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At 91, Cancer Survivor Finishes Her 15th Marathon

Katie Herzog

Sunday in San Diego, a Charlotte woman named Harriette Thompson ran her 15th marathon in 16 years. A pretty impressive accomplishment in its own right, but it’s downright remarkable when you consider she’s about to turn 92 years old. Thompson finished the 26.2 mile race in just over seven hours---setting a new record for a woman over the age of 90. WFAE's Duncan McFadyen visited Thompson at her Charlotte home before she left for the marathon.

Thompson ran her first marathon in 1999, when she was 76. She decided to join a friend from her choir who told her about the event, expecting to walk the 26.2 miles.

“When I started, everybody was running, so I decided ‘I guess I’ll run too,’ and it didn’t seem at that time so bad,” she recalls.

She ended up winning her age group.

“And I got a trophy and it said that I came in – and the cutoff was 7 hours – it said that I came in in 6 hours 59 minutes and some seconds. That’s when I learned you had to come in in under 7 hours.”

The challenge was on. Thompson would trim off almost an hour in the coming years. Her fastest time was 6:7:22, at age 81.

But Harriette Thompson is not one to shy away from a challenge. She’s a concert pianist who still gives several recitals a year. And she says the discipline she developed from practicing and memorizing new music was good preparation for---and motivation during---marathons.

“I usually think of Chopin Etudes, the ones that are technically difficult, because usually they’re pretty fast, and it stimulates me to go a little faster, and also helps pass the time,” she says.

She says she's surprised, but flattered, when people ask for photos with her at the finish line.

"They want to stop me and have my picture taken with them, and I willingly pose.”

Thompson is not running just because she can. Since the beginning, she’s been raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a cause that for her is personal.

“Everybody in my family has died of cancer. It’s sort of in our genes. Another reason is that I just adore a lot of people I've lost with leukemia and lymphoma. I just lost my brother, he died in February, and my husband's brother died of leukemia when he was young. And I just miss them all. When I first started, I had some great friends like Loonis McGlohon, he was such a brave person and died of leukemia... just a lot of good close friends that made it seem possible.”

To date, she’s raised more than $90,000. And Thompson herself is a cancer survivor. The only San Diego marathon she missed was last year’s, and it’s because was recovering from mouth cancer and an 8-hour surgery that removed part of her upper jaw. This year, she admits she hasn’t trained as much, but that’s because she had the last of nine radiation treatments just a few weeks ago.

She still manages most days to get in an hour on the elliptical machine, and she takes fitness classes regularly at the Cypress retirement community where she lives in South Charlotte.

Credit Katie Herzog
WFAE's Duncan McFadyen jogs along with 91 year-old Harriette Thompson near her Charlotte home.

Thompson says some of her children and neighbors think she's crazy for running marathons at her age.

"In a way I wonder myself, but I guess it’s just a bad habit," she says, chuckling.

"It’s just that I want to do it.”