Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Good-Bye Grete

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of the great runner Grete Waitz (for The New York Times story, go here).  She was one of my high school heroes.

Yes, I realize that statement marks me as the strange adolescent that I was.  At one time, I could have told you various running statistics, the same way that men can talk about batting averages for hours on end.  I could have told you who ran which marathon in which time, who beat who, who was likely to be the best runner ever.

Of course, back in high school, it was easier.  We didn't have so many marathons.  We didn't realize that even then, a generation of Kenyans was running barefoot through the landscape, getting ready to obliterate all the records.  Back in high school, there wasn't even a women's marathon in the Olympics, and the inclusion of it in 1984 was heavily debated.

My dad started running around 1973, when much of the U.S. took to the roads in their sneakers which are amazingly low-tech compared to today's standards.  My dad quickly realized that he had to choose between running and cigarettes, and he chose running--and that's probably why he's still with us today, because he was a heavy smoker.

We spent the 70's going to various local road races, cheering on our dad.  It wasn't long before the whole family was running.  I spent my high school years running 10K races on Saturday mornings.  My dad would zoom ahead, finish, then circle back and finish with me (and my sister, if she was running).  My mom, with her bad back, was more often the keeper of warm up clothes and the person who cheered us on.

Looking back, I realize how lucky I was.  Even in the early 80's, I had people ask if I was worried about damaging myself--and they were serious.  One adult lectured me about how I'd lose my uterus.  I still have this vision of running along with a uterus bouncing along behind me.  A large chunk of the population truly believed that women shouldn't be doing such strenuous sport.  Fortunately for me, my parents weren't part of that population.

Happily, we had women like Grete Waitz, who was able to establish records and win races at every distance.  You might grumble and say, "Oh sure, it was easy to establish records when you're a pioneer in the field."  But I think if you  compare her times in the early marathons she ran to the times male champions were achieving, in one of the New York marathons, she came in second or third place, regardless of gender.  Amazing.

And she seemed to suffer no ill effects.  All of her lady parts stayed put, she never broke any bones, and she never developed those bulgy muscles that frightened so many women away from working out.

Go ahead, I'll wait until you finish laughing.  Yes, once upon a time, females didn't work out because they were afraid they'd look like guys.  Now, we all want to look like ripped guys, and if we're women, we want to look like ripped guys with breast implants riding high on our rib cages.  It's fascinating to look at a picture of Grete Waitz during her glory days and to compare them with track and field stars of today.  Sure, we're working out in different ways, with weights now, but it's hard for me to believe that women are achieving some of the shapes that they are without chemical help.  And with some of the disgracing of some of our recent track stars like Marion Jones, I rest my case.

The death of Grete Waitz reminds us that all the working out can't save us in the end.  We're all going to die.  I'm a bit shocked to realize how young she was:  57.  But she was a great proponent of the value of sport in facing everyday adversity, and I agree.  Running and training for events has gotten me through many a difficult time in my life.  In grad school, I completed my first (and probably only) triathlon.  In high school, I'd lace up my shoes and run 6 miles after school, day after day after day.  I'm no longer the athlete that I was, but I still make time for vigorous, sweaty exercise 5-6 days a week, and I'm convinced that I'm staving off the ravages of old age, not forever, but at least for now.  I'm one of the few midlife to older people I know who's not taking meds for high blood pressure or high cholesterol or pre-diabetes (or full-blown diabetes).

I'm also convinced that my experience with running has given me a can-do attitude that I find lacking in a lot of people.  I've trained myself to run distances that might have looked impossible for a woman with my flamboyant hips.  I've come back from weight gains that would have sidelined most people.  And that knowledge, that I can do things that should be impossible for me to do, but that I can do those things with persistent training, that knowledge permeates my whole life and makes me a bit more fearless than I would otherwise be.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I feel fear, but I push through and strive anyway.

So, thank you Grete Waitz for blazing a trail for the rest of us to follow.  Thank you for showing us that women can run and not damage themselves--in fact, that they can still be vibrant women with spouses and friends and a full life.  I know that somewhere in Heaven, you and Fred Lebow are running this morning, free of your cancers, creating great running courses for the rest of us.

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