Grete Waitz died last Tuesday, April 19, at the age of 57. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2005. I knew she had been absent from the world of marathons but simply supposed she retired. Perhaps she had gone back to teaching school, I thought. She and her husband had homes in Oslo, Norway, her home country, and in Gainesville, Florida.
There aren't many people I admire enough to call my hero, but Grete was definitely one of the few. I used to run, years ago before my arthritis became too troublesome to do so. I didn't compete, in fact never ran more than a couple miles a day, but I ran enough to be totally awed by someone who ran like Grete did.
Dave and I went to the New York City Marathon for years. New York is a different place on that Sunday, magical even. I remember at first we watched from First Avenue where the runners came over the bridge into Manhattan, and then we would walk for a ways enjoying the volunteers, the cheers of the crowd, and the runners. Later we watched from along Central Park and the last couple years from near the finish line in the park. It was a fun day when people didn't push and shove, everyone chatted about where they lived, whether they had someone in the race, and the weather.
We always knew when Grete was approaching. You first heard a loud cheer for the male runner in the lead, then lower volume cheering, and finally a loud roar that told us the leading woman was passing people several blocks away. Usually, in the years we were there, it was Grete and people loved her. She made running look so easy, but I knew different.
In 1984 we traveled to California for the summer Olympics and one morning we were in Santa Monica to see the end of the women's marathon. I remember climbing onto a lamp post to see over people. That year we were cheering for Joan Benoit Samuelson; after all my husband's home state is Maine. We were thrilled though that Grete came in second. I see Joan has responded to news of Grete's death by saying she has lost her mentor.
I have lost a hero but I'll never forget her beautiful stride, her humbleness in victory, and her grace at the 1984 Olympics.