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Oldest female marathoner dies at 100

  • COURTESY PHOTO
                                Gladys Burrill ran her first marathon in 2004 
at the age of 86. She completed five out of seven marathon attempts, setting a Guinness World Record for being the oldest woman to complete a marathon on her last event, on Dec. 12, 2010.

    COURTESY PHOTO

    Gladys Burrill ran her first marathon in 2004 at the age of 86. She completed five out of seven marathon attempts, setting a Guinness World Record for being the oldest woman to complete a marathon on her last event, on Dec. 12, 2010.

Gladys Burrill, the world record holder for the oldest woman to compete a marathon and a beloved supporter of the Honolulu Marathon, has died. She was 100.

Burrill died Thursday of natural causes in her sleep at her family’s home in Prospect, Ore., said her son Mike Burrill by phone Saturday from Oregon. She was living in a condo in Waikiki until July, when she became ill with pneumonia. After her health improved enough to travel, Burrill went back to Prospect where her family helped care for her.

Jim Barahal, president and CEO of the Honolulu Marathon, said Burrill’s world record put the spotlight on her, but she was popular in the marathon community because of her personality, enthusiasm, relentless positivity and deep faith.

Barahal said every time he saw her she greeted him with a giant hug and smile.

“It would always snap you out of what was stressing you out,” he said. “It was just a reminder of how to carry yourself through life.”

When Burrill set her marathon record at the age of 92, hundreds sent messages to marathon organizers saying Burrill, who became known as the “Gladyator,” encouraged them to try it as well, he said.

Burrill died two weeks before her 101st birthday.

Born on Nov. 23, 1918, to Swedish immigrants, she endured polio as a child and lived through severe poverty in the Great Depression.

She married her late husband of 69 years, Eugene F. Burrill, and the couple created one of the largest family-owned lumber businesses in southern Oregon in the 1960s, according to a 2011 state House Resolution honoring her for her world record.

She also piloted multi- engine planes, hiked through deserts in Arizona and climbed Mount Hood in Oregon before running her first marathon in 2004 as an 86-year-old. She ran that marathon after seeing the fireworks that kick off the marathon the year before, her son Mike said from Oregon.

What she wanted more than anything was to be at this year’s finish line, cheering on participants, as she usually did, Mike said.

Burrill eventually completed five Honolulu Marathons out of seven attempts, with her last one setting the Guinness World Record for oldest woman to complete a marathon. She finished the run on Dec. 12, 2010, in 9 hours, 53 minutes and 16 seconds.

Afterward she was inducted into the race’s hall of fame and honored by then-Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Mike said his mother found herself after her husband died in 2008, becoming an icon in the marathon community. Every day, she wore Honolulu Marathon shirts and only shoes of companies that sponsored the race.

Even though she no longer ran marathons recently because of the physical toll, she would attend marathon clinics on Sundays to encourage other trainees, he said.

She remained mentally sharp until her death.

“She was full of love,” he said. “Anybody that would give her a moment, she would give them a hug.”

A Seventh-Day Adventist, one of her favorite questions was to ask, “Do you have God in your life?” Mike said.

Part of what drove her was that she felt God had a purpose for her in the islands, where she constantly made new friends, he said.

He recalled going on walks with her in Hawaii and turning around to see her holding hands with a police officer or stopping into a store to start a conversation with an employee.

In 2011 Burrill told The Associated Press her positive attitude gave her strength to start running marathons.

“It’s so important to think positive. It’s easy to get discouraged and be negative,” she said. “It makes such a difference in how you feel and your outlook on everything.”

She is survived by four children, 18 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren.

Services are being planned for Oregon and possibly in Hawaii, likely after the New Year.

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