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50 Years Later: Cheryl Treworgy—Shalane Flanagan’s Mom—Reflects on Being the First Woman to Break 2:50 in the Marathon

Treworgy reflects on how running has changed and created opportunities for women since she started running in the 1960s.

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On December 5, 1971, Cheryl Bridges lined up at the start of the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City, California. Although she was an accomplished cross-country runner, she had run only one marathon before, and she wasn’t happy about how it had gone. On her mind: keeping a pace she could sustain, so she wouldn’t need to walk this time. On her feet: a brand-new pair of Adidas Gazelles, straight out of the box.

She kept her pace and felt good. A man tried to push her off the course repeatedly, but other runners stepped in and blocked him so she could get by. Cheryl Bridges (now Cheryl Treworgy) finished in 2:49:40, becoming the first woman in the world to break 2:50 in the marathon.

“I think I get too caught up in comparing myself to what women are running now, and I feel my times weren’t anything to get all that excited about,” Treworgy told Women’s Running. But society was different in 1971, and women who ran were “challenging the limits of what they thought we were capable of and where we belonged. I often lose sight of that, because I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I was just trying to satisfy a drive from within.”

Today, a marathoner who breaks a world record has a flurry of cameras, journalists, race officials, and fans waiting for them at the finish line. Treworgy had none of that. Her experience lies in stark contrast to that of today’s runners, which Treworgy knows a thing or two about, in part because she’s Shalane Flanagan’s mom.

Nearly 50 years after Treworgy’s world record, her Olympic medalist daughter accomplished her own feat with Project Eclipse, running all six World Marathon Majors in 42 days. Flanagan told Women’s Running that she could manage this undertaking only because she had significant support behind her—and that the growth of this type of support is the biggest change women’s running has seen over the past several decades.

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“To have people supporting you is everything. I acknowledge that what I was able to do recently, and even throughout my career, is because of the people that have allowed me to do what I can do and encouraged me,” Flanagan said. “At that time, when my mom set the world record, there wasn’t that encouragement and support, and financial commitment, to be able to do that.”

“It’s just amazing how far we have come,” Flanagan said. “And I’m very grateful that my mom was part of it.”

Treworgy’s running career began in 1964, when she was in high school and heard about this phenomenon called jogging. She figured she’d try it on the track after school, and she liked it. But there was no girls’ cross-country team, so she started running with the boys’ team. When the school board objected to that, she had to train by herself.

The girls’ running teams and clubs that are now common across the U.S. didn’t exist in the early 1960s. There was no camaraderie with other girls. Running wasn’t a common activity for anyone yet. So what did a high schooler who had to run by herself get out of it?

“It was all self-fulfillment,” Treworgy said. It was something of her own, and it was empowering. Her senior year, she competed at cross-country nationals and came in seventh. Her running earned her a scholarship to Indiana State University, before women’s athletic scholarships even existed. She had few female running peers, so she had to race in high school boys’ cross-country meets. The boys’ coaches thought she might get in the way somehow, so she had to start 5 seconds after the gun went off. Still, she never finished worse than third place in any of those races. She started behind all the boys and then picked them off one by one.

Treworgy never trained with other women, but she raced against them at regional and national cross-country meets. She also represented the U.S. on five world cross-country teams: 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, and 1976. She finished fourth at the 1969 International Cross-Country Championships.

Because she didn’t have women to train with, Treworgy explained, it was hard to put her workouts into context. “When it came down to trying to run a hard workout or a time trial or anything, you were constantly digging down to the same place that you had to dig in a race, but you were using it in a workout.” Training with other women wouldn’t have required her to dig that deep for everyday workouts—she could have saved it for races, she said.

Flanagan agreed. “It’s a game-changer to be able to train with someone who’s as good as you, if not better,” she said. “You’re constantly changing your perspective of what’s possible when you train with people who are of equal or better capabilities.”

Emerging young runners today might consider it a given that women get to train with other women. But not very long ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case, Flanagan said. “When I started my career, a lot of women didn’t actually train together,” she said. “I had a lot of coaches say: ‘Well, women just don’t work well together. They’re too catty, or they just can’t do it. Men can, but women can’t.’” Flanagan and others have since forced that norm to change.

By the time Treworgy moved to California in 1970, she had more women to race against. She was training with the cross-country men at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and they did long weekend runs together. When the men decided to run the Western Hemisphere Marathon in 1970, she decided to join them. It was her first marathon, and she struggled at the end, walking part of it and finishing in 3:15.

She wanted to try again.

Meanwhile, she was gearing up for her last cross-country season. “Back then, if you were in your 20s, you retired. We didn’t have the pro circuit,” Treworgy said. So, she thought, “I want to retire on top. I’ve always been in the top 10 in cross-country, and I would like to stay there for my last hurrah.” She figured Bill Dellinger at the University of Oregon could help her do that, so she wrote him and asked him to coach her. He wrote back that he had never coached a woman, but it probably wasn’t too different from coaching a man, so he mailed her workouts and she wrote back describing how they went.

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Dellinger didn’t know she was going to run a marathon, Treworgy recalled. “I didn’t get his letter in time, but he wrote me and said, ‘I don’t really think you’re ready for a marathon.’” When he later found out she had run it, she said his response was: You did what?

Treworgy credits Dellinger’s coaching for preparing her well for the 1971 marathon anyway. Many runners were focused on long, slow distance for marathon training, but she knew she needed some speed work to finish the marathon strong, and Dellinger’s workouts included that speed work.

She didn’t set out to break a world record, but when she saw her time at the finish, she realized the significance of what she’d done.

Her world record didn’t get much press coverage, though. A Los Angeles Times article about it was titled “Pretty Cheryl Enjoys Running” and included her measurements, noting that she was pretty enough to be a model or stewardess. At the time, people thought women runners would bulk up and look like men, she said. They also just weren’t used to women running and didn’t know how to react to it, she said. The man who tried to push Treworgy off the course later sent her hate mail.

She planned to retire, but that marathon made her reconsider. “It kind of opened up my mind and gave me some time to think about what it was I wanted to do,” she said. “Maybe I really don’t want to retire–maybe I want to hang in there for a little while longer. So that’s what I did.”

Steps in a New Direction

cheryl-treworgy-photographer
Cheryl Bridges Treworgy at a track meet in Norwell MA May 26, 2001 (Photo by Dominic Chavez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Treworgy ran a few more marathons, and after she stopped running competitively, she moved on to coaching, a job as an assistant athletic director, and later to sports photography—shooting the track and field and cross-country meets that felt like home to her.

Along the way, Treworgy had two daughters, Shalane and Maggie, with her then-husband Steve Flanagan, who was also an accomplished runner. When Shalane started to get interested in running, she had no idea her parents weren’t just average runners. “Growing up, I just knew her as my mom, and I didn’t know what she did,” Flanagan said. “It’s wild to think that my mom was one of the pioneers in distance running.”

Her parents’ trophies weren’t on display, and they didn’t talk much about their running accomplishments, Flanagan said. And, because they never pushed running on her, “it’s kind of crazy that I actually fell in love with running,” she said. “It’s been an amazing connection to have with my parents.”

Treworgy found out decades after 1971 that she wasn’t on the U.S. list of world record holders. The International Association of Athletics Federations recognized her time, but the Amateur Athletic Union of the U.S. didn’t. That error has since been rectified, but “it was almost like being moved up to a medal at the Olympics years after the event took place,” she said.

“For years, as a photographer, I sat in those acknowledgement and recognition breakfasts for all the women that had run Boston, and here I am, sitting in the audience with a world record to my name, and no one acknowledges that I’ve ever done anything,” she said. “That was hard. And honestly, I don’t know if they knew.”

Women didn’t have an Olympic marathon until 1984, so people just didn’t see women running marathons on a world stage in the 70s. And news of races didn’t travel very far or very fast, either. Treworgy still runs, and she still loves the energy and community of runners. She became a sports photographer as Shalane’s career was taking off, and she still keeps in touch with some of Shalane’s college teammates. “I think it’s also good, as we get older, to make sure we have friends that are multi-generational,” Treworgy said. “And running is one of those things that you can be multi-generational and have some great conversations and understand what the other person is talking about.”

Over the decades, Treworgy has marveled at how the sport has grown. “Who would have ever thought it would be a commonplace kind of thing for whoever decided they needed a challenge to choose a marathon for a challenge? That’s pretty amazing,” she said.

She’s also seen a shift in what women think they’re capable of more generally. “Women, at least here in the U.S., it appears to me, are less afraid to honor their thoughts, their dreams, their wishes. I see more women figuring out how to do what they want to do, and giving themselves more credit, without needing validation from others.”

Treworgy has also built friendships with other women who led the sport in its early decades, even if she didn’t know them at the time. For most of the past several years, at the Boston Marathon, she has gotten together with a handful of women who broke barriers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They have created the camaraderie of women that they may have lacked in their competitive days, and they appreciate each other for what they did to push women’s running forward.

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