By: Don Norcross
Harriette Thompson, a former Carnegie Hall concert pianist who beat cancer and became the oldest woman ever to run a marathon and half marathon, died Sunday, in Charlotte, N.C. She was 94.
On Oct. 5, while delivering birthday gifts at her retirement community, Thompson fell backwards on concrete steps, fracturing her pelvis in two places and injuring her head. She passed away 10 days later.
“She lived a full life,” Harriette’s son, Brenneman Thompson, said days before she passed. “She’s at peace. She’s not at all stressed. Her kids are all here, and she’s happy.”
Thompson attracted world-wide attention on May 31, 2015 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon when, at 92, she became the oldest woman to run a marathon. She completed the feat in 7 hours, 24 minutes, 36 seconds. Confetti shot into the sky when Thompson crossed the finish line. Regarding the celebration, Thompson said, “I thought it was like Lindbergh coming in after his flight.”
In the aftermath of her historic run, Thompson was featured on the BBC, “SportsCenter,” “ABC World News Tonight” and the “CBS Evening News.” A German TV station named Thompson its Sports Woman of the Year and flew her to Europe.
Two years later, after beating her third and fourth bouts with cancer, Thompson returned to San Diego. On June 4, at 94, she became the oldest woman to complete a half marathon, finishing in 3 hours, 42 minutes, 56 seconds. After the race, she joined concert headliner “Michael Franti and Spearhead” on stage. Asked what she did to earn the medal draped around her neck, Thompson, who danced to the music, said, “I ran a few miles.”
Said Olympic medalist, plus Boston and New York City Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi, “She has proven what music and exercise does for the body and soul.”
Everyone from strangers to Keflezighi to former county supervisor Ron Roberts stopped to congratulate Thompson at the VIP tent last June.
“Can I just say you’re an inspiration?” said Colleen Malchow of Buffalo.
“She’s incredible, amazing,” said Angela Thompson, Harriette’s 32-year-old granddaughter, who walked the half marathon with her. “There aren’t enough words to describe how giving, caring and loving a woman she is.”
“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,” said Josh Furlow, president of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series.
Added, Malchow on that June morning this year, “Not only is she 94, but she’s a cancer survivor.”
Thompson lived a fascinating life long before she started running, beat cancer and raised more than $100,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
She was raised Harriette Line, in Carlisle, Pa., the youngest of five children and the only girl. She was playing the piano by 4 and performing by 7. As a teenager she rode a bike 26 miles round trip – her first experience with the marathon distance – for piano lessons.
She attended Dickinson College in Carlisle. To save time, she roller skated to class. She was called into the Dean of Women’s office in the 1940s, the dean telling her, “Young ladies do not roller skate to class.”
“But I did not stop roller skating,” Thompson recalled. “I loved getting to class early, and that was the best way to get there.”
Thompson and her late husband, Sydnor, a judge, raised five children. Thompson twice moved all five children to Vienna, Austria, for one year, exposing them to European culture. Sydnor stayed behind in North Carolina.
Said Sydnor, “She’s absolutely independent.”
One of Thompson’s favorite lines was, “If you’re smiling, you can’t have a bad thought.”
Said Brenneman, “She just knew how to enjoy life and make people enjoy it with her. She was always doing something uplifting.”
Thompson did not seriously begin distance running until she was 76 years old. She was singing in a Charlotte church choir when she noticed a woman collecting checks from other choir members.
The woman said she was walking a marathon in San Diego and raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“Oh,” said Thompson nonchalantly. “I could walk a marathon.” Added Harriette, “I was 76. I thought of it as ‘The Spirit of 76.’”
She would finish 16 marathons, all in San Diego, all part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series.
Thompson was pulled to the San Diego race because of its affiliation with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Multiple family members had died of cancer. Sydnor dies of pancreatic disease.
“My passion is mainly to help the research for leukemia and lymphoma,” she said.
Former Boston, New York City and London Marathon champion Margaret Okayo won the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in its infancy. Across the half marathon route, so did Shalane Flanagan and Keflezighi. Philip Taurus put the race on the competitive map when he won in 2:08:33 in 1999, then the fastest marathon finish west of the Mississippi River.
But more than any African, Russian or American elite runner, Thompson earned the race worldwide fame by accomplishing what no other woman her age had ever done. Eventually, like Keflezighi, she became known simply by her first name.
“Holy Moly,” a woman cried when Thompson approached the finish line in 2015, setting the record for oldest female marathon finisher. “It’s Harriette.”
Dan Cruz, the race’s public relations director, dubbed Thompson, “The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
She was a sharp and funny woman to her final days, playing bridge, reading the newspaper, still entertaining on the piano.
“I still haven’t turned gray,” she said. “I’m still blonde, with a little help.”
She could recite her children’s cell numbers without calling her her contact list. At 4-feet-11, 102 pounds, she joked, “I used to be 5-3. But you can still see me.”
“I really try not to be negative at all,” Thompson said earlier this year. “All I keep thinking is, ‘I can do it.’ I’m pushing myself by my attitude to never think you want to stop. To think you want to keep going.”
Thompson is survived by her five children and 11 grandchildren.