By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
A historical donation to the Ed Stabler Syracuse Chargers National Distance Running Collection at the Syracuse University Library filled our dining room. Hundreds of running books and magazines awaited processing. As I treaded carefully through running history, the March 1969 issue of Distance Running News grabbed my attention.
The black and white cover pictured a woman running through an open field. Light hair flowing in the wind and an Indiana State jacket were the only clues to her identity. My imagination ran wild, wondering if she was a real harrier or a marketing ploy.
An internet search and some luck quickly led to a pleasant conversation with Cheryl Bridges, the former American and world record holder in the marathon and the first cover girl of a running magazine.
Bridges was born and raised in Indiana. She attended North Central High School in Indianapolis. She started running in her sophomore year, and entered a track meet a summer later. She ran cross-country in her senior year and competed in the national championship in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Following high school, Bridges studied physical education at Indiana State University, where she received a talented student scholarship, the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship at a public university. As a freshman, Bridges was the entire women's track team, but she preferred cross-country, the "great equalizer." She graduated in 3 years with a bachelor in physical education and received the I-Men's Athletic Award.
In the Fall of 1969, Bridges finished fourth in the World Cross Country Championship in Scotland. She taught for a year in Michigan, then moved to California to run and to pursue a master's degree. In 1971, after setting US track records in 3 miles and 5,000 meters, she recruited a reluctant Bill Dellinger to coach her by mail for the cross-country season.
On 60 to 70 miles per week and 6 percent body fat, Bridges finished third in the US cross-country championship. She wrote Dellinger of her plan to run a Marathon. Fortunately, his discouraging reply arrived a day too late. On December 7, 1971, Bridges ran the Culver City Marathon in a world record time of 2:49:40.
Bridges continued to race throughout the seventies. She won the San Francisco Bay to Breakers race in 1972 and 1973, and qualified for five All-American Track and Field Teams. In cross-country, she finished in the top ten in the nationals ten times between 1965 and 1977.
Family replaced running in the early eighties with the birth of Bridges' two daughters. She was elected to the State of Indiana Track and Cross Country Hall of Fame in 1983, the Indiana State University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Road Runner's Club of America Hall of Fame in 1987.
However, in November 1986, Bridges set another world record of sorts, when a ventricular tachycardia kept her heart rate to 275 beats per minute for two hours. Running may have saved Bridges' life, as her strong heart survived the severe fibrillation.
Life turned into hell overnight. In the years that followed, Bridges went from one drug to another in search of a treatment. The chemicals meant to regulate her heart altered her brain. Various drugs affected her sight, her memory and her comprehension. She felt drained and slept a lot.
In March 1994, Bridges underwent radio frequency ablation. The seven-hour procedure sought and microwaved the rebel heart cells that caused arrhythmia. The operation succeeded, and Bridges went out for a four-mile run the following morning, her first run in seven and a half years. A few weeks later, Bridges celebrated her rebirth by running a Mother's Day 5K at a sub-seven minute pace.
Today, Bridges enjoys life to the fullest. Free of symptoms following her operation, she runs several times a week. She continues work in physical education, inventing and developing women's athletic apparel. On the trails, Bridges has passed the torch to her daughter, Shalane Flanagan, who recently won the Massachusetts Division 2 State Championship.
Kamal Jabbour looks forward to Cheryl Bridges' biography, an insider's look at the history of women's running. Jabbour's Running Column appears in the Post-Standard on Mondays. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.