April 18, 2011 will forever be remembered as one of the most bittersweet in running history. After a magical morning when the running gods blessed us with a once-in-a-generation Boston Marathon, they took back much more with the passing of Grete Waitz, a once-in-a-lifetime hero. The great Norwegian track, cross country, and marathon champion succumbed to cancer late Monday night at her home in Oslo, Norway, ending a courageous six-year battle and a life of 57 too short years. Grete died as she had lived, with dignity, grace, and the love of her family and friends.
Those of us fortunate enough to call her a friend knew of the improbability of her prognosis when cancer was first discovered in 2005. Yet this most private of people who won the hearts of the most public of cities, New York City, maintained the incomparable grace that made her much more than a championship runner.
Sport is a meritocracy. Thus each game must be fortunate in its champions. In the late 1970s, the growing sport of marathoning could not have chosen a more perfect candidate to flower than the 27 year-old school teacher from Oslo. At the time, Grete was on the cusp of retirement, figuring she had run out the string on what had already been a remarkable career.
After five world cross country titles and two track Olympics – but no distance beyond 3000 meters available – Grete only reluctantly accepted race director Fred Lebow’s invitation to the 1978 New York City Marathon because husband/coach Jack convinced her it would make for a nice second honeymoon.
I was fortunate enough to be the finish line announcer that fall day in the Big Apple. As the women’s race entered its final stages word was relayed to me from the lead vehicle that bib #1173 was winning by a wide margin. I paged through my entry list, but found no such number.
“Well, I don’t know who bib number 1173 is,” I informed the Central Park crowd, “but she’s gonna break the world record!”
When Grete crossed the finish line in her Norwegian national colors in 2:32:30, she not only lowered Germany’s Christa Vahlensieck’s world record by 2:18, she unknowingly lit the fuse on what would soon become the women’s Running Boom. Running had already crowned its king in the person of Bill Rodgers, whose boy-next-door wins in the Boston and New York City Marathons through the late 1970s brought marathoning to the next level after Frank Shorter’s Olympic glory in 1972 & 1976. What the sport had yet to find was a fitting queen.
That autumn morning in New York City, Grete became the first woman to showcase world-class track tuning at the marathon distance. Though she had only trained as far as 13 miles prior to NYC `78, and all but threw her racing flats at husband Jack for making her suffer those last several miles, the hook had been set, and Grete would return year after year to measure herself against the five boroughs. Perhaps most importantly, the cold-fired elegance of her form and graciousness of her presentation was captured year after year live on ABC-TV. She was a natural star devoid of pretense, and women world-wide rose to follow her lead.
But it wasn’t simply the nine wins in New York City, the multiple world records, or even her World Championships gold in Helsinki 1983 which drew us to Grete. What made her truly special was the equanimity and dignity. When she was beaten for Olympic gold by friend and rival Joan Benoit in the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles 1984 after arriving as the favorite, she never offered an excuse, or in any way sought to diminish Joan’s achievement. The quality of the woman was such that Joanie would ask Grete to be her son Anders godmother several years later.
Then when New York City Marathon impressario and dear friend Fred Lebow was undergoing his own battle with cancer, Grete joined him in a memorable five-hour plus journey through the 1992 New York City Marathon. She called it both the most difficult and most rewarding 26.2 miles of her career.
Grete never sought fame. In fact, I jokingly called her “The Hermit” as she and husband Jack (and I) spent parts of every year in Gainesville, Florida just so she could get away from the superstar treatment she couldn’t avoid back home.
This woman with the quiet, quick wit and wry sense of humor was and will always be our marathon queen, because in her we saw ourselves as we would hope to be, not just as runners, but as human beings. We saw it in the cool efficiency of her stride, in the broad range of her talents, and in the dignified acceptance of our expectations. Hers was a natural noblesse oblige, singular in talent, serene in demeanor, and now everlasting in our hearts.