Not quite halfway through her morning run on Monday, Harriette Thompson of Charlotte was recognized by an admirer.
The man jogged alongside her, gently draped his arm over her shoulders, and thanked her for running. A couple of minutes later, that man – former Carolina Panther/current Baltimore Raven Steve Smith – was walking and smiling and shaking his head, as the 92-year-old grandmother of 10 trotted away down the hill.
“I’m honored that she chose my race as her warmup,” said Smith, whose charitable foundation hosted Monday’s Lace Up Son Family 5K in Matthews. “It’s just a snack for her. She’s like, ‘Let me do this snack real quick, before I hit this meal.’ We’re an appetizer. We’re like six wings, lightly breaded.”
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On Sunday, Thompson will be at the starting line of the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, an event she has conquered 15 times over the past 16 years as a member of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program. If she reaches the finish, she will become the oldest woman to ever complete a 26.2-mile race.
So naturally, she has garnered a bit of attention.
Last year, after an Observer profile on Thompson went viral the week of the race, a throng of reporters was waiting to talk to Thompson at the finish line outside of the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park; she held a teleconference for media the next day and fielded interview requests for weeks afterward. Her celebrity as a runner also led to her and her husband Sydnor (a World War II veteran) being selected to re-enact Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J Day in Times Square photograph for the event’s 69th anniversary last August.
This year, race officials are flying her first-class from Charlotte and paying her hotel bill; NBC – which sent a producer to Charlotte from New York to shadow her for a day last week – is planning to chronicle her attempt for the network; and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (for which she’s raised over $100,000) is hooking her up with VIP treatment on race day.
“All because I’m so old,” said Thompson, who has watched two parents and three brothers die of cancer but has beaten it three times herself. “So all you have to do is get to be old.”
But it’s not just that she’s so old. It’s that she’s so old and so active.
In addition to being a classically trained pianist who played three times at Carnegie Hall (and who continues to play every day), she’s run more than a dozen races in Charlotte in 2015, including two over the weekend.
On Saturday, she ran the Mint Hill Madness 5K, covering the 3.1 miles in 45 minutes and change. Her time was nearly the same at Steve Smith’s race. In both cases, she was not only the fastest female finisher over the age of 70, she was the only female finisher over the age of 70.
The next-oldest woman at Monday’s race was – at 66 – young enough to be her daughter, and that woman’s finishing time was more than 10 minutes slower than Thompson’s.
As for Sunday’s marathon, Thompson had ample opportunity to come up with excuses to skip it this year. For several months, she and her doctors have struggled to get a handle on open wounds on her legs, fallout from radiation burns she suffered more than a year ago while undergoing treatment for squamous cell carcinoma.
And late last year, as her husband was succumbing to cancer, she put all exercise on hold. “I wanted to be with him as much as possible,” said Thompson of her husband, Sydnor, an attorney, judge and church leader who she married 68 years ago. He died in January at age 90.
But here’s a prime example of how she stays focused on the task at hand. When asked if Monday’s 5K was particularly meaningful to her, since her husband was a Bronze Star recipient during World War II, and since it was Memorial Day, she paused. Then she laughed.
“Losing my husband was not as sad as it could have been because he had lived a great life,” Thompson said. “So yes, I was thinking about him when they sang the Star Spangled Banner before the race. But while I was running, I was thinking more about how much further there was left. I wasn’t thinking about anything loftier.”
At her side
As she ran Monday – dressed in purple shoes, black tights, a red-and-white-striped top, sunglasses and a San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon ballcap – she kept her eyes locked on the horizon. She mixed in some walk breaks, but primarily ran; she breathed heavily up hills, but never appeared to be in physical distress.
Toward the end, her son Brenny arrived on his mountain bike and rode alongside till right before she finished. “Looking good, Mom, you’re doing great,” he reassured her, over and over.
On Sunday, Brenny Thompson will run with her in San Diego, as he did last year.
“I think my main role is to protect her,” he said. “Her balance isn’t quite as good, and also people are just so enthusiastic around her. They’ll hit her on the shoulder. They’ll want to take pictures and –”
“They take selfies,” Harriette said, interrupting.
“As far as her health... I don’t know,” Brenny said. “She hasn’t been able to train as much. I trust her to make judgments. But I just don’t really know what’s gonna happen.”
In the short-term, that’s true. There are unknowns. She could finish the San Diego marathon faster than last year (she ran it in 7 hours, 7 minutes, 42 seconds), or slower, or not at all.
But in the long-term, one thing about Harriette Thompson seems certain.
“She’s an inspiration,” said runner Amy Douglas of Charlotte, who chatted up Thompson mid-race Monday to say she saw her photograph in People magazine.
“On days when I don’t feel like running,” Douglas said, “I think of someone like her and just get out there and keep on going. If she can get out here and do these races, why can’t we?”
Harriette Thompson of Charlotte finished last year’s San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 7 hours, 7 minutes and 42 seconds, setting a world record for the fastest marathon ever by a woman 90 years or older (she was 91 at the time). The previous mark – 8 hours, 53 minutes and 8 seconds – was posted by then-90-year-old Mavis Lindgren at the 1997 Portland Marathon.
If Thompson completes this year's marathon, she will become the oldest female marathon finisher ever by about a month. (Gladys Burrill is the current record holder, having set the mark at the 2010 Honolulu Marathon at age 92 and one month.)