Runner Grete Waitz Dies

Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz has died at age 57. NPR's Mike Pesca joins Michele Norris with this remembrance.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One of the world's great marathon runners died today of cancer. Norwegian Grete Waitz was 57.

Over the course of her career, Waitz enjoyed an especially strong association with the New York City Marathon. She won the race a record nine times. But the very first win nearly turned her off of marathons altogether. Here she is recalling what she told her husband at the finish line.

(Soundbite of archived video)

Ms. GRETE WAITZ: I was speaking Norwegian, saying a lot of bad things and screaming and yelling. And I took off my shoes, and I threw them at him. And I said never ever again am I going to run a marathon. I just want to go home.

NORRIS: That's Grete Waitz in an outtake from a 2007 documentary.

For more on her life, I'm joined by NPR's Mike Pesca at our New York bureau.

Mike, how did Grete Waitz first come to run in the New York City Marathon?

MIKE PESCA: Well, in 1978, the marathon was really young, and it just started in 1970. And at that point, it was just running around Central Park a bunch of times. It expanded to five boroughs in '76.

And Fred Lebow, the founder of the marathon, saw this Norwegian runner who showed some promise in the 1,500, and he invited her to his marathon. He thought she could be a pacesetter, but she was a pacesetter, and she never stopped running.

No one knew who she was. They cheered on number 1173.

Shortly thereafter, they found out. The papers informed people. Her name was Grete Waitz, they said, rhymes with heights. But she won it in '79 when there were 11,000 starters.

And a little piece of trivia: If - the Chicago Marathon was run the same day in '79. If she had run the same time in the Chicago Marathon, she would have come second overall, including all the men. She won it in '78, '79 and '80, and at that point in her career, she had run three marathons in her life, all the New York Marathon, and she had won every time.

NORRIS: Now, we mentioned nine wins. Her dominance of the New York City Marathon has never been matched. What was her secret?

PESCA: I think, you know, it was a connection to Fred Lebow, was a connection to New York City, and she was, you know, a phenomenal and dominant athlete. In the 1980s, she lost in '81 when she was trying to overcome shin splints, borrowed some cab money to go back to her hotel in Queens. And she didn't win in '89. But she won every other year in the '80s.

And all the obituaries today are going to say that she won nine out of 11 times. The 11th time, she'd really finished with racing, but she ran with Fred Lebow, who'd just gotten over - or was fighting brain cancer surgery, and they ran it in five hours. She could have run two marathons at her peak in that amount of time, but she held Lebow's hand across the finish line. It's one of the New York sports memories that will never be forgotten.

NORRIS: And the Olympics?

PESCA: The timing wasn't right. They didn't have a women's marathon in the Olympics until 1984. And she did win the silver in Los Angeles in that event.

In 1980, Norway was part of the Western boycott, and she did run in '72. She was a great runner at different distances. She was a great track runner, but except for the Olympics, she will definitely be remembered as one of the great distance runners of all time.

Maybe her numbers, her actual times don't hold up, but something her husband said in 1985 is: For Grete, the most important thing is still to win the race. Records, they can take away. Victories, they cannot. And that is as true today as it was then.

NORRIS: We don't have a lot of time, and I'm just curious. Did she inspire in some ways a generation of women runners?

PESCA: Oh, people would listen to the reports of her New York City Marathon, and the New York City Marathon gets more attention than any other marathon in the United States, and women really wanted to run because of what Grete Waitz did. And it was - definitely, she was a key part of the running boom.

NORRIS: That's NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca.

Mike, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

PESCA: Bye.

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