Adventist Burrill, 92, likely sets marathon record

By: Ansel Oliver/ANN
Date: 01/04/11
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Gladys Burrill says life is like a marathon. She would know -- she's 92 and believed to be the world's oldest woman to have completed an official 26.2-mile race.
Church member Gladys Burrill, 92, set a world record on December 12 as the oldest woman to finish a marathon. Locally known as "the Glady-ator," she power-walked her way through the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii, United States, in 9 hours, 53 minutes and 16 seconds. [photo courtesy Honolulu Marathon]
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Burrill finished the December 12 Honolulu Marathon, power-walking across the finish line at 9 hours, 53 minutes and 16 seconds. If her time is confirmed by the Guinness World Records company, she would surpass current record holder Jenny Wood-Allen, a Scot who completed the London Marathon at age 90, according to the company's website.

Like life, a marathon requires "perseverance, strength, courage ... you just have to keep going," Burrill said in a recent phone interview from her condominium in Honolulu. "It's very important to think positive," she said.

Locally, she's a beloved competitor -- in 2004 the Honolulu Advertiser nicknamed her "the Glady-ator." She completed the city marathon each year from 2004 to 2007. But two consecutive un-finished attempts left some wondering if her marathon days were over.

In 2008, her husband died four days before the race. Burrill said stress and grief caused her to end her attempt just one mile short of the finish line. Last year, stomach cramps put her out at mile 16.

"I felt a lot more at peace this year," said Burrill, who walked four miles the day after the race and 10 miles two days later. She regularly walks 30 to 50 miles a week, usually with a training partner.

Her time this year might have been two minutes less -- she stopped to pray a few hundred feet from the finish line. "I thought my life would change once I crossed that line. I knew some people needed encouragement so I thought that was very important," said Burrill, who is a Seventh-day Adventist.

Burrill's son and grandson walked with her at different points during this year's competition. She has 18 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.

Jim Barahal, president of the Honolulu Marathon, said he was astonished by Burrill's feat.

"I think it is absolutely unbelievable," Barahal told KITV News. "It is inspirational and to anyone who has an elderly parent or perhaps has lost someone to realize what she is doing at her age. It is just astonishing. What an inspiration."

Barahal and marathon organizers donated $2,500 on her behalf to the Lokahi Giving Project, which helps needy families with food and basic household necessities.

Burrill said she regularly uses her local notoriety to help such projects. "I know what it's like to go through poverty," she said.

The youngest of six kids of Finnish immigrants, her father died on her second birthday, leaving her mother to work their farm in Washington state. At age 11, she contracted polio but later recovered.

The mother of five, Burrill said she lost her son Kevin in 1985 to a brain tumor.

"I had a lot of obstacles in life, but God was always there with me," she said.

Burrill has been an airplane pilot and a mountain climber. She said she was always athletic -- as a child she ran up the hills above their farm.

Adventure and exercise have helped her deal with stress and grief throughout her life, she said. "Sometimes I go out [walking] with the weight of the world on my shoulders and come back feeling so strong and renewed."

When asked about fitness tips, she gives simple advice: "Eat healthfully and exercise. So many young people don't realize the importance of exercise. Just put one foot in front of the other."

Burrill said she's never used alcohol or tobacco and eats a healthy diet -- she's mostly vegetarian and skips dessert, she said.

Just as important, she said, is staying mentally well. "It's very important to think positive." Also, "dream about things you want to do in the future, even if they're impossible. It keeps you going."

Burrill would like to one day climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and travel into space, but is content that neither will likely happen. She said she'll continue to encourage people and compete in charity walks.

Now on her own, Burrill divides her time between her home in Prospect, Oregon, and Honolulu, where she enjoys the weather and the lifestyle.

"People have such a great Aloha spirit here," she said.

The city mayor will honor her in a January 7 ceremony.

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