Harriette Thompson, 92, becomes oldest woman to finish a marathon

Harriette Thompson begins the 2015 Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego on Sunday morning.

Harriette Thompson begins the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego on Sunday morning.

(Paul Nestor / Competitor Group via Associated Press)

With the Coronado Bridge as a backdrop, Harriette Thompson stepped outside of the Hilton Bayfront hotel Friday morning and began jogging along the bay. One woman stopped her in front of the million-dollar yachts for an autograph. Another wanted her to pose for a picture.

“It’s just because I’m so old,” joked Thompson.

One year ago this weekend, Thompson, then 91, completed the Suja Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 7 hours 7 minutes, the fastest marathon ever by a woman 90 or older.

Minutes after the feat, sitting in the shade of a tent next to Petco Park, Thompson promised, “If I’m still (alive), I’ll be back next year.”


True to her word, Thompson, now 92, has returned and is entered in Sunday’s 18th annual marathon. Thompson became the oldest woman to finish a marathon when she finished in 7 hours 24 minutes and 36 seconds.

The oldest woman to previously complete a marathon was Gladys Burrill, who was 92 years and 19 days old when she completed the 2010 Honolulu Marathon. Race organizers said that Thompson is 92 years and 65 days old.

“I don’t consider myself special,” said Thompson, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s just that I’m 92. All you have to do is get to 90 and you get all sorts of attention.”

Thompson may not see herself as extraordinary, but others certainly do. The “Today Show” is working on a lengthy feature about her. “People,” “Runner’s World” and “USA Today” told Thompson’s tale last year.

Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon organizers staged a news conference Friday and Thompson was the featured attraction, yanked aside by local TV stations for sound bites.

“She’s a very vibrant, enthusiastic person, so full of energy,” said Meb Keflezighi, the San Diegan who won the Boston Marathon last year.

“She’s inspiring,” said Josh Furlow, president of the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, which stages 22 races across the United States, eight internationally. “For someone to say ‘I can’t do it,’ stand at the finish line, watch her come across and you’ll never say that again.”

A former concert pianist who played three recitals at Carnegie Hall, Thompson didn’t run her first marathon until she was 76. She was practicing with her church choir and noticed a friend collecting checks.

The woman explained that she was walking a marathon in San Diego and raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“Oh,” said Thompson at the time, “I could walk a marathon.”

Added Thompson, “I was 76. I thought of it as ‘The Spirit of 76.’ ”

She has completed 15 marathons, all at Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego, with a best time of 6 hours, 7 minutes. In doing so, she has raised more than $90,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the race’s title charity.

The program is dear to Thompson. She has battled cancer twice, in her jaw and skin cancer. Multiple family members died from the disease.

“My passion is mainly to help the research for leukemia and lymphoma,” she said.

Thompson grew up in Carlisle, Pa., the youngest of five children and the only girl. Of her brothers’ influence, Thompson said, “They did everything they could to antagonize me.”

When Thompson practiced the piano in the parlor room, one brother sneaked in, flicked Thompson on the ear then sped off.

“I had to grow up, fighting every day,” she said.

Sitting at a table outside the Hilton Bayfront on Friday morning, Thompson was asked the secret to her longevity.

“The biggest influence in my life was my mother,” she said. “She aged as gracefully as anyone.”

Fighting back tears, Thompson added, “She never thought of herself. There’s not a moment of my life that I don’t think about her.”

Thompson’s mother wrote poetry, painted, played the piano and encouraged her daughter to be independent. Thompson listened well.

She was playing the piano by 4, performing by 7. By her early teens she was riding a bike 26 miles round trip for lessons. At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Thompson roller skated to class. The Dean of Women told her, “Young ladies do not roller skate to class.”

“But I did not stop roller skating,” Thompson said. “I loved getting to class early, and that was the best way to get there.”

Thompson and her late husband raised five children. Twice, Thompson moved all five children to Vienna, Austria, for a year, exposing them to European culture. They learned to speak German.

Her husband, Sydnor, a judge, stayed behind in North Carolina.

Said Sydnor last year, “She’s absolutely independent.”

The past year has been difficult for Thompson. On Jan. 27, after 67 years of marriage, Sydnor died after a long bout with cancer.

“By the time (he died), he couldn’t talk,” Thompson said. “He couldn’t eat and he was just lying there. Once he couldn’t do the crossword puzzle any more, I could see he was slipping away. I’m just so delighted he didn’t have pain. When he died, it was so peaceful. It was almost a blessing.”

Thompson plays bridge and reads a newspaper daily. She walks for an hour five days a week, takes regular exercise classes and likes to dance.

She’s blessed with good genetics. Her mother lived to 91. Three brothers lived to their late 80s and 90s, one to 99.

She admits her gait is more of a walk than a run now.

“But I do walk pretty fast,” she said.

The oldest woman to complete a marathon was Hawaii’s Gladys Burrill, who was 92 years and 19 days old when she finished the 2010 Honolulu Marathon.

Thompson will be 92 years and 93 days old on Sunday.

At Friday’s news conference, Thompson said, “I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do it, but I’m going to try.”

About 60 people stood around her and burst into applause.