Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grete Waitz

It wasn't that long ago that women were not allowed to enter marathons.

The keenest medical minds of the time were virtually certain that should a woman even try to run that far, her uterus would fall out.

I am not making this up.

In 1967, Katherine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer. Once the race had started, race officials, including the race director, tired to forcibly remove her from the race. They were intercepted and unceremoniously shoved away from Katherine by her teammates.

This was the world that the great Grete Waitz competed in. Well, as much as she was allowed to complete.

Before the 1980's, there were no distance races for women in the Olympics.

In the 1976 Olympics, as the world record holder in the 3000m, the longest event she could enter was the 1500m, because the Olympic committee deemed longer distances unsuitable for women. That, and they didn't want to have all of those uteruses littering the track. Nothing screws up a tight Olympic Track and Field schedule like a long uterus cleanup delay.

Luckily, the New York City Marathon (known in this corner of the internet as The Best Damn Road Race in the World) let women race. In 1978, Grete was invited by none other than NYCM founder and race director Fred Lebow to enter the race. But not as an elite competitor, as a "rabbit". That means that she was given the job of setting a specific pace for the lead women through a given distance, after which, her job done and presumably her limit reached, she would let them go.

She was a sacrificial lamb.

Thing is, this lamb snatched the knife and went all ninja on the would-be slaughterers.

In that marathon, her FIRST marathon, Grete Waitz won the biggest, baddest of them all.

Oh, and she set a world record.


Can you imagine? That's like the guy who pitches batting practice stepping in and throwing a no-hitter to win the World Series. Or a guy from the cheap seats putting his beer down, borrowing a helmet, and winning the Superbowl.

Or even better, it's like the dude driving the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 deciding not to pull into the pits, instead taking the green flag, jamming the pedal through the floor, smoking the field of 33 for 200 laps, and drinking milk in victory lane.

Ok, not quite that, but still... unreal.

After the race, she was hurting so bad, she swore she'd never race another marathon. But we all say that.

And like us, Grete came back for more.

But unlike us, when she came back, the next year, she won the New York City Marathon again.

And again. And again. And again.

And again.

And again.  And again.

And again.

9 times. In 11 years.

No one else, male, female, or hermaphrodite, comes even close to 9 wins at NYCM.*

She took the gender barrier and shoved it right up the tailpipe of whoever it is that defines gender barriers.

And she did it with unflinching class. As a runner, she was as tough as a pit bull on angel dust, but she also had the heart of a lab puppy.

Grete died on Tuesday April 19th. She was 57.

She was a runner. One of us. She had the same love and passion for lacing up and going out, and for other runners, that we have.

I know because I was lucky enough to meet her.

Grete and me.

November 5th, 1999 at the NYCM expo, I was just wandering around, slack-jawwed, mostly in awe of the fact that I was in the NYCM expo. Eventually I went past the Adidas booth, and there she was... just standing there.

There were just under 13 metric-zillion marathoners walking around just like I was, but they apparently didn't recognize her.

My mouth went dry, and my knees got a little quaky, but I thought "When the hell am I ever going to see Grete again?" Turned out, not surprisingly, to be never, so it's a good thing I walked over.

She was totally engaging and charming and everything that you'd hope she would be if she were one of your heroes. She talked to me not international super-star marathoning goddess to midwestern hick flatlander who would be eaten alive by the bridges in a couple days, but runner to runner. She asked how my training had gone. She asked how I felt. She asked if I needed any hints about the course because, you know, she'd run it a few times and knew it pretty well.

That's why I love our running community so much. From the top of the tip of the elites to the back-of-the-pack, we are all runners.

When two runners meet, barriers disappear, guards are dropped, and real connections are made, forged from experiences shared, separately, but understood and respected by both.

When I heard the news of Grete's passing, my mind froze for just a second, the way it does when you hear something that you just don't want to believe is true.

I talked to her for 5 minutes, over 11 years ago, yet I still felt as though I'd lost a friend.

Such is the bond of one runner to another.

Good running,

*Bill Rodgers, another hero of mine who I've not only met, but run with, twice**, is closest with 4 (consecutive) NYCM wins. (Winners list is here.)

**Remind me to tell you those stories sometime.

Nice articles about Grete are here and here.
A nice article about the emergence of women's Olympic marathon is here.
Picture from here and me.