She was born Grete and she certainly achieved greatness; she didn't have it thrust upon her. It took years of graft as a track and cross-country runner before Grete Waitz became the trail-blazer of women's marathon running. The pencil-slim, ponytailed Norwegian made her debut at the 26.2-mile distance in New York in 1978. She smashed the world record by two minutes and broke it twice more as she racked up nine victories in the big race in the Big Apple. She also broke it in London in 1983, the year she won the women's marathon at the inaugural World Champion-ships in Helsinki.
On Friday afternoon, Waitz was back in town, sitting alongside Paula Radcliffe at the Tavern on the Green, the restaurant next to the finish line of the ING New York City Marathon in Central Park. "There is one thing I'd like to say about Paula," she said. "In 2005 I was at the Boston Marathon, waiting to buy a cup of coffee and somebody said, 'Excuse me, are you Paula Radcliffe?' I said, 'I wish I were. Only in my dreams.' That is the biggest compliment I've ever got. I'm really proud that somebody thought I was Paula Radcliffe."
In turn, the pride was clear to see in Radcliffe's beaming countenance. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much. That's the biggest honour of my career. Grete was an idol of mine. It's very special to be sitting next to her after everything she's done. To win New York nine times..."
The second most prolific winner of the women's race in the New York City Marathon is Radcliffe. Today she will be going for her third in a row, her fourth in total. Her year thus far has been hamstrung by injury and illness. She withdrew from the London Marathon in April because of a foot operation. She missed the World Championships in Berlin in August because she was not ready to race the full marathon distance, and withdrew from the World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham last month because of tonsillitis. Still, such is her pedigree – the fastest female marathon runner of all time by a distance, with her 2hr 15 min 25sec clocking in London in 2003, winner of eight of her 10 marathons (the two failures having come when illness and injury struck at Olympic time) – she lines up on Staten Island the clear favourite. "Paula is the marathoner," Waitz said. "She has really paved the way for the women of today. Her time of 2hr 15min took the breath away. When I saw that time I was speechless. I didn't think it was possible that a woman could run so fast, not too long after the 2hr 20min mark was broken.
"I see a lot of myself in Paula. Our trademark is run hard, do your best, and there is no limit for how hard we want to push ourselves. We overdo it, but that is what makes us champions."
At 54, Waitz still works out for an hour a day but she no longer runs. For the past four years she has been battling cancer. She no longer speaks about it in public. "When you talk to her, you never know what she's going through," Radcliffe said, out of earshot of her girlhood idol. "She's just so normal and enthusiastic, and then you think what she's actually fighting herself and the strength that she must have to go through that. The first time I met her I was struck by how genuine she was – and humble, but strong."
For Radcliffe, it is not difficult to empathise with what Waitz has been through. She returned to England after winning in New York 12 months ago to discover that the reason her mother had missed the trip was because she was suffering from breast cancer. Pat Radcliffe is still undergoing treatment but will be in Central Park today, hoping to celebrate a success that would take her daughter four-ninths of the way to matching Waitz's stunning record tally of New York wins.
Even though Paula could be taking a pregnant pause next year – hoping for a brother or sister for her two-year-old daughter, Isla – there could be a few more winning New York moments to come. The 35-year-old is talking of running the Olympic marathon not just on home ground in London in 2012 but possibly also in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. "If I was still performing at the level I want to be at, then I would not rule it out," she said.
The prospect of a 42-year-old Radcliffe running in Rio in a British vest would be an intriguing one to those who have criticised her shortage of appearances in national colours in recent times. "You have to accept that everyone has their opinion," she said of the sniping. "There is always going to be someone out there who hates you, or who you really bug. You just have to accept that.
"You get hurt by it, but having Isla there kind of makes things good. She just comes up to me and says, 'Mum, I love you so much'. That makes you feel better." As do the words of the great Grete Waitz, no doubt.Reuse content