Important People: Grete Waitz

This is about the time I didn’t meet Grete Waitz.

I could have met her. She was standing right in front of me. In fact, she’d been placed there expressly for the purpose of meeting people just like me. She looked like a nice person.

For those who do not follow running, I’ll give you the quick summary of Grete Waitz the runner. (Or skip this paragraph and move right along to the next one, as this piece isn’t about running per se.) Waitz was a Norwegian runner who started out as a middle distancer on the track in the mid-1970s. In 1978 she debuted at the marathon distance in New York where she not only won but also took two minutes off the world record in what would be the first of nine New York City Marathon victories. She’d never run farther than 13 miles at the time. Five World Cross-Country titles. Silver in the Olympics. Gold in the World Championships. World records at 3K, 8K, 10K, 15K and 10 miles. She still holds the Norwegian 1500 record. It’s 34 years old.

The year I didn’t meet Waitz was 2007. I was at a race expo. It was two days before I was to run my first marathon. I had just turned 42 years old; a latecomer to the sport. Everything about competitive racing was new to me and I had not yet gotten interested in the professional side of running. But I knew who Waitz was. She was arguably the greatest female runner of the past quarter century, perhaps ever.

Standing there, Waitz was a god among mortals, wearing a shy smile and a cancer wig. I wondered if it itched. I wanted to go up, say hello, shake her hand. Instead I left.

I ran my race two days later and the marathon was like an athletically charged crack pipe hit. It consumed the next four years and roughly 11,000 miles of my running life until I finally figured out I’d make a much better miler. Late starter, slow learner.

In the meantime, as I struggled to find my event as a runner I was also battling against the crippling social phobia that held me back from extending a hand to someone like Grete Waitz. I was painfully withdrawn around everyone, but Waitz was particularly distinguished and as such she had me more paralyzed than usual. Over the next couple of years I would get to know Waitz through her out of print 1986 autobiography and various archived interviews and profiles. Through my reading I realized that we might have had some fundamental things in common.

Her autobiography was especially enlightening, both for its contents and its format. Grete Waitz’ Guide to Running was a combination of memoir, training guide, cultural criticism, and “lifestyle” guide (which had the effect of making me wish I lived in Norway, at least circa 1986). English was not Waitz’ native language, obviously, but that’s part of what made her writing voice so appealing. She was also remarkably frank when talking about what it was like to be thrown into world-stage competition as a teenager, the pressure to medal “for country,” and her discomfort with fame. There were even recipes for making Norwegian snacks. It was hokey.

But there was a strange tension to the book too, a sense that this was someone who was wrestling with the problem of how to reconcile her natural reserve with a profession that invited intense scrutiny and required frequent gregariousness. The impression I formed of Waitz had several dimensions. One presented a person who was fiercely driven to improve for purely internal reasons. She appeared largely impervious to outside influences, yet there was another side to her that seemed hyperaware of criticism and sensitive to its effects. After her first New York victory, for example, she was visibly angry, having suffered intense pain for the last 10 miles, vowing to never race another marathon. She shortly got over it and was happy to have won. But her initial countenance was easily and understandably read to have other meanings. The press had been baffled by her, and she by them.

When Waitz won races, which was often, she sometimes appeared from the outside to be all business. This didn’t go over well with fans, media and race organizers. She didn’t emote enough, it seemed. Her victories were inward and dignified, a slight arm raise at the tape, her head canted downward when the winner’s wreath was placed atop it. She struggled with her English early on, which made her seem even more aloof. In many of the photos and clips I saw, a pattern emerged: if there was a camera or a microphone in her face, she usually looked somewhat uncomfortable. As Waitz eased into retirement from competitive running she found a second career as a running ambassador of sorts for various charitable organizations. She was putting herself right out there, a shy introvert now becoming an outspoken one. She wanted to be heard.

I’ve observed that when you embark upon a new endeavor you often find yourself becoming very good at the things you were worst at going in. This seemed to be the case with Waitz. Or maybe it’s not that she got good at something, but rather she let some inchoate part of herself emerge so she could help promote the sport of running and spread its gospel. The act of bringing forth an inner Grete who could live with the demands being made on the outer Grete became not so much a change as the necessary and inevitable means to some other end. A side effect of that process was that the world got to see Waitz’ warmth and humor. Maybe, in turn, she let people in more, although that’s sheer speculation on my part. I like to think so.

That’s where Waitz and I converged. The thing that held me back from saying hello to her seemed to bear some resemblance to a burden she’d carried herself at some earlier point. Two shy girls, eyes cast toward the floor.

In a world dominated by self-promoting loudmouths, Waitz demonstrated that a quiet person can make a big impact and still stay essentially quiet. She stayed true to herself in that regard. That gave me a lot of hope.

I worked hard on myself, inspired by Waitz and others, and always had it in the back of my mind that I’d get another chance. The second time I saw her came during the following year. I was standing at mile 20 of the 2008 New York City Marathon in the Bronx when the women’s pace truck sped by. There went that wig again. Grete looked happy.

In 2009 I thought I’d race Grete’s Gallop, her namesake half marathon, and go up and say hello to her there. I was pretty sure I could finally work up the courage. But I ended up going out of town to visit family instead. Then it was 2010. By that time I’d started thrusting not only my hand but also a digital voice recorder — awkwardly, but, hell, I was doing it — at plenty of famous runners, so I knew I’d be ready to meet her. I don’t remember what happened that year but she wasn’t around. So I was hoping for 2011. Maybe she’d be at the Mini 10K in June, the historic women’s-only race she’d won five times. I registered in April to ensure I’d get a spot.

Then the remembrances of Waitz started appearing in running and mainstream media. The 40th Anniversary of the Mini 10K had turned into the Grete Waitz Memorial Mini 10K. I’d missed my chance. I couldn’t believe it. But I could.

The day of the Mini arrived, and so did I, dressed to race. But I was injured and kidding myself. After limping through a quarter mile warm-up it was clear that I’d be watching the race rather than running it. I was so irritated with the situation that I stripped off my racing club’s shirt right there in the middle the road and threw it in my bag so people would stop yelling, “Go, Harrier!” at me. I replaced it with my bright pink Mini 10K t-shirt and ambled around down near the stage, which featured a giant screen upon which was being projected a loop of a short film New York Road Runners had made about Waitz.

There was nothing happening up on stage; it was just preparation for the post-race ceremonies. I was surrounded by runners who were late to warm up, nervous spouses carrying bags, volunteers rushing off. I was a motionless figure where others buzzed around me, standing in front of this screen, transfixed by this movie of this woman. There was something hypnotic about seeing an extended tracking shot of Waitz racing through the streets of New York, floating above the concrete, carrying 120 pounds of ferocious grace and artistry on a five foot eight frame.

Waitz was alive and conjured for me here, literally larger than life, on grainy 1970s film stock — each plane, shadow and color field assembled from a shimmering constellation of whirling, glowing pointillist dots. It was a moment. If I couldn’t shake her hand then this was the next best thing.

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