Marathon runner Grete Waitz dies at 57

Grete Waitz won nine New York City Marathons Grete Waitz won nine New York City Marathons between 1978 and 1988, more than any other runner in history. (Sept. 23, 2009) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Grete Waitz, the modest Norwegian schoolteacher who became an icon by winning the New York City Marathon nine times, died in Oslo Tuesday after a six-year battle with cancer. She was 57.

"Grete did as much for the New York City Marathon as the New York City Marathon did for Grete," said New York Road Runners president and chief executive Mary Wittenberg. "You need a star performer to create the spectacle and Grete was that star performer. Grete legitimized the marathon for professional runners."

Fred Lebow, the Romanian immigrant who founded the New York Marathon, invited Waitz, an established track and cross-country runner, to run in the 1978 race although she had never run a marathon before. She was the world record-holder in the 3,000 meters. It was her husband and coach Jack who talked her into running the full marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, even though she had never run more than 13 miles in training.

And it was Jack who was the target of her shoes after she won the race in the world record time of 2:32.30. She angrily vowed to him that she never again would run a marathon. But she did, and from 1978 to 1988 she won nine by running the five boroughs of New York City, as well as others internationally.

"Being a nine-time champion of New York is something that we will never see again. It's inconceivable," said George Hirsch, the New York Road Runners board chairman. "She was just a fabulous human being in every way. There was a natural touch about Grete that moved so many people. She was very down to earth no matter how many championships she won. It was never about Grete, it was about the sport she loved. And she became a real New Yorker."

Though hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers cheered her victories, perhaps no New York City Marathon was as special as the one she ran with Lebow in 1992. She was retired from running then, but Lebow had been diagnosed with cancer and vowed to run his own race for the first time. Waitz ran with him, and helped him struggle to the finish line in 5:32.34. They finished crying in each other's arms, surrounded by family, friends and New Yorkers.

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Waitz remained heavily involved with the New York City Marathon after she stopped running, and after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. She never revealed what cancer she had contracted. She started a foundation to fund cancer research in Norway, and typical of her nature was heavily involved in it.

But she was always in New York not only for the marathon, but for Grete's Great Gallop, a half marathon in early October in Central Park that is conducted by the NYRR during the Norwegian Festival. "She would stand there and high-five every one of the 8,000 people who finished," Wittenberg said.

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