The iconic marathon champion paved the way for women’s running.
Written by: Duncan Larkin
In this modern day and age, it’s easy to forget an important fact about women’s distance running: 40 years ago, females weren’t officially allowed to compete in marathons at an international level. In fact, there was no Olympic Marathon for women; there was no laurel-crowned female standing next to the men’s winner at the New York City or Boston marathons. At the time, it was common knowledge that the marathon distance was best left for the men. Women were deemed “incapable” of running that far.
The paradigm changed in the 1970s and one woman helped spearhead that change: a Norwegian by the name of Grete Waitz.
The running world lost one of its legends yesterday as Waitz succumbed to cancer after a six-year struggle with the disease. She was only 57 years old. Waitz’s barrier-breaking achievements in her long career were nothing short of incredible and have inspired countless female runners along the way. The following performances stand out at top of Waitz’s résumé –a laundry list that’s chock-full of first-place finishes and world-leading times: She won the New York City Marathon nine times, a record that remains unbroken. In 1983, she won gold in the marathon at the World Championships of Athletics in Helsinki, Finland. She was a two-time London Marathon champion (1983 and 1986) and won the 1988 Stockholm Marathon. Her Stockholm winning time (2:28:24 in 1988) remains the course record to this day.
But winning races wasn’t something that necessarily came easy for Grete. She had to work for it; she had to train.
At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the then-18-year-old Waitz walked into the famous Olympiastadion and lined up at the start for one of the preliminary heats of the 1,500 meters. Four minutes and sixteen seconds later she crossed the finish line. She wasn’t first. Her time wasn’t even good enough to make it into the finals. She went home that year empty handed, but she never thought the worst of the experience, recalling that it was a “fun” time spent with her friends.
In the course of just three years, Waitz, an Oslo native, took her running to new levels. She moved up in distance and by 1975, after her second time running the 3,000-meter event, she had broken the world record. At that point, the barriers began to come down.
It’s worth mentioning that Waitz wasn’t competing for the thrill of it. Beating people wasn’t what got her out the door for training sessions in the middle of a brutal Norwegian winter. She simply loved to run. Waitz’s two older brothers, Jan and Arild, had first introduced her to the sport by talking her into playing “cops and robbers”. Waitz’s mother disapproved of these unladylike rough games and bought her a piano. It was hardly used because Grete had found her true passion: running.
By the time the 1976 Olympics came around, the world expected great things of Waitz. She was a household name in her native country. The Norwegian press wrote about all the records she would break. Waitz had been consistently training injury-free for the previous two years, but there was no women’s 3,000-meter event in the Olympics that year so she was forced to run the 1,500. Though she made it to the semifinals and set a new personal best, Waitz could only manage an eighth-place finish. The 1,500 just wasn’t the optimal distance for Waitz; she was better suited as a distance runner.
Everything changed for Waitz two years later. Her husband, Jack, was convinced that Waitz should give the marathon a shot, but Waitz demurred. She thought she was done with running. Retirement looked good. It was time to follow her other passion: teaching. Finally, however, she gave in to her husband’s objections and decided to call the New York Road Runners and see if they’d let her race the 1978 edition of the New York City Marathon. Letting a two-time Olympian into the race seemed like a no-brainer.
But the New York Road Runners president, Fred Lebow, knew about Waitz’s middle-distance speed and offered to fly her there to run as a rabbit. She accepted. The rest is history, because Waitz didn’t just dictate the pace for part of the race; she ended up winning it, setting a world-leading time of 2:32:30, which was a full two minutes better than the previous mark. After her victory in 1978, Waitz continued to return to New York. She became fast friends with Lebow and when he was fighting cancer in 1992, she ran the entire New York City Marathon that year by his side.
Now that Waitz has passed, the impact of her life is felt even more. Putting the timing of Waitz’s death in context with the recent clocking of the world’s fastest marathon by Geoffrey Mutai at Monday’s Boston Marathon, Mary Wittenberg, the current CEO of the New York Road Runners said that “if Grete had to go, it is somehow fitting that she lived until the day after one of the greatest weekends in the sport of marathon running.”
Three-time Boston Marathon Champion and former New York City Marathon champion Uta Pippig teared up when remembering Waitz. “She was such a wonderful and inspirational runner. She was a pioneer for women’s distance running, because she opened the doors for us,” Pippig said on Tuesday. “She opened the doors for us to have the courage to try out racing distances longer than the 800 meters. She gave us the understanding that women’s marathoning is indeed possible at an elite level. She thought it, trained it, and then put it into real results. The world had no other choice than to accept it.”
The American-record holder in the marathon, Deena Kastor, remembers Waitz the humanitarian—most likely the way the Norwegian distance-running legend would choose to be eulogized. After Waitz had retired from running, she became passionate about giving back, donating countless hours of her time assisting CARE International and the International Special Olympics.
“It wasn’t until a trip to New York that I realized that Grete was also an amazing woman off the race course,” Kastor recalled on Tuesday. “She committed her life to sharing the sport of running with others. She wanted to see adults and children benefit in mind and body just as she did… She had battled cancer for a few years but still made it part of her mission to give back to the sport until the very end. I am personally grateful that she paved the way for women marathon running and made it possible for women today to reap the benefits of this great sport. Her legacy and her spirit will continue to be an inspiration to many.”
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was released last year.