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Chariot of Fire

By Deborah R. Huso
Posted On Aug 19, 2016
Chariot of Fire

Call her Glady. Call her the “Gladyator.” Call her crazy. But don’t call this diminutive ball of fire— at 94, the oldest woman to complete a marathon— old.

by Anne Garzouzie

 

The finish line—about 100 meters away—beckons under the searing hot sun. Why not just stop for a small nap? That’s just not who she is. Gladys Burrill, age 94, replays in her mind the agonizing scenes from past marathons during which she failed to reach the end. One time she fell victim to a stomach virus; another time her husband had passed away and she simply ran out of go-juice. While it has happened before, it’s not going to happen again. She is stronger, and people from all over the world wait expectantly for her to finish. She starts to sing a hymn her father taught her at two years old, “We’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river…”

The first thing Ms. Burrill did when she crossed her most recent finish line, two years ago, was give thanks to God. Then, with tears of joy streaming, she collapsed into the arms of her grandson and absorbed the staccato of flashlights popping from all directions. The time on the clock: 9 hours, 53 minutes, and 16 seconds. Burrill found herself walking into the Guinness Book of Records—the oldest woman to successfully complete a marathon. Do the math… she was 92.

Burrill is now eyeing her next marathon with eagerness. “I’ve always been really athletic, and usually I am out there walking alone,” she says. “But back in 2003 I was in Hawaii, and I saw fireworks just before the marathon started at 5am. It inspired me, and I thought I’m going to do it next year. And the next year, I did.”

How exactly does a 92-year-old woman find the fortitude to complete a grueling 26-plus mile marathon, when most people a quarter her age can barely negotiate the walk from the living room to the kitchen? “If you haven’t dared, you haven’t lived,” Burrill insists.

Throughout her life, Burrill has lived according to that very dare. “My husband and I have gone to the Arctic Circle and to the Arctic Ocean,” she says. “No matter where I have been, I have this feeling of a challenge that I have to want to try something. When I was seventy, I hiked the Arctic Circle by myself at twenty-degrees-below in the cold, and walked across the frozen river for about a mile.”

How does she do it? “I eat a very simple diet,” Burrill insists. “I am mostly a vegetarian. In the mornings, I have a banana and cold oatmeal. I never cook the oatmeal, and that’s the way I like it during the day. I also don’t eat dessert. Once in a while I will have a little bit, but I’m not a dessert eater, unless it’s something like fresh fruit.”

Then, of course, there is the walking. For as long as she can remember, Burrill has walked at every given opportunity. “I climbed Mount Hood when my daughter was only six weeks old,” she recalls. “There were several friends that wanted to do it, so they talked me into doing it.”

Since “Glady” was a young child, the outdoors beckoned. In nature, she always feels closer to God. Born

to an immigrant family from Finland, Burrill was the youngest of six children. Her father named her Gladys “because I had to bring gladness,” she smiles. “When I was eleven, I had polio and it took me a summer to overcome it. We were very poor, and I didn’t go to the doctor in the beginning because I didn’t realize how serious it was. But I overcame it.”

Throughout her life, Burrill has overcome a host of challenges, many of which she set down herself as a gauntlet of determination. Back when most women of her generation were content

to bake the perfect cake, Burrill was earning her pilot’s license and flying around the countryside. “I started out when I was about fifty-five, and it was just such a wonderful experience—being up in the sky and looking down,” Burrill says. “It is very important for people to have a dream. Sometimes it can be an impossible dream, as long as it keeps your mind going. I would like to go to space. That’s one of my dreams.”

Burrill’s top advice to other people of every size and shape? Simply give of yourself in some small way. “Just touching somebody is so uplifting to me,” she says. “I think maybe people are expecting too much out of life, and that the simple things are more important.”

Always upbeat, Burrill has one habit that could perhaps be called Glady’s magic trick: “I’ve always smiled,” says Burrill. And what a beautiful smile it is. “It’s important. It’s part of my life, and that means so much to people. They tell me that: Don’t quit smiling.”