Feature

Grete Waitz, 1953–2011

The marathoner who conquered New York

Before running her first New York City Marathon, in 1978, Grete Waitz didn’t bother to inspect the course, and she feasted on shrimp, filet mignon, red wine, and ice cream at her prerace dinner. Never having run more than 16 miles in her life, she suffered mightily during the race’s last 10 miles. After finishing she angrily threw her shoes at her husband, Jack, who had encouraged her to enter. But she’d won, covering the 26.2-mile distance in a record 2 hours, 32 minutes, 29 seconds.

Waitz, born in Oslo, went on to win the race eight more times, despite thinking her career was on its downslope when she ran the first one, said The New York Times. The oldest woman on Norway’s national track team, she’d been planning to retire when she received an invitation from New York City Marathon race director Fred Lebow. With each successive victory, “the popularity of the New York Marathon itself surged, and she became a celebrity in the city.”

Possessed of “an elegant, efficient stride,” Waitz seldom showed fatigue, said the Portland Oregonian. Her grace and winning ways inspired millions of women to take up distance running, with the number of women entering the New York City Marathon growing from 938 (of 9,875 total entrants) in 1978 to 16,253 of 45,350 in 2010. Thanks to her, the sight of a woman jogging is now “an utterly unremarkable event.”

Waitz ran her last New York City Marathon in 1992 alongside Lebow, who was dying of brain cancer, said Newsday. They finished  hand in hand. “It was never about Grete,” said George Hirsch of the New York Road Runners. “It was about the sport she loved.”

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