Harriette Thompson – a three-time cancer survivor who ran her first marathon at age 76, then 16 years later became the oldest woman ever to complete one – died early Monday in Charlotte. She was 94.
Her son, Brenneman Thompson, said she was placed into hospice care after being injured in a fall Oct. 6 while delivering gifts to neighbors at The Cypress of Charlotte retirement community in SouthPark.
A grandmother of 11, she became a media darling in 2015 when – at age 92 – she hurried along Southern California streets and highways on the way to a world-record finish at the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. Dressed in a purple Team In Training T-shirt and ball cap, purple shoes and purple shorts over white tights (concealing bandages that covered wounds from radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma), Thompson crossed the finish line in 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds.
“I don’t consider myself special,” she said just days prior to that run. “It’s all because I’m so old. All you have to do is get to be old and you get all sorts of attention.”
The next morning, her feat was celebrated on all the major networks’ morning shows. Later that week, Jimmy Fallon shouted her out.
“Last weekend, 92-year-old Harriette Thompson became the oldest woman ever to complete a marathon,” the host of “The Tonight Show” announced, before quipping: “While the guy who finished after her made history by being the first person not to brag about running a marathon.”
And she wasn’t yet done tackling ambitious challenges.
Just this past June, at 94 years and 69 days old, Thompson returned to the San Diego event. Although she was unable to attempt the full marathon, she completed the half in 3 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds – once more setting a record by becoming the oldest woman to do so.
Her last official race was the Kiwanis Labor Day 5K in Matthews on Sept. 4.
Thompson had a zest for being active from a young age.
Born Harriette Line on March 27, 1923, she grew up in Carlisle, Pa., in the shadow of both the Medical Field Service School (where the U.S. Army War College now sits) and Dickinson College. She developed a reputation as a tomboy, she said, because she was constantly trying to measure up to her four brothers.
As a girl, she fell in love with swimming, and she and her friends would make the 12-mile round trip to the pool the next town over “every day if the sun was shining.”
Then as a young woman, it was roller-skating. “I always had a lot of energy and roller-skated – I always wanted to do things fast,” she told the Observer in 2015. “So I remember roller-skating to college classes (at Dickinson) ... when Daddy wouldn’t let me use the car. One day, the dean called me in and she said, ‘Ms. Line, you’re in college now. We don’t roller-skate to class and we don’t wear ski pants.’ I thought that was so funny.”
It was during this period of her life that she was first confronted with her own mortality.
While hanging out with friends at a pool in Ocean City, N.J., during summer break, she very nearly drowned when – while doing a handstand underwater – a ring she was wearing caused her finger to get stuck in a grate she’d been holding onto.
She freed herself in the nick of time, she recalled: “My nose was bleeding, I was choking. It could have been the end.”
That was the same summer she played piano at The Flanders Hotel on the Ocean City beachfront, where she honed the skills that helped her earn a music scholarship at Syracuse University; she transferred that fall.
She met and fell in love with Sydnor Thompson her first year there. He went off to fight the Nazis in World War II, earning a Bronze Star, then returned in time for them to graduate together. They were married on campus at Hendricks Chapel two hours after receiving their diplomas.
Classical piano and motherhood would become her life.
While Sydnor was at Harvard Law School, Harriette taught piano at Boston University from 1947 to 1950. While Sydnor was a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics, Harriette studied piano. After a brief stint in New York City, the Thompsons moved to Charlotte in 1954 so Sydnor could take a job at the firm of Taliaferro, Grier, Parker & Poe (today known as Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein).
Their five children were born between 1951 and 1962.
Twice, she took all five of them across the Atlantic on a French ocean liner 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. She would go on to earn an artist’s diploma from the Vienna Conservatory, and gave a piano debut in the Austrian capital.
Back in the United States, she was invited to play three times at Carnegie Hall and spent 34 consecutive years (1977-2010) summering in Aspen, Colo., where she played piano for the Aspen Chapel and enjoyed the summer-long Aspen Music Festival and School.
At The Cypress retirement community, she was legendary both for her music – which emanated from her 9-foot, 6-inch Bösendorfer piano and wafted through the hallways of Building B – and her fitness. When she wasn’t training for races, she could be found several times a week getting her heart rate up in one of The Cypress’s exercise classes.
Yet Thompson didn’t sign up for her first marathon until 1999, although she had done some running here and there since the 1970s. At age 76, she was inspired after learning that a friend in her choir at Myers Park United Methodist Church was going to walk the San Diego race, to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Thompson had lost close friends – including the late N.C. pianist-songwriter Loonis McGlohon – to those diseases.
Cancer had been the root of many tragedies in her life. Her mother, her father and three of her four brothers died of cancer. And in 1985, Thompson had her first cancer scare, when doctors discovered a cancerous spot on the roof of her mouth. They wound up removing her upper jaw.
Thompson would complete the San Diego marathon every year for the next 13 years, even in 2010, 2011 and 2012, when she was in the middle of a second prolonged battle with oral cancer. In 2013, her streak was broken when doctors insisted on removing all but one of her teeth to combat the disease.
In 2014, at 91, she returned to that race, despite having not yet fully recovered from radiation treatments for a new cancer – squamous cell carcinoma, on her legs – and proceeded to finish in 7 hours, 7 minutes and 42 seconds. According to USA Track & Field, that performance set a new record for the fastest marathon ever run by a 90- to 94-year-old woman; the former mark was far slower – 8:53:08.
Her husband of 67 years, Sydnor, died in January 2015 at age 90, after his own long battle with cancer.
Four months later, Harriette flew west to tackle what would be her final and most historic marathon. At age 92, after her nearly 7 1/2-hour jaunt, Thompson was welcomed at the finish line outside the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park by confetti cannons and a throng of reporters.
But she did much more than simply inspire people of all ages.
On behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, Thompson single-handedly raised more than $100,000 for the organization’s efforts – including close to $12,000 this year, when she ran the half marathon.
In June, after that race – her first half marathon, after 16 fulls – Thompson told the Observer: “I don’t think I would have wanted to do the whole (marathon). 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.”
Harriette Thompson is survived by five children – Darcy Thompson Howard, Charles William Sydnor Thompson III, Harriet Thompson Moore, Brenneman Line Thompson and Katherine Line Thompson Kelly – and 11 grandchildren: Wesley, Lewis, Ruth, Adaire, Angela, Alice, Rebecca, Julia, Audrey, John and Tristan.