20 April 2011

Grete Waitz

I am  saddened and troubled today by the news of Grete Waitz’s death at the age of fifty-seven from complications of cancer. Waitz had been a geography teacher in Norway who also ran long distances. Someone told her she might run a marathon, and in 1978 she elected to enter the New York Marathon. She won the race in record time though the TV announcer had to admit as she crossed the finish line that he really hadn’t the foggiest idea who she was, in fact. That first year she set a world’s record for the distance: 2 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds, a mark she subsequently broke in future years. Ms. Waitz went on to win the New York Marathon nine times, and her last marathon was in 1992 when she ran alongside Fred Lebow whose brain cancer was in remission but who would succumb two years later. They finished arm in arm in 5:32:35. It was a most gracious and loving act of Grete Waitz to run the race this slowly and at less than half her normal pace. 
New York is a difficult place to earn a reputation, and it is rare that a figure survives throughout a considerable career unsullied. But Waitz remained untainted by scandal and epitomized all that was wonderful about human capacity, achievement, and character. She ran the marathon, by God26.2 miles! And these days, what with the disgraces routinely attached to players in baseball, football, bicycle racing et al., and what with the reprehensible behaviors exhibited by our sports (and political) figures, we have sore need of honest and modest heroes. Alas, we have today one less exemplar of the human will to excel, one less model to set the standard by which we might live in this world.  Selfishly, I am so sorry at our loss at her death. 
But there is yet another aspect of her death that troubles me this morning. For I would have thought that one whose physical achievements, depending as they did on such remarkable training and discipline, whose successes gave such visible evidence of the potential of the human capacity for extraordinary physical strength and spiritual will, whose life represented the quintessence of human excellence and tenacity, should have been able to live forever. Alas, she, even she, succumbed to cancer at the age of fifty-seven years; with all of her training and physical endurance, could not vanquish this dread malady. 
In Grete Waitz’s death, I feel that I have lost a great deal.


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