Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Grete Waitz ran the good race

Cancer and running sometimes converge unexpectedly, as they did in the life of the great marathoner Grete Waitz, who died today in Oslo. It seems to be an incompatible pairing. Strenuous exercise imparts good health overall, but it doesn’t make you bullet-proof. Lance Armstrong was lucky. He was a world-class athlete before cancer and then beat the odds to resume his amazing career. Others are not so fortunate.

Waitz was only 57, born just six weeks after me. Prior to her cancer diagnosis in 2005, she said she hadn’t had so much as a cold in the previous 10 years. It’s a familiar story. I share with her the shock she experienced when first told her diagnosis. The type of cancer she had was not disclosed, although it doesn’t appear to have been melanoma.

It so happens that runners and cyclists have a higher than average rate of skin cancer because they’re out in the sun so much. There’s also research that suggests that marathoners are more prone to colds and other infections because their immune system can be compromised by high-mileage training. I still run regularly, but have no plans to take on another marathon. I comfortably ran nine miles this morning and I’ll be in Eugene on May 1 for a half-marathon. I don’t expect 13.1 miles to be a problem.

Grete Waitz had never run 26.2 miles before she set a world record at the New York City Marathon in 1978. Her husband had to talk her into even attempting the race, something the Norwegian runner said she regretted around the 18-mile mark. Anyone who has ever run a marathon will understand why.

Waitz went on to win the New York City event nine more times and set world records three times. She was one of the greats of running, and an inspiration to both fellow runners and cancer survivors. Her willowy strength, and life of grace, are the stuff of sporting legend. She was a class act.

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