If you don't think you have what it takes to run a marathon—or even a 10K for that matter—91-year-old Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, N.C. will make you think again. She just completed all 26.2 miles of the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 7:07:42 for the 15th time, setting an age-group speed record, and let us repeat: She’s 91. [Tweet this!]
As if that’s not enough, Thompson recently completed nine painful radiation treatments on her legs for squamous cell carcinoma, and hasn’t been able to train. In fact, the day before the race, she wasn’t sure she’d finish. “I’ve been trying to do an hour on the elliptical machine,” she says.
“She doesn’t ever stop,” says her son Brenny, 55, who ran the race with her for his fifth time. “In fact, she’s always doing something for someone else.”
That’s what motivated Thompson, a musician, to take on marathons in the first place. A friend in her choir had joined Team in Training to raise money for lymphoma and leukemia, and Thompson herself had friends suffering from the disease. “I thought, 'I can at least walk it,'” she says. She was 76 at the time, and while active playing tennis and croquet, she usually just jogged around the block.
“That was my slowest time,” Thompson says of her first marathon. “I didn’t know you’d have to stand for 15 minutes at a port-a-john, and so I stopped drinking so much water,” she jokes.
While Thompson felt she may not have gone fast, she received a trophy in the mail shortly after the race for winning her age group—which helped motivate her to keep going. She kept raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society N.C. chapter of Team in Training. She ran the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon every year except for in 2013, when she had surgery for oral cancer, which removed most of her upper jaw, leaving her with one tooth.
“I’m an advertisement for Vitamix,” she says of her diet, which has to be ground up. (The machine was a gift from her children.) “I cut sugar, eat healthy things, go to bed early, and read until I sleep.”
Thompson credits the marathons for helping to keep her healthy though “the lymphoma and leukemia society is my main motive,” she says. “But it does feel pretty good. You meet an awful lot of nice people. That’s the secret that’s helped me.”