James Kelly’s Marathon Blog

Once upon a time, not long ago, a Viking conquered the world..

grete waitz James Kelly London Marathon marathon running

“For every finish-line tape a runner breaks – complete with the cheers of the crowd and the clicking of hundreds of cameras – there are the hours of hard and often lonely work that rarely gets talked about.”

Grete Waitz

If you can cast your mind back as far as Michaelmas you might remember the tale of Emil Zátopek, distance runner extraordinaire whose unconventional training sessions ultimately revolutionised the sport.  I think it’s high time we were introduced to another pioneer who had arguably an even greater impact on distance running.  Please may I introduce Grete Waitz, the Norwegian whose phenomenal performances almost single-handedly thrust women’s athletics into the spotlight and dismantled the barriers to participation that existed from as early as 1928.

On purely competitive grounds, Waitz deserves a week all to herself.  Her range was pretty extraordinary, with initial success in the 1500m  followed by world records in the 3000m and 10km. With the track proving to be the domain of the speed merchants; she tried her hand at the mud and hills of cross country running, and with victories in five World Championships, it would be pretty hard to argue that the decision was a foolish one.

But it was in the marathon that Waitz truly made her name.  Between 1978 and her retirement in 1988, Waitz contested 19 marathons and won 13, including 9 triumphs New York City and 2 in London and the 1983 World Athletics Championship marathon in Helsinki.  In comparison, her silver medal at the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in 1984 seems like a case of dramatic underperformance!

And yet the marathon running in many ways was never supposed to be.  Waitz was invited to enter the 1978 New York City Marathon by race director Fred Lebow, who was seeking a bit of international flair for the fledgling women’s race.  He hoped that Waitz, who had never before run a marathon – in training or otherwise – would pacemake the leaders in the early stages before dropping out.  But she had other ideas.  Despite vowing to herself at the 20 mile mark that she would never run the marathon again – we’ve all been there, including those of us who haven’t run one yet! – she ran away from the field in a world record time of 2:32:30.

Waitz’s successes brought her recognition, but that didn’t come about by accident.  Waitz had faced adversity throughout her early career.  Women’s athletics was an extremely amateur occupation, and distance running in particular was deemed to be an unworthy (and unsafe) profession and not to merit financial support.  Waitz was in no mood to let these old-fashioned ideas hold her back, and she combined full-time work as a teacher with a strict diet and a training regimen totalling 75 miles per week.

Unfortunately, while Waitz’s professionalism brought her some success on the track, it couldn’t help her conquer athletics’ patronising attitude towards women.  After two competitors had fainted after a 400m race in the 1928 Olympics, women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics in races longer than 200m.  How kind of the International Olympic Committee to take such good care of the fairer sex!  In 1960 the IOC relented and permitted races up to the 800m, with the 1500m finally added in 1972.  Many of you might consider the women lucky – saved from the soul-destroying repetitiveness of the 10000m and limited to nothing more strenuous than the egg-and-spoon race at Sports Day – but there’s no question that women’s distance running suffered from its Olympic absence.

Waitz was only armed with trainers and 100-mile weeks rather than dynamite or a pickaxe,  but she proved pretty effective at breaking down walls.  After her win in New York in 1979, an editorial in the New York Times urged races across the world to accept female athletes.  And by 1984 a full programme of distance events was available for women in the Olympics.  Turns out they could run marathons after all.

And just as marathoning couldn’t resist Waitz’s charms, she wasn’t immune to its.  “When I came to New York in 1978 I was a full-time school teacher and track runner, and determined to retire from competitive running.  But winning the New York City Marathon kept me running for another decade.”  I hope all of us have the same response to our first marathon

And you know what: without Grete Waitz there would be no Paula Radcliffe (which might have come as a relief to British men circa 2003, as none of them could run a marathon faster than Paula).  And given how much we love watching her head-bob her way to victory, without Paula the London Marathon would not be the spectacle that it has become.  And without the popularity of the London Marathon, the 2012 Olympics might have gone to Paris instead.  So if you follow my transitive logic (and, actually, if you’ve made it this far at all!), you might conclude that Grete Waitz brought London the 2012 Olympics.  Okay, it’s a bit far-fetched, but it’s less controversial than the staged moon landing hypothesis.  And it’s surely not controversial at all to say that this Viking, unlike her mead-drinking, axe-wielding predecessors, conquered the world…