Last year, when Waitz set her first world record in her first marathon, nobody, including the announcer at the finish line, knew who she was. This year she spent hours signing autographs wherever she went.
"I was a little disappointed Joan Benoit and the other girls did not show up here," Waitz said, referring specifically to the American record holder and winner of the 1979 Boston Marathon. "It is not good to be afraid of me. You can't be a better runner unless you are willing to be beaten. That's how I feel. If I am beaten, I say, 'O.K., you're better than I am, but next time I try to beat you.' " For the present, it is difficult to imagine Waitz being beaten at all.
The guest of honor in Central Park, as many of the best marathon runners in the world crossed the finish line, was the greatest distance runner of all time, 57-year-old Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Twenty-seven years after he won the 5,000, the 10,000 and the marathon at the Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek is still brimming with life and health, a joyous figure who on seeing New York for the first time marveled aloud at everything.
"My feeling a couple of years ago, when I learned how big this race is, was that it was incredible, impossible to organize. I showed a list of last year's 10,000 finishers to people in Czechoslovakia and they said, 'No, it's some kind of trick.' "
But after witnessing the enormous spectacle, it was Zatopek who put it into perspective: "It's just good to see this running, this most natural motion, be enjoyed by so many. It's medicine, I think, good for whatever is wrong with you."