Where Do You Find Inspiration? An Interview with Marathon Finisher Harriett Thompson

Concert pianist Harriett Thompson, 92, became the oldest person to run a 26.2 mile race when she crossed the finish line at the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on May 31, 2015. She stole the record from Gladys Burill, now 97, who finished the Honolulu marathon in 2010. Burill was 92 years, 19 days old at the time; Thompson was 92 years and 93 days old. Thompson completed the race in 7 hours, 7 minutes, and 42 seconds.

This was Thompson’s 16th marathon, and she did not start running until she was in her 70s. She recently lost her husband to cancer and is currently undergoing painful cancer treatments herself.

How does she do it?

All of us from time to time face challenges at work and in our personal lives that just seem impossible to contemplate. Yet we know that to continue to move our careers forward we need to actively go out and seek big opportunities that force us to overcome barriers.

I was swept away by Ms. Thompson’s story when I read media reports after her race last month. During media interviews she talked about how committed she is to making a difference to finding a cure for blood cancer and how running a marathon makes her feel like a million bucks. Although she told the media she never considered herself an athlete, she’s clearly got some genetic claim to athletic ability.

Yet I was curious to find out the source of her inspiration because I thought all of us, at some point, need to be inspired.

I had the chance to speak with Ms. Thompson about this. I asked her about her sources of inspiration and what pushes her to accomplish such big physical and mental goals. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:

Carolee Walker: What are your sources of inspiration?

Harriett Thompson: The reason I started to run marathons was to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I’ve lost several friends and family members to cancer. That’s the main reason. And to have fun.

My mother was very active. She never did sports, but she never sat down. She was always very busy. She had a garden and did housework in a 14-room house.

She just loved life and was a very happy person. She was always singing or whistling. She was a great example for me.

And she was an artist and wrote poetry.

CW:  What would your mother say if she saw you cross the finish line?

HT: She would probably say “Wow.” This isn’t something she would have expected me to do. But I was very active, always wanting to get to places in a hurry. First I wanted roller skates and then I wanted a bicycle.

I finally got a bicycle when I was in junior high school. I would ride my bicycle every Saturday 13 miles to go to my piano lesson and get home in time to go to movies with friends. As soon as I walked in the door, my mother would lead me into the kitchen and feed me.

There were no gears on bikes in my day. You had to pedal using your own strength.

CW: When you’re running are there challenges that you push through and do you have special ways of getting through?

HT: Usually at the San Diego race they have a band every few miles and I find that very stimulating. In between if it gets boring, I think of pieces I like to play on the piano. That helps pass the time and keep me moving.

CW:  Any pieces in particular?

HT: The Études by Chopin. They’re very technical and take a lot of concentration. And they’re fast. This makes me go faster.  My mother taught me piano before I went to school. I gave my first recital when I was 7. I played 24 little pieces.

The challenge is always to get to the finish line. There are always so many people who are hoping I can do this and they’ve given so much money. When I think about their generosity, that puts me over the finish line.

CW: What about goal setting? What kind of approach do you take to setting goals when you’re running a race?

HT: My only goal is to finish the race. But during the race I eat a lot and drink a lot of Gatorade. I enjoy thinking about the next Gatorade or the next candy bar, or health bar.

I normally don’t eat a lot of sweets, but during the race I do, and that keeps me focused. I don’t drink a lot of water during the race because I don’t want to stop. Last year I didn’t stop the whole 7 hours.  My son, who runs with me, kept saying, “I’ll be right back.”

This year I didn’t have pressure because all I had to do was finish to get the record.

CW: So are you competitive?

HT: One time there was a woman my age, and I saw her – she had some trainers running with her. I was by myself. I saw how well she looked – very strong – and she was faster than me. I had just seen the Kentucky Derby where one horse stayed behind until the last minute. I thought I’ll let her set the pace and follow her and then at the last mile I’m going to rush past her. And I did. I waited until the very last mile and then I went really fast. I beat her by 5 minutes. That was the only time I felt really competitive, but it pushed me, and that was good.

CW: What sort of training do you do? Do you follow a special diet for your training?

HT: The San Diego marathon sponsors Team in Training, which I do but somewhat modified, from January to June. I exercise every day. Right now I’m getting treatments for a wound on my leg so I’m not able to swim, but usually I am in the pool. I had my instructor’s badge in swimming and could lifeguard in the summers.

There are exercise classes all the time at the Cypress in Charlotte where I live. We do strength training, some with weights, mostly on our arms. Sometimes we use straps on our legs and ankles. When we pull the straps and walk that makes our legs stronger.

Also I do yoga at the Cypress twice a week.

The longest I’ve ever walked is 11 miles. I never run or walk any long distances until the day of the race. You don’t have to do a 20-mile run. So I save myself for the race.

For my diet, except during the race, I stay away from sugar but it’s hard because I think all of my teeth are sweet teeth. And I do a lot of juicing. I drink my breakfast of oranges, bananas, and cranberries, and I drink my salads for lunch.

CW: There are lots of ways to be philanthropic or to raise money. Why is it important for you to run a marathon?

HT: The main thing is to realize I’m 92, and I’m still doing it. If I can do it anybody can. And that goes for anything you want to achieve. All you need to do is get out there and start. Everyone will feel better. Physical activity is so important to everything and so is challenging yourself. Just start walking and gradually work up to running. This will improve your life immensely.

Just 3 weeks after the San Diego marathon, and in between cancer treatments, Thompson finished a 5K race and is training for a half marathon in Brooklyn, New York, in October 2015. The Brooklyn race organizers asked her to shoot off the gun at the start, but she’s decided, at least for the moment, to run. I’m not surprised, are you? 

The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

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Shannon Kennedy

This is so incredible! “The challenge is always to get to the finish line.” This is so true… I feel like I can relate this to anything. Just getting to the finish line and doing the best you can is so important.

Alexa McKenna

Harriett is such an inspirational woman! I can barely run 3 miles let alone 26 so it was great to see where she gets her motivation from. She mentioned how she didn’t want to let the people at the finish line down and I think as human beings, a lot of what motivates us is the fear of letting other people down. I guess that’s true no matter how old you are.