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Coffee With Grete

A Legend Worth Listening To

Published May 19, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Grete Waitz visited Syracuse last week to launch the 1997 Chase Corporate Challenge road race, scheduled for August 5 at Griffin Field, in Liverpool. I was privileged to meet Grete over coffee. We talked about running, racing and the Corporate Challenge.

Grete Waitz was arguably one of the world's finest athletes. A high school teacher in her native Oslo, Norway, she dominated the international running scene during the seventies and eighties. Her achievements included fifteen world records and eight number one rankings at various distances from 1,500 meters to the marathon. In the process, Grete won five World Cross Country Championships, nine New York City Marathons, two London Marathons, a gold medal at the 1983 World Championship Marathon in Helsinki and a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles. In 1982, Grete became the only athlete to receive St. Olav's Medal, given by the King of Norway for Outstanding Citizenship. In 1991, Runner's World selected Grete as the best distance runner in the world in the last century.

To prepare for my meeting with Grete, I digested several books on running, looking for that thread that wove through her racing career. One author called her "the reluctant mother of the Olympic Marathon." When I asked Grete about that title, she confirmed that she was primarily a track runner who happened to run road races. She did not lobby for the inclusion of the marathon in the Olympics. Rather, her performances on the roads did the talking. A world record at her first marathon in 1978, and two more world records in 1979 and 1980, gave proof that women can compete safely at 26.2 miles.

What did Grete think of the development of women's marathon running in recent years? She indicated that women had made great strides, and runners from many nations had competed in the marathon. She predicted that the women's world record of 2 hours 21 minutes 6 seconds was ready to fall. She would not be surprised if the record were broken by an unknown runner uninhibited by professional training and racing wisdom.

Grete retired from competition on April 1, 1991. It was not an April fool's joke. She had reached the highest level in racing. She believed that running preceded racing and outlived it. She continues to run four or five days each week, and works on promoting health and fitness in Europe and the United States. She develops programs to train beginners, and she recommends running to increase self-esteem. A long time supporter of female running talent, she coaches the top Norwegian women runners and advises Women Sport International.

I asked Grete about children running and the risk of injury among high school runners. She told me that parents should encourage their children to engage in a variety of activities that help them develop physically and mentally. We should permit our children to play. We should not pressure them to perform. Team sports give children more opportunity to play, while track scores individuals after every race. Times and places stand like a report card, taking away the joy of childhood. Grete blames parents and coaches for many injuries among young runners, contributing to an early burnout.

Grete's work with the Chase Corporate Challenge permits her to promote running and fitness as a life-long endeavor. She believes that healthy eating and a body in motion are vital necessities, not luxuries. She works on persuading sedentary adults to get up and walk or jog to stay alive. Grete is critical of the western lifestyle of inactivity and high-fat diet, and she accuses sedentary people of committing a slow suicide with their knives and forks. She targets her newest book, due out in the Fall, at adults in their thirties and forties, urging them to follow her active way of life.

How would Grete get a typical corporate employee from the desk to the finish line of the Chase Corporate Challenge? With eleven weeks to August 5, there is plenty of time to get ready for the 3.5-mile race. However, Grete insists, "To make it happen, you have to make it a priority." If you have never run before, you should start by walking 35 to 40 minutes each day, 3 to 4 days each week, for the next 3 to 4 weeks. By mid-June, alternate walking with short intervals of jogging. Jog at a comfortable pace that permits you to maintain a conversation. Walk when you feel winded. Jog again after you catch your breath. By mid-July, you can build up to jogging and walking the full distance. Make sure you drink much water, and dress lightly in the heat.

On race day, there will be many walkers. Many more participants will alternate jogging with walking. At the start of the race, line up with them at the back of the pack, out of the way of competitive racers. There, you might meet Grete, who plans to participate on August 5 and to run the race from the back of the pack.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. He plans to run the Chase Corporate Challenge on the Syracuse University team, and hopes to finish ahead of Grete. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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