Saturday 17 February 2018

Nordic goddess broke barriers in distance running

Eamonn Sweeney

M ost of the obituaries of the great Norwegian runner Grete Waitz, who died last Tuesday at the age of 57, focused on her achievements in the marathon. But what came into my mind first were her awesome performances in the world cross-country championships which she won from 1978 to 1981 and again in 1983.

Back then the world cross-country championships were quite a big deal for the Irish sporting public. We had a new hero in John Treacy, who won the event in 1978 and 1979, and made us all cross-country fans for a brief and glorious spell. And Grete Waitz served as a curtain-raiser while we waited for the Villierstown man to do his stuff.

She was a pretty incredible support act. Because in the years when she became the only woman to win five world titles over the country, Waitz pulverised the opposition. In 1978, she had 30 seconds to spare over the runner-up, in 1979 in Limerick 26 seconds, in 1980 a whopping 44 seconds and in 1981 a more modest 15. Her 1980 winning margin remains the record for the event. She was the greatest female cross-country runner of all-time.

These were striking performances, Waitz simply seemed to run away from the opposition, setting a pace which no one could match from the start. And she was a striking woman. Tall, thin, pale and with trademark blonde pigtails, she was the very picture of Scandinavian good health, fitting the national cliché so perfectly Treacy would have needed red hair, freckles and the ability to click his heels together in mid air while running to match her in this respect. It was as though Pippi Longstocking had run out of the pages of a storybook.

But for all the cross-country heroics, the most significant event in Waitz's running life was when she was invited to run in the 1978 New York marathon. Race organiser Fred Lebow thought she might be a useful pacemaker and though Grete was reluctant to compete, her husband Jack persuaded her to.

Waitz had never run further than 13 miles before but decided to press on when she found herself in the lead at half-way. During the second half of the race her main thoughts were of anger with Jack for talking her into running such a gruelling distance. At the finish, she would recall, "I was 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."

Jack may have defended himself by pointing out that Grete had not only won the race but set a new world record of 2.32.30, breaking the old mark by over two minutes. And she did run the marathon again, to such effect that she redefined what was regarded as possible for women in the event.

When Waitz ran her first marathon, the world record was 2.34.47. She broke the world record three years in a row and in 1983 in London brought it down to 2.25.29. It's probably no exaggeration to say that without these performances the women's marathon might not have made its Olympic debut in Los Angeles in 1984. Almost three decades later, those times remain impressive, the 1983 performance is over six minutes better than the winning mark in last year's European Championships and would have won gold in the 2008 Olympics.

Waitz won the New York Marathon nine times and also took the inaugural world title in 1983. But in 1984 she had to settle for second place in the Olympics behind another great athlete, Joan Benoit. Her most difficult marathon, she said, was the 1992 New York event when she came out of retirement to run with Fred Lebow, the man who'd invited Waitz to her first marathon and who had become a friend. Lebow was suffering from the brain cancer which would kill him two years later but he got round the course with Waitz in just over five and a half hours. She'd always spoken of her respect for joggers, saying that it was harder to run a marathon slowly than quickly.

Six years ago it was Grete Waitz's turn to be afflicted with cancer which she fought with the same spirit which had got her through that tough second half in her initial New York run. She started a cancer care foundation in 2007, Aktiv Mot Kreft, and struck a deal with her former sponsors adidas which is estimated to be worth 500 million Kroner (€67m) a year.

It was perhaps fitting that she passed away on Tuesday, the day after Geoffrey Mutai's 2.03.02. winning time in the Boston Marathon raised the possibility of a sub-two hour marathon. There was a time this feat would have been regarded as impossible. Then again, they'd said the same about a sub-2.30 marathon for women, arguing that the distances required in training would be too much for the female frame to handle. Waitz and Benoit and Ingrid Kristiansen were the pioneers who proved this wasn't so.

She was really something. In my mind's eye, I still see her powering through the mud in Limerick as we watched on one of those old black and white televisions that left a white dot on the screen after you switched them off and sizzled like rashers on a pan when a car passed by outside.

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