Barbara Robben and the Women's Dipsea Hike
Barbara Robben running hard at PA XC Championships in Golden Gate Park
In her lifetime, 84-year-old Barbara Robben of Berkeley figures she has competed in more than 2,800 races worldwide as a runner, swimmer and triathlete -- and that doesn’t include swimming around Alcatraz Island on a whim. She has logged every race she has ever entered with a No. 2 pencil onto cases of lined 8 ½ x 11-inch paper.
She has a personal hand-written record of her records.
On April 21, however, Barbara is penciled in for the first time to enter a history-making event that ought to be near and dear to her heart because it marks a significant milestone for women. It is to celebrate an occurrence that, to Barbara, is representative of a quest she chased for years.
The right to run alongside the boys in a long distance foot race.
Barbara is one of 500 entrants who will commemorate the centennial anniversary of the historic Women’s Dipsea Hike with a seven-mile tribute hike from Old Mill Park in Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. The event – organized by the Dipsea Race Committee in partnership with One Tam and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) – will be held exactly 100 years to the date of the inaugural Women’s Dipsea Hike in 1918, then believed to be the first-ever cross-country sporting event in the United States organized exclusively for women.
“It’s all about history,” Barbara says. “I was born 16 years after that, but my mother was a very good story teller so I understand what was going on. She would tell me in detail and explain. Women were forbidden from doing some things … I understood that women were excluded and you try to accept and do the best you can.”
Well, try besting what Barbara has done. When she was moved to become a competitor in running in 1950, her schools did not offer team sports for women and there were no races longer than a half mile for her to compete. Playing dodge ball didn’t satisfy her.
“Competition was ingrained in me,” she says. “My teacher in the fifth grade bought some ribbon at the fabric store and wrote `Montclair Elementary School’ and she gave us ribbons for running across the playground. It had a real start line and a real finish line and it was exciting to me. It was a red ribbon and you could attach it to your clothing with a safety pin and it was very meaningful to me. I still have that ribbon.”
Barbara liked competing so much that she once entered a flower arranging contest without any flowers. In high school, she took up ping pong and bought an instructional manual from a sporting goods store and a sheet of plywood, which she positioned against a garage door where she practiced ping pong by herself to get better.
“I was hungry for competition,” she says. “I was desperate for it.”
Running was Barbara’s first love, but there was no place to run other than the rural roads, trails, and open spaces around her house. She tried marching, but the University of California Marching Band at the time didn’t allow women.
“We were supposed to know our place,” Barbara says. “There were things you could do, but things that were socially unacceptable.”
Inspired by Florence Chadwick, who set a speed record for women in 1950 when she swam the English Channel, Barbara took up swimming and excelled at it. Her parents led her to a local swimming pool, but she evolved into open water swimmer. She summoned the courage to approach the South End Club and Dolphin Club and ask them to assist her in swimming across the Golden Gate and around Alcatraz Island when it housed prisoners.
“You couldn’t swim to Alcatraz and you couldn’t escape from Alcatraz so you had to keep a quarter of a mile distance from the island all the way around,” Barbara says. “It was extremely cold. The moment I touched ground when I finished was maybe my proudest moment. Nowadays people dress up in goggles and wetsuits and we didn’t use any of that. I was clinging on out in San Francisco Bay for 3 ½ hours.”
Barbara’s next challenge was cycling. She was a counselor at a national band camp in Michigan. She was given one day off a week and one day hiked into Traverse City, about a 14-mile jaunt, where she decided to purchase a bicycle.
“The only one for sale in town,” she claims.
Barbara rode that bike back to band camp and weeks later, when her $100 a week summer job ended, she elected to bike to the Straits of Mackinac, which separates Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. That trip was about 140 miles and Barbara stopped along the way to pitch a hammock in trees to rest.
Naturally Barbara swam the Strait, yet her swimming accomplishments didn’t stop there. Twenty five years later she won a gold medal at the 2010 World Aquathon Championships in Budapest – at the age of 76 – a mere three weeks after winning the national championship.
“It was pretty easy winning the nationals because there was no one else in my age group,” Barbara quips.
An aquathon is a competition that features swimming followed by running. The Dipsea race got Barbara ready for that.
“The Dipsea was well known when I was growing up,” she says. “You can believe that I was out there searching for races.”
Barbara is infinitely familiar with the Dipsea trail. It’s been a part of her life since she was 21 years old. That’s when her parents, Wilma and George Leonard, purchased more than 2,000 acres on the west side of Mount Tamalpais including White Gate Ranch. Wilma and George sold the largest parcel of that land to Mount Tamalpais State Park. In an expression of their love of the Dipsea Race, the Leonards donated a trail easement over their land in perpetuity to the citizens of Marin in 1972. This easement is today used as a shortcut by Dipsea racers off Panoramic Highway.
Two years earlier Barbara had participated in her first Dipsea race, but there is no record of it. She was an unofficial entrant as women were not allowed by the sport’s governing body to compete in the Dipsea race – or any other sanctioned long distance running event -- until 1971. But Barbara was determined to run in the Dipsea with her father and son, Michael. She eventually fit right in.
“Spectators were standing and cheering for the boys, but they especially cheering for women. That was interesting,” Barbara recalls. “We were accepted, so I didn’t have to push my range. I didn’t have to feel ashamed or apologetic. We just jumped in and ran.”