This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
There was a familiar face to New Yorkers around town during the 36th edition of the New York City Marathon last Sunday. The darling of the race's history, its grand champion, Grete Waitz wasn't just another former winner coming back to hand out medals and meet and greet the press. Grete Waitz and her relationship to this marathon are what legends are made of. Let's go back to the early 1970's to tell the whole story.
Back then, in Oslo, Grete's brothers were athletes, but opportunities and attitudes toward girls playing sports were thin. Grete ran like the wind, even broke the world record at 3000 meters, but was looking to flex her talents at other distances, too. Just then, a charismatic Romanian named Fred Lebow was flexing his talent as a visionary, working to make the New York City Marathon into a world-famous spectacle, to be run through all five boroughs of the city, bringing in the best marathoners in the world, and including thousands more to push themselves to the finish.
One of the world-class runners he invited was Norwegian Grete Waitz. From the first year she won the race, 1978, New Yorkers adored her. I covered the marathon during the Grete years for ABC Sports. One year my assignment was to give impressions from a helicopter, about 2,000 feet above the city. I remember saying that Grete looked like a perfect toy soldier from on high, the white gloves she wore on that crisp fall day clicking up and down in perfect metronome rhythm. She wasn't a herky-jerky runner. She was elegant. And she was elegant off the road as well. Very modest, self-effacing, and always focused on others, asking how their races went, even if they finished hours after she had. Grete was the first woman to break the 2-hours, 30-minutes mark, setting a world record, in New York. That's running at an outrageous pace of 5 minutes and 45 seconds a mile for 26.2 miles! There were years when I covered the race from a motorcycle side car that we had trouble keeping up with Grete. As we'd fly through the streets of Brooklyn and Queens and the avenues of Manhattan, throngs of fans would strain their necks to catch a glimpse of this gentle Norwegian, leading the women's pack, her blonde ponytail barely moving as she glided by, the telltale sign that she was once again on her way to another moment atop the winner's podium. By 1988, Grete had experienced nine such moments. And, along with her growing love affair with New York each autumn, her friendship with Fred Lebow grew deeper as well. The reserved Norwegian and the feisty Romanian had a certain simpatico. Actually, they became the best of friends.
Then it came Grete's time to win her tenth title in New York. She had broken the world record for the marathon four times. She had won the silver medal at the first running of the women's marathon in the Olympic Games, in Los Angeles in 1984. But a tenth New York City Marathon? That was Grete's stated dream ending to her storybook career.
Just then, her dear friend Fred Lebow was diagnosed with brain cancer and he made it known that he wanted to experience the event he had made into a star, the New York City Marathon, before his time was up. Rather than go for her magical tenth, Grete ran with Fred, slowly, and in tears, for five and a half hours to the finish line. Fred Lebow did die of brain cancer and Grete says she has never for a moment regretted her decision to run every step of the way, inches from his side.
All these years later, it's Grete Waitz who is now battling cancer. In her typical non-revealing way, she won't even share what type of cancer it is. But she's fighting it. And she intends to win that fight, just as she won so many battles on the asphalt. She flew in to New York from Oslo to be part of the race Sunday, and to visit schools, and raise money for cancer treatment. Grete met up with 650 runners before the race, all of whom were wearing t-shirts that read "Running; for Grete." She ran for them once. Actually nine times. Now they are running for her.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.