Grete Waitz, who lost a six-year battle with cancer early today, was the world’s most humble marathon superstar. She never, ever called attention to herself. But through her efforts and example, particularly in the New York City Marathon, which she won nine times, she turned the marathon into a worldwide, female-friendly urban phenomenon.
She was also as warm and personable as a friend as she was steely-tough in a race. We saw this most clearly in the 1992 New York City Marathon that she ran side by side with Marathon race director Fred Lebow, her partner in marathon promotion. Waitz had often noted that she thought it more difficult to run slowly than fast. She said this in praising the middle- and back-of-the-packers. She said she didn’t think she could run a four-hour marathon.
But when Fred needed her on the day, between his cancer battles, that he decided to make his only tour of the great five-borough marathon, Grete was unhesitatingly there. Looking pained indeed at times over their slow pace, she ran and walked every step of the way with Lebow. Their hand-in-hand finish next to the Tavern on the Green will forever be the New York City Marathon’s most emotional moment.
I was lucky enough to know Grete from the start of her marathon career. The morning after her first NYC Marathon win in 1978, I called her hotel room from the lobby below. I said I’d like to interview her so I could bring more information to the readers of Runner’s World magazine. Anyone else would have slammed down the receiver without a world. Nosy journalists!
She said yes, and a few moments later her husband, Jack, opened the hotel room door for me. The room looked like any runner’s room after a week of living in it–crap all over the place. T-shirts, sweatpants, and shoes all over the place. Grete was on the phone to her school principal back in Norway, trying to explain why she needed a couple of additional days off. She had to be interviewed by the newspapers and appear on something called “The Today Show.” She had no idea what this was, but people from the marathon thought it was a wonderful opportunity to tell the U.S. audience about their event.
After the phone call, she tidied up the room while answering my endless questions in her then-awkward English. She couldn’t have been more gracious or helpful.
A year later I visited her in mid-winter in Oslo. She was still teaching, and I could scarcely believe how simple and arduous her life was. There were no trips to Australia or New Zealand to train in the sun. She was running hill repeats on an ice-slick sidewalk beside a busy thoroughfare. (In the winter of 1984, I would visit the young Joan Benoit in Maine, and observe many of the same qualities.)
It’s hard to believe that Grete died the morning after the most historic Boston Marathon of all time. Boston has been an Adidas-sponsored marathon for decades, and I often emceed Boston Marathon clinics that featured Grete, a lifelong Adidas runner. As her English improved, her natural warmth and humor emerged. She was not the stern Nordic woman we had imagined for so long. Listening to her words, particularly the hapless story of her own single Boston Marathon start (she was leading at 22 miles when she dropped out, her legs shredded by the downhills), which ended with an epic failure, the audiences enjoyed many laughs.
This morning, when I told my wife that Grete had died, she said: “That’s typical that she waited until Tuesday. She probably didn’t want to detract from the excitement of the races yesterday.” So true.
Grete had such a long, wonderful career that we all have hundreds of memories of her. When I close my eyes, I see her pigtails swishing rhythmically like a metronome as she churned up First Avenue in New York. I think I will always see those pigtails.
Grete Waitz was a pioneer, a pacesetter, a pathmaker. We cannot make too much of what she contributed to our sport. She gave and gave and gave, and asked nothing in return.
Or maybe just this: That we should treasure every mile.
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