Commentary

Meet the 94-year-old woman who can hang with you in a half-marathon

Originally Published: June 6, 2017
By Aishwarya Kumar | ESPN.com

Jerod Harris/Getty ImagesHarriette Thompson (in white cap) finished the Synchrony Financial Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half Marathon in 3:42:56.

Harriette Thompson did not know if she could walk again, let alone run a marathon.

After losing her parents, both her brothers and her husband to cancer, she was living through it herself.

The avid runner was faced with two cancer battles last year -- a form of skin cancer that ate a hole into her right leg and required skin grafts, and then a diagnosed facial cancer that required mouth surgery in December.

She was bedridden for six weeks, but she knew she had to make a comeback on her terms. And the reasons were simple: to do everything she could to help others and raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

But her activism started long before 2016. Thompson ran her first marathon at age 76 in the 1999 Rock 'n' Roll San Diego race. She had met a woman in her choir who was collecting checks for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Thompson ran as part of Team In Training, the society's main fundraising program. Thompson has been running, and setting records, ever since. She has finished 17 marathons, all at Rock 'n' Roll San Diego. In 2014, she ran the fastest marathon time for a woman over the age of 90, and in 2015 she became the oldest woman to run a marathon.

On Sunday, the 4-foot-11, 92-pound Thompson completed her comeback, becoming the oldest woman to run a half-marathon. At age 94, she finished the 20th annual Synchrony Financial Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half Marathon in 3:42:56. To date, Thompson has raised over $100,000 for cancer research.

In a candid conversation with ESPN.com, Thompson talked about her passion for running, the records she has set and how she stays fit.

Question from ESPN.com: What was it like crossing the finish line Sunday?

Answer from Thompson: I feel grateful that I made it. I feel wonderful; I am not at all stiff. I think it's a little different than running a marathon. I did the half and it didn't seem to faze me at all physically. I feel great.

Q: What was the process like coming back from a yearlong cancer treatment in 2016 and running again this year?

A: It made me realize that I could do it. It felt iffy all year long. I couldn't walk. I was in bed for six weeks recuperating from the skin graft on my leg, but I was so thrilled that I could walk again. As I got a bit more strength, I thought maybe I could do the marathon again. I also had another operation on my mouth for cancer last December, and that put me back. And then, I had to be a bit more realistic and say to myself, "Now, now, I should just try for the half-marathon."

Christopher Evangelista/Rock 'n' Roll MarathonHarriette Thompson said she is surprised she is an inspiration to others: "I feel that in my age, if I can do anything worthwhile, that is a blessing. ... I am very thankful that I have this opportunity to have a little bit of influence."

Q: You cut back from 26.2 miles to 13.1 miles after the cancer. Why did you still want to continue running?

A: I still had the same incentive of trying to help, and the cancer just made it stronger. I realized what it was like to have cancer, and that made me want to give back more and to help this cause.

Q: How did you stay injury-free leading up to and during the race?

A: This time, I didn't have to worry, because I had a lot of people around me. I had my family helping me to realize where I should be careful -- like a pothole on a road or something. Normally at home, I am just very careful and try not to do something I might not be able to handle. I start early in the morning; at 8:15 a.m., I have Pilates class. Out of the 450 people who live in the retirement home with me, there are only about 5-6 people in the class. We also have strengthening class, where we use weights and balls and rings to do exercises. That lasts about 45 minutes. Then we have a yoga class, and all of that helps in strengthening me. When there is nice weather, I go out and run around the lake [in Charlotte, N.C.].

Q: What makes you want to keep coming back to running even after all the health issues you've dealt with?

A: It's great inspiration for me to see how much people think I am an inspiration. I am getting more attention because I am so old. I am just happy that I am making a little difference by having fundraisers for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and raising funds for cancer research. That's my inspiration.

Q: Do you have a special diet you follow during training?

A: I've tried to avoid sugar. I think a Mediterranean diet is the best thing for me. And because I've had the operation on my mouth, I can't chew greens. I know they are so important, so what I do is I have a special drink I make every morning to get all the natural vitamins I need for my body. I put chocolate almond milk, frozen banana, walnuts, protein powder, a lot of kale and spinach and fresh fruits. I mix it all up, and it makes a wonderful drink. I feel like I am getting the nutrition I need to run.

Q: Any superstitions that you follow leading up to a race?

A: I do crossword puzzles every morning. I don't do the New York Times, that's a little too challenging. But I do the one in our local newspaper -- The Charlotte Observer -- and I love to do the seven-letter words. It keeps my mind active.

Q: How do you stay mentally strong during a race?

A: I always try to think positively. Whenever I get tired, I think to myself, "This is a piece of cake. I can do this." I just try to encourage myself by not letting any negative thoughts get in my mind. I play my piano songs in my head.

Q: What comes next after this?

A: I want keep smiling and to help others smile. I want to be a good influence on other people. I want to make the last few years of my life worth something. My friend really loves my piano playing. I want to work on another program -- that will keep me busy. It takes a long time to plan and execute a piano program. That'll be a challenge for me. I didn't have a lot of time to practice because I spent a lot of time in the hospital last year. But when I get home now, I think I can measure up to playing another concert.

Q: Two years ago, you became the oldest woman to run a marathon. This year, you became the oldest woman to complete a half-marathon. What has this process meant to you?

A: The whole process is very satisfying because I feel that in my age, if I can do anything worthwhile, that is a blessing. I am encouraged that people are inspired by it. I am very thankful that I have this opportunity to have a little bit of influence. I am a little bit surprised that my life has meant so much to different people. I have had people come up to me and said, "You're the reason I am running," and that makes me feel, "Maybe I am doing something right."

Aishwarya Kumar

ESPN.com

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