The Passing of a Legend

No one has won the NYC Full Marathon as many times as Grete Waitz.  Waitz, 57, died this past Tuesday in Oslo, Norway.

Waitz, GGrete had been diagnosed in 2005 with cancer.  She never revealed publicly the kind as she didn’t want to put too much focus on herself and the disease.  In 2007, she founded the Aktiv Mot Kreft (Active Against Cancer) foundation.

Her marathon career story is nothing short of remarkable.  Grete won her first NYC Full Marathon at the age of 25.  It was her first time ever running a marathon and she set a world record for women, 2:32:30!  She had been a world record holder in the 3000 meters, 8K, 10K, 15K, and 10 mile runs.

Quotes about Grete’s first marathon experience are excerpts from a NY Times article by Liz Robbins and Bruce Weber, April 19, 2011:

But it was in the marathon, the 26.2 -mile symbol of human endurance, that Waitz most distinguished herself, setting a world record of 2 hours 32 minutes and 30 seconds the first time she ran one, in New York in 1978, and subsequently lowering the world standard three more times.  In addition to her New York City victories, Waitz won the London Marathon twice, the Stockholm Marathon once and the world championship marathon in 1983.

“She is our sport’s towering legend,” said Mary Wittenberg, the president of the New York Road Runners.  “I believe not only in New York, but around the world, marathoning is what it is today because of Grete.  She was the first big time female track runner to step up to the marathon and change the whole sport.”

Grete Waitz (whose name was pronounced GREH-tuh VITES) was not simply a champion, however; she was also something of a pioneer.  At the time of her first New York victory, women’s distance running was a novelty.  Just 938 out of 8,937 entrants in the 1978 New York marathon were women – in 2010, 16,253 or 45,350 entrants were – and the women’s marathon would not be added to the Olympics until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where Waitz finished second to Joan Benoit Samuelson.

Grete went on to win 8 more NYC Marathons!

Remarkably, Waitz, a champion track runner, ran her first marathon as a lark, with the encouragement of her husband, who was also her coach, and who told her that a trip to New York would be like a second honeymoon for them.  Even in training she had never run more than 13 miles, and the science of the sport was young enough that her dinner the night before the race included shrimp cocktail and filet mignon, hardly the load of carbohydrates that even today’s rankest amateurs know to consume.  As she recalled in later interviews, the last 10 miles of the race were agony, and she was so angry at her husband that when she crossed the finish line, she tore off her shoes and flung them at him.

“I’ll never do this stupid thing again,” she yelled.

She was, however, hooked. The next year, she finished the race in 2:27:33, beating her record by almost five minutes and becoming the first woman to officially run a marathon faster than two and a half hours. Her legendary status was assured.

Grete is survived by her husband and two brothers.  She will forever be remembered for the impact she has made on today’s marathon.