The first time Grete Waitz and Allison Roe met was at the starting line of the 1981 New York City Marathon. This initial encounter was highly anticipated, not only by the two athletes, but by running cognoscenti who hailed Roe as a legitimate challenger to the previously uncontested Waitz. The scene was set for a showdown in the 26-mile, 385-yard race, but unfortunately it never materialized.
Waitz, the three-time defending champion from Norway, who had been bothered by a leg injury for weeks, was obviously not in top form and finally dropped out just before the 15-mile mark. Meanwhile Roe, the New Zealander who burst into prominence in April when she established a course record in the revered Boston Marathon, went on to chop 12 seconds off Waitz's 1980 world record, completing the urban journey in 2 hours, 25 minutes, and 29 seconds. But left for some indefinite future date was the full-fledged duel everyone had hoped to see.
Whenever two great athletes come along at the same time in the same sport it naturally heightens public interest (Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe and Sebastian Coe vs. Steve Ovett are two recent examples), and so it is now in women's distance running.
Waitz, an Oslo schoolteacher, was already a well established star at shorter distances but a newcomer to the marathon when she entered New York at the 11th hour in 1978.
''Grete was a world-class 3,000-meter runner when I heard she wanted to run, so I said, 'Definitely,' '' recalled Fred Lebow, director of the world's largest and richest marathon. ''Her longest race was 20 kilometers (less than 121/2 miles), though, and I didn't even know if she could finish.''
Not only did Waitz finish, she toppled the women's world record for the distance by more than two minutes, then returned to lower her own mark in each of the next two years. In 1980 she so outclassed her opposition that the last time a woman runner saw her was at the five-mile mark.
At that point, even though she had run the distance only three times, Grete was beginning to be considered virtually unbeatable. But then along came Roe.
The 5 ft. 8 in., 128-pound secretary was likewise a shorter-distance runner earlier in her career, although she never had such an illustrious track record as Waitz. She began concentrating on the marathon in 1980, and was soon posting times fast enough to make her a contender to be reckoned with.
Then in Boston in April she burst into international prominence, outrunning hometown favorite Patti Catalano and turning in the second-best women's time in history behind Waitz's 1980 New York clocking. Now, of course, she has gone even further, taking over the record for herself and completing the double in what she had earlier called ''the two greatest marathons on earth.''
The situation cries for head-to-head competition, but getting the two together anytime soon may not be easy.
Waitz, despite her phenomenal success in the marathon in recent years, has always maintained that she is a track and cross-country runner first and a marathoner second. The 5-7, 112-pounder has run the sixth-fastest women's mile ( 4:26:9), was an Olympian at 1,500 meters in 1972 and 1976, and is a four-time international women's cross-country champion.
''I train for the 3,000 (meters), never specifically for the marathon,'' Grete says. ''My longest training run is 10 miles. I guess I'm a cross-country runner in the spring, a track runner in the summer, a road runner in the autumn, and over the winter I work on speed. I have no other plans for marathons, and 1984 is just too far ahead to say.''
On the other hand, Roe, at this point, has decided to concentrate on road running and to compete mainly in races from 5,000 meters to the marathon.
''For six years I ran 40 miles a week and competed in track and cross-country before discovering my strength was the marathon,'' Roe said. ''I was never a great track runner. I have a mental block against running around in circles.''
So given these differences, it could be a while before the two meet at a starting line again - though one could reasonably expect that it would at least happen in the 1982 New York Marathon, if not before that.
And given the truly phenomenal progress in the women's marathon in recent years, there are certain to be other challengers coming along as well.
It was just a decade ago, for instance, that women broke the three-hour barrier, and today the times of Roe and Waitz would win 11 of the 19 men's Olympic marathons. This progress is accounted for partly by the advent of shorter-distance runners in the event, a phenomenon also witnessed in the men's race.
Roe, in fact, credits her own increased speed workouts for her improvement in marathon times. An injury forced her to cut back the long, slow runs she was doing before Boston on the beaches and golf courses near her Auckland home. Her coach, Gary Elliott, substituted rigorous interval training, and her times came down drastically over the New Zealand winter.
''I plan to continue working on my basic speed, an area where I can certainly improve, because, let's face it, you have to be fast to win a race,'' said Roe, who has clocked 4:40 in the mile, 8:56 in the 3,000, and 31:26 in the 10,000 (6. 2 miles). ''When they train milers to be good marathoners in the next few years, it will be incredible. Women should be running 2:20 before long.''
Roe and her advisers, like Waitz, refuse to speculate on 1984, when for the first time a women's marathon will be on the Olympic program at Los Angeles.
''We can only take six months at a time,'' Elliott said. ''We have no long-range plans.''