Completing a marathon is an accomplishment for anyone. It’s particularly incredible if you’re a 92-year-old three-time cancer survivor like Harriette Thompson, who completed the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon on Sunday with a time of 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds.
Thompson is the oldest woman ever to complete a marathon. The grandmother of 10 has run the San Diego race 16 out of its 18 years in existence, only missing the first-ever marathon and the 2013 race due to oral cancer.
Each year, Thompson competes on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Team In Training, and has raised more than $100,000 for charity in the process. Her mother and father, three brothers, and husband have all passed away from cancer.
The previous oldest marathon finisher was Gladys Burrill, who clocked in at 9:53:16 during the Honolulu Marathon in 2010. She was 92 years, 19 days old at the time; Thompson is 92 years, 3 months old. Her son, Brenny Thompson, 56, ran alongside her during the race.
“I was really tired at one point,” Thompson told The Charlotte Observer. “Around Mile 21, I was going up a hill and it was like a mountain, and I was thinking, ‘This is sort of crazy at my age.’ But then I felt better coming down the hill. And my son Brenny kept feeding me all this wonderful carbohydrates that kept me going.”
Beyond the right fuel to keep going, what does it take for an older person to run a marathon? According to Robert S. Gotlin, Director of Orthopedic and Sport Rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, it’s pretty awesome feat of “genes and luck.”
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You don’t see many senior citizens running marathons. “The average age of someone who competes in the marathon, where they fall on the bell curve, is in the 20s, 30s and 40s,” he tells Yahoo Health. “That’s the peak of strength and endurance. [Thompson] obviously has nice genetic makeup.”
That being said, genetic makeup isn’t enough. As health begins to decline as years increase, there are some key concerns for older marathoners. “The first thing that comes to mind is bone density, which declines with age,” Gotlin says. “We have to make sure the bones themselves can handle that kind of impact.”
Gotlin also says sturdy footwear is especially important for older runners, and older women, to prevent falls and bone breaks. Runners should also be noshing on lots of protein and calcium to keep their running frame strong and healthy.
“It’s important that nutritional status is in an anabolic state before the race, not a catabolic state, so you have enough energy to burn as you go,” he explains.
Gotlin says anyone looking to run a marathon should make sure their health status is in good shape – particularly if you’re an elderly adult like Thompson.
A doctor should give a stress test to see how the heart will handle prolonged exercise, and make sure the respiratory system is in good shape to handle 26.2 miles. Muscle strength and flexibility also need to be assessed before hitting the pavement, to make sure the body’s in a positive to move effectively for miles, since we all lose muscle elasticity as we age.
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To be healthy enough to run a marathon at 92, after a full medical evaluation, from heart health to endurance testing? Rare. “Everyone’s system is on the decline as we age,” says Gotlin. “The average person above age 40 has a lot to overcome to complete a marathon. This is a fantastic accomplishment.”
Maybe she does have superpowered genes, but running might be the key to Thompson’s longevity, too. “(The) Leukemia & Lymphoma (Society), that’s the main reason I do run,” Thompson told The Observer. “But then I was thinking, I probably wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do this run every year, because it keeps me active all year. So I’m sort of being paid back for my efforts. People wonder how I can do it at my age, and that may be it.”