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. (more…)