Champion runner Grete Waitz approaches a fork in her road
Boston — Grete Waitz looks down one road and thinks about the dreams still unfulfilled -- like winning an Olympic gold medal or becoming the first woman to break 2:20 in the marathon. Then she looks down the other and sees a different sort of rainbow -- a quieter, more normal life away from the pressures of competing, more time to spend with her husband and their friends, perhaps the start of a family.
Which way to go? Is it time to write finis to the career that changed the face of women's long-distance running? Or should she push on a while longer, duel with Joan Benoit and her own countrywoman, Ingrid Kristiansen, to break that 2:20 barrier, and perhaps even stick around until 1988 for the Olympic Games in Seoul?
The idea of retirement is nothing new for the seven-time winner of the New York Marathon; she's been thinking and talking about it off and on for a decade or so. But now at age 32, and with her place in history secure, she is obviously getting closer to the time when the thought becomes a reality. And yet when she talks of a rematch with Benoit, who beat her to the gold in Los Angeles, or a duel with Kristiansen, the current women's world-record holder, you get the feeling she isn't really ready to stop just yet.
``I'd love to be in a race with all three of us, but it doesn't look as though it's going to happen in 1986,'' the legendary Norwegian runner says. ``There are so many big races nowadays, it's hard for the organizers to get the top runners in any one of them. Maybe the world [track and field] championships of 1987 will be the first time.''
That certainly doesn't sound like retirement talk. And if she stays in training until 1987, wouldn't it be inconceivable not to hang on for one more year and another Olympics? ``That's too far ahead to even think about,'' Waitz says. ``Too many miles. Too many workouts. I wish mentally I was five years younger. That's the problem, mentally. I'm just not as tough and ambitious as I was at 25 or so. Of course I'd love to have an Olympic gold medal, but it's a long way off, a lot of training -- and anyway, there's no guarantee.''
Then there's the question of starting a family. Waitz and her husband, Jack, have been married for more than a decade, and they're starting to wonder how much longer they want to wait. ``We talk, we think seriously about it now,'' she says. ``When we do settle down and have a family, we want it to be a normal life. It's hard to see how you could combine having a baby with the training, the competition, and all the travel. Some people do it, I know, but that's not the way I would want it. . . . If I have a child, I want to take care of it.''
And so it goes, back and forth. Meanwhile, another outdoor running season is nearly upon us, and for the moment Waitz has put her ambivalent feelings on hold once again as she bids to reclaim the women's world marathon record she held from 1978 until 1983.
Waitz, of course, was well known in track circles long before she took up the marathon. As a precocious 16-year-old in 1970 she won the Norwegian junior championship in the 400-meter and 800-meter races. Two years later she was competing in her first Olympics at Munich. By 1975 she was ranked No. 1 in the world at both 1,500 and 3,000 meters. The following year she ran in the Olympics again at Montreal, this time getting to the semifinals in the 1,500.
The problem for runners like Waitz in those days was the stubborn refusal of Olympic officials to add more distance events for women -- a situation that continued until the addition of the 3,000 and the marathon in 1984.
``I came along at the wrong time as far as the Olympics were concerned,'' Waitz says. ``I feel I would have been a contender in the 5,000, the 10,000, or both. But in 1972 and 1976 I had to run in the 1,500. It would have been the same thing in 1980 too, so the [United States] boycott [of the Moscow games] didn't affect me as much as it did some others.
``They need to have a 5,000 and a 10,000, and I think eventually it will come to that. Maybe by 1992.''
Back in the mid-to-late '70s, however, such progress was not in sight -- and it was in that period that Grete married Jack, who was a member of the same running club, and began thinking about retiring from competition. Her new husband suggested she try the marathon first. She went along with the idea, entered the 1978 New York Marathon -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although her name was known to track and field aficionados, Waitz was still a virtual unknown to the general public -- especially in the marathon, a distance at which she had never competed. But not only did she win the women's division, she also stunned everyone by knocking more than two full minutes off the women's world record, completing the 26-mile, 385-yard distance in 2:32:30.
It was her victory and the attendant publicity that pushed women's marathon running into the spotlight it has enjoyed ever since. It also made her an instant celebrity and launched the second phase of her running career -- primarily on the roads at the longer distances, and with fewer and fewer appearances on the track. ``I tend to get hurt running in spikes now,'' she says of track running. ``From 1980 on, I've concentrated mainly on the marathon. It's hard to combine the two.'' She's quick to point out, however, that her track background has played a major role in her marathon success -- a fact that seems self-evident today, with marathon running dominated by former track stars, but one that wasn't very well understood back in 1978.
``When I first ran in New York, people were surprised that a track runner could win a marathon. I told them, `Wait and see. That's going to be the trend.' Road runners didn't like to hear that then, but it was obviously just a question of time as more track runners got into road running.''
It's been Waitz herself, of course, who has dominated the women's long-distance scene most of the time since that eventful 1978 race. She became the first woman to run under 2:30 in a marathon, with a 2:27:33 clocking at New York in 1979. She broke her own world record again the next year with a time of 2:25:42, and once more in 1983, when she won the London Marathon in 2:25:29. That same year she won the gold medal in the first women's world championship marathon, held in Helsinki. Over the years she also has won five women's world cross-country titles, and when she won the New York Marathon in October it marked her seventh victory in that race, to go along with five more triumphs in the L'eggs mini-marathon in the same city.
That tremendous record of achievement has earned her lasting fame throughout the world as well as in her own country, where she is the only athlete ever to be awarded the coveted St. Olaf's Medal, given to outstanding citizens who have brought honor to Norway. But still there are some worlds left to conquer. There's Benoit, who took her world record away in 1983 with a 2:22:43 time in Boston and then won the big one in Los Angeles the following year. And now there's also Kristiansen, the current world record holder, thanks to a 2:21:06 clocking in London last year.
There's also the shot at another historic milestone: The top female runners are getting within striking distance of that magic 2:20 mark. ``I think it will happen, and I'd like to be the one to do it,'' Waitz says.
And then what? Over the last two decades or so, the women's world record has been lowered by nearly an hour, while the men's mark has come down much more slowly to its present 2:07:13. This has led some people to speculate that the women will continue to close the gap -- and perhaps even catch up some day. But Waitz is having none of this. ``No, I can't see that happening,'' she says. ``The reason we've been closing the gap is simply that we had so far to go. But women's times are stabilizing now, too.''
Even while she continues to train and run, of course, Waitz is already preparing for the inevitable day -- whether sooner or later -- when she finally does pack it in at the top competitive level. Before her running career took off and became a full-time occupation, Waitz was a high-school teacher for four years, but she is leaning now more in the area of marketing and promotion. ``I want to work with people,'' she says, ``but not necessarily in a school situation. The last couple of years I've done various consulting and promotional things, mostly involved with training and fitness. I feel people need to get more into fitness. They're not as active as they were even 10 or 15 years ago.'' Her latest project along these lines is a running video entitled ``Running Great With Grete Waitz,'' in which she explains her strategies and techniques for training and for racing.
``This is a whole new direction for me,'' she says, ``but I wanted to show that running isn't boring. Basically, I run because I enjoy it. I wanted to share that with other people -- the fun of running and being fit.''