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Marathon greats

04 July 2017, 7am

Nine-time winner of New York City Marathon

Grete Waitz

Grete Waitz blazed a pioneering trail which changed views on women competing in the Marathon. She had a full career at track and cross country – including two world Cross country titles up to that point – before turning her attention to what was then an infrequently contested distance for women.

Competing in the New York City Marathon in 1978 she posted the first of four world records (or ‘world bests’ as they were then known) in her debut race. She improved her own world record from the 2:32:30 she recorded in that race to 2:27:33 in 1979 and 2:25:41 in 1980.

Those performances blew apart the still quaintly-held notion that women competing in long distance races were endangering their health. The first continental championship at the women’s marathon was incorporated into the 1982 European Championships in Athens and the Olympic Games followed suit in 1984 in Los Angeles. Waitz finished second in those Games but continued to compete at the highest level in the Marathon through to the end of the 1990s.

Born as Grete Andersen in Oslo on 1 October 1953 she began to run as a teenager over distances from 400m and 800m – at which she won Norwegian national titles. Gradually she extended the distance at which she competed and found increasing success. In 1971 she set a 1500m European junior record of 4:17 and the following year was selected to compete at that distance (the longest at which women were allowed to compete at that time) at the 1972 Olympics Games in Munich.

In the 1970s it was still almost unknown for men to make a living from running and for women it seemed impossible. Waitz’s parents, in common with nearly everyone else at that time, did not believe that her talent would be the means for her to earn a living so she studied at a teacher training college while competing.

She won a bronze medal in the 1500m at the European Championships in 1974 with a time of 4:05 but at this time women were starting to compete over 3000m on the track. Waitz showed her endurance potential by setting a world record at this distance of 8:46.6 in 1975, and improving it by a second in 1976. She competed in the Montreal Olympics that summer but at 1500m and was eliminated in the semi-finals.

By contrast next year she stormed to gold at the 3000m in the inaugural IAAF World Cup with a personal best of 8:43.5. She was also able to compete over longer distances by running cross country during the winter season and had found resounding success – becoming the World Cross Country Champion in 1977 and defending her title the following year. During the 1978 track season she set her best time at 1500m of 4:00.55 and won bronze at the European Championships with 8:34.33 in the 3000m.

This was the background against which she made her historic decision to contest the 1978 New York City Marathon: It must have seemed that whenever she stepped up a distance she set new world-leading marks but then the rest of the world caught up with her level of performance. Her husband and coach, Jack Waitz, advised her to give the Marathon a go and her brother Jan accompanied her not only to New York but throughout the race. Race director Fred Lebow, perhaps wary of the still financially precarious position of his race, was sceptical about the value of her likely performance.

That race, despite all her earlier success, made it seem that she had now found her true calling. She went on to win the race nine times and found that, at least in the first few years, she could also be a world beater at lesser distances on the road and continue to dominate at the World Cross Country Championships, which she won from 1977–1981 and again in 1983.

She smashed through the 2:30 ‘barrier’ in the 1979 New York Marathon and improved a further two minutes in the 1980 race. She won the World Championships Marathon title in Helsinki in 1983 after having set her final Marathon world record of 2:25:29 in London earlier that year. Olympic Gold eluded her: she had to give best to Joan Benoit at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles where she took silver.

She set a course record in the Stockholm Marathon in 1988 but at the Seoul Olympics she withdrew after 29km with a knee problem. Her last victory in New York came later that year but she finished fourth there in 1990. She ran the race one more time: Fred Lebow had been diagnosed with brain cancer but was in remission and the two of them completed the 1992 race together.

Waitz died of cancer on 19 April 2011, aged 57. Over the last few years of her life she had dedicated herself to fundraising for her cancer care foundation. She reached an agreement with her former sponsor Adidas to set aside 5% of the proceeds from the sale of their Grete Waitz and Modern Classics collections for the foundation – a sum which ran into millions of dollars a year.

The Norwegian government gave Waitz a state funeral: she was only the sixth woman to be accorded the honour. She remains an enduring national icon. The “Grete Waitz loppet” race in Oslo attracts thousands of runners each year. New York Road Runners hold an annual half marathon called “Grete’s Great Gallop” in her honour.


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