Harriette Thompson has had the kind of year that would make most people want to lie around in bed moaning all day.
Last spring, she had skin grafted onto her legs to (finally) repair open wounds she’d suffered with for years, the result of radiation she’d undergone for squamous cell carcinoma. In late November, she had titanium plates screwed into her cheekbones, where her upper jaw used to be – she lost that in 2013 to oral cancer. Recently, a doctor attached a prosthesis called a palatal obturator to those plates, to aid in speech and eating.
And now that those procedures are behind her, what does the widowed 93-year-old grandmother of 10 want to do next?
Why, run another marathon, of course. Or, at least, try to.
“I’m gonna go out and show up and go as far as I can go,” said Thompson, who at just over a week shy of her 94th birthday is arguably Charlotte’s most famous distance runner.
Her goal is to at least make it to the start line of the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on June 4. If she manages to reach the finish line, she’ll break the record she set in 2015, when at 92 she ran the California race in 7 hours, 24 minutes, 36 seconds, and became the oldest woman ever to complete a 26.2-mile race.
Since 1999 (when she was 76), she has run the San Diego race 16 times, and in doing so has raised well over $100,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team In Training.
But last year, the pain and discomfort from her leg wounds and the looming skin graft surgery kept her from making a run at a 17th finisher’s medal. In fact, Thompson told me by phone Thursday, she didn’t run at all last year.
So she was thrilled to make her big comeback at last Saturday’s Run Jen Run 5K in SouthPark, her first race since August 2015.
“Oh, I felt like a million dollars,” she said. “It was wonderful. I really was amazed.”
Her only complaint about the event was the fact that the oldest age group was “65-98,” so she was pitted in her category against women who were young enough to be her daughter – though she still managed to finish third in her age group, behind two 69-year-olds, in a time of 52 minutes and 5 seconds.
As for her marathon training, Thompson hopes to run “at least a 5K every weekend this spring,” and steadily add more mileage building up to race day. But she never does too much – relatively speaking, of course. “I think the longest run I ever did before a marathon was 11 miles. The younger people, they do 20 miles. I just sort of save myself for that big day.”
When she toes the line in Southern California in June, she’ll do so with son Brenny, 58, who ran her into the finish chute two springs ago when she set her record. Brenny Thompson and another son, Sydnor, ran the race last year in their mom’s absence.
“But I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it out this time,” said Sydnor Thompson, himself a cancer survivor. “I managed to finish (last year), but I’ve got some peripheral neuropathy going on with my feet from my chemotherapy, so I think I’ve learned my lesson. Mom would leave me in the dust.”
Do her kids worry about her hobby?
“Oh yeah,” Sydnor said. “Especially on the day-of, we’re all pretty anxious about it. But we realize that she gets so much enjoyment out of this – that this is one of the ways she enjoys life – and we’re not gonna stand in her way.”
In fact, the only thing standing between Harriette Thompson and her next marathon is another birthday.
“It’s March 27th,” she said. “I’ll be 94. Isn’t that amazing? I never knew I’d ever make it this long.”