At 94, Harriette Thompson has yet another story for her grandkids to tell their grandkids.
On a cool, sunless, lightly breezy Sunday morning in southern California, the Charlottean put one foot in front of the other after the gun went off to start the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon, and 3 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds later, Thompson became the oldest woman ever to complete a 13.1-mile race.
“I’m so thrilled that I got through it,” she said by phone from her hotel room after the race. “I never was 94 before, so I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it or not. But it really wasn’t as hard as I thought it was gonna be. It’s not like doing a marathon.”
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Thompson, a former concert pianist, already had staked claim to being the oldest woman ever to conquer the 26.2-mile distance; in 2015, she crossed the finish line of the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon race course in 7:24:36. In both the full two years ago and the half on Sunday, she broke records previously held by Gladys Burrill. Thompson also is the fastest 90- to 94-year-old woman to ever finish a marathon, having run San Diego in 2014 (at age 91) in 7:07:42.
In achieving Sunday’s feat, Thompson overcame 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.
On Sunday, she paced the race at an average speed of almost exactly 17 minutes per mile – “I was just walking very fast,” she said – and said she experienced no discomfort, no aches, no pains.
“There was not anything that stressed me. I felt wonderful. It’s so different from doing the 26 miles. I must be in better shape,” Thompson said, laughing, “because I never slowed down. They had some pretty big hills, and I just kept the same pace going up and down. I’ve learned not to look up at the hill. I just have to look at the road in front of me.”
All the way, she was flanked by her sons Brenny and Sydnor (both of Charlotte), Brenny’s girlfriend Susan and her granddaughter Angela (of New York City).
“They were protecting me the whole time, keeping the crowds away from me ’cause for some reason I’m a (celebrity) around here,” said Harriette, who said that she was interviewed at least 50 times over the course of the weekend. “They’re all yelling, ‘Harriette! Go, Harriette!’ And some people would say, ‘You’re the reason I’m running! You’re such an inspiration!’ You know, it makes you feel good when you’re as old as I am that you can do anything at all. I’m very grateful to be able to inspire people.”
This was Thompson’s first time participating in the half marathon in San Diego. Between 1999 and 2015, she ran the full marathon 16 times; she missed the race in 2013, because she was recovering from that oral cancer, and in 2016, because she was recovering from skin grafting to fix a large open wound just above her right ankle (a result of radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma).
Each year, she has run as a member of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, and in total she’s single-handedly raised more than $100,000 for the organization’s efforts, including close to $12,000 this year alone.
I want to be realistic and realize that there is a limit to what you can do at this age.
Harriette Thompson, 94, on doing a half marathon this year instead of the full marathon
“I don’t think I would have wanted to do the whole (marathon),” Thompson said after the race. “I just think I should realize my limitations. Even though this didn’t tire me that much, I think to try to do that much again would have been a big struggle. I want to be realistic and realize that there is a limit to what you can do at this age.”
And right before hanging up, Thompson told the Observer she planned to do what most people – regardless of age – might want to do after covering 13.1 miles without stopping:
“I think,” she said, laughing, “that I should take a little nap.”