1978 – Grete Waitz

Source: USA Today Sports via Adidas (link under References)

22-Oct-1978 – New York City Marathon – 2:32:29.8 – Adidas Marathon 80
Date of birth: 1-Oct-1953 (died 19-Apr-2011 – aged 57)
Nationality: Norwegian

The athlete:                
Most spectators had assumed that the 1978 New York City Marathon would be taken by Christa Vahlensieck. It wasn’t an unreasonable view, given she had set the world record the year before, as well as in 1975, and was in imperious form. In the field with her was a marathon newcomer, Norwegian schoolteacher Grete Waitz. Waitz had initially planned to retire after the event; she had already set world records at five miles, ten kilometres, 15 kilometres, 10 miles, and 20 kilometres. After failing to get an invitation to the New York City Marathon, she was later invited to be a pacer. This would allow for her to have an all-expenses paid trip with her husband to the famous city.

Waitz flew out of the blocks, running quickly with no expectation of what would happen later in the race. She found that as the miles went on she could maintain the pace she had started with and found that she could start running even harder. At mile 19 she was getting tired, losing track of how much longer she still had to go. Such was her exhaustion that she promised herself she would never run the marathon again. She nonetheless kept pushing onwards, hoping that every patch of trees signalled Central Park and the finish line. Even when reporters surrounded her, Waitz had no idea she had won, let alone set the new world record in the process.

Vahlensieck herself was not surprised at what had happened, seeing Waitz as her strongest competition based on her form in shorter distances. Jacqueline Hansen was also in the field, but neither could finish due to injuries flaring up during the race.

Although it was without question one of the most significant moments in distance running history, the New York City Marathon course on which she ran was found in 1985 to have been short by as much as 152.4 metres. This was mostly caused by the twisting roads through Central Park. The course was originally measured along the middle of these roads, but in practice runners would go from the nearest point of one corner to the other. It should be noted that organisers had already lengthened the course by 99 metres in 1982 after admitting the original route may have been in issue. I’ve written an article on the issue which you can read here.

World Athletics however only invalidated results from the 1981 event. The Association of Road Racing Statisticians (ARRS) however do not list Waitz as having held the world record due to the course issues. The ARRS are an independent group created years later by many former racing officials and supported by researchers from across the world. It would not however be the last time the world would hear of Waitz. Hansen put it best, Waitz was the turning point for women’s distance running as its first true star.

The shoes:                   

The distinctive blue and yellow Adidas that Waitz wore were none other than the Marathon 80. Adidas has been looking to revamp its line of running shoes, and had put considerable resources to take the literal and figurative step forward. The first major result of these efforts was the sleek Formel 1 in 1977, and come 1978 it would be joined by the Marathon 80. It was the lightest shoe Adidas had in its arsenal, coming in at only 179 grams. By comparison the latest Adidas AdiZero Adios Pro racer weighs 227 grams in the same size.

The Marathon 80 featured a development on the heel spoiler first featured on the Formel 1. It stuck out past the heel of the shoe, helping guide the foot during running and reducing shock absorption. The outsole used rubber studs that were designed to give traction regardless of the weather. The pattern included little Adidas trefoil logos, for me a very cool little touch. Adidas was justifiably proud of its creation and what Waitz did wearing them, the vintage ad I’ve included boasting of her win at the 1978 New York City Marathon.

Adidas has fortunately brought back the Marathon 80 in various colourways since 1978. They haven’t been on shelves recently, but there should be wearable pairs floating around out there if you look hard enough.