She went on to win and then duplicated the feat eight more times throughout her career, making her the most decorated female runner ever to compete in the famed road race. The former physical education teacher set the world record numerous times in the event and also won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics.
Waitz died on Tuesday at the age of 57. She had been battling cancer for six years. Read her obituary here.
The story of Waitz's first time in New York is a classic tale in running circles. From the Oct. 23, 1978 edition of The Washington Post:
Because of her late decision, Waitz was given number 1173 and was not even listed in the official program - the startled public address announcer at the finish line said, "No. 1173 has overtaken Martha Cooksey for the women's lead at 20 miles, but I don't know who she is" - but her time bettered by 2:17.7 the previous women's record of 2:34:47.5 set earlier this year by Christa Vahlensieck of West Germany.
"It is difficult to say. I don't really know the distance. I haven't trained for it. I have been running only 17 to 19 miles a day," replied the cheerful Norsewoman. "I just wanted to try running a marathon because so many girls are doing that here. Only a few in Norway, but I read so much about the marathon in the Track and Field News."
In her first time ever running the race, Waitz broke a record by over two minutes, all because she had been reading about it in a magazine. Given her later history in the event, it must have been a really good article.
More marathon coverage on Y! Sports:
• Why the fastest marathon ever won't be considered a world record
- Grete Waitz