Grete Waitz

October 26, 2007
by findingDulcinea Staff
This iconic distance runner, an inspiration to women runners everywhere, shattered the marathon record, excelled at a handful at other distances, and kept running through cancer.

Accidental Finalist

The night before her first marathon win, runner Grete Waitz dined on a heavy meal of shrimp cocktail, steak, wine, and ice cream. This untraditional preparation stemmed from the fact that she had no intention of actually completing the full distance the next morning. The Norwegian runner was originally invited to serve as a rabbit (a runner who paces others and then drops out), but fate had other plans. Before she became a distance-running powerhouse, Waitz won national junior titles in the 400- and 800-meters. At age 17, she set the European junior record in the 1,500-meters with a time of 4:17. In 1974, Waitz won a bronze medal for 1,600 meters at the European Championships.

The following year, Waitz raced the 3,000-meters and set a world record with a time of 8:46.6. By the end of 1975, the young Norwegian was ranked number one in the world in both the 1,500 and 3,000. In 1977, Waitz won a gold medal in the 3,000 meters in the inaugural World Cup meet.

Waitz’s true forte was yet to be realized. In 1978, Fred Lebow, director and founder of the New York City Marathon, invited her to participate in the event. Although she originally planned on dropping out after pacing some other women, Waitz was feeling strong and decided to complete the entire 26.2 miles. Despite her inexperience (Waitz hadn’t done any training runs farther than 12 miles), the energetic Norwegian won the race and set a women’s world record doing it. (2:32:30). She continued to win the Big Apple’s annual marathon an unprecedented nine times between 1978 and 1988.

Most significant to women's marathon history was how Waitz managed to slash the world record. She lowered it by an incredible nine minutes, taking the standard from Christa Vahlensieck's 2:34:47 down to 2:32:30 (1978), 2:27:33 (1979), 2:25:41 (1980), and finally to 2:25:29, run in London in 1983. Waitz further demonstrated her versatility by successfully competing in cross country, winning the IAAF World Cross Country Championships five times, (1978-1981 and 1983), tying her with Doris Brown for most wins in the history of women's International/World Cross Country Championships.

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