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Waitz, Grete

Grete Waitz

1953-

Norwegian marathon runner

Distance runner Grete Waitz has set world records in the 3,000 meter, 8 kilometer, 10 kilometer, 15 kilometer, 10 mile, and the marathon. She was the first woman to run a marathon in under 2 hours and 30 minutes, and the first female world champion in the marathon. She has won the New York City Marathon nine times.

A Norwegian Tradition

Born Grete Andersen in Oslo, Norway in 1953, Waitz grew up with the Norwegian tradition of exercise and outdoor activity. Norwegians customarily hike during the summer and cross-country ski in the winter, as well as engaging in other sports; she told Michael Sandrock in Running with the Legends that Norway is "a sports heaven."

Waitz loved to run, and her two older brothers, Jan and Arild, encouraged her and included her in their games with other boys. Waitz's mother thought their games were too rough for her and bought her a piano, but she preferred running to playing it. When she went on errands to the grocery store, she timed herself to see how fast she could get there and back, and on the way she raced cars and buses. When she played cops and robbers with other children, none of them could catch her.

By the time she was 12, she had participated in handball, gymnastics, and track, but she loved running most of all. She joined the Vidar Sports Club in Oslo, at the encouragement of her neighbor, Terje Pedersen, who was a world record holder. At the club, she participated in the high jump, long jump, and shot put, winning her first prize, a silver spoon, in a ball-throwing contest. Although she did not do well in short races of 60 or 80 meters, she did better at distances of 300 meters or longer, and began training for the 400 and 800 meters. She also began making longer runs of 6 miles, keeping up with the boys.

Waitz often got up before dawn to run, a practice she continued throughout her running life. In 1969, when she was 16, she won the Norwegian junior championships

in the 400 and 800 meters. In 1971, she won the Norwegian open 800 and 1,500 meters, and set a European junior record of 4:17.0 in the 1,500. Although Waitz also ran at the Helsinki European Championships in 1971, she did not qualify for the 1,500. According to Sandrock, she later said, "I was disappointed, perplexed, angry, and only 17 years old. My bitterness fed my desire to excel. Just as with my parents, this denial of support strengthened my determination."

In 1972, when Waitz was 18, she experienced a tragedyher boyfriend and coach became ill and died. Waitz stopped eating and running, but her teammates from the track club helped her through the difficult time and encouraged her to use her running and training to help heal her grief.

Competes in 1972 Olympics

In First Marathons, Waitz commented, "My two older brothers set a wonderful example for me and since we were always in friendly sibling competition with one another and I tended to follow their training habits, other girls found me tough to bear. That's probably one of the reasons I made the 1972 Olympic team at 18 years old."

Waitz competed in the 1,500 meters in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Although she did not expect to win a medal, she enjoyed the experience and had fun with her friends on the team. She ran a personal best of 4:16 in the 1,500 meters, but the competition was so talented that she did not make it into the final competition. However, she realized that she could eventually become a great runner if she continued to train.

In that same year, Waitz began studying at a teacher's college in Oslo, fitting her training into the early hours before school. In 1974, she won a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters at the European Championships, and was named Norwegian Athlete of the Year.

As Waitz matured, she began running longer distances, and in 1975, set a world record in the 3,000 meters. It was only the second time she had raced that distance. In that same year, she was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters.

Competes in 1976 Olympics

In 1976, Waitz returned to the Olympics, but this time she knew what to expect and trained more seriously. In fact, she had not missed a day of training for more than two years, and she was expected to win a medal. However, there was no women's 3,000-meter race, and she had to enter the 1,500 meters, the farthest distance women were allowed to run in the Olympics at the time. Although she made it to the semifinals, she placed eighthnot good enough to make it to the finals, even though she had set a personal best and Scandinavian record in the 1,500.

Waitz was attacked in the Norwegian press, and she became angry: she had trained twice a day for two years, despite having a full-time job as a teacher and spending two hours each day commuting to her work. According to Sandrock, she said, "I became a victim of the Norwegian expression, 'A silver medal is a defeat'if you don't win, you lose." In 1977, Waitz decided in the future to run without the support of the Norwegian Federation scholarship.

Waitz won world cross-country titles in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1983. During this time, she worked as a schoolteacher, training during her time off. In the winter, she switched to cross-country skiing, which kept her in shape while giving her legs a break from running. At one point, according to Sandrock, she was running during the winter but could find only a quarter-mile of plowed road to run on. Resolutely, she ran back and forth on it for eight miles.

Wins New York City Marathon

In 1978, Waitz was considering retiring, but her husband convinced her to try running a marathon. Waitz was reluctant at first, but eventually called the New York City Road Runners Club to get an invitation to run the event. She was turned down. Although she was a champion, she had never run the 26.2-mile distance. Waitz was disappointed, mainly because she and her husband, Jack Waitz, were hoping to have a vacation in New York but could not afford to go unless they were sponsored by the club.

However, soon after this, Fred Lebow, president of the club, called with an offer. He suggested that she run as a "rabbit," setting a fast pace for the elite women, She would not be expected to run fast for the entire distance, but only for a portion of the course.

Up to that point, the farthest Waitz had ever run was 12 miles, less than half the marathon distance. She had no idea what to expect, so when the race began, she went out fast. By the 19th mile, she began to tire, and she had lost track of how much farther she had to run because she was used to reading distances in kilometers, not miles. Nevertheless, she continued to run. Like everyone who runs the New York City marathon, she looked desperately for any sign that she was close to Central Park, where the finish line was. Each patch of trees in the distance gave her hope, then despair when it turned out not to be the park.

Finally, she reached the finish line. She had registered so late that her bib number was not listed in the official guide to the runners, and no one knew who she was. When Fred Lebow asked who had won, all anyone could tell him was "Some blond girl," according to Peter Gambaccini in Runner's World. Mobbed by reporters, she had no idea that she had won. In addition, she had set a new women's world record for the distance with a time of 2:32.30, two minutes faster than the old record.

Chronology

1953 Born in Oslo, Norway
1965 Joins Vidar Sports Club and participates in track and field
1969 Wins first national competition
1972 Competes in Olympic Games
1975 Marries Jack Waitz
1976 Competes in Olympic Games
1978 Wins the first of nine New York City Marathons
1979 Quits her teaching job to run full-time
1984 Competes in Olympic Games, wins silver medal in the marathon
1990 Retires from competition, becomes advocate of women's sports

Cool Controlled Grace

"I knew I was out of my league and hadn't trained properly. Finally, exhausted and hurting, I crossed the finish line. Immediately, I was swarmed by the media, pushing microphones and cameras in my face. I didn't understand what they were saying and tried to run away from them. I had no idea that I had set a course and world record."

Source: Waitz, Greta, First Marathons, edited by Gail Waesche Kislevitz, Breakaway Books, 1999.

Back home in Norway, Waitz returned to her teaching job, but her students had trouble comprehending how far she had run because they were not used to distances expressed in miles. When she told them it was 42 kilometers, they still did not understand. Finally, according

to Sandrock, she told them it was the distance between Oslo and a town that was 26 miles away. They were shocked.

In 1979, now a running star, Waitz quit teaching in order to run full-time. She knew that, if she could set a world record in the marathon despite being totally unprepared for the distance, she could do even better if she trained for it. She went on to win the New York City marathon eight more times; she won 13 of 19 marathons that she entered between 1978 and 1988. In 1979, 1980, and 1983 she set new world records in the event. She won the World Marathon Championships in 1983, beating the second-place runner by three minutes. In that same year, Waitz founded the 5-km Grete Waitz Run in Oslo, Norway; 3,000 runners participated.

Wins Silver in Los Angeles Olympics

In 1984, Waitz went to the Los Angeles Olympics. That year was the first that women were allowed to compete in the marathon. Previously many observers believed the event was too grueling for women to complete, but in the preceding 15 years women, including Waitz, had proved this prejudice wrong by performing strongly in non-Olympic marathons. Waitz was expected to win, but came in second to Joan Benoit Samuelson , winning a silver medal. Waitz did not make excuses for coming in second, but praised Benoit for her excellent race. She was relieved to have finally won an Olympic medal: now the pressure for her to win one for Norway was gone.

Waitz ran in the 1988 Olympic Marathon in Seoul, Korea but did not finish the race, hampered by knee surgery she had undergone before the race. Later that year, however, she made a comeback, winning the New York City Marathon for the ninth time. "Everything feels good," she said before the race, according to Marc Bloom in Runner's World. American runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, who came in third, told Bloom, "Losing to Grete is an honor. She owns New York." In 1990, Waitz retired from competition to devote her time to serving as a spokesperson for women's sports.

Awards and Accomplishments

1975 World record, 3000 meters, 8:46.6
1976 World record, 3000 meters, 8:45.4
1978 Winner, New York City Marathon
1978 World record, marathon, 2:32.30
1978 World cross-country champion
1979 World record, 10 miles, 53:05
1979 Winner, New York City Marathon
1979 World record, marathon, 2:27.33
1980 World record, 10K, 31:00
1980 Winner, New York City Marathon
1980 World record, marathon, 2:25.41
1981 World cross-country champion
1982 Winner, New York City Marathon
1983 Winner, New York City Marathon
1983 World record, marathon, 2:25.29
1983 Winner, world marathon championships
1983 World cross-country champion
1984 Winner, New York City Marathon
1984 World record, 15K, 47:53
1984 Silver medal, marathon, Los Angeles Olympics
1985 Winner, New York City Marathon
1986 Winner, New York City Marathon
1986 World record, 8K, 25:03
1988 Winner, New York City Marathon
2000 Inducted into Distance Running Hall of Fame

Since retiring from competition, Waitz has used her ability to help others who have difficulty in running. In 1992, Waitz ran the New York City Marathon with Fred Lebow, who was suffering from brain cancer. Because of his illness, he could only run very slowly, and the two took 5 hours, 32 minutes and 34 seconds to complete the course; when they finished, Waitz cried, knowing that Lebow's condition was terminal and it was the last time she would run with him. In 1993, Waitz waited at the finish line for runner Zoe Koplowitz, who had multiple sclerosis, to finish the course. Koplowitz took 24 hours to complete the marathon distance. Waitz wrote in First Marathons, "No one had a medal for her, so I rushed back to my hotel to get my husband's medal for her." In 1991, Waitz was named Female Runner of the Quarter Century by Runner's World magazine.

In First Marathons, Waitz wrote, "I prefer to train in the dark, cold winter months when it takes a stern attitude to get out of bed before dawn and head out the door to below-freezing weather conditions. Anyone can run on a nice, warm, brisk day."

Legacy of a Trailblazer

Michael Sandrock wrote in Running With the Legends, "Waitz has no rival in terms of depth and breadth of career. Her place as the pioneer of women's marathoning is secure, and it is not farfetched to say that women's marathoning entered the modern era when Waitz entered New York in 1978." Sandrock pointed out that when Waitz began running, there are no women's 3,000-meter, 10,000-meter, or marathon races in the Olympics, no women-only races, no prize money for women, and very little regard from the running press for women runners. For example, when Waitz entered an Oslo 3,000-meter event, one journalist wrote "Oh, save us from these women running seven laps around the track," according to Sandrock.

By the time she ran her tenth New York City Marathon in 1990, the status of women's running was nearly equal to that of men's. Waitz, like other champions of her time, was a trailblazer throughout this change.

Where Is She Now?

Waitz and her husband divide their time between their homes in Oslo, Norway, and Gainesville, Florida. Waitz still runs the New York City marathon every year, but does it for the enjoyment, not as a competitor. She often signs autographs and talks to runners at an expo held before the race. Although she enjoys encouraging other runners to stay fit and do their best, she has said, according to Sandrock, "I have no more interest in competing." She is a spokesperson for Avon Running-Global Women's Circuit and for Adidas.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: 3448 NW 104th Way, Gainesville, FL 32606.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

"Grete Waitz," Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.

"Grete Waitz: Queen of the Marathon," in Running with the Legends, edited by Michael Sandrock, Human Kinetics, 1996.

Waitz, Greta, "Cool Controlled Grace," in First Marathons, edited by Gail Waesche Kislevitz, Breakaway Books, 1999.

Periodicals

Bloom, Marc, "Grete Waitz," Runner's World, (December, 1991): 52.

Bloom, Marc, "Revival of the Fittest," Runner's World, (January, 1989): 30.

Gambaccini, Peter, "The Queen," Runner's World, (November, 1994): 64.

Other

"Grete Waitz," Distance Running Hall of Fame, http://www.distancerunning.com/ (January 27, 2003).

Sketch by Kelly Winters

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Waitz, Grete

Grete Waitz

Norwegian-born distance runner Grete Waitz (born 1953) has excelled in all forms of running, from track and field to middle-distance road racing to the marathon. She caught the eye of many in the sport in 1975, when she set a new world record for the 3,000 meters, and she caught the imagination of a nation when she won nine New York City Marathons. Waitz is also an Olympic-class runner, having earned a silver medal in the marathon event at the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, California.

One of the most versatile female runners of the twentieth century, Norwegian-born Grete Waitz captured two world records in the 3,000 meter, as well as records in the 8-kilometer, 10-kilometer, and 15-kilometer distances and the longer 10-mile, and marathon high-endurance runs. Beginning her career as a track runner, Waitz retired from that specialty in 1978 only to begin a second career as a world-class distance runner following her record-breaking win at the New York Marathon.

The first daughter and youngest of three children born to pharmacist John Andersen and wife Reidun, Grete Andersen was born on October 1, 1953. Waitz grew up in suburban Oslo, Norway. Although she exhibited her athletic abilities at a young age with handball and gymnastics, her older brothers' sports training took precedence, creating a situation wherein young Waitz had to excel competitively in order to be recognized. Inspired by the life of U.S. sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who overcame juvenile polio to earn a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics, the competitive Waitz began running as a way to keep up with her older brothers. She soon fell in love with the sport for its own sake, and by age eleven had been recruited for a local track team coached by Olympic javelin champion Terje Pedersen. As a teen she got up early in the morning to get in a speedwork session before leaving for school, but realized that her strength lay more in endurance than speed. Developing muscular strength, pacing, and quick foot turnover, she competed in local and regional events, winning the 16-year-old runner national junior titles in the 400 and 800 meters. A year later she set the European junior record in the 1,500 meter with a time of 4:17. This win confirmed Waitz's belief that her future lay in mastering the distance run.

Expanded Opportunities for Women
Runners

Her performance in national competition caused Waitz's parents to finally acknowledge their daughter's talent, and they began to support her career as an athlete. After qualifying, she competed in Munich's 1972 Olympics in the 1,500 meter, one of the first women allowed to compete in this event—up until 1960 when the women's 800-meter race was reinstated, women had been barred from any distance longer than 200 meters after two women fainted at the finish line during the 1928 Olympic games. Although she did not place in the event, she received encouragement from her fellow Olympic athletes, and realized that natural talent was not enough; she needed to begin more thorough training. Wisely, she came home to Oslo and began training as a high school physical education teacher; she also started a grueling training regime that included a restricted diet and a running schedule that found her logging an average of 75 miles each week on the track and on the road.

In 1974, four years after winning the Norwegian nationals, Waitz competed in the 1,500 meter at the European championships, taking home the bronze medal in that event. In 1975 she extended her race distance and established a new world record in the 3,000 meter with a time of 8:46.6. During her second Olympic try, in Montreal in 1976, Waitz was eliminated in the 1,500-meter semifinals. In 1977 she won a gold medal in the 3,000 meter at the first World Cup meet, shattering her own record and running a career best of 8:31:75. By the time she was 25, Waitz was the oldest woman on the Norwegian track team, and good naturedly bore up under the nickname "Grandma."

A strong runner, Waitz eventually became inhibited by the restrictions of the track. She gradually moved to longer distances on roads and unpaved trails, and won world cross-country titles five times, including in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1983. Having graduated from teacher's college and now married to former accountant Jack Waitz, Grete balanced her athletic career with a full-time job teaching at Oslo's Bjölsen School. When not teaching, she channeled much of her free time into running the longer distances—up to 13 miles at a time—required of the cross-country runner, while also cross training and following the strict nutritional regimen demanded of an endurance athlete.

Waitz's talent as a runner—her world records of 30:59:8 in the 10,000 meter and 48:01 for the 15,000 meter—while not widely reported in the U.S. press, caught the attention of Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club and director of the world-famous New York City Marathon since its inception in 1970. The New York Marathon, which started as a local race of 55 runners around Central Park, had grown in only a few years into a world-class event with a field of 25,000 that attracted top distance-runners from around the world to its course through the city's five boroughs. In 1978 Lebow contacted Waitz, asking her to come to the United States and race in his November marathon as part of a select group of elite, world-class athletes invited to race each year.

At the urging of her husband, Jack, Grete took Lebow up on his offer, even though she had never run—let alone raced—such a long distance before. What she did not realize, as she later told Peter Gambaccini of Runner's World Online, was that Lebow never for a moment believed that Waitz would finish the race. "He was enthusiastic about having me, but not because he thought I could do a good marathon," she explained of the man who would become her distance-running mentor and close friend. "He thought that with my background as a world class track runner, I would be a good pacesetter for the women's field and lend some international flavor to it, coming from Norway. He thought I'd set a good pace for the women so they could run a fast time, and I would probably drop out." On a chilly day in late October, wearing bib number 1173, she followed the course through New York's five boroughs, took the lead at the 18-mile mark, and won the marathon. Completing the first 13.1 miles in one hour 18 minutes, Waitz ran a "negative split"—she ran faster during the second half of the race—and broke the world record for the women's 26.2-mile event by two minutes with a time of 2:32:30. She also changed the course of her future.

Ironically, Waitz had entered the New York Marathon with the idea of retiring as a professional runner. During the grueling race, as the hours of pounding on New York's unforgiving pavements, exhaustion, and dehydration began to take their toll, by mile 20 she vowed never to run such a long distance again. Within months of her winning finish, however, she found herself embarking on a whole new running career, coached by the tireless Lebow. Leaving her position as a teacher and increasing her weekly training to upwards of 100 miles, running in the New York City Marathon became almost an annual event for Waitz; she went on to win eight more races during the decade that followed—in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1988—although she was forced out of the 1981 race due to shin splints. She also continued to challenge the course record, and in 1979 and 1980 upped the world record she had set for the marathon distance in 1978—finishing 104th overall in 1979 with a time of 2:27:33, and in 1980, with a time of 2:25:41, becoming the first woman to complete the 26.2-mile marathon distance in under two and a half hours. Her victories were not hers alone, however; Waitz's performance in 1979 prompted an editorial in the New York Times that challenged races around the world to accept women in competition.

In addition to competing in the marathon distance in New York City, Waitz entered the field in 19 other marathons around the world, winning in 13 of these distance events between 1978 and 1988. She tied the world record of 2:25:29 in the London marathon in 1983, a banner year for the Norwegian-born athlete. Competing in the inaugural Women's World Championship Marathon held that same year in Helsinki, Waitz topped the all-female field by three minutes to win the gold, then went on to win the New York Marathon with 2:27:00. Setting a personal record of 2 hours 24 minutes 54 seconds at the London Marathon in 1986, Waitz won her final New York marathon in 1988 with a finish time of 2:28:07.

Encouraged by her triumphant performances in New York, Waitz hoped to qualify for her second Olympic competition in 1980. Unfortunately, that year Norway followed the lead of the United States in boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games. The Union of Soviet Specialist Republics (USSR) had invaded Afghanistan only the year before, and Norway joined several other nations in supporting U.S. President Jimmy Carter's forced withdrawal of all U.S. Olympic teams from the games. Cold War politics may have forced Waitz to put her Olympic dreams on hold, but she rallied and went on to win the international women's cross-country championships for the third year in a row, as well as set several other world records. Four years later, in 1984, she flew to Los Angeles to compete in the first women's marathon offered as part of the historic 1984 Olympics. Excited by the addition of woman's 3,000 meter and marathon distance events to the track portion of the games, Waitz was favored to win the gold based on her stellar performance the previous year at the world marathon championships. However, during the marathon run she was bested by U.S. runner and good friend Joan Benoit, who put in an extraordinary effort to win the gold; Waitz captured the silver medal for Norway.

Beyond Retirement

Although Waitz officially retired in 1991 after suffering a number of running-related injuries, like many distance runners the sport of running remained an important part of her life. Reducing her daily mileage to under ten miles and her weekly mileage to between 35 to 40 miles, she began to invest more time in cross training activities, such as joining her husband, Jack, in Nordic skiing, walking, and biking throughout Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe.

Recognizing early in her career her potential as a role model for others, in 1986 Waitz coauthored the book World Class, in which she recounts her own rise in the sport and also provides women of all abilities with training, motivation, and racing advice. She also coauthored the book On the Run: Exercise and Fitness for Busy People. Beginning shortly after retirement, she also took on the role of fitness ambassador to women through her participation in the Avon Running Global Women's Circuit, held in major U.S. cities throughout the 1990s. Together with fellow veteran runner Kathrine Switzer—who in 1967, as the genderless K. V. Switzer, became the first registered woman to run the Boston Marathon, then closed to women—Waitz traveled to various races to meet, run, and encourage women of all levels—from walkers to beginners and above—along a 10-K course. She also became an official spokeswoman for Adidas, a running shoe and apparel manufacturer. She continued to maintain a presence in distance competition, running for five and a half hours alongside former coach Fred Lebow as he completed the New York Marathon course in 1992 while undergoing treatment for the brain cancer that would ultimately take his life.

In 1983, inspired by an all-woman 10-K race she had run in New York City and the encouragement of Lebow, Waitz inaugurated the Grete Waitz Run, a five-kilometer women's-only race through the streets of her hometown of Oslo. Over 3,000 runners turned out for the first race; by 1993 the field had expanded to 40,000, many of whom were inspired to begin running by Waitz. Waitz was honored for her many other contributions to distance running in the United States by the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, which inducted her as its first foreign member. In 1991 Runner's World magazine echoed that honor, naming Waitz as female runner of the quarter century. As Peter Gambaccini noted in that magazine, "almost single-handedly" Waitz established "the standard for women's distance running as the sport began to proliferate on American roads."

A modest, down-to-earth woman, Waitz has always been somewhat uncomfortable with her celebrity status. "To suddenly be a hero on a world basis was hard for me to understand," she admitted to Runner's World in reflecting on her career. "God gave me a gift. I got the chance to use it.… I didn't think I deserved what people were saying. My talent is just more visible than theirs." Continuing her role as ambassador for women's running, Waitz and her husband continue to divide their time between in Oslo and their home in Florida. Continuing her support of personal health and fitness, she donates her time to CARE International and the International Special Olympics. She has also remained active in the New York Marathon organization by acting as chairperson of the group's Women's Foundation, which encouraged running among inner city children. In November of 2003, she once again took to the streets of New York in celebration of the 25th anniversary of her historic win, however this time she was not on foot. As grand marshal, she rode in the woman's lead vehicle, in her accustomed spot at the head of the pack.

Books

Drinkwater, Barbara L., Female Endurance Athletes, Human Kinetics, 1986.

Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Waitz, Grete, with Gloria Averbuch, World Class, Warner Books, 1986.

Periodicals

New York Times, October 22, 1979.

Runner's World, December, 1991.

Sports Illustrated, October 22, 1979.

Women's Sports, January 1979, March 1980, January 1981.

Online

Amazon.com,http://www.amazon.com/ (June 9, 2004).

DistanceRunning.com,http://www.distancerunning.com/inductees/2000/waitz.html (June 9, 2004).

Runner's World Online,http://www.runnersworld.com/home/0,1300,1-0-0-2031,00.html (June 9, 2004).

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