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Everything We Should Learn from Running Legend Grete Waitz

Grete Waitz was the ultimate runner. She ran world records on 3000m, 10km, half marathon and marathon. Especially in marathon she was in a class of her own. She was the first woman to run it under 2:30 and she won the New York marathon nine (!) times. In addition to that, she won five world titles in cross-country running, another one in marathon (in 1983) and the silver medal in marathon at the Olympic Games 1984.This extraordinary record of achievements caused Bill Rodgers, who was one of the best marathon runners of the late 1970s, to state that, contrary to the men, it was easy to tell who was the best woman of all times: it could only be Grete. “She won in every distance. She was dominant. She was the best female long distance runner of all times.”

Grete Waitz wins one of her nine New York City Marathons
Grete Waitz wins one of her nine New York City Marathons

Waitz, however, was not only an outstanding runner, but she also was an outstanding character. The charismatic Norwegian was a central figure in the development of women’s running. Throughout her great career she was never on the verge of getting arrogant. Instead she remained humble and always connected with Oslo, her home city. Although she always emphasised the importance of the winner mentality, according to her, you shouldn’t show it on the outside. “It is fantastic to be self-assured. Nevertheless, let your performances talk for themselves. Never make a bold statement in public.”

The queen of marathon was also engaged in organising races and in writing. In her works she described five crucial points for improvement in running:

1. Have an ultimate goal.

2. Set up realistic goals and be flexible.

3. Don’t increase the amount of your training or change your training schedule too fast. Your body needs time to adapt.

4. Don’t change what works for you.

5. Follow the principle of hard/easy training.

Always focused on her goal: Grete Waitz

Another interesting specialty of Waitz’ training was that she didn’t peak it towards important competitions (except from the marathon at the World Champs 1983 and the one at the Olympic Games in 1984. She focused on these competitions for one year.) The reason why she didn’t peak seems reasonable: she considered it to be too risky, sacrificing everything for a distant goal. Furthermore, according to Waitz, the mental pressure evolving from the peaking would deprive her of the fun at trainings.

Something that she strongly believed in, however, was the importance of speed work for every runner- even for those whose only goal was reaching the finish. She further emphasised in her book that her marathon training was basically the same as the one for 3000m, 5000m or 10’000m, claiming that the only difference was the total amount of kilometers (which was primarily reached with an additional long run of 20-33km). However, Grete never was a “high-miler” and she never ran more than 160km in a week in her career. Her training weeks basically looked as follows:

A.M. P.M.
Monday 10-15km in 4min/km 10-15km in 4min/km
Tuesday 10-15km in 4min/km 6-8x1km (1-2min rest)
Wednesday 10-15km in 4min/km Rest
Thursday 10-15km in 4min/km Fartlek 13km, several 500m-Sprints
Friday 10-15km in 4min/km 10-15km in 4min/km
Saturday 10-15km in 4min/km 15-20x300m
Sunday 20-33km Rest

(Source: Noakes Timothy, Lore of Running, Kapstadt 42003, 425)

Hence, the main points for us to be learnt from Grete Waitz, apart from the above cited five „golden rules“ of running, are:

  • Train regularly during the whole year
  • Do enough speed work
  • See base runs as the fundament on which to build your training

The single most important lesson from Waitz‘ life and career however is: No matter how good a runner you are- it’s being human that counts. In 1992, two years after her last participation as a competitor, she once again took part in the New York marathon. She joined Fred Lebow, the founder of the event and a close friend of hers. Lebow, being diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier that year, celebrated his 60th birthday. The two running legends ran into the finish after 5 hours, 32 minutes and 25 seconds, their arms raised high and they stayed in each other’s arms for what seemed an eternity after crossing the finish line. Lebow died in 1994 as a consequence of the cancer, Waitz died eleven years later.

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