April 19, 2011 – Today is a sad, sad day for all runners, particularly those who “came of age” in the sport during the boom years of the late 70’s through mid-80’s. Just one day after the thrill of seeing a whole host of incredible performances in Boston,we learn of the passing of one of the true legends and, more importantly, among the most special individuals to ever grace the many podiums she earned the right to stand upon.
I began running “long distance” on a regular basis in 1976, some 5 years and 22+ pounds after graduating college. As a sprinter in high school and college, I had no illusions that I was destined to be competitive; I simply enjoyed doing it and thought it was good for me. Completing 3-4 miles per day, with a “long” run on the weekend of 8 miles, was the most I ever thought of doing. I certainly never considered attempting a full marathon. When anyone asked if that was in my future, I looked at them as if they had come from another planet.
One fall day in 1978 changed all that. In New York for a weekend to visit my fiancée who was attending graduate school in the city, I heard on the radio during the drive down that it was the NY City Marathon weekend. I thought it might be fun to at least watch the race, so we took the subway into Brooklyn to station ourselves at the 7-mile mark and then, after the lead men raced by, hopped on the subway back to Manhattan to watch the finish. Walking into Central Park toward the finish line, I found the perfect spot to spectate – the light post that held the 26 Mile marker. Standing on its base, I was able to get myself up over the crowds to see the thousands of runners charging up that last quarter mile hill.
Three things that I saw that day eventually led to my change of heart about the marathon; that moved me to want to be one of those runners the following year. First was the thrill of seeing the great Bill Rodgers calmly striding to his 3rd win in a row in NY. Second was watching so many men of my age and ability completing the race and “seeing”the sense of accomplishment within them.
But it was the third occurrence I witnessed that day that inspired me more than anything else to enter the 1979 marathon. Barely two and a half hours into the race,along came a tall, thin woman behind an escort vehicle. Showing no visible signs of wear or distress– though we would later find out she was just hiding it well – Grete Waitz ran past me and went on to shock the running world in her marathon debut with a world best time on the event’s biggest stage.
Grete’s run that day was truly special, but what was even more special was the humble manner in which she accepted her victory. She was as surprised as everyone else and never thought she had done anything remarkable. This humility never waned even as she went on to win eight more times in NY and countless other events around the world.
Grete was a gracious champion, but more importantly, she was even more graceful and poised in defeat or when injured. She never made excuses; she always gave credit to her competitors. A heavy favorite in the 1984 Olympics, she could only watch as Joan Benoit ran away with the gold medal. Grete never sulked,she didn’t blame the weather or the course – she simply and graciously congratulated Joanie on a race well run. She never acted as if she was “settling” for the silver medal; she thankfully accepted“winning” it.
When she was forced to drop out of her only at Boston Marathon at Mile 23 due to muscle cramps, she smilingly gave credit – not blame! – to the course and its hills for besting her.
I never had the good fortune to meet Grete personally, but I know many people in Syracuse who did. Without exception, they describe a person who was every bit as humble in private as she was in public.
Grete Waitz exemplified every thing we should want our sport and its participants to be – dedicated competitors who give it their all, accepting their victories with humility and their defeats and setbacks with grace. She will remain, to all who observed her life and career, an inspiration in so, so many ways.