True greatness is sometimes defined as making the near-impossible seem effortless. Grete Waitz personified this quality throughout her exceptional life. She was so good at what she did that the enormity of her accomplishments was often hidden, and she was so good for so long that she made such excellence seem commonplace.
Waitz was such an unassuming contributor to sport, to children’s programs, and to cancer research that many of her contemporaries were unaware of her extensive good deeds. She didn’t seek attention, though she often deserved it in abundance.
Off the Track and Into the Record Books
Grete Waitz was the world’s first great woman marathoner, and the first world-class track athlete to attempt the distance. When she came to New York in 1978 to run her first marathon, Waitz didn't just win the race—she set a world record. Afterward, she swore she'd never run another marathon, but she reconsidered, returned to New York in 1979, and lowered her own world record by another five minutes. In 1980, she bested her record once again, which made her nine minutes and six seconds faster than any other woman in history.
The Olympic championship would be the only major honor that eluded her; she took silver to Joan Benoit’s gold in Los Angeles in 1984—but she was far from through with the marathon. In fact, she won the 1984 New York City Marathon only 10 weeks after Los Angeles.
And she won it in 1985. And in 1986. And in 1988. The finish-line photographs in newspapers around the world became as interchangeable as her wins were predictable: arms calmly raised, face serene.
From Champion to Chairwoman
Waitz's 1988 victory was her ninth—and final—win in New York. After trying for a 10th and finishing fourth, she retired from serious competition, though she ran the 1992 New York City Marathon with NYRR president Fred Lebow, then in remission from cancer, the two of them finishing together in 5:32:34. She became a coach (of 1991 New York City Marathon winner Liz McColgan, among many others), a race organizer (of Grete’s Run in Norway, a 5K road race that attracts thousands of women runners annually), an advocate for workplace health and fitness (as the ambassador for the worldwide JPMorgan Corporate Challenge racing series, a position that she held for 25 years), and a fundraiser for such charities as CARE International and the Special Olympics.
In 1998, Waitz became the chair of the NYRR Foundation, which has evolved into Rising New York Road Runners, our free youth fitness platform that now serves nearly 250,000 kids in NYC and nationwide. Refusing as always to be merely a figurehead, she became actively involved, especially with children: She attended practices, ran with the kids, and cheered at their races when she was in NYC. From afar, she wrote letters for the kids’ newsletter, wrote personal letters to those who wrote to her, and helped guide program development.
The Toughest Battle
When Waitz was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she responded with the same calm resolve with which she approached an Olympic final or a world record attempt. She turned her formidable concentration to the fight against cancer—not only her own, but that of others. In 2007, she founded Aktiv mot Kreft (Active against Cancer), then arranged a collaboration between the foundation and her longtime sponsor, adidas, who funneled 5 percent of the proceeds from their Grete Waitz clothing line—as much as $1.25 million annually—to supplying cancer hospitals with PET imaging scanners and physical training centers. Waitz often spoke to cancer patients, urging them to exercise.
She died in April 2011, and several months later, NYRR dedicated the ING New York City Marathon to her memory. Her husband, Jack, ran the race. He'd battled injuries during the summer, but he was determined to honor his late wife with his best effort. And he did just that, crossing the finish line in just under four hours, and keeping her spirit alive.
The Waitz Record
Below are just some of the highlights of Grete Waitz’s extraordinary record in running. (WR = World Record)
NYC Marathon Wins