The 91-year-old runner who broke records during Sunday's Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon is overwhelmed by the national attention but is still “eating it up.”
"It was a big surprise to me,” Harriette Thompson said the day after the race. “I just ran how I normally run -- only a little bit slower this time -- and I'm overwhelmed by all the attention I'm getting."
Messages of encouragement and inspiration began flowing in after Harriette Thompson ran the 26.2 miles in just over 7 hours, completing the fastest time in the U.S. for the 90-94 age group and becoming the oldest person to finish that race.
— Jason Matuszak (@Drjasonmatuszak) June 3, 2014
— Bill Zapf (@rollingcomic) June 2, 2014
And it’s not just her age that made her an inspiration to others. She’s also a cancer survivor.
In fact, Thompson – a North Carolina resident – had to miss the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon last year because she was fighting oral cancer.
"My upper jaw was radiated, and I ended up losing all my teeth but one that's holding up my obturator, which allows me to speak," Thompson explained.
More recently, she started battling squamous cell carcinoma on her legs, receiving nine painful radiation treatments in the months leading up to this year’s race.
She told NBC 7 it prevented her from training as she wanted. Even Thompson’s stalwart positivity began to waver as the run’s date came closer.
"Well I just had the feeling that maybe, I'm not sure I can do this,” said Thompson, “but I'm going to hope I can do it because I had so many people telling me, 'Oh you can do that.' And I thought, 'Oh yeah?'"
Thankfully, she had her son Brenneman there to poke, prod and encourage her along the way, feeding her pretzels and Powerbars when her energy was low.
“She is competitive in a sense, even though she probably doesn't even realize it,” Brenneman said. “She enjoys getting out there and running.”
Moving rhythmically to the beat of the bands, Thompson made it across the finish line-- to her own elation and the excitement of those around her.
"Everybody here is so wonderful,” she said. “They want to have their picture taken with me, and I'm flattered to death. I don’t' really deserve all this attention, but I'm eating it up."
Brenneman would disagree that she doesn’t deserve it.
“I'm so glad that she's getting the limelight, and she's so naturally a wonderful person, a warm person, doing always for others,” her son said.
Through her 15 runs down the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego course, Thompson has raised more than $90,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
She said she supports the cause because she’s had many friends and family who have died from cancer.
Now, she’s being supported by the entire running community.
“Somebody ran by and said, 'You're the reason I'm running a marathon. I was only going to do a half marathon until I heard about you.' And I thought that was funny," the 91-year-old said.
Brenneman summed up his mother’s personality in two sentences: “She's just a real go-getter in every aspect. She doesn't understand age, really."
Thompson said her secret is a really good doctor.
To everyone inspired by her story, she offered this advice:
“Don't think you're too old because I'm living proof that you aren't too old, and even if you have some handicaps, I think it helps to have a goal, and my goal right now is just to continue to try to exercise and try to stay healthy and help others where I can."
Team Harriette plans to be back next year.