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.
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