Harriette Thompson should be the poster model for the concept that exercise is key to turning back time. The 94-year-old retired pianist—she’s played Carnegie Hall three times—ran her first marathon in 1999 at the age of 76. She’s since completed 16 marathons and, at the age of 92, set a world record for being the oldest female to complete a marathon. In June at the Synchrony Financial Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon, the two-time cancer survivor and grandmother from Charlotte, N.C., added another record to her collection: oldest woman to finish a half marathon. She completed the race—an experience she calls “unbelievable”—as part of Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training and has raised more than $117,000 for the organization to date. Thompson ran with friends and family by her side, including her two sons and a granddaughter.
After years of running marathons, what made you try a half marathon?
I’ve never been 94 before, plus I had two operations this past year, so I wasn’t sure what I would be able to do. I decided to be more realistic and run a shorter race.
You’ve run at Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego 17 times now. What makes that race so special to you?
San Diego has so much to offer and is so exciting. I had scallops for dinner after my race. I think the scenery is beautiful, and the people are nice.
You could choose just about any hobby, so why running?
It used to be considered kind of crazy to run. In the 70s people started to realize it was a healthy thing to do. My husband and I started running. I remember visiting my brother in Washington, D.C., in 1978, and we ran together. I’ve been very active since then but didn’t think about running a marathon until 1999.
Why do you think fundraising and racing go together so well?
I have very generous friends. And I raise money for a good cause, Team in Training. I’ve had cancer; my husband died of it, as have friends. I think those that run and feel fortunate not to have cancer, or maybe they’ve had it but gotten better, feel it’s a good partnership. One friend at my retirement center donated $1,000.
You rely on the power of positivity to keep going when runs get tough. How did you come to that approach?
Your attitude is most of the battle, I think. If you are really thinking positively, and thinking you can do it, you’ll be able to. It’s come to me through a lifetime of being positive. I reflect some of my mother’s wonderful attitude of never complaining and appreciating everything we had.
What do you think about when you run?
When I’m running for a long time, or maybe I’m between bands at the race, I’ll think through my piano music. A lively composition with a good tempo helps pass the time and increases my energy. The “Études”by Frédéric Chopin are very technical and each one is a challenge. It’s like my inner headphones!
What sort of sports did you do before you began running?
I really sort of majored in swimming. I got my instructor’s certificate at Dickinson College. I always roller-skated a lot. Before I got my driver’s license, I used to ride my bicycle to piano lessons every Saturday. It was 13 miles each way! Riding a bicycle is easier than running, but in those days there were no gears, so it was challenging.
What does your marathon and half-marathon training program look like?
I live in a retirement center with wonderful exercise programs. Every day during the week, they have classes in the morning, like Pilates and strength training. I did 31 classes in the month of March to prepare for the race. At night, if it’s raining, I go to the exercise room and get on the treadmill. When it’s not raining, I run around the lake. Five laps is a mile.
Do you eat anything special before a race?
I eat pasta the night before and peanut butter and a banana the morning of.
What’s it like to break records with your running?
I’m not in this to break records, but it’s a nice thing to have happen. It’s just a bonus. My goal is to help fight leukemia.
What’s next for you?
If I’m able, because it does take a lot of discipline, I would like to play another concert. I play at my retirement center and other places. After the race, I got to be on stage with Michael Franti. I danced a little bit and he had me sing along. His music is intoxicating.