What does it take to be the oldest woman ever to complete the 26.2-mile marathon race? Courage, discipline and a positive attitude. “If I can do it, anyone can do it,” says 92-year-old Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, North Carolina, who recently made history upon crossing the finish line of San Diego’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds.
After feeling “like a million bucks” after finishing what she calls an energizing, invigorating experience — something she’s felt every year but one since she took up the marathon at age 76 — Thompson contracted bronchitis. “I had a first-class seat on the plane home and got a first-class cold,” she laughs.
Staying positive comes naturally to Thompson, something her mother exemplified. “I had an incomparable mother. She was the best example of how to live. She never complained, and was so cheerful and so positive,” Thompson says. “It was fun to get up to hear her whistling in the kitchen.” While a strong mental attitude was demonstrated and years of training as a pianist gave her an aptitude for discipline, the physical component of running is another story.
“I never ran purposefully. I just wanted to get places fast,” says Thompson, who donned roller skates from an early age through college, where the dean reprimanded her for her inappropriate fitness choice and a wardrobe that included tight-fitting ski pants.
After summers in Aspen, Colorado, where she developed some lungs by biking at altitude, Thompson picked up running by accident when it got big in the ’70s. “I started running around the block, and one day I asked my husband to run a mile to breakfast,” she says. “I didn’t have running shoes, but I started to run like a 15-year-old, fast on hard pavement, and all of sudden I heard a snap. I tore a tendon.”
That healed in two weeks and the rest was history. In her first marathon, Thompson was surprised by a trophy that arrived in the mail signifying first place in her age group — one second under the cutoff time. “I didn’t even know there was a cutoff time,” she says.
Thompson has also run through two types of cancer: one that left a hole in the roof of her mouth and one that left a hole in her leg that she must clean and bandage daily. One doctor gave her three months to live. Everyone in her family has died of cancer, including a brother who passed this January, 10 days after his 99th birthday. Despite a mouth ravaged by cancer, Thompson even completed the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2012. “In a photo from that race I looked like a monster or a ghost, but my son says he loves it because it showed I had courage,” she says.
How does Thompson keep going? Mental prowess, a built-in training regimen at her retirement home, two sons that sign her up for regular training races and a healthy diet. Thompson trains with Team in Training as well as onsite instructors to stay limber by stretching and doing ball work, walks up to two hours a day, heads to the local YMCA for some elliptical sessions and runs races (up to 8Ks) on weekends.
Nutrition is key. “Diet is one of the most important things. I try not to eat sugar, especially before a marathon. I drink a lot of water. I never get colds. I used to mix six different things, like oat bran and yeast, into my orange juice, but when I visited my family they said, ‘If you want to drink that, don’t drink it front of us,’” she laughs.
Because of lingering effects of the mouth cancer, most meals are liquid. Her healthy splurge is a blended paste of walnuts, dates and figs on cereal, topped with banana. When racing, Thompson says she tries everything. “At the sample tent this year, I didn’t miss a thing,” she says. “During the race I was eating all the time, taking salt, and I did two to three gels, too.”
Despite her infectiously positive attitude, cancer-busting courage and healthy lifestyle choices, Thompson contends, “I don’t consider myself a runner.” An athlete without an athlete’s ego. We can all take inspiration from that.
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