Health & Family

At 91, Harriette Thompson taking on another marathon

Harriette Thompson wants you to look at her legs.

Her 91-year-old legs.

And even if you’re trying to be nice, you can’t disagree with her: They look awful. Badly swollen, red, infected, tender. The sight of them makes her cringe.

This was just days after the last of nine rounds of radiation to treat squamous cell carcinoma on Thompson’s legs, and just a few weeks before a very significant task for those same legs.

“It’s so painful,” she says, sitting with her feet propped up in the living room of the home she shares with husband Sydnor, 90, at The Cypress of Charlotte, a retirement community in SouthPark. “I just wish I hadn’t had the radiation till after the marathon.”

On Sunday, exactly one month after that last radiation treatment, Thompson is scheduled to run the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. She’s the oldest competitor entered in the 26.2-mile foot-race, according to Marathon Series spokesman Dan Cruz; he says if she reaches the finish line, she will be the oldest person ever to complete the Southern California event, which is now in its 17th year.

Thompson has only missed two of them: in 1998, the inaugural year, and in 2013, when her 14-year streak ended because she’d recently had all but one of her upper teeth removed as a result of an oral cancer that also took her upper jawbone. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, she ran while the disease was eating away at her mouth.

Each year, she has run on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team In Training. Her fundraising efforts have generated more than $90,000, says Dani Clayton, campaign director for the N.C. Chapter of Team In Training – with which she has achieved legendary status.

“I went to the San Diego marathon (several) years ago, and at the time I didn’t really know Harriette very well,” says Abby Miller, Team In Training’s campaign director for the MidAtlantic Region. “I was really worried if she could finish it ... and then she ended up beating two 25-year-olds. I mean, she’s just amazing.”

Thompson’s son Brenny, 55, will run alongside her for the fourth time (in previous years, her oldest son Sydnor III, 60, has joined her twice); her husband, meanwhile, will be back in Charlotte waiting for updates on her progress.

“I don’t worry about her. She seems to be able to handle it very well,” Sydnor Thompson says. He pauses, then adds: “But I probably should worry about her.”

“Maybe this time he will,” Harriette Thompson says, smiling.

Improbably spry

After all, she’s not as young as she used to be. You sometimes have to say things three times or raise your voice to a shout before she can understand you. She sporadically loses her train of thought, and can have trouble remembering dates. In the wake of the recent bout with cancer (her second since 1985), she has quite a few false teeth.

Yet for someone who was born when Warren G. Harding was president, Thompson – a mother of five, grandmother of 10, wife of a man who received the Bronze Star from the Army for World War II – is improbably spry. She’s a regular on the elliptical machine and the track at the Harris YMCA, takes yoga and stretching classes offered by The Cypress, and is one of very few residents who moves at faster than a strolling pace around the community.

“When you go all the way around and down a little side street and back,” Thompson says, sweeping a finger across the room, “that’s one mile. Then they have a beautiful lake in the back, and I run around that five times. That’s another mile.”

Her speed is by no means blazing. Her fastest time – 6 hours, 7 minutes and 22 seconds in her sixth marathon, at age 81 – was run at 14 minutes per mile; her slowest (7:05:32 in her marathon debut at 76) averaged out to roughly 16-minute miles.

But to put things into perspective, consider that she’s won her age group in San Diego virtually every year not because she’s the fastest woman her age, but because she’s the only woman her age participating in the marathon.

Thompson decided to tackle the distance in her mid-70s after learning that a friend in her choir at Myers Park United Methodist Church was going to walk the San Diego race for leukemia and lymphoma, and because she’d had close friends (including late N.C. pianist-songwriter Loonis McGlohon) who’d suffered from the diseases.

A grand life

To casual observers, it might have seemed like she was having delusions of grandeur. What kind of crazy person makes their marathon debut at age 76?

But Thompson has had a lifelong penchant for grandiose accomplishments, as a classically trained pianist who performed as a soloist with several symphony orchestras around the globe; played three times at Carnegie Hall; and twice took her children on a French ocean liner across the Atlantic to spend a year as a single mom in Vienna so they could learn a different language and culture, while Sydnor remained in the States practicing law.

To this day, her music wafts through the hallways of Building B at The Cypress, from the 9-foot, 6-inch Bösendorfer piano that once sat on the stage of the Vienna Concert House and now sits by the window of her living room.

She says she has no arthritis in her hands, no arthritis in her knees, no major everyday aches or pains at all. In fact, one of the only times Thompson truly feels like a 91-year-old woman is after running a marathon.

And even then, she says, it could be worse.

“Lots of times (after the races), I see young girls coming in and limping, hardly able to move, and I think, ‘Well, that’s pretty good that I don’t feel that bad.’ ”