On November 2, 1986, Norwegian distance runner Grete Waitz wins her eighth New York City marathon. She finished the 26-mile, 385-yard course in 2:28.6, more than a mile ahead of the second- and third-place women in the race. Waitz had won her first marathon in New York in 1978 and she won the NYC marathon again in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 1988, she won it for the ninth time—something no runner had ever done in any marathon.
Waitz grew up in Oslo, Norway. She’d won national and international titles in shorter distances—400 meters, 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters, and the metric mile—but she had never run a marathon before 1978, when Fred Lebow, the director of the New York race, called her and invited her to participate. “He never thought I would complete the race,” she remembered later, but “he needed a ‘rabbit,’ someone who would go out strong and set the pace for the elite women.” Waitz agreed and set out for New York with her husband, Jack. The furthest she’d ever run was 12 miles.
The night before the race, eager to celebrate their “second honeymoon” in Manhattan, the two went out to a swanky restaurant, where they ate shrimp cocktail, filet mignon and ice cream, and drank plenty of red wine. The next morning, bright and early, the 25-year-old Waitz started the marathon at the front of the pack and stayed there. But as the race dragged on, she started to wonder what she’d gotten herself into. “I continued running strong,” she remembered, “but having no idea what mile I was on or where this place called Central Park was, I began to get annoyed and frustrated. Every time I saw a patch of trees, I thought, “Oh, this must be Central Park,” but no. To keep motivated, I started swearing at my husband for getting me into this mess in the first place.” When she finished the race, she hurled her shoes at Jack’s head. But she’d won, and she’d set a new world record, two minutes faster than the old one: 2:32.30.
The next year, Waitz quit her teaching job and started running full time. She won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics (Norway, like the United States, had boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow). Along with her nine NYC Marathon titles, Waitz set 10 world records: in the 3,000 meters, 8,000 meters, 10,000 meters, 15,000 meters and 10 miles, along with the marathon.
Waitz retired from competitive running in 1990. She became a health and fitness expert and running coach in Oslo. In 1992, she accompanied Fred Lebow as he ran his own marathon for the first time while he was in remission from brain cancer. And in 2005, Waitz was diagnosed with cancer herself. Still, “I’m going to be in the marathon again,” she told reporters. “And you know, I’ve won most of the races in my life. I expect to win this one, too.” She died in 2011, at age 57.