Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Gallop for the Great Grete Waitz

I had an "I'll never wash this hand again" moment today. I didn't merely touch greatness, I high-fived it, wrapped my fingers around its fingers and stared into its eyes. As I crossed the starting line of "Grete's Great Gallop," a half marathon today in Central Park, enthusiastically greeting and high-fiving as many runners as possible. was the Great Grete Waitz. Yes, the word "Great" is misplaced in the title of the race. Wayne Gretzky is called "the Great One" because he annihilated the hockey record books. Similarly, the Great Waitz laid waste to world records in women's marathoning in the 1970s, and to the notion that women could not compete among the top men in the marathon.

In 1978, Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, invited Waitz to participate as a "rabbit", pacing the top runners and dropping out. But fate had other plans. After setting the early pace, Waitz decided to complete the entire 26.2 miles. Despite not having done any training runs beyond 12 miles, she won the race and set a women’s world record of 2:32:30.

The following year, Sports Illustrated's cover story was about an epic duel in the men's New York Marathon; it noted that, shortly after the men finished "all of them were near the finish line, and Rodgers, at least, was cheering when Grete Waitz, the Norwegian schoolteacher who insists she has always been, is now and ever will be a track runner, not a marathoner, crossed the finish line in 2:27:33, almost five minutes faster than the world record she set last year in New York, and 11 minutes faster than any other woman in the race."

SI reported that Rodgers said admiringly, "She's pretty outrageous. I saw her come across the line, and, well, she's inspirational." SI also noted that, the prior year, nobody, including the announcer at the finish line, knew who she was, but that "this year she spent hours signing autographs wherever she went."

At the starting line today, they rattled off a list of Waitz' accomplishments, including her winning the New York City Marathon an unprecedented nine times and a litany of other records.

What can get lost in her long list of stunning accomplishments are two particular points worth noting:

Over the course of 7 years, Waitz lowered the women’s marathon world record by more than 9 minutes. In the 25 ensuing years, despite great advancements in training methods, nutrition, etc., today's women have managed to lower Waitz' record by only 3 minutes.

And most importantly of all was Waitz' influence on all the women who followed her. In 1979, she was the only woman to finish in the top 100 overall in the New York City Marathon, and the notion that a woman could do such a thing was staggering. In the 2008 New York City Marathon, 12 women finished in the top 100 finishers.

In the spring of 2005, Waitz began battling cancer. Throughout her treatment and recovery, she has been a tireless promoter for many charities, particularly around children's health, and of course a great ambassador for the sport of running. It was because of the latter role that I will never wash my right hand again.

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