Grete Waitz, RIP: A running life marked by grit, grace and generosity of spirit

Grete Waitz: world-champion runner, mentor, role model

It is almost impossible improve on real life. That is one of the reasons I find it so frustrating when people try to embellish it or flat out lie about it.

Here is a prime example of a story that cannot be improved upon: long-distance runner Grete Waitz, who left this beautiful world April 19. After reading about her inspiring accomplishments, my jaw dropped: “Wow!”

After years of dominating women’s distance running, she was contemplating retiring from the sport at the ripe old age of 25. But her husband encouraged her to enter the New York City Marathon in 1978. Grete Waitz’s longest race until then had been 12 miles.

According to her obit in the Washington Post:

Mrs. Waitz and her husband, who was her coach, treated the trip as a second honeymoon. The night before the marathon, they ate a four-course meal of shrimp cocktail, filet mignon, red wine and ice cream.

The next day, Mrs. Waitz set a blistering pace. She kept it up through all 26 miles and 385 yards, enduring dehydration, cramps and a level of screaming pain with which she had previously been unacquainted.

“I’ll never, never do this again!” she yelled at her husband as she crossed the finish line, blonde pigtails swaying.

But she had won the race in two hours and 32 minutes, shattering the world record by more than two minutes and inaugurating a new career as a marathoner and an international star.

“To be suddenly a hero on a world basis was hard for me to understand,” she later said. “God gave me a gift. I got the chance to use it. I felt uncomfortable with the credit.”

Humble, gracious, but tough — that was Grete Waitz. One of her training techniques? “I prefer to train in the dark, cold winter months when it takes a stern attitude to get out of bed before dawn and head out the door to below-freezing weather conditions,” she once told an interviewer. “Anyone can run on a nice, warm, brisk day.”

Update: A profile of Grete Waitz by a friend and fellow-runner.