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6 Life Lessons from the Pioneers of Women’s Running

They questioned authority, broke the rules, and ran for their own reasons—and these legends want the next generation to do the same.

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The first woman to run a road race. The first woman to run the Boston Marathon. The first woman to break 2:50 for 26.2 miles, then the first to break 2:30.

Without these four women—Julia Chase-Brand, Bobbi Gibb, Cheryl (Bridges) Treworgy, and Patti Catalano Dillon—American distance running certainly wouldn’t be in the successful place it is now. And without Treworgy, there’d literally be no Shalane Flanagan (Treworgy’s her mother).

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, these women achieved several milestones that opened the sport to female runners. When people told them, “You can’t do that,” they, thankfully, didn’t listen. And the barriers they broke in running empowered them to overcome challenges in other areas of their lives.

Chase-Brand, Gibb, Treworgy, and Dillon got together on Sunday in Boston for a discussion, moderated by Adrianne Haslet, to put their breakthroughs into perspective. Read the following six lessons gleaned from their talk for running and life:

You have a right to be skeptical.

Chase-Brand was the first woman to run a road race in 1961. It was the Manchester Road Race in Connecticut and she did it without permission.

“Women weren’t allowed to run, women weren’t allowed to go to men’s colleges,” she said, “women weren’t allowed to do lots of things.”

Back then, the prevailing “wisdom” was that the female body couldn’t handle running because at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the media reported several women collapsed after the 800 meters and were carried off the track. It wasn’t true, however as a result of the inaccurate accounts, the International Olympic Committee struck the event from the Games until it was reintroduced in 1960.

“It was an intentional fraud,” Chase-Brand said. “That lie lived in the United States for 30 years.”

Chase-Brand competed in the 800 meters in the 1960 Olympic trials. A couple of weeks later, she took a crack at the Manchester 5-mile road race. She was told women couldn’t run, but she did it anyway—wearing her skirted Smith College gym uniform. Because she broke the rules, the sport’s governing body banned her from future road races, but the following spring, it allowed women to run cross-country for the first time.

Sometimes you make the best of the opportunities you have.

Treworgy, who was the marathon world-record holder (2:49:40) in 1971, wanted to run in high school during the 1960s, so she joined the boys because no girls’ program was offered. In college, with no women to run against, she again competed in high school boys cross-country meets, though she had to wait five seconds after the gun went off so she didn’t get in the way. Even with the delay, she never finished worse than third place.

When Treworgy broke the world record for the marathon, no one was waiting to interview her at the finish. When the papers did cover it, one headline declared, “Pretty Cheryl Enjoys Running.” It focused more on her measurements and appearance over her athletic performance.

Chase-Brand, who earned her graduate degree in animal physiology and at age 49 went to medical school to become a psychiatrist, sometimes ran with sneakers that were taped because they were too big, and in her brother’s t-shirts and shorts. Once, right before a race, “my bra was strangling me,” so she ran under the bleachers and took it off.

“The world was really unprepared for us,” she said.

Other times, you have to break the rules.

In 1966, Gibb wanted to run the Boston Marathon. She bucked the prevailing advice that women were not physiologically capable of running 26.2 miles. At the time, she had run up to 40 miles in a stretch.

Gibb showed up at the starting line in Hopkinton wearing a hooded sweatshirt over a bathing suit, her brother’s shorts, and a pair of ill-fitting boys’ sneakers.

“I found some bushes near the start, let about half the runners go by, and jumped in,” she said.

The men around her wondered aloud if she was a girl, so she started talking to them. They were surprised but supportive, and when she told them she feared getting thrown out of the race, they said they wouldn’t let it happen.

Gibb’s run was unofficial—she couldn’t enter as a woman—but she was later recognized as the winner of the Boston Marathon in 1966, 1967, and 1968. Kathrine Switzer entered the race officially in 1967 using her initials, and Jock Semple tried to pull her from the course. Gibb didn’t have a race bib but finished almost an hour faster.

Pick a direction and get moving.

When Dillon was 23, she was a college dropout—unhappy, overweight, and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. After she ran into a high school classmate, Dillon was struck by how her old acquaintance carried herself with confidence.

“Whatever she has, I want it,” she said.

She tried swimming and cycling.

“A car full of guys went by and knocked me on the butt,” throwing her off the bike and making her scared to ride again.

So Dillon turned to running, in cutoff jeans and multiple sweatshirts, around the cemetery so no one would see her. She finished seven miles.

“I looked horrible, but I felt so good,” she said. “I went into the shower, and as soon as the water hit me, I could breathe. It was the first time in my whole life that I could breathe.”

Dillon, who was among the first women to sign a sponsorship deal with Nike and the first female Native American to achieve many of her running accolades, went on to become one of the most dominant female distance runners of the 1970s.

She is a five-time champion of the Honolulu Marathon, runner up at New York City and Boston, and a national and/or world-record holder at distances including the marathon, half marathon, 30K, and 20K. In a 52-week period, she ran 48 races and won 44 of them.

“I was fighting for my own life, not women’s rights or Indian rights,” she said.

When something speaks to you, listen.

Of course, not everybody was supportive of these women when they were forging their way into the sport, but each of them learned to listen to their instincts.

“Trust yourself, even when parents and boyfriends don’t understand,” Chase-Brand said.

When she won the 800 meters at the 1960 New England AAU Championships, her dad wasn’t that impressed.

“My father looked at my tiny medal and said, ‘Maybe you’d like to play tennis?’” Chase-Brand said.

For Treworgy, a difficult decision to diverge from cross country—an event that earned her five world team opportunities—afforded her success in the marathon.

“No matter how well you think you have life planned out, unexpected opportunities arise if only you slow down to pay attention,” she said.

Run for your own reasons.

Participating in the sport can lift women in countless ways. Dillon found something she could pour herself into, to try to become the best athlete she could—and through the marathon, she learned what she was made of.

“It empowered me,” she said. “I felt like I could do anything.”

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. She is working on a book about Cheryl Treworgy. To find out more about the book, visit