Harriette Thompson was welcomed at the finish line of the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon by confetti cannons and a throng of reporters last May, when she became the oldest woman ever to complete a 26.2-mile race.
But these days, the 93-year-old Charlotte resident can hardly walk a mile without crippling pain and discomfort.
So when the gun goes off to start the 2016 installment of the San Diego race, on June 5, Thompson will not be standing at the line for the third time since the event’s inception in 1998.
“I’d like to say I’m just fine, but I’m not,” Thompson told the Observer on Thursday afternoon. “I can’t do the run this year. I’m so sorry, because I was looking forward to it.”
For more than two years, the widowed grandmother of 10 has been nursing a large open wound just above her right ankle, a result of aggressive radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma.
She successfully completed the San Diego marathon in 2014 and 2015 despite radiation burns, but this particular wound has gotten progressively worse, making even walking progressively more painful for her. Thompson recently walked a mile in her neighborhood during a charity event, “but I had to take some ibuprofen to get through it, and I didn’t go very fast.”
She said next week she’ll undergo graft surgery, which will replace the damaged skin with skin from her thigh area.
Thompson also said she’s suffering from a problem most people would consider a much scarier condition (although she doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal, perhaps because she’s already beat it twice before): Squamous cell carcinoma has returned to her mouth. She’ll begin an immune therapy treatment this spring.
“Other than those two things, I’m in good shape,” Thompson said, laughing.
Thompson made headlines around the world and became a mini-celebrity after her record-setting run at the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon last year. She finished in 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds, alongside her son Brenny Thompson, also of Charlotte.
Each of the 16 times she’s run the race, Thompson has done so on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team In Training; her fundraising efforts have generated more than $100,000, including close to $8,000 this year, she said.
And there is no question in her mind that, if her leg gets better and if the cancer treatments are successful, she will make a run at a 17th finisher’s medal in 2017.
“I’m hoping that this’ll heal and then I can take the rest of the year to get ready for my next marathon,” Thompson said. “That’s my big goal. I’m keeping a good attitude about it, because that’s the only way to go.”