Grete the Great
On this day (April 19th) in 2011, the running world lost a legend, Grete Waitz (pronounced GREH-tuh VITES) who passed away from cancer at the age of 57.
Grete was an incredible runner: at one point she held the world records for the 3k (just under 2 miles), 8k (~5 miles), 10k (6.2 miles), 15k (9.3 miles), 10 miles, AND the MARATHON!!
This woman had personal bests of 4:00 in the 1500m (approximately 17-19 seconds short of a mile) and 2:24 in the marathon (5:30/mi for 26.2 miles). She also accomplished this in the late 70s/early 80s! This was back when we didn't have shoes with carbon plates, or sophisticated anything, really. Her times would still be competitive today.
To further highlight how different the world of racing was back in the early 80s, in the introduction to her memoir, World Class, her co-author Gloria Averbuch relays a sweet story of when a pre-race Grete asks Gloria for a favor: she lifts the back of her racing singlet and hands Gloria a bit of dental floss and asks her to tie her bra straps together to keep them from slipping.
SPORTS BRAS WEREN'T EVEN A THING! I can't imagine. So impressive.
Not only did Grete (who was a full-time Norwegian schoolteacher for much of her early career - she didn't even get a shoe contract until after she made her second Olympic team) throw down extremely impressive times, she also won a great deal of races. The New York City marathon, for instance, has Ms. Waitz's name as champion a total of NINE times. No one else (male or female) has come close to this record. She also won 5 IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, a silver medal at the Olympics, the London Marathon twice, the Stockholm Marathon, and the IAAF World Championship Marathon in 1983.
Coincidentally, this Norse queen also called Gainesville, FL (the same Swamp city from which this blog post is being composed) home for many years, along with her husband Jack.
Being a national figure of epic importance, as well as an introvert, Grete was described by Jack to the New York Times as having "liked the atmosphere in Gainesville; it was her safe haven. She was a very well-known person in Norway, so in Gainesville she was left by herself and she really enjoyed that. I like to play golf, and she had her routines. She liked to go out for coffee in the morning and read a book. She had a low-key life."
One of my few regrets in this life is that I never met Grete in that coffee shop (rumor has it it was The Bagel Bakery over near the Millhopper Publix...) What an ultimate reading buddy!
The NYTimes article and Jack further perfectly describe our little swamp town again: " 'In Gainesville, it's only the Gators that mean anything, ' [Jack] Waitz said with a chuckle, alluding to the iconic stature of the football and basketball teams at the University of Florida. 'They are the champions.'" 😂
In addition to her winning and humble ways, Grete was also known for her kindness and generosity.
There are scores of stories of her making time to chat with us mortals, giving training advice, encouragement, and also being a fierce advocate for a healthy and active life.
Much of her later years were spent creating and building a foundation called Aktiv Mot Kreft - Active Against Cancer - which since 2007 has donated over $17 million in support of its mission to make physical activity part of cancer treatment.
To learn more about Grete's foundation, visit aktivagainstcancer.org.
As a young runner in the late 90s, Grete was one of the few professional female runners of which I knew. I had a poster of her winning New York up on my bedroom closet door growing up. I know I am not the only runner who was completely inspired by her short but immensely impactful life.
Rest in peace, Grete. And thank you.
Stay well, FitFooters!