CHARLOTTE, NC (Theoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - Ninety-four-year-old Harriette Thompson has yet another story for her grandkids to tell their grandkids.
On a cool, sunless, lightly breezy Sunday morning in southern California, the Charlottean put one foot in front of the other after the gun went off to start the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon, and 3 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds later, Thompson became the oldest woman ever to complete a 13.1-mile race.
"I'm so thrilled that I got through it," she said by phone from her hotel room after the race. "It really wasn't as hard as I thought it was gonna be. It's not like doing a marathon."
Thompson, a former concert pianist, already had staked claim to being the oldest woman ever to conquer the 26.2-mile distance; in 2015, she crossed the finish line of the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon racecourse in 7:24:36. In both the full two years ago and the half Sunday, she broke records previously held by Gladys Burrill. Thompson also is the fastest 90- to 94-year-old woman to ever finish a marathon, having run San Diego in 2014 (at age 91) in 7:07:42.
In achieving Sunday's feat, Thompson overcame a growing list of health problems, the latest of which is an aortic valve stenosis that's obstructing blood flow from her heart into her aorta. She's also dealing with numbness in her face, eyelid issues and a speech impediment due to titanium plates that were screwed into her cheekbones last fall; they were put in because she lost her upper jaw to oral cancer four years ago.
On Sunday, she paced the race at an average speed of almost exactly 17 minutes per mile – "I was just walking very fast," she said – flanked by her sons Brenny and Sydnor (both of Charlotte), Brenny's girlfriend Susan and her grandfather Angela (of New York City).
"They were protecting me the whole time, keeping the crowds away from me 'cause for some reason I'm a (celebrity) around here," Harriette said.
This was her first time participating in the half marathon in San Diego. Between 1999 and 2015, Thompson ran the full marathon 16 times; she missed the race in 2013, because she was recovering from that oral cancer, and in 2016, because she was recovering from skin grafting to fix a large open wound just above her right ankle (a result of aggressive radiation treatment for squamous cell carcinoma).