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Grete Waitz, 57; cancer fells winner of 9 N.Y. Marathons

Grete Waitz in Paris in 1980 after winning the world cross-country championship, her third of five. Grete Waitz in Paris in 1980 after winning the world cross-country championship, her third of five. (Remy De La Mauviniere/ Associated Press)
By Nils Myklebost
Associated Press / April 20, 2011

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OSLO — Grete (Andersen) Waitz had never run a marathon before the New York City race in October 1978. After it, her name and New York would be forever linked.

The lean Norwegian middle-distance runner, who had set two world-records in the 3,000 meters, was invited to the race as a “rabbit,’’ someone brought in to set a fast early pace for the favorite runners.

Two-thirds through that first marathon, she was in such pain that she cursed her husband, Jack, for talking her into it.

“I was hurting. I was mad. I was angry. I told Jack: ‘Never again!’ ’’ she recalled in 2008, 30 years later.

But in all that rage she found strength. Not only did she finish the race, she won it, and set a world record — the first of three. And “never again’’ turned into eight more wins in the New York Marathon, a world championship gold medal, an Olympic silver, and a place among the greatest marathon runners of all time.

Mrs. Waitz died yesterday at age 57 in a hospital in her native Oslo after a six-year battle with cancer. Her husband was by her side, said Helle Aanesen, who cofounded a cancer foundation with Mrs. Waitz. There was no word on what type of cancer felled the marathon legend, who disclosed no details about her condition after being diagnosed in 2005.

Setting a world record in her first marathon was revealing of her character. She always pushed boundaries for herself. And in doing so, she broke barriers for women in sports — perhaps more than she ever imagined.

At a time when many still felt that women didn’t belong in long-distance running, Mrs. Waitz proved them wrong.

“I lost a mentor and a role model,’’ Joan Benoit Samuelson, 53, said yesterday, a day after running the Boston Marathon in 2:51.29. It was her first Boston race in 18 years.

She decided to run at the last minute, Samuelson said, because, although she had been battling back problems, she was inspired by Mrs. Waitz’s courage.

“What will endure forever is that she was able to balance a competitive career with the most gracious lifestyle, and a character that emanated good will.’’

Mrs. Waitz won the marathon gold medal at the first world championships in 1983. A year later in Los Angeles, she took second behind Samuelson in the first women’s Olympic marathon.

Mrs. Waitz won the London Marathon twice, in 1983 and ’86, won the Stockholm Marathon in 1988, and earned five titles at the world cross-country championships from 1978 to ’81 and in 1983. Her last victory in the New York Marathon came in 1988.

When, at 37, she finished fourth in New York in 1990, no runner got more cheers from the crowd than Mrs. Waitz, easily spotted by her graceful running style and blond hair.

She retired from competition but returned to the New York Marathon in 1992, crossing the finish line next to legendary race director Fred Lebow, who had been suffering from cancer and died two years later.

Mrs. Waitz said that run with Lebow was her most memorable New York Marathon, next to her first win in 1978.

“Fred really wanted me to win 10 New York City Marathons. But I say that race with Fred makes up for the 10th that I never won.’’

Born Grete Andersen in Oslo, she started running track at an early age.

She met Jack Waitz while training at the Norwegian sports club Vidar. They married in 1975 and he became her coach. Until the early ’80s, Mrs. Waitz also worked as a teacher as she was developing her running.

In her youth, Mrs. Waitz trained and raced at Oslo’s Bislett stadium, which raised a bronze statue in her honor in 1984. She still holds the Norwegian records in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters.

Material from the New York Times was used in this obituary.