92-year-old becomes oldest woman to complete marathon
CHARLOTTE, NC — Harriette Thompson is tougher than you. Seriously.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native became the oldest woman to complete a marathon when she crossed the finish line Sunday at San Diego’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon after 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds.
To be exact, Thompson completed the feat at the age of 92 years and 65 days, making her about a month and a half older than Gladys Burrill was when she set the record by finishing the 2010 Honolulu Marathon.
This was the second consecutive year Thompson downed one of Burrill’s records. Thompson finished 2014’s San Diego race in 7 hours, 7 minutes and 42 seconds, crushing Burrill’s Honolulu record of 9 hours and 53 minutes and making Thompson the fastest female nonagenarian to complete a 26.2-mile race. Sunday marked her 16th marathon.
“It’s amazing to me that I feel as well as I do. I’m a little stiff but limbering up as the day goes on,” she told CNN the day after the race. “My mother asked her mother when she was 89 how it felt to be 89, and my grandmother said, ‘Oh, I feel just like I did when I was 16, but I just can’t move as fast,’ and that’s the way I feel.”
Of the more than 21,000 runners who completed the race at the Padres’ Petco Park, Thompson drew exceptional applause at the finish, with still and video cameras capturing the moment as confetti littered the air, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
“I thought it was like Lindbergh coming in after his flight,” she told the newspaper.
For those scrambling for the calculators on their smartphones: Yes, she was alive when Charles Lindbergh made his record flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
(It should also be noted that people did math in their heads back then.)
But finishing the race at her age isn’t the only thing that makes Thompson a tough cookie.
That has more to do with how she had every reason not to bother showing up.
Since she began running marathons at age 76, she has missed the San Diego race only once — in 2013, as she underwent treatment for oral cancer. Last year, when she broke Burrill’s time record, she had barely trained because she was receiving radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma on her legs, according to a marathon news release.
The two-time cancer survivor rocked white tights under her running shorts Sunday to cover the open wounds on her legs, according to Runner’s World magazine, which also reported Thompson had only recently stopped taking morphine and hydrocodone to manage the pain.
According to race organizers, she missed out on training in late 2014 and early 2015 because her husband of 67 years, Sydnor, died in January after a battle with cancer. And if all this wasn’t enough reason to bow out of Sunday’s race, Thompson also contracted a staph infection in her legs during training.
“I’m sure all that weakened me to some extent, so I’m not as strong as I’d like to be but I’m still going to try,” Thompson told the magazine before the race. “I’m just going to walk real fast and then run some, and just try not to wear myself down too fast. It’ll be sort of interesting. I’ll be the most surprised person if I finish it. I hope I will!”
She told race organizers she would be relying on the assistance of her 56-year-old son, Brenneman, to get through the grueling course.
“Anytime I need anything, he’s there for me,” Thompson said. “Water, Vaseline, Gatorade, PowerBars, GU, bananas, oranges, pretzels.”
Her son, whom she calls Brenny, was right by her side, capturing his mom’s historic jaunt on his iPhone and crossing the finish line right behind her.
Speaking to her hometown paper, The Charlotte Observer, by telephone after the race, Thompson said Brenny helped her find the strength to persevere toward the end.
“I was really tired at one point. Around Mile 21, I was going up a hill and it was like a mountain,” she said, “and I was thinking, ‘This is sort of crazy at my age.’ But then I felt better coming down the hill. And my son Brenny kept feeding me all this wonderful carbohydrates that kept me going.”
Brenny is not her only motivating force. A former concert pianist who has played Carnegie Hall and still enjoys tickling the ivories at her Charlotte retirement home, Thompson plays piano compositions in her head to help her through the grueling races.
“I do think the discipline required to play the piano has helped my running,” she told race organizers.
Also, she told CNN, this race carried added significance because another son, Sydnor III, was recently diagnosed with cancer.
“So I thought about him a lot on this race, hoping and praying that all this research is going to help him,” she said.
Given her close relationship with cancer — which includes several friends and family members who have battled blood cancers — it should be no surprise that Thompson has raised about $100,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society since 1999. She raised more than $8,000 Sunday.
“I never try to compete,” she told race organizers. “I just try to make money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”
It’s not clear if Thompson will take to Southern California’s streets in 2016 for the marathon at which she’s become a staple. Even before Sunday’s race, she told race organizers she was considering bowing out.
But just maybe.
“I believe this will be my last time, but my friends remind me that I say that every year,” Thompson said.