Harriette Thompson, 91, has run 15 marathons—all of them since turning 76.
Last Sunday, FOX national TV assigned a reporter to hustle down to the posh waterfront San Diego hotel and chronicle Harriette Thompson’s tale. That was minutes after the local NBC affiliate wrapped up a 10-minute taping. Reuters and a national magazine squeezed in one-on-one interviews.
The media frenzy unfolded the day after the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon when Thompson, 91, covered the 26.2-mile layout in 7 hours, 7 minutes, 42 seconds, the fastest ever by a woman 90 or older. Thompson obliterated the old mark of 8:53:08.
“I’m flattered to death,” says Thompson, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. and has dealt with two bouts of cancer. “I don’t deserve all this attention, but I’m eating it up.”
She deserves the attention because she’s a national inspiration—a fountain of youthful energy and a symbol of determination in the face of adversity.
Amazingly, Thompson didn’t run her first marathon until she was 76. She noticed a church choir friend soliciting people for donations, found out the woman was walking a marathon, plus raising money to beat cancer.
Recalls Thompson, “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’”
She lined up in 1999 at Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego, finishing in 7 hours, 5 minutes. Her total marathon count: 15—all Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego.
Thompson’s affection for the event lies with the race’s title charity, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Thompson, who has raised more than $90,000 for LLS, was diagnosed with cancer of the palate in the 1980s. Multiple family members died of the disease. Now she’s battling skin cancer on her legs. She recently underwent nine radiation treatments in 11 days, the last coming about a month before Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“The doctor told me I shouldn’t run the marathon,” Thompson says. “I told him that wasn’t an option.”
The radiation treatments impacted her training, her longest run before the race measuring six miles. The bulk of her late training consisted of one-hour workouts on an elliptical trainer and yoga.
“I really didn’t know if I could get through this one,” she says.
While blessed with remarkable genetics–her mother was one of five siblings who lived into their 90s–Thompson’s sense of wonder factors into her life success.
Raised in Carlisle, Penn., she biked 26 miles round trip for weekly piano lessons as a teenager. She became a concert pianist, playing three times at Carnegie Hall.
In the 1940s, while studying at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Thompson roller skated to class. The Dean of Women called Harriette in, telling her that “young ladies do not roller skate to class.”
“But I did not stop roller skating,” she says. “I loved getting to class early and that was the best way to get there.”
The woman has seemingly always been in a hurry. She got married two hours after receiving her college diploma.
“I had to leave the ceremony early,” she says.
Harriette and Sydnor Thompson, 90, celebrated their 67th anniversary the day after the marathon.
Moved by Thompson’s story, Tammy Young, 55, of El Cajon, Calif., recently started exercising.
“She gives me hope that it’s never too late to turn it around and get on a healthy life track,” Young says. “And we humans all need hope.”
Please consider contributing to Harriette Thompson’s Team in Training fundraising effort at this link.