I happened to take World Class off my shelf this morning and started reading and looking at the pictures. This is the life story of Grete Waitz through 1986, as well as a training guide. Waitz trained at a serious level through 1990 when she won her last NYC Marathon, a race she won an amazing nine times! Her last marathon was in 1992 when she ran NYC with Fred Lebow after he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Waitz’s story is compelling. She had running talent early on, focusing on 800M to 3,000M distances. She had to overcome parental and societal resistance to girls and women running competitively but persevered and in 1975-6 held the world record in the 3,000. Then in 1978 her husband Jack talked her into running the NYC Marathon on a long run of 12 miles! Grete was skeptical but the Marathon paid airfare and hotel for Jack and Grete to come over. She has often recounted that foray into marathon running: the first 18 miles seeming like a jog followed by eight miles of pain and torture. She yelled with anger at Jack at the finish line saying she would never do this again! Of course, she won the race and set the women’s world record by two minutes in the process. Which then led to an unparalleled career in road racing.
Some will remember the 70s and 80s when road racing was taking hold. There was no prize money for winning the NYC Marathon in 1978. But shortly thereafter races were providing substantial prize and appearance money (the holdout for prize money being the Boston Marathon until 1986.) This allowed Waitz to make a career of running and be a beacon for women’s running, which was taking off, though fields at the time were still mostly men. By the time she retired in 1990, the running world had changed considerably and she was affectionately known just as Grete around the world.
Grete Waitz was both driven and down-to-earth. I saw her speak a couple times at the Boston Marathon Expo – very humble and understated. But by her own account she bottled up a lot inside, which may have led to her death from cancer at age 57. She filled her life full, first as an English teacher while she was first competing and then as an ambassador for women’s running and for Norway throughout her career and after she retired.
Her experience with NYC in 1978 brought back my own first-time experience running the Mile High Marathon in the rarified air of Denver in 1980. I had moved to Denver in 1977, found an active community of runners and began to develop a passion and aptitude for distance running. Running a 3:00 marathon to qualify for Boston was the gold standard and with a long run of 15 miles I registered for Mile High. Like Waitz, I had focused on shorter races – 5Ks and 10Ks and maybe a 10 miler in there too. So I went out in what felt like a slow pace and at 20 miles was well under 3:00 pace. I had visions of flying to Boston with the Denver group to run the Boston Marathon in 1981! Then by mile 22, the wheels came off. I had hit the wall, I felt my energy drain and legs get heavy. I was now having visions of being carried off in a stretcher! I had to walk one long hill as time ticked on. My roommate, a sub 3:00 marathoner, walked with me and provided encouragement to keep going. My time was 3:03, and at the finish I sat down and ate about 20 orange sections to keep from fainting. I had not qualified but had survived and learned something about the marathon. That much I had in common with Grete Waitz.
In a way, running is like much of life. We push ourselves to the brink and in the process discover our limits. And then keep trying to raise them! As the years tick off, each year presents new limits. Yet many of us will continue the effort to push against those limits.
Thanks Grete for being Grete and showing many the way to a running life!