Ninety-four-year-old Harriette Thompson has given up on her dream of a world-record attempt at the 26.2-mile distance at the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon on June 4.
“Oh yeah, I’m disappointed,” said the widowed grandmother, who has run the southern California race 16 times (and beaten cancer thrice) since 1999. “It’s just that I don’t think I should even think about it, because I’ve had so much going on physically. I’d love to be able to do it. But I’m being a little more realistic.”
So the Charlotte nonagenarian will settle for aiming at a more sensible world record: If she finishes the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in San Diego next month, she’ll become the oldest woman ever to complete a 13.1-mile race.
I don’t want to fall, so I’m just walking. But I tried to run the other day, and I actually think I go
Harriette Thompson, 94
To do it, she’ll need to overcome a growing list of health problems, the latest of which is an aortic valve stenosis that’s obstructing blood flow from her heart into her aorta. She’s also dealing with numbness in her face, eyelid issues and a speech impediment due to titanium plates that were screwed into her cheekbones last fall; they were put in because she lost her upper jaw to oral cancer four years ago.
Oh, and Thompson also has been sporadically experiencing vertigo, which likely will force her to keep at least one foot on the ground at all times during the half marathon in San Diego.
“I don’t want to fall, so I’m just walking. But I tried to run the other day, and I actually think I go faster walking,” said Thompson, who in 2015 – at age 92 – became the oldest woman ever to complete a 26.2-mile race; she finished the San Diego RnR Marathon in 7 hours, 24 minutes, 36 seconds. She also became a media darling, overnight.
A lifelong concert pianist who played three times at Carnegie Hall, Thompson signed up for her first marathon in 1999, at age 76, after learning that a friend in her choir at Myers Park United Methodist Church was going to walk the San Diego race in support of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Thompson had lost close friends – including the late N.C. pianist-songwriter Loonis McGlohon – to the diseases.
She’s since participated in the same event 16 times, and has raised more than $100,000 for the same charity. This year, she said, has been her most successful in terms of fundraising: As of Thursday, she was at $10,600.
And walk, run or crawl, organizers of this year’s event – part of the Competitor Group-owned Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series – plan to roll out the red carpet for the woman they call “the undisputed Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
She’s been one of the biggest human interest stories in the entire sport over the past two decades.
Dan Cruz, spokesman for the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon
Dan Cruz, PR director at Competitor Group, said she’ll be a featured guest at meet-and-greet sessions at the race expo; they’re also designating a special “Harriette Corral” so participants who’d like to walk with her can gather before the start of the massive race, which is expecting roughly 28,000 participants for its 20th anniversary.
“She’s been one of the biggest human interest stories in the entire sport over the past two decades,” Cruz said. Then he got more specific about Thompson’s impact:
“So we have 84 ‘legacy’ runners – 84 people who have run all 19 Rock ’n’ Roll marathons. They’ve never missed a year, and they’re coming back for number 20. We interviewed all of those legacy runners, and we asked them what their favorite moment was. ... More runners than not said one of their favorite moments of their 19 years participating in this race was watching Harriette Thompson cross that finish line, or meeting Harriette Thompson.
“She was a constant theme of these runners, who had no other connection to her. That really showed us just how many people she’s touched over the years through her participation. She’s an inspiration unlike any other we’ve seen in our two decades, and we’re just delighted that she’ll be able to come back out.”
Thompson, meanwhile, will to some extent be happy just to be there (along with son Brenny and granddaughter Angela, who plan to walk with her on June 4). Asked how confident she is that she’ll finish, she said: “I have no idea, because this morning I had a lot of vertigo when I was trying to do Pilates. But I seem to be OK when I’m standing up. So it’s just a matter of how much my body can take.”
That’s right. On Thursday morning, Harriet Thompson took a Pilates class offered by The Cypress of Charlotte, the retirement community where she lives, off Park Road. Then she took a strength class. Then she went and volunteered at a homeless shelter. Then she went and worked at the Assistance League of Charlotte’s thrift shop. Then she got on the treadmill.
“Did you read in the newspaper the other day about the 85-year-old man who died going up Mount Everest?” she asked toward the end of our conversation. “They were talking about making a limit to the age, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a mistake, because he probably loved going up there.’ When you’re that old ... you might as well do something you enjoy.”
A new record?
Harriette Thompson turned 94 on March 27, and will attempt the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon on June 4. According to the Association of Road Running Statisticians, the oldest woman to run a half marathon was Gladys Burrill, who was 93 when she finished a 13.1-mile race in 2012.