April 25, 2021 — This past Monday (April 19) marked10 years since the world lost one of the greatest female athletes of all time and one of the nicest human beings— Grete Waitz of Norway. She was an outstanding track distance and cross country runner in the 1970s; she won the bronze medal in 1500m European Championships in 1974 at the age of 21; set the world record for 3,000m in 1975; won the gold medal in 3,000m at the inaugural Track & Field World Cup in Düsseldorf, Germany. Waitz was one of those distance runners who lacks sprinting speed at the end of the race and that was the era when there were only 1500m and 3,000m available for women. At 1976 Montreal Olympics, the longest event for women was 1500m where Waitz, one of the best distance runners in the world, was eliminated in the semifinal. As with many endurance-type female runners of that era, she was quite frustrated and robbed her opportunities and possibilities.
It all changed when the far-thinking man by the name of Fred Lebow from New York who had started five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, more out of curiosity than anything else, decided to invite Grete to 1978 New York City Marathon. At the time, her longest run was, like, 14k (8.5 miles) and she didn’t even know how far this “marathon” thing really was. But her coach/husband, Jack, realizing his wife’s real potential, thought it was a great idea!! And…., as they say in English, the rest was history! Grete ran it, won it, and set the world best marathon time of 2:32:29, improving the record by more than 2-minutes. The story goes that she threw her shoes at her coach/husband, Jack, and swore she would never run the marathon again!! She did. And she broke her own world record, this time, by 5 minutes the next year at NYC Marathon. She went on and won NYC Marathon total of 9 times, setting the world record 4 times.
When I finished university in Washington State and went back to Japan, I approached one of the Japanese running magazines (City Runner). The chief editor thought I was an interesting prospective and, shortly after, he gave me my first assignment: “Grete Waitz is coming to Kobe for adidas promotion. I want you to go and put together an article.” It turned out I was the only person (as a “reporter”) who could speak English so I ended up talking to Grete — and Jack — for over an hour! One of the most memorable talks with her was: I read, in the American running magazine, “Runner’s World”, that she did interval training on the frozen road in spike shoes…. Living in snowy Eastern part of Washington State, I tried that. When I brought up, both Grete and Jack laughed and said: “Not any more!!” It wasn’t a good experience even for Grete!!
Naturally, I was interested in her training and I had exchanged several e-mails off and on with Coach Jack. We reunited after I moved to MN and founded Five Circles and started showing up at various pre-marathon events in early 2000. The last time I spoke with Jack was in 2010 at Boston Marathon. It was reported that Grete had developed brain cancer a few years earlier. I had heard about this “faith healer” in Japan and I told Jack that, if they were interested, I would be more than happy to help them out. Jack said they might consider but, as it turned out, he said they had tried a faith healer as well. Unfortunately, that didn’t help. Grete passed away a year later. I remember it was right before MDRA’s Beginning Women’s Running Class. I quickly put together a PowerPoint presentation on Grete. “I suspect none of you had ever heard of Grete Waitz…,” (they hadn’t) I continued, “but this great athlete had just passed away and I would like to share her story…”
Grete was the winner of the first ever women’s marathon at the inaugural World Track & Field Championships in Helsinki in 1983. It was so fitting for Grete the pass-finder to win it. Unfortunately, however, the victor of the first ever Olympic women’s marathon at Los Angeles in 1984 was America’s Joan Benoit. Grete was second. One of the lasting images of this historic Olympic women’s marathon, to me, was after they finished the race, Joannie and Grete embraced. Both of them smiling. You don’t know what they were saying…but, in my mind, Grete was genuinely congratulating Joannie and Joannie was saying she (Grete) surely would have deserved the first Olympic women’s marathon crown. “No, no, no…”. Surely, Grete’s shaking her head looks like that!! ;o) But somehow, this scene is engraved in my mind as the lasting image of the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon event. In my mind, this captures the beautiful sportswomenship and generosity of two great athletes. (*It is 10:15 into this clip of “16-Days of Glory — women’s marathon”)
Grete passed away on April 19, 2011. Aside from winning New York City Marathon 9-times and 1983 World Championships marathon, Grete also won the World Cross Country Championships 5 times (third twice). Aside from setting the world women’s marathon record 4 times, she also set the world 3,000m record twice. She won 13 marathon titles out of 20-startings. Grete also founded Cancer Care Foundation to promote physical activities agasint cancer. The title of her biography published in 1986 is: Grete Waitz — World Class. She sure was world class as an athlete as well as a person. Rest In Peace, Grete. — Nobby Hashizume