Remembering Grete Waitz, 1953-2011

I can’t seem to get Grete Waitz, the Norwegian marathon champion who died last week in Oslo, out of my head. I’m no athlete, never ran a marathon, never had any particular connection to Waitz, though I certainly admired her many accomplishments.

She came seemingly out of nowhere to win the first of her nine victories in the New York marathon in 1978, just on the cusp of the explosion of worldwide interest in exercise in general and running in particular. Her string of victories helped to make the New York marathon into the showcase event that it became.

She won other marathons, too, including a world championship. Her early victories contributed to the addition of the women’s marathon to the Olympics for the first time in 1984, where Waitz won the first silver medal, losing the gold to the younger Joan Samuelson, who was one of many female runners acknowledging Waitz as an inspiration.

When Grete Waitz won her first New York marathon in 1978, I was three years out of law school and finishing my first year as a law professor at Temple Law School. Having been unsuccessful at high school sports (to put it mildly), I had abandoned physical exercise completely. In fact I proudly quoted Robert Hutchins, the former president of the University of Chicago who abolished varsity football there, to the effect that, “When I feel like doing something athletic, I lie down until the feeling goes away.”

I resisted the rising interest in exercise and running that coincided with the early triumphs of Grete Waitz. I was put off by the plethora of how-to-exercise articles offering expert advice on what clothes to wear, how to shop for shoes, what food to eat, how to train to get ready to exercise, etc. My fellow Oberlin alumnus Jim Fixx managed to write a whole book on the subject of how to run, which I was amazed to see became a national and worldwide best-seller.

But reading about Grete Waitz, who became an international celebrity on the strength of her running successes, I realized that she gave off a completely different vibe. She was an advocate of “Just Do It” before that was adopted as a Nike slogan.

Grete Waitz seemed not to worry about what she ate or what she wore. She wasn’t stressed about how to train. She ran because it was healthy and made her feel good. When asked how she stretched before a big race, she dismissed the question by asking, “Does a dog stretch before it runs?”

On the strength of that example, I decided I could risk venturing into the booming world of physical activity without extensive research into the how-to literature. If Grete didn’t worry about doing things the “wrong” way, why should I? So I, too, took up running, and actually ran a few road races. I bought a bicycle and started riding. For awhile I even took up swimming at the Temple pool during my lunch hour.

Thirty years after being inspired to get up off the couch, I still try to work physical activity into my daily routine. And I still don’t worry about having the right equipment or clothes or technique or training. Thanks, Grete!

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