slow, but she shed the sweat shirt after three miles and settled into a brisk, comfortable stride which she stuck with until the end.
"The pavement hurt my feet a little," Roberta confessed after the race, which she finished in 3 hours, 21 minutes, "because I'd never run on pavement before, but I was never really tired. The only thing that bothered me was that I felt like I'd eaten too much breakfast."
Her sudden appearance, however, had quite an unsettling effect on most of the runners who saw her in action.
"I was humming The Girl from Ipanema to myself, trying to get hopped up with a little rhythm," said a competitor who saw her first about 11 miles into the race. "Then this girl scooted by. I thought I must be hallucinating."
Nothing about the long run surprised Roberta, who never doubted that she, or any other woman for that matter, could easily complete a marathon. "It's silly that there aren't more distance races for women," she says. "They may not be as fast as men, but I think it's been proved many times that they have just as much endurance and stamina."