The historical importance of Grete Waitz cannot be over stated. Her running accomplishments are so huge they are almost unfathomable. She was a beacon of light for the running movement and women’s running in particular. In order to fully understand what she achieved it’s important to have a historical perspective.
The first modern marathon was held in Greece in 1896. Melpomene, a young Greek woman, was denied participation. She ran anyway and finished, with an unofficial time of 4:30. The next 60 years women were repeatedly denied entry to marathons. In the 1960s women turned to covert action. In 1963, Merry Lepper and Lyn Carman unofficially enter the Western Hemisphere Marathon. Roberta Gibb, trying to enter the 1966 Boston Marathon received a note back saying women are not capable of running marathons. She hides in the bushes and joins the race finishing in 3:21:40. In 1967 Katherine Switzer receives a race number having signed up as K.V. Switzer, the race director physically attempts to throw her out. His attempt is thwarted by her boyfriend and running coach, with the entire episode captured by the press. In 1971 the NYC Marathon opens to women, followed by the Boston Marathon in 1972. Nina Kuscik wins both in 1972.
Six years later in 1978, along comes Grete Waitz who wins the NYC marathon, setting a world record of 2:32:30. The next year, 1979, she beats her record by almost five minutes with 2:27:33, and became the first woman to officially break 2:30. She would break the world record yet again. Grete Waitz won the NYC marathon 9 times!
In spite of, or because of Grete’s domination of the sport, she would be crowded at the finish line by a flock of males. It’s not clear if they were trying to steal her thunder, slow her down, or steal the photo op from her. Fred Lebow, co-founder of the NYC Marathon and the NYRR, was furious and issued a decree that anyone who did that would be disqualified.
However, Grete was unstoppable. She continued to annihiliate the competition.
She won the London Marathon twice, the Stockholm Marathon once and a gold medal at the World Championship Marathon in 1993. She won silver in the Olympics. She won the world cross-country five times. She set world records at 3,000 meters, 8K, 10K, 15K and 10 miles. She won the NYC Mini-Marathon (a 10K all women’s race) five times.
Though she was Norwegian, Grete was our heroine. She was as much a part of NYC mythology as the Yankees. She dominated distance running at time when its popularity was soaring, in fact much of its popularity can be attributed to Grete. Everyone knew who she was, and we expected her to win. The fact that she won the NYC marathon 9 times is a feat that will probably never be repeated. Graceful and lithe with pigtails flying, she showed women that we could train hard and win, and still be elegant. She provided women with a clear role model. She led the way with ease as well as an intensity that we could emulate and yet never quite hope to achieve. Her support of other women runners is legendary. She is a beacon.
One of her finest moments came when she ran her last marathon with Fred Lebow. Fred’s brain cancer was in remission and he and Grete ran the race in 1992. It was an emotional experience for both, yet the image of them crossing the finish line with hands held high is an inspirational testament to friendship and commitment. Thought almost twice as slow as her typical running times, Grete considered it her 10th NYC marathon victory.
Her greatness would continue. She gave advice and information on running and health to everyone and regularly coached children. She was an advisor for Fred’s Team, an athletic program that raises funds for cancer research for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a charity started by her close friend, Fred Lebow. She readily gave brilliant running information. Jeff Rochford, head coach of Fred’s Team said, “Grete was so accessible to the runners. Being a nine time NYC Marathon champion, it was like a baseball fan being able to talk to Mickey Mantle.”
Inspired by Fred’s Team, Grete Waitz started her own charity Aktiv Mot Kreft (Active Against Cancer) to aid to cancer prevention by increasing physical activity, and to help improve the quality of life for those afflicted with the disease. She herself braved through her own cancer, giving of herself tirelessly. She passed away April 19, 2011. A lasting image I have of her is at the start of Grete’s Great Gallop, a half-marathon named in her honor, waving to all the runners at the start.
Grete Waitz trail blazed the way for women runners and athletes. No one did it better, and most likely no one ever will. Every world record smashed by a female marathoner (Paula Radcliffe, 2:15:25) and every time a female laces up her running shoes, we can thank Grete Waitz. Her spirit lives.