Grete Waitz toughs it out
Even if you are not well-versed in road racing or New York Marathon history, Grete Waitz is a name that you know.
Waitz was a world-record holder and two-time olympian at the 3,000 meter distance when she turned her sights on the marathon and set a world record (2:32:30) at the distance in her first 26.2 mile race, the 1978 New York City Marathon. Waitz would break her own record three more times through 1983 (2:25:29). Waitz participated in 15 marathons over the years, with wins at 13 of those: 9 NYC Marathons (between 1978 and 1988), 2 London Marathons (1983, 1986), Stockholm (1988) and the first marathon championships for women (1983). Beyond her prominence in the race, Waitz was truly a pioneer and did much to promote the cause of distance running for women.
Earlier this year, this pioneer in women's running was diagnosed with cancer. Wanting to keep this out of the spotlight, Grete and her close family and friends did their best to keep this secret from the public. Waitz, for the first time, met with the press before the 2005 ING New York City Marathon and spoke candidly about her situation for the first time.
When were you first diagnosed with cancer?
In April 2005. I finished a run and felt unusually sluggish. What seemed a standard trip to the doctor, led to the unimaginable. My doctor called me three hours later with my blood work results and told me I had cancer and had to begin treatment immediately.
What was your first reaction to the news?
One day you are happy and laughing and the next you are crying. What a shock it was. There is no guarantee if you are fit and eat well or if you smoke and don't take care of yourself. I had never been sick or hospitalized. I hadn't had a cold in years. The worst injury I ever had was a stress fracture from running. I tried to keep it secret, and was able to for a month, but then the story got into the newspapers. It was tough to see all the headlines about it... it was more difficult for my family who couldn't understand why the media wouldn't leave me in peace.
What type of cancer do you have?
I am not going to go into details about this until I kick this thing. It has been a personal issue and not something that I want to share with everyone. I am a private person and that has always been my personality. I'll talk more about this after I cross the finish line.
Are you in chemotherapy?
I started chemotherapy in May and go for tratments every two weeks for two days.
Are you experiencing any side effects?
Well, I do wear this cap. There is no nausea and I go on with the things in my life. For a couple of days after the chemotherapy, food tastes really bland, even the best foods. I haven't been sick, but have been a little tired. I haven't lost any weight, but I need to remember to eat enough.
You were close with Fred LeBow and ran his last marathon with him. Did seeing what he went through influence you?
Yes indeed. I understand what was going through his mind when he told me he was going to run his marathon. My goal next year, if the situation allows it, is that I will complete the New York City marathon. I don't know if I will be about to run it, perhaps run and job. What Fred Lebow went through was an inspiration for me. You have to set goals for yourself.
What else has helped you in this difficult time?
Another inspiration that has helped me get through has been Lance Armstrong's story. I read his book and was inspired when he wrote about putting on the CD player and walking up the long hill to his house every day. My cancer is not nearly as bad as his which had spread all over his body, of course, but I believe in staying motivated and keeping as fit as you can. Funny thing, one day I opened an email and it was from Lance and I said to myself "Oh my God, it's Lance Armstrong!" I didn't know him beforehand. He told me "Being an athlete, you are a fighter and like me you will beat this shitty disease." Shitty is his word, not mine. In terms of fitness and battling through cancer - I agree with Lance. Exercise helps you stay strong physically and mentally. Having been in good shape when I was diagnosed, I have a better chance of beating the cancer. And being an athlete in a situation like this you are in a mind set that you won't give up and you will fight.
What type of exercise are you doing now?
I am no longer doing runs right now, but I take walks. Every day I spend time on the treadmill. A few miles on an 8% incline. Today, I did 7 miles which is my longest walk to date. I know that I am walking faster, stronger and harder than I was two months ago. I get up early in the morning to do my excercise at 4:30 or 5:00AM. I always did get up early, It's something my family always did in Norway. I'm usually finished by 7:00am. I am a morning person.
Have you been getting support from the fans?
Yes tremendous amounts from all over. I appreciate the support and there's so much of it. I should hire someone to respond to it all. It is a bit overwhelming at times. I wish I could be able to respond to everything.
Where are you being treated?
I am living in Norway where I am under the care of the best cancer doctor in Norway and I can be closer to my family. Fred's Team has been great as well and have offered me access to the best cancer doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering and I appreciate it. My doctor is in contact with the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering and I know that I am getting the best care possible.
Has anything changed about your life since being diagnosed with cancer?
You go into the disease as one person and come out of it as a different person. It has changed my perspective on everything. It's funny various things that used to upset me no longer do. Like maybe Jack (Grete's husband) won't clean the house and I'll be okay with that.
You are a staunch supporter of fitness programs for youth. Can you talk about this some more?
Well, to start, I believe in programs like the NYRR Foundation which stresses the importance of introducing kids to fitness. Having just spent time with kids from P.S. 40 here in NYC, I was astonished to find that the K-7 program did not have much in terms of gym facilities especially in comparison to schools in Norway. There wasn't even a schoolyard! But I have to admire the coach for making the best use of the facilities. Health and fitness are essential for kids today and giving them exposure to the possibilities is just as important.
I am about to get involved with the biggest cancer hospital in Norway. They are building a fitness center to work with patients and promote fitness as part of the treatment. I be working with them as a consultant.
Where will you be on Sunday for the Marathon?
I'll be in the lead car with Alan Steinfeld.
Grete, as always, you are an inspiration and we sincerely wish you a quick and successful battle against your illness.
Blow by blow coverage of the ING NYC Marathon 2005 races:
NYC Marathon 2005: The Men's Race
NYC Marathon 2005: The Women's Race
As It Happened:
2005 ING NYC Marathon Live Race Coverage
Marathon Elite Lists and Overview
Pre-Race Interviews with top competitors
A special interview with Grete Waitz
Also, Complete Results of the 2005 ING NYC Marathon