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David Willey

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Remembering Grete Waitz, the First Lady of the Marathon

Posted: 10/31/11 04:55 PM ET

It can be unnerving to meet someone famous for the first time, especially someone you've admired for decades, someone who'd been compared to Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo, someone who ran so fast but with such Zen-like, expressionless grace -- a Mona Lisa in pigtails -- that she made you, for the first time, want to run like a girl. But Grete Waitz always hated being famous, so when I introduced myself at our Heroes of Running awards in New York City in 2005, it wasn't the world-beating First Lady of the Marathon who shook my hand but the former teacher who once declined an endorsement deal from a dairy because she didn't like milk. She was... Grete. Heroic and humble all at once.

We were honoring her with a Lifetime Achievement award, in recognition of her record-and boundary-breaking career: nine wins in the New York City Marathon; 19 world bests (road, track, and cross-country); the first female to break 2:30 in the marathon and prove once and for all that women deserved to be taken seriously in distance running's premier event. No one did more to inspire runners or transform our sport into what it is today.

We asked Deena Kastor, who, running very much in Grete's footsteps, had won Olympic bronze in the marathon the previous summer, to present her with the Heroes award. Grete had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and after Deena's remarks, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. When Grete came up to accept the award, she had cried the contact lenses out of her eyes. "I told myself I wouldn't cry," she said a few moments later, "but I can't hold my tears back. But they are happy tears."

And they were. The way she handled her cancer over the next six years proved it. She stayed active and encouraged others to do the same. She helped start a cancer-support foundation in her home country of Norway called Aktiv mot kreft (Active Against Cancer) -- a Norwegian LiveStrong. And in this technology and media saturated age when we often know what our heroes and leaders had for breakfast (whether we want to know or not), Grete took a dignified approach, keeping the nature of her disease private and never letting it define her or transform her into a victim. She died this past April, at age 57, but up until the end, hers was a life well-lived.

In the days leading up to the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 6, countless runners will remember the woman who jumpstarted the women's running revolution three decades ago, and who supported and encouraged runners of all abilities until her death. New Yorkers will pay tribute to a champion whose legacy and achievement will forever link her to their city, and the New York Road Runners (organizers of the marathon) will posthumously induct her into their inaugural class of the NYRR Hall of Fame, along with race co-founder Fred Lebow, who died of brain cancer in 1994.

When Grete died, we set out to take the full measure of just how special she was. As many journalists can attest, that was never an easy thing to do even when she was alive. She was so humble and self-effacing that it was nearly impossible to get her to open up. "I'm not very outspoken," she told RW's Dave Prokop in 1984. "I'm a very, very normal person. I just happen to run fast." So Executive Editor Charles Butler took an oral-history approach, setting out to bring Grete into full focus through the eyes of the people who knew her best.

His first call was to Jack Waitz, Grete's husband of 36 years, who will run New York this year in her honor. It was Jack who convinced Grete to enter that race in 1978 -- her first road race of any kind and the first time she'd ever run 26.2 miles. And it was Jack who received the brunt of her anger after she won in world-record time. "Never again!" she shouted at him after she crossed the finish line, throwing her shoes at him in the process. In all, Butler interviewed dozens of friends, family members, coaches, and rivals, weaving new facts and anecdotes into a revealing profile. He even turned up a New York-based artist who painted (and, for us, unearthed) the only known portrait of the woman who was once said to have outpolled the King of Norway as that country's most popular figure.

In the November issue of Runner's World -- on newsstands now -- Butler's account, "From Out of Norway," re-creates that epic race from 1978, which to this day remains one of our sport's watershed moments. Grete entered late, on a lark, and ran in obscurity, wearing a hand-drawn 1173 bib number. But the race changed everything -- for her, for Jack, for all of us.

The full version of Butler's oral history can be read in The Great Grete Waitz, a special e-book that also features eight stories from the RW archives, including "Grete," Amby Burfoot's definitive profile from 1981, and The Race of a Lifetime, which recounts the New York Marathon Grete ran with Fred Lebow in 1992, two years before the race cofounder died of brain cancer. A portion of the book's proceeds will go to Aktiv mot kreft. It's a small gesture with a simple message: Thank you, Grete.