OSLO, Norway (AP) — Grete 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 suffered so hard that she cursed her husband, Jack Waitz, 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 win the race, she 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.
Waitz died Tuesday at age 57 in a hospital in her native Oslo after a six-year battle with cancer. Her husband Jack was by her side, said Helle Aanesen, who co-founded a cancer foundation with 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 Waitz’s character. She always pushed boundaries for herself. And in doing so, she broke barriers for women in sports — perhaps more than she ever imagined.
“She was the first lady of the marathon. She was such a wonderful lady, such a wonderful ambassador for women’s marathon running back when it was just starting to be recognized as a serious event,” said Rob de Castella, a world champion marathon runner from Australia who had trained with Waitz.
At a time when many still felt that women didn’t belong in long-distance running, Waitz proved them wrong with her outstanding performances.
“It was Grete who proved that it was possible for women to compete in the longer distances,” said Svein Arne Hansen, president of the Norwegian Athletics Federation.
Waitz won the marathon gold medal at the inaugural world championships in 1983. A year later in Los Angeles, she took second behind American Joan Benoit in the first women’s Olympic marathon.
She won the London Marathon twice, in 1983 and ’86, the Stockholm Marathon in 1988 and earned five titles at the world cross-country championships from 1978-81 and 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 Waitz, easily spotted by her graceful running style and blonde hair. She retired from competition after that 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.
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,” Waitz said.
Before becoming the world’s top women’s marathoner, Waitz competed at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in the 1,500 meters, set world records for the 3,000 in 1975 and 1976, and was unbeaten in cross-country races for 12 years.
She missed the 1980 Moscow Games because of the American-led boycott.
“She will be remembered as one of the best marathon runners of her time,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said.
In a Twitter posting, marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of Britain remembered Waitz as “an amazing champion and more amazing person.”
Retired cyclist Lance Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times, called Waitz “a good friend and an incredible athlete” on his Twitter feed.
During her own struggle against cancer, Waitz was impressed and inspired by Armstrong’s comeback from the disease and said what he went through was “10 times worse.”
Waitz started undergoing cancer treatment in 2005 but rarely discussed her condition in public.
“That’s not my personality,” she said in November 2005. “I’ve always been a private person. … I’ll do that when I cross the finish line and win this race.”
At the time she was optimistic she could conquer the disease.
“I’m crossing my fingers,” she said. “I will beat it.”
In 2007, Waitz and Aanesen established the Active Against Cancer foundation in Norway, inspired by a similar organization in New York, “Fred’s Team,” named after Fred Lebow.
“Her aim was to inspire other cancer patients to be physically active, and she worked to establish training centers at cancer hospitals,” Aanesen said. “She didn’t wish to put too much focus on herself and her disease, but hoped she could contribute in some way to help others.”
Aanesen declined to specify which type of cancer Waitz had but said she remained actively involved in the foundation until a week before her death.
Born in Oslo as Grete Andersen on Oct. 1, 1953, she started running track at an early age, winning both junior and senior titles in Norway for middle distances.
She met her future husband, Jack Waitz, while training at the Norwegian sports club Vidar. They married in 1975 and he became her coach. Until the early ’80s, Waitz also worked as a teacher as she was developing her running.
In her youth, Waitz trained and raced at Oslo’s Bislett stadium, which raised a bronze statue in her honor in 1984. To this day, Waitz still holds the Norwegian records in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters.
“If Bislett was her cradle, then New York City was her Broadway stage,” Mary Wittenberg, the president of the New York Road Runners Club, said at an event honoring Waitz in Oslo in 2008. “When Grete stepped into the marathon, she changed the game. She made it a serious sport for women.”
Wittenberg said Tuesday the Road Runners were “sad to lose a dear friend and our most decorated champion” and praised Waitz’s strength and grace.
“When so many people would have crumbled, she stood strong and positive,” Wittenberg said.
Waitz is survived by her husband and her two brothers, Jan and Arild. A private funeral ceremony is planned for next week, according to Waitz’s wishes, Aanesen said.
Waitz received numerous other awards and honors for her achievements on and off the track.
In 2008, Norway’s king bestowed the prestigious Order of St. Olav on her for being a role model for female athletes. Last year she received the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sport Award for Europe.
“Grete is in my eyes one of the greatest Norwegian athletes of all time,” said Hansen.
Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.