Monday, January 26, 2015
A Geography Teacher And All-Time Great
There was once a geography teacher who became a great inspiration. I believe she was the oldest member of her track club and on the verge of retiring when she received an invitation to come to NYC in 1978 and run as a "rabbit," a pace setter for the early miles of elite runners. She had previously shown her talents in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and achieved world records at 3000 meters, but the best was yet to come...at far greater distances.
She found the will to keep going through a distance she had never run before, even in training, 26.2 miles. She not only went on to win the marathon, but also in record time. And nobody knew her name. It was "some blond girl." According to the NY Times, in great pain at the finish line, she threw her shoes at her husband and trainer, Jack Waitz. She exclaimed, "I'll never do this stupid thing again!" She went on to win nine NYC marathons. Good luck to anyone who hopes to beat that record, male or female!
When she returned to Oslo following her initial run, her students had little understanding of the distance she had covered. They were used to working in kilometers. She told them it was 42K. They still could not envision it. Being a geography teacher, she equated the distance between Oslo and a town twenty-six miles away. Can you imagine the jaws dropping then...especially when she told them her pace?
Soon after, Grete gave up teaching to focus on the marathon. The running career that had just seemed to be ending was only just beginning. In probably her most famous marathon, in 1992, she accompanied Fred Lebow, NYRRC president, for the 26.2 miles despite his battle with brain cancer. It spoke to Grete's greatness. From her initial success, Grete went on to work with charities, including her own (AKTIV) and NYC youth running programs. I'd venture to say running did a lot more for those kids than Common-Core test prep!
Grete was entirely gracious. She sent autographs to my three daughters and, each time, included long and lovely letters to me. She marveled that a busy Mom had the energy to keep running. She congratulated me for finishing her half-marathon three months after giving birth to my second daughter. She'd give me advice about running, describe her rides in the women's NYC lead car, her chemo treatments and her continuing exercise regimen. I miss Grete. The world misses Grete, her gentle soul and hard-as-nails spirit.
In one instance, perhaps with the geography teacher still inside her, Grete sent me an Oslo card in place of a Christmas card. Grete was not only, perhaps, the greatest runner of all time, she was also a teacher. And that means a lot to me. Despite the fact that "reformers" would denigrate an entire profession, Grete speaks to the best in all of us.