Learning From Grete

The late great Grete Waitz set an example that all marathon runners would do well to follow.

The late great Grete Waitz set an example that all marathon runners would do well to follow.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Grete Waitz, the nine-time New York City Marathon winner from Norway who died Tuesday, will be remembered forever as a great champion and a terrific ambassador for the sport of running. I will always remember her this way too. But when I think of Waitz in the future, just as I’ve always done in the past, the first association that will enter my mind is what her example taught me about the relative contributions of talent and hard work to performance in running.

I’ve held this association ever since I first learned (I don’t remember when exactly) that Waitz’ longest training run before winning the 1978 New York City Marathon with a world-record time of 2:32:29 was a measly 12 miles. This factoid is endlessly interesting to me, because it is powerful proof of how much innate talent contributes to running performance. If it were all about training, then no woman could run a 2:32 debut marathon with a longest training run of 12 miles.

Overall, Waitz’ preparation for her first marathon was better than this one factoid might suggest, however. “I ran my first marathon when I was a world-class track runner and cross country runner,” Waitz told me on the first and last occasion when I ever enjoyed the pleasure of interviewing her, in June 2010. “I was an experienced runner who ran 80 to 90 miles a week. It is correct that my longest run was only 12 miles and I had to pay for that. I will always remember the last 6 miles of that first marathon, hurting and being angry at my husband and coach who had talked me into running the race. I swore ‘never again’ when I crossed the finish line.”

Many a miserable first-time marathon finisher has sworn that vow and not kept it, and thank goodness Waitz was among them. She went on to become one of the greatest female marathoners in history, winning eight more marathon titles in the Big Apple and an Olympic silver medal before retiring. Of course, she trained a lot heavier for those subsequent marathons, yet her lifetime best time of 2:25:28 represents only a 6.4 percent improvement over her initial time achieved on relatively low-volume training.

Waitz’ modest improvement as a marathon runner should not be taken as evidence that she did not get as much out of her training as she should have. Her incredible consistency and her freedom from injuries and other setbacks clearly demonstrate the very opposite. Instead, considered against the backdrop of the 2:32 marathon time Waitz achieved after running no farther than 12 miles at a time in training, the moderate PR-reduction Waitz managed through significantly heavier training represents even more powerful proof that talent is the primary determinant of performance in running, training a close second. Waitz increased her peak weekly mileage from 80 or 90 miles per week to 120, and the distance of her long runs from 12 to more than 20 miles, after her first marathon. What this means is that she realized 93.6 percent of her ultimate marathon potential through the first 75 percent (approximately) of her ultimate maximum training workload. The function of adding that last 25 percent of work to her training was to squeeze out the last 6.4 percent of her performance potential.

The bad news we may draw from Grete Waitz’ example, at least for the 99.999 percent of us who are less gifted than she was, is that no amount of work can make up for lack of talent. The good news is that all of us can realize well over 90 percent of our ultimate performance potential as runners without subjecting ourselves to anywhere near 100 percent of the maximum training workload we could possibly handle if we devoted our entire lives to running. And that’s pretty darn good news.

Waitz herself was very conscious of this principle that her running career demonstrated it, and used it to shape the marathon training advice she gave to other runners. Waitz stressed the importance of running plenty of miles and of regularly running some hard miles when preparing for marathons, but encouraged non-professional runners not to push the envelope to far. The idea was to stay well on the safe side of one’s limits, because the sacrifice in performance would be minimal while the reduction in stress, time commitment, and injury risk would be well worth that sacrifice. Great advice.

Thanks, Grete.