When I read in a random online running board thread that Grete Waitz had died this past Tuesday, I thought surely the poster must be mistaken. How could she be dead? Wasn’t she still pretty young? And hadn’t she been a world-class runner only 25 or so years ago? She was a role model, an icon, and a contemporary. She couldn’t possibly have died.
Then I went on to read that she had, in fact, been fighting cancer for 6 years. I was surprised to read this, but not surprised that I hadn’t known about it. Characteristically, Grete had avoided drawing attention to herself and her fight.
“That’s not my personality,” she had said in November 2005 when she was diagnosed and the media hounded her with questions about the type of cancer, the prognosis, how she felt about it, and so on. “I’ve always been a private person. … I’ll talk about it when I cross the finish line and win this race.”
At the time, she had faced the disease with the same quiet steeliness and grace that had led her to three world records in the marathon.
“I’m crossing my fingers,” she said. “I will beat it.”
For myself, I have no personal melodrama to connect to Grete’s death. I never met her, never got her autograph, or had my picture taken with her. I don’t really have a Grete story except for the same short and simple story repeated by thousands of women from my generation: she was a hero. At a time when women were still thought to be a bit too frail to compete at more than 10K, Grete did her part (in a stunning way) to disprove that narrow notion. She ran miles and miles past preconceived limits.
But always quietly. Always humbly. In interviews, she tried to redirect the spotlight. In photos, she smiled shyly and posed awkwardly. When prodded to bask in her glory and brag about herself, Grete often seemed baffled or amused.
“I like to run. I like to compete,” she’d simply say. “For every finish-line tape a runner breaks — complete with the cheers of the crowd and the clicking of hundreds of cameras — there are the many, many hours of hard and often lonely work that rarely gets talked about.”
As a young woman in my 20s, just beginning to really compete and think about “training” back in the 80s, I read, analyzed, and obsessed over anything I could find about Grete’s hard and lonely work. She didn’t blab about her training as much as some other elites. But on occasion, there would be articles in Runners World that talked about her miles, her focus, and her determination. I’d read and re-read those articles, cut them out, put them in a pile so I could re-read them later, and think, “I wish I could be more like that.”
And isn’t that the definition of what our heroes are? I could never be that. Obviously. But I’d like to be more like that. Maybe I could bring my 10k time down to something above average if I worked harder. Maybe if I did my version of Grete’s hill repeats, maybe if I ran more, maybe…
Today, nearly 30 years later, it’s hard to believe that Grete lowered the women’s world record for the marathon by 9 minutes. NINE MINUTES. She won an unfathomable 9 (NINE!) NYC Marathons. She won silver for the marathon in the ’84 Olympics, and still holds the Norwegian record for 1500 and 3000 meters. And all the while, she remained quiet about her achievements, often appearing genuinely surprised by the attention she received.
Perhaps Grete Waitz’s humility and private nature is doubly endearing today. In an internet age where every entirely average runner on the planet posts even the most unimportant minutiae of his or her training regiment (“I had to poop at mile 2!!”) for the entire universe to see, it is hard to imagine a world-class runner being so quiet. Our random and unimpressive PRs are announced immediately on Facebook. We tweet tedious long run stats. We brag about a race through iPhones while standing in a line for the toilet near the finish line. We get into knock-down drag-outs with complete cyber strangers about the BEST training techniques according to ME. We create blogs so we can blather about running a marathon for a 50th birthday.
Tuesday evening, I watched the nightly news. Following a rather lengthy report about how sports like tag and wiffle ball had been deemed “unsafe” in New York schools, there was a brief mention of Grete Waitz’s passing. A photo of her grinning shyly was shown, and then it was on to more important stuff like the place settings at the Royal Wedding.
When Cheryl came home that evening, I said, “Do you know who Grete Waitz is?”
“Didn’t she win a bunch of New York Marathons or something? Kathrine Switzer talked a lot about her in her book.”
Considering that Cheryl’s only been running a few years, I was moderately impressed. I told her that Waitz had died, and then I told her one of the more famous Grete stories.
In 1988, a woman named Zoe Koplowitz made up her mind to participate in the New York City Marathon. She’d been suffering from multiple sclerosis for years, and she was tired of being scared and feeling sorry for herself. She didn’t care how long the 26.2 miles was going to take her, she was determined to cover it and prove she was stronger than her disease. She would win in her own way.
At the time, Waitz had won 8 NYC Marathons. Friends joked that Zoe, an older woman who walked with two canes, might easily be mistaken for Grete. Someone even gave Zoe a shawl with the words, “I’m not Grete!” embroidered into it.
That year, Waitz won her ninth New York City Marathon, with a time of 2 hours and 25 minutes. Zoe came struggling in that evening after almost 20 hours of walking. The accomplishment changed her life. For the next five years, Zoe participated in the marathon.
In 1993, Grete and Zoe met at a dinner in Grete’s honor. Grete was amazed by Zoe’s relentless determination. Trying to understand Zoe’s motivation, Grete asked, “Who is waiting for you at the finish line?” Zoe told her that no one was waiting for her; by the time she finished the race, everyone else had gone home. That day, Grete Waitz promised that she would be at the finish line next year when Zoe came in.
That next year, however, Zoe was much sicker. It took her 28 hours to finish the race. But Grete was waiting there for her to cross the line. As she waited, Grete watched everything slowly disappear–the daylight, the crowds, the banners, and even the last boxes of the finishers’ medals. It occurred to Grete that Zoe deserved a medal more than anyone else. So Grete ran across town to her apartment and asked her husband to give up his own medal that he had received earlier that day. She returned just in time to drape the medal around her friend’s neck.
When I finished telling Cheryl that story, she was quiet for a while. Then she said, “Wow. I wish I could be more like that.”
Yeah, me too.