Grete Waitz: 'First Lady of the Marathon', who won nine times in New York and twice in London

Early on a Sunday morning on Staten Island in October 1978, a volunteer on a yellow NYC bus collecting kit bags from runners about to compete in the New York Marathon was handed a bundle from a slight, nervous-looking blonde. He looked down and saw that her race number, 1173, had only been scrawled in pen, a late addition to the field.

"Have you run the marathon before?" the volunteer asked.

"No," the woman answered.

"Hey, don't worry. Everyone's a winner in this race," the New Yorker offered.

A few hours later, now beyond the finish line in Central Park, and the same volunteer was ready to return the bags to their owners, when 1173 was among the first to approach him. "How did it go?" he asked.

"Oh, I won," she said. Grete Waitz had just run, and won, her first marathon, and set a world best in the process. No one in New York would patronise her again. From that day forward, she would be known as the First Lady of the Marathon.

More than 30 years on, Waitz's legacy could be seen in the 23,000 women – comprising around two-fifths of the fields – who ran in the London and Boston marathons in the weekend before her death, or in the fact that when London stages the Olympic Games next year, her female sporting successors will have opportunities in the same number of athletics events – barring the 50km walk – as men.

Born in the Norwegian capital in 1953, as a teenager Grete Andersen won national junior titles at 400 and 800 metres, at a time when women were discouraged from racing longer distances. She worked as a teacher while continuing to run. Her results offered encouragement: a 1,500m bronze medal at the 1974 European Championships when she was 20 was followed by a 3,000m world record at Oslo's Bislett Stadium in 1975.

This was before world championships or professionalism in athletics, when the only global stage for a runner was the Olympics. In 1976, with the Montreal Games approaching, Waitz broke her own 3,000m world record in Oslo, running 8min 45.4sec. But at the Olympics, the longest event she could enter was the 1,500m, and in Montreal, the slim Norwegian with the long, elegant stride could not even make it out of the heats.

By now married to another teacher, Jack Waitz, she was frustrated by the lack of opportunity on the track. In 1977 she raced 3,000m at the inaugural World Cup, winning in 8:31.75, and the following March she won the first of five world cross-country titles.

Her racing opportunities were so limited that, after her 25th birthday, she was seriously considering retirement. It was suggested she try a marathon. In New York, a runner called Fred Lebow had started staging a citywide race involving thousands of people. When Waitz telephoned Lebow's office seeking an élite entry – and possibly a free flight – the secretary taking the call hung up because she had never heard of this European track runner. Besides, Waitz had no best time for the 26 mile 385 yard distance.

Grete and Jack flew to New York in any case, and at race headquarters managed to get a late entry. When Lebow met Waitz, he thought she might be useful as a pacemaker.

Waitz was relaxed about her marathon debut; although she had never run further than 16 miles in training, she had had several years of churning out more than 100 miles a week. "To tell the truth, I didn't care about the marathon," she said in 2007. "I was so excited about being in New York."

The day before the race, Grete and Jack went sightseeing up the Empire State Building and shopping at Macy's. There was no "carbo-loading" at dinner that evening, where she ordered prawn cocktail and filet mignon, a bottle of red wine and ice cream. "My husband was like, 'Don't you want to go over the course?'" Waitz said. "I said, 'No, who cares?'"

Overcoming cramp and blisters, Waitz crossed the finish line in Central Park in 2hr 32min 30sec, more than two minutes faster than any woman had run the distance before, though not without distressing the public address announcer, who could not identify "that blonde in the pigtails".

In a tent by the side of the course, when Jack approached her beaming with delight at her performance, Grete threw her race shoes at him. "I never want to run the marathon again," she said, a sentiment familiar to millions who have run the event since.

And like most of them, Waitz was back for more, winning the New York race nine times, a record-breaking achievement across a range of sports. She would lower the world best on three further occasions, twice in New York and eventually to 2hr 25min 29sec in 1983 when she claimed her first of two victories in the London Marathon. In many respects, 1983 was Waitz's finest year, as she completed a rare "Marathon Triple Crown", also taking the inaugural world championship race in Helsinki and then winning another New York title.

Waitz was only denied a 10th New York victory after a titanic struggle in 1981 with the New Zealander, Allison Roe, who yesterday said of her former rival, "She was the most beautiful, humble and one of the most gracious people I ever met. It was a real privilege to know her."

Bill Rodgers, the American who won four New York Marathon titles, sharing the podium with the Norwegian in 1978 and 1979, said, "What I liked about her wasn't that she won, but what she was like as a person. That's what everyone loved about Grete: she was very compassionate."

Waitz missed the 1980 Olympics when Norway joined US President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Games, and in 1984, when the first women's Olympic Marathon was staged in Los Angeles, she was hampered by a back injury and could not match the mid-race surge by the American, Joan Benoit. Waitz had to be content with the silver medal.

Waitz won the London Marathon for a second time in 1986 with her ultimate personal best of 2:24:54, and collected her ninth New York title in 1988. Her final competitive race saw her place fourth in New York in 1990, aged 37.

Waitz did return in 1992, however. Lebow wanted, at last, to run in the race he had founded, to celebrate his 60th birthday and defy the brain tumour that would claim his life. Waitz ran with her friend every painful step of the way, the duo completing the course in five and a half hours with an embrace and tears, the New York Times calling them "the Tracy and Hepburn of the marathon".

In 2005, Waitz was forced to admit that she had cancer after the Norwegian media photographed the national heroine visiting a clinic for treatment. She never elaborated about what form of cancer she had because, she said, she was "not the kind of person who can turn my inside out".

Waitz spent her final years working for cancer charities, setting one up in Norway similar to the "Fred's Team" she helped establish in New York after Lebow's death. Her popularity was such that she had a statues featuring her iconic running style erected outside the Bislett Stadium in Oslo and in the Epcot Centre at Disney World in Florida. In 2008, Waitz was made a Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav by King Harald.

And Waitz's influence was so great that she was able to persuade her long-time sponsor, Adidas, to donate five per cent of the proceeds from its brand of clothing named after her to the Aktiv mot kreft cancer foundation. So far, that is thought to have been worth more than £50m.

Steven Downes

Grete Andersen, athlete: born Oslo, Norway 1 October 1953; married Jack Waitz; died Oslo 19 April 2011.

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