Grete Waitz: Defining the Marathon

Grete Waitz died Tuesday in Oslo at the age of 57. That doesn’t mean much to most in the United States. Outside of the rather small world of marathon running and runners, I expect Grete Waitz wasn’t well known. But people like me who have been running for decades knew of Waitz — without necessarily knowing her personally.

What made her special?

Well, in addition to her record-shattering performances, you have to appreciate the fact that she achieved great success and international recognition while retaining a sense of civility and humility that is the exception not the rule in sports these days.

Also, Grete Waitz — along with Joan Benoit Samuelson and a handful of others — transformed distance running in the United States and worldwide, particularly for women.

Grete Waitz was a schoolteacher and track record-holder at shorter distances when her husband urged her to enter the 1978 New York Marathon — without any serious training and without running that distance previously.  And she won — the first of nine marathon victories in New York and others around the world. Here’s from a NYT story:

In 1991, Runner’s World magazine named Waitz the female runner of the quarter-century, and she was perhaps the pre-eminent female distance runner in history. She twice set the world record at 3,000 meters, and she set world records at distances of 8 kilometers, 10 kilometers, 15 kilometers and 10 miles.

But it was in the marathon, the 26.2-mile symbol of human endurance, that Waitz most distinguished herself, setting a world record of 2 hours 32 minutes 30 seconds the first time she ran one, in New York in 1978, and subsequently lowering the world standard three more times. In addition to her New York City victories, Waitz won the London Marathon twice, the Stockholm Marathon once and the world championship marathon in 1983.

“She is our sport’s towering legend,” said Mary Wittenberg, the president of the New York Road Runners. “I believe not only in New York, but around the world, marathoning is what it is today because of Grete. She was the first big time female track runner to step up to the marathon and change the whole sport.”

Grete Waitz (whose name was pronounced GREH-tuh VITES) was not simply a champion, however; she was also something of a pioneer. At the time of her first New York victory, women’s distance running was a novelty. Just 938 out of 8,937 entrants in the 1978 New York marathon were women — in 2010, 16,253 of 45,350 entrants were — and the women’s marathon would not be added to the Olympics until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where Waitz finished second to Joan Benoit Samuelson.

That’s the professional look at Grete Waitz. Here’s a more personal one from George Vecsey in the NYT, “Scandinavian Cool That Warmed New York“:

She was slender and elfin, a wood sprite in appearance, not the brash and hardy species normally found around New York’s First Avenue.

She was repelled by the noise, the bluster, the first time she descended from the Queensboro Bridge into the maelstrom of Manhattan. Her first instinct was to recoil. Yet Grete Waitz kept going — set a world record, out of fear, perhaps — and then came to own the city as no female athlete ever has.

The tennis players who dominated the United States Open out in Queens, the basketball players who thrilled Madison Square Garden, the soccer players and golfers and runners who passed through, no female athlete ever had an era the way Waitz did from 1978 through 1988 when she won nine New York City Marathons.

Still, for all her wins and records in New York, the marathon I remember most was when she jogged across the finish line in 1992 helping Fred Lebow complete the marathon. Lebow, the person most responsible for making the New York City Marathon a world-class event, most likely knew he was dying of brain cancer at the time, although the cancer was then in remission. He died two years later.

Here’s from Vecsey:

The best marathon of all was hardly a race but rather a struggle to keep moving. Waitz was retired from competition, but in 1992, Lebow’s brain cancer was in remission; he was greatly diminished, and Waitz said she would accompany him in the race. She fussed over him during his modest training, and she forced him to slow down to a walk every few minutes. Together, they coaxed a five-and-a-half-hour marathon out of his failing body. After the race, one of Lebow’s female relatives stood up and said, in her Noo Yawk accent, “Grete, you’re the greatest.”

“Grete, you’re the greatest.”

Not a bad eulogy.

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