Running with a Legend and for an Angel

Running with a Legend and for an Angel

My route to recognizing a special but largely unappreciated pioneer American female athlete, in my very first attempt at column writing for the Northeastern News in 1967, wound its way through a pretty absurd loss of innocence. 

Today, it is a complete relief to me that the actual column would never merit renewed scrutiny or, thank God, reprinting; it is also one of the great joys of my life that the woman herself and I became great friends more than 30 years later, and that we subsequently ran the 2001 Boston Marathon together and worked together on behalf of an organization I co-founded, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The loss of innocence? It came when I probably set some kind of record at the school, lasting less than three days as a member of the Northeastern University cross country team. 

At many schools, cross country would qualify as just another extracurricular activity, a school sport occasionally short-handed to the point of grateful to keep walk-on candidates. However, under Coach Irwin Cohen, the activity at NU was an outright blood sport. Indeed, I came later to learn that Cohen recruited his athletes from all over New England and the eastern part of the country. He frequently cherry-picked the best of my home state of Maine’s long-distance runners, including the likes of Ken Flanders of Portland, a New England 2-mile champion, and future 1988 U.S. Olympian Bruce Bickford of rural Benton in central Maine, who had won the six-state New England high school cross country championship.

Make this team? I had a better chance of becoming Homecoming Queen. (And, yes, I do remember that a popular male student who directed the NU Band made national news doing this.)

I was made so ill by an absolutely brutal speed workout on just the second day of practice that I determined I needed a day off to recover. When I returned for my Day 3 of training, I discovered that Cohen had had my locker cleaned out.

With my runner’s identity so ignominiously stripped from me, I struggled for several days to figure out what came next. A future apartment roommate – and a former high school cross country runner from New York who knew enough not to consider his college team an option – mentioned that he’d seen a sign advertising that the college newspaper was looking for writers. Maybe, Larry Shapiro said, I should consider writing sports?

And that is how I came to join the stable of freshman writers under editor Dave Portney and upperclassman assistant editor Gil Peters in the sports department of the Northeastern News. 

An interesting postscript to this, as I experimented with journalism for the first time that fall, was that I would become “the darling” of the News staff for one veteran coach named … Irwin Cohen as I covered his cross country and track and field squads. He bluntly stated that he appreciated, at long last, having someone from the newspaper covering his teams who exhibited both interest and knowledge. 

It was chillingly clear he had no memory of ever having seen me before.

In the spring term of my 1967 freshman year, Portney offered me the opportunity to write a column. And that is how I came to attempt that first personal-observation piece, allowed to use the forbidden I-word and expound on any sports-related topic I felt compelled to write upon. And, today, I am proud that however crudely constructed and poorly conceived that first column effort was, it was about how women should be allowed to run the Boston Marathon. 

Bobbi Gibb approaches the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 1966, the first woman ever to run and complete the historic race. Notable, indeed, is Bobbi’s “unusual” running kit, including one-piece bathing suit, her brother’s Bermuda shorts and ill-fitting boys track shoes.

Just the previous spring, in 1966, a young woman had quietly protested being denied entry by running the historic race without an official number, in defiance of the rules of the sponsoring Boston Athletic Association, which stood behind a U.S. Amateur Athletic Union guideline that decreed women “were physiologically incapable of running any distance longer than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).”

At the time I wrote the column, I did not recall her name nor did I bother to research it, and I suspect my own arrogance in thinking I was writing this grand decree, this Magna Carta for “EveryWoman” being allowed to participate, explains my failure to do the most obvious thing and properly recognize Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb by name for her singular courage and her stunning, unassuming heroism.

Life’s fortunes and misfortunes, over the course of 18 years after Northeastern, led me to:

– Appreciate the devastation of ALS, when a reporter I deeply admired at my first full-time newspaper job contracted the dreaded disease and died within three years;  

– Factor in a newly discovered humanity and appreciation for selfless enterprise, when I created Maine’s first annual charity road race, the Terry Fox 5K Run, (1982-2002), a fundraiser that ultimately raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local cancer research; 

– And to pursue opportunities in participatory journalism a la the late George Plimpton, in which I could use the journalist’s platform to embrace activism that I might earlier have rejected as lacking objectivity.

This culminated in bringing me a very special opportunity for which former Northeastern News colleague John Mello proved instrumental: recommending me for an interview that led to me becoming editor of the Winchester (Ma.) Town Crier in 1994.

For in this very special suburb northwest of Boston, I would use the weekly tabloid’s editorial pages to: 

– Challenge then-Bishop Sean O’Malley and his southeastern Massachusetts archdiocese for its mistreatment and persecution of a nun who many of my town’s residents knew had turned around the declining fortunes of the local Catholic parochial school; 

– Castigate the high school principal, who allowed a bunch of popular and privileged students to go unpunished for printing a libelous, salacious “Slam List” targeting classmates, deeming the matter settled by destroying the academic record of one poor, contrite honor student who was one of only three individuals willing to confess and admit to their limited, supporting roles in the whole affair;

 And, most significantly of all, begin to champion the heroic fight of courageous town resident and ALS victim Ginny DelVecchio, who had created the first ALS support group in Massachusetts and, tragic in Shakespearean terms, was herself now afflicted with the insidious disease several years after having attended to both her mother and her brother who had succumbed to the always-fatal disease.

Two years later, we were coming into the months leading up to the 1996 Boston Marathon, an event of even more special worldwide attraction that year, the 100th anniversary of the world’s oldest, continuing annual marathon.

I had already run the Boston Marathon in 1980, 1991 and 1993. Now, as I trained for my fourth race, it occurred to me that I should try and determine who had been the best-known Winchester resident to complete the race and profile that person for the Town Crier. 

Three years in a row Bobbi Gibb (shown here in 1967) unofficially ran the Boston Marathon and is today accepted as the official women’s division winner for 1966, 1967, and 1968. Women were not allowed to run officially until 1972.

I was stunned to discover, early in my research, that Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb – the woman who in 1966 defied BAA officials and slipped out of the bushes near the starting line in Hopkinton wearing a hoodie and sweatpants to help disguise her sex, who finished  the Marathon in just over 3:21, good enough for 126th if allowed official entry, who defeated three-quarters of the field of roughly 500 men – that Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb was the daughter of a Winchester college academician and his wife.

Here was an opportunity to meet and interview the very woman who was the focus of my very first newspaper column 30 years earlier.

Bobbi split time between a beach studio in Del Mar, Calif., just outside San Diego and a loft in the center of the arts community in nearby Rockport, Ma., and I was fortunate to find her back in Massachusetts.

At an initial meeting, Bobbi was amused and elated to discuss some technical racing elements of that historic run that previous writers had simply not investigated: 

– Those brand new “boys” running shoes did not fit properly, and the silver dollar-size blisters developing on the bottom of her feet were making her more and more uncomfortable almost every mile of the way; 

– That one-piece swimsuit could not have been a worse substitute for a marathon tracksuit kit, top and bottom, causing bleeding of the nipples and unspeakable chaffing; 

– The eggs, cheese and other dairy elements of her pre-race breakfast upset her stomach;

– And she did not accept a single drop of water during her run, fearful that drinking would cause cramping. 

If that wasn’t enough, there was all the anxiety of wondering whether the BAA could legally have her arrested for trespassing in the race and just what would be the reaction of all those men who were running. 

And yet, no matter her discomfort or what other issue presented itself, Bobbi Gibb had resolved that she must not stop until she crossed the finish line. To drop out, for any reason, would just be proof of that ignorant AAU dictate. Bobbi wasn’t running to seek personal fame or to wave any powerful feminist banner. She loved running, and she was running to prove that a guideline to which both the BAA and the AAU was clinging was utterly false.

When my article was published, Bobbi called me at the newspaper to thank me, laughing but pleased that I’d addressed so many female runner issues connected to her historic run. Then she invited me to come to Rockport, and she’d take me out for a run on one of her favorite wooded, training routes.

Of course, I was delighted to accept the invite, and we became friends on that run. I told her a little about my writing and my involvement with heroic ALS victim Ginny DelVecchio; how Ginny, her husband, Paul, and I had united to create a small research fund; how I intended to run the upcoming 100th Boston Marathon and present my finisher medallion to her to help publicize how important raising awareness was about this so-called “orphan disease.” 

I told her about Ginny’s affection for Dr. Robert H. Brown Jr. and the research he was doing on the disease right in downtown Boston, and how he was the only researcher in the world to have discovered a familial gene for ALS. It was only a fledgling effort, this Ginny DelVecchio Fund, but I hoped that by running for Ginny and dramatizing the event for area media, we could grow it into something bigger. 

A special EMT vehicle ushered Ginny into Copley Square and the VIP tent just beyond the finish line for the 100th annual Boston Marathon in 1996. Here, in that tent, I am presenting her with my special gold-plated finisher’s medallion. This inaugurated the tradition of participants running the Boston Marathon on behalf of The Angel Fund and ALS research.

To support Ginny and ALS research during the next several years, I ran successive Boston Marathons and, in 1997, I ran across Massachusetts in early May, 162 miles in seven days, as a special Mother’s Day present for her. By then, the minuscule fund had morphed into the Angel Fund, with multiple people stepping forward with their own events to support ALS research, and the field of runners at Boston running in support of it expanding every year.

On Sunday, Aug. 9, 1998, less than two weeks after my mother died after a massive stroke, Paul DelVecchio was on the phone. Ginny had determined to make her own finish line. Reduced to surviving on three life-sustaining tubes (to breathe, to take in nourishment, to void wastes), she would be assisted in finding a death with dignity the next day, but she wanted to say goodbye. Paul set the phone next to her computer and the next thing I heard was the programmed message I’d been privileged to hear several times before: “I love you.” 

Ginny, with her husband, Paul, joined me at the annual Boston Athletic Association pre-race dinner in downtown Boston, on the occasion of the 100th annual Boston Marathon in April of 1996. Runners from all over the world stopped by to pay their respects to her and see how her special computer transmitted her messages.

Tears streaming down my face, I responded in kind and, without thinking, told her to look for me at the 1999 Boston Marathon, running once again for her and the Angel Fund and that, this time, she’d be able to watch me the whole way.

From May 12-18, 1997, as a special Mother’s Day present for Ginny, I ran across the state of Massachusetts, 162 miles in seven days, to promote more awareness of ALS and our fledgling Angel Fund. After a special police escort into Winchester, I pushed Ginny across a ceremonial finish line at her St Mary’s Church, timed to come right after the conclusion of Sunday morning services. Ginny died the following August.

That would have been my last Boston and, without Ginny and having returned to Maine to do college teaching, I truly felt I had nothing left to give the Angel Fund.

But, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Bobbi Gibb’s “First Woman” tour of the Boston Marathon course, Bobbi called me, to ask whether I’d like to accompany her as she ran the 2001 Boston Marathon. She had a dear friend dying of ALS, and she wanted to join the Angel Fund supporters who were joining me annually at Boston. Just the invitation itself remains one of the great honors of my life and, of course, actually accompanying her that day is one of the very special memories from my running career.

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of her now legendary run as “first woman,” Bobbi invited me to run the 2001 Boston Marathon with her, joining me in running in support of the Angel Fund. Here we are at the midway point of the run in Wellesley. It was the last time either of us ran Boston.

Today, the Angel Fund is a multi-million dollar enterprise. You’ll find me acknowledged on the fund’s website, on the current officers and board of directors page with a special honorary Advisory Board Emeritus status. 

Almost on the heels of my departure from the greater Boston area, the Northeastern University connection to the fund charmingly became a circle that remains unbroken today.

That story connects me, a 1971 graduate, with Christopher Kennedy of Quincy, who was Northeastern University’s longtime dean of students until 1988, when he was diagnosed with ALS and retired. He died in 1989.

When the youngest of Chris Kennedy’s nine children, Jimmy (nicknamed Squirrel), contracted the disease and died in 1997, two heartbroken brothers of Jimmy, Richard “Ratt” Kennedy and Jake Kennedy, discovered the Angel Fund and picked up the torch. Comparable to the DelVecchio family tragedy, the disease has ravaged the Kennedy family.  Rich and Jake both graduated from Northeastern and co-founded the Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy business. They first connected with the Angel Fund after the death of their youngest brother by creating an annual tribute event for him in Quincy called the Squirrel Run.

Today, Rich and Jake Kennedy have themselves contracted ALS. For me, the news about Rich is deeply upsetting. Rich became president of the Angel Fund, leading it to flourish in every way conceivable, and he had a streak of running 31 Boston Marathons that was broken only when he became ill with ALS in 2016.

On the Angel Fund website, Rich Kennedy has written: 

“I get out of bed with a smile on my face because there is now optimism. It may prolong my life, it may save my life … that’s something no one before me has had.”

I want to believe, somewhere, an angel named Ginny is smiling.

Postscript: In 2005, I edited “If They Could Only Hear Me,” a book of testimonial essays about people connected to the Angel Fund and their battles with ALS. All proceeds from the book go directly to the fund and its research. In the book, I celebrate the life of Ginny DelVecchio, and Bobbi Gibb talks about her relationship with the organization, including a detailed description of our run together at the 2001 Boston Marathon.