"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Memories of Grete

I just heard that marathoning legend Grete Waitz has died of cancer at age 57.

Grete was the first female marathoner that men took seriously. To get a feel for the time, no woman had broken 3:00 in the marathon by 1970 and yet Grete broke 2:30 in 1979. The women's marathon did not become an Olympic event until 1984.

Grete broke the world record in her first marathon, something that may never happen again. She trained about 70 miles per week and had never run further than a half-marathon in training, yet she ran a 2:32 at the 1978 New York City Marathon. I remember everyone (after discussing how to pronounce her name) saying, "imagine what she could do if she actually trained to run a marathon!" as if she hadn't. Discovering that she was exceptional at the distance, though she didn't really care for it, she started doing more long runs and upped her mileage a bit and she ran 2:29 at NYC the next year. Then 2:25:42. Then 2:25:29.

She won NYC a total of nine times and it became impossible for her to not be recognized there, though she preferred the relative anonymity she had in her native Norway, where she like to comment that she wasn't even the most famous athlete on her block (a champion Olympic cross-country skier, whose name I don't recall, was; skiing being the national sport there, Grete had started running as a way to stay in shape for skiing). Toward the end of Grete's running career, countrywoman Ingrid Christiansen ran a 2:21 marathon (London, 1985) and Grete tried to pass the torch of fame to her arch-rival, trying to always be photographed with the younger, faster (and prettier) Ingrid, as if she were her mentor rather than competitor or trying to convince the world that it was "a Norwegian thing," that distance running was not about her but about where she was from. It didn't work, for the reason that people just simply liked Grete (Ingrid was a very serious competitor, but didn't have the charisma that Grete did).

Ironically, when NYC Marathon founder Fred Lebow was diagnosed with cancer, Grete stepped back into the limelight. Lebow was trying to raise funds for a cancer charity and decided to run the NYC Marathon at age 60 (1992) for publicity. Grete ran with him every step of the way for five and a half hours. It was the last marathon for both of them.

I had a chance to meet Grete. She had written a book ("Guide to Running," 1987?) and was on a book tour, which I'm sure she didn't enjoy. I was out running and I happened to see her walking down the street with a man who might have been her husband or someone from the publisher's. I thought of saying hello, but kept running instead.


Anonymous said...

The skier you were talking about could be Vegard Ulvang? I believe Bjorn Daehlie came a bit later.

shannon said...

Partly due to my late entry into running, my perspective of the sport is all-inclusive. It's baffling to me that anyone, male or female, would be excluded from participating in a race. Winning a race is about time, not gender.

Recently, while Googling all things Boston Marathon, I found an article about Roberta Gibb. Prior to 1972 women had been barred from the Boston Marathon. Roberta Gibb ran Boston in 1966 with an unofficial finish time of 2:41; she did, however, have to hide in a bush until the start as she was not allowed to officially enter the race.

olga said...

I had a chance to meet Grete, at first More marathon in NYC, I believe it was 2004 (2003?). I was helping working the announcer's booth. Gracious. Kathrine Switzer was there too. Yowser...

Samantha said...

I hadn't known she died. Sad.

Shannon - read Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer. She's the first woman to run Boston officially (the year after Roberta was the first woman to run it) and was huge for getting women's marathoning accepted. It just blows my mind how recently this all is.

sea legs girl said...

Cool post.

SteveQ said...

People seem to have Boston on the brain (understandable, as a 2:03 was just run there). There were dozens of women who ran the Boston Marathon before 1972, though not official entrants. Switzer was the first woman to finish "with an official entry," though she was not an official finisher, as the race was male-only and she entered under "K. Switzer;" it was a stupid rule, but it was a rule and she broke it, thus she's disqualified. Gibb's time is extremely suspect, as she never ran anything close to that time at any other race.

It should be pointed out that we've swung 180 degrees. There are women-only races that crop up now and again... and that too is wrong.

DCS said...

What a trailblazer! I always felt bad she got the silver medal at LA in 1984 although I was rooting for Joan. I guess it was a tactical mistake for the field to let Joan take off, a la Frank Shorter in Munich. Can you imagine the pandemonium if Grete and Joan had entered the coliseum together?