Grete Waitz is by far the most accomplished female distance runner this world has ever known. She transcended even those astonishing achievements with her personality. She was the most gracious and dignified person I know. She was the epitome of goodness and integrity. I am pleased and proud to have known her, to have been a colleague, but mostly to call her friend. Here are some of my memories of her over her long career. I don’t believe many realize that she also took an active role as an advocate for women distance runners and our right to run in the Olympics. I want to tell that story, because it’s important and because I will be eternally grateful to her for generously giving her time and presence to this cause.
One of my earliest memories of Grete came in 1978, as world record holder Christa Vahlensieck, of West Germany, and I rode out to the start of the New York City Marathon on a bus, and she told me that Grete was our competition that day. I said, rather surprised, “The 3000m World Cup Champion?” Christa let me know that Grete had recently run a 16K cross country course in under an hour. She added that Grete works out hard, every day, twice a day. (This conversation sounds simple enough, but you have to know that I don’t speak German one little bit, and Christa was not fluent in English. So this conversation probably took the entire bus trip in a game of charades.)
During the course of the race, what I previously perceived to be a small injury to my foot worsened dramatically. I thought it had only been a stone bruise from running on the tow-path in Washington DC just days before arriving in New York. With the pre-race rest and easy days, I didn’t notice the sore foot too much. Parts of the NY course require running over steel-grated bridges. Carpeting was laid with the best intentions, but from my vantage point in the race, the packs of runners numbered so many, it was simply too crowded to set foot on the carpet, so I was left to running on the steel grating. I suspected at the time, which was confirmed later, one of my metatarsal bones fractured. I wanted terribly to stop, and at the point where we came off the bridge I thought we were close to the finish line if one cut across Central Park. However, the crowds of spectators were so thick, it was like running single file through a sea of spectators and impossible to drop out. It’s my recollection, that I was on First Avenue before the crowds thinned enough to pull aside. When I did, I slipped off my shoe and massaged the foot, when I felt someone put their arm on my shoulder. I was looking down at another runner’s foot with her shoe off too, and looked up to see Christa! So we walked together back to the finish line area, which wasn’t easy because everyone tried to steer us back on the course. We realized we had to get rid of those bib numbers, especially Christa’s number one and my number two. Sitting on a grassy knoll in Central Park, overlooking the finish line from a distance, we could hear race announcer Toni Reavis say that there was “…no sign of Vahlensiek or Hansen,” but an “unknown runner with #2000-something was leading the race.” We looked at each other and said “GRETE” !! We watched her cross the line, breaking the world record, Christa’s record. I saw the tears well up in Christa’s eyes, and it was my turn to put my arm on her shoulder, looking for the right words. I said something that Chantale Langlace once said to me (the one who broke my record, actually): “You are a great runner. You had better days before and you will again.” For now, Grete had arrived and she changed the women’s marathon world forever more. (story continues below photos. . . .)
(Photos by Tom Sturak)
The next year, in 1979, I was pregnant with my first (and only) child, so did not run the NYC Marathon (Grete’s pictures here are from that race). However, I did run the Lasse Viren 20K Invitational Cross Country Race in Sycamore Canyon near my home. Grete won handily that day. I was running just comfortably, in accordance with doctor’s orders, and still placed fifth. The photo at the top is from the post-race event.
I suspect I may have been talking to Grete about our recent respective trips to Montreal, where the International Runners Committee (IRC) met for the first time and the World Cup Track and Field Championships took place. Grete, defending champion from the 1977 World Cup, placed second in 3000 meters. The IRC was established as a lobbying organization to seek all the distance runs for women in the Olympic Games. She very much supported the IRC cause, and eventually became our spokesperson.
Grete’s victories and records are well recorded, for one on her own Wikipedia page. Nine NY Marathon wins, five international cross country world titles, two London Marathon and one Stockholm Marathon wins, two world records in the 3000m, 1500m Olympian, World Championship Marathon win, and so on. The New York Marathon list of her nine victories reveals that she broke 2:30 for the first time by any woman in history on her second NYC victory in 1979 and ran under 2:30 for all her remaining victories there. I recall the day she set that record. I was at a trade show for running apparel, and over the loud speakers they announced the male winner of the NY Marathon, and it was frustrating to wait to receive the news of Grete’s earth-shaking performance.
Roberto Quercetani (Eurpopean editor at the time, for Track & Field News magazine) called it “the most advanced of women’s achievements.” Here is a summary of his comments, as edited by Joe Henderson in the IRC Newsletter:
“A time such as Grete’s would have been good enough to earn a medal in an (all-male) Olympic marathon as late as 1956. In terms of records, it was only in April 1935 that a male marathoner ran a bit faster than that. The Norwegian teacher thus appears to be 44 years behind the male clock. Before we regard this as a long lapse of time, let’s consider the situation in other events. Women trail men by nearly 80 years at 100 meters, and more than that at 400, 800, and 1500. It’s in the distance events that the ‘history gap’ becomes decidedly narrower. Lyudmila Bragina showed the way in 1976 with her 8:27.2 3000, a mark first surpassed by a male runner in 1926. That man, mind you, was Paavo Nurmi. Grete Waitz has gone further than any other woman athlete with her marathon record. That’s why we referred to it as the most advanced of women’s achievements in the sport.”
This article appeared in Running Times magazine when, five years after my sub-2:40 record, Grete broke 2:30 —
Norway joined in the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Lobbying efforts by the IRC and many others succeeded in the IOC announcing in early 1981 that the women’s marathon would be added to the 1984 Olympic program in Los Angeles. The first ever World Track and Field Championships were held in 1983 in Helsinki. Grete won the marathon and Mary Decker Slaney won the 3000-meters. Both women served as spokespersons for the IRC at the press conference in Helsinki to announce the international class action lawsuit against the IOC for the orphaned events, the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races.
Some say the only missing award in Grete’s achievements is the Olympic gold. In 1984, she earned a silver medal behind Joan Benoit Samuelson. Ever the gracious person, she made no excuses, although a few of us knew she was wearing a back brace and undoubtedly in pain. She made no excuses, but rather, she simply said that Joan was the better runner that day. In 1988, she was unable to finish the marathon at the Seoul Olympics, pulling out at 18 miles with a knee injury. Her last marathon was in 1992, accompanying Fred Lebow (NY Marathon Director) on his 60th birthday after his diagnosis of brain cancer. It took them over five and a half hours to complete the distance. She told me it was the hardest thing she ever did.
We kept in touch over the years, if only by phone and email. One conversation I recall came when she was getting back to an exercise routine, and she described her week of workouts on the treadmill. I replied that she was way ahead of me and I was feeling lazy (thinking to myself I only suffer arthritis). She was such a driven athlete and never one to make excuses. To me, as to most, the memory of Grete is not by the count or color of her medals. She transcended the accomplishments with her integrity, her grace, her dignity. Grete was without controversy, as fellow IRC member, Janet Heinonen pointed out to me upon hearing of her death. She is our heroine and always will be. She was brave and courageous throughout life. She is sorely missed. May she rest in peace.