On Grete Waitz

Today I ran in pigtails for the first time in my life.

When I heard that Grete Waitz died, I knew I wanted to write something; I just had no idea what. A lot has been made of her accomplishments: how she practically never got into marathoning at all; how that reluctance evolved into NINE victories at the New York City Marathon [nowadays a huge deal is made over three!]; her silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. But I couldn’t tell you the details on her victories or the exact times she ran, or how she looked crossing all of her finish lines.

I was a little young to appreciate Grete during her peak years, but growing up in my family, the running universe started to seep in from an early age. I vaguely paid attention, between playing with my Barbies (who always wore high heels, not running shoes) and getting shuttled to soccer practice, when Dad would talk about running or tune into big marathons if they happened to be on TV. The name Grete Waitz is the only one I really remember.

As I got older and got more and more into running, I did what I believed was due diligence and learned about the history of women’s running. Anyone who does this will come up with the usual names: Nina Kuscsik. Kathrine Switzer. Ingrid Kristiansen. Joan Benoit Samuelson. Grete Waitz. Catherine Ndereba. Paula Radcliffe. All of these women have had (and continue to have, in some cases) spectacular careers. But Grete’s is a name you didn’t hear a whole lot of after her professional running career ended: she didn’t do race commentary, or write books, or much, really, that got the media’s attention.

Women’s running has benefitted hugely from the more vocal ladies — they educate, they promote, they inspire, they tell funny stories that make women everywhere feel less self-conscious and more confident in lacing up a pair of running shoes. They have made it perfectly okay for Barbie to ditch the heels and rock some sneakers.

But we absolutely can’t forget the less vocal, especially this Norwegian lady. She was a schoolteacher. She ran with children in Central Park. She ran the New York Marathon with its founder, Fred Lebow, as he battled cancer, and never left his side.

Grete Waitz may not have ignited the spark of women’s running, but she made 100-percent sure-for-stinking certain that thing stayed lit. Her dominance of what is now the world’s biggest marathon was quiet, gracious, classy, and absolute. She didn’t have to participate in any media events to increase the event’s popularity — all she did was break the finish line tape. Again and again and again. And again. She was Audrey Hepburn and a lioness rolled into one.

So today I cried for the first marathoner who I ever heard of. For lack of a better tribute, I put on my running shoes, tied my hair in ’70s-style pigtails — and had such a fun run that I might just do it again.


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