When thousands of runners cross the finish line of the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 13, Gladys “Glady” Burrill will be there to cheer them on.

Some watching the race might think Glady is just an elderly spectator in Kapiolani Park for the excitement, but she will be attending as an invited dignitary, an important figure for the Honolulu race.

Glady is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest woman ever to finish a marathon. She crossed the Honolulu Marathon finish line in 2010 at age 92.

97-year-old Gladys Burrill walks with George McCarthy. 24 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Gladys Burrill, 97, right, walks with George McCarthy last week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Her finish time in that race was 9 hours 53 minutes and 16 seconds. That may seem slow, but she knew what she was doing. She had set her mind to avoid the mistake she made in 2008 when she went out too fast and failed to finish.

In her record-setting 2010 race, she sat down on the curb 500 yards from the finish because, she said, “I just felt the need to talk to God. After I finished praying, I was never so full of life. When I headed for the finish line, I was just on a high.”

“I am hugging sweaty people all the time.” — Gladys Burrill

Her strong Seventh Day Adventist faith has guided her much of her life.

I was the only TV reporter there when she came over the finish line for that race and she is right: She actually looked refreshed.

It was the fifth marathon she had completed in seven years. Not bad for a woman who ran her first marathon when she was 86.

“I kind of thrive on challenges,” she says.

Gladys Burrill crosses a finish line.
Gladys Burrill crosses the finish line at the Honolulu Marathon in 2010. She started running marathons at age 86. Courtesy of Ronan Zilberman

She “redefines what is possible,” says her plaque in the Honolulu Marathon’s Hall of Fame.

I love interviewing Glady to find out how she does it, hoping to get some tips I can use in my own life.

To her many fans, she is known by her cool athletic name.

In 2004, Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Michael Tsai nicknamed Glady “the Gladyator.” The name has stuck. Glady says, “No matter where I travel someone will recognize me and call out, ‘The Gladyator’.”

Tsai and I were among the guests invited by Glady’s daughter Gina to surprise her at a lunch at the Halekulani to celebrate the Gladyator’s  97th birthday.

Her days of marathon racing are over now, but she still walks four days a week with her training partner of many years, George McCarthy.

“It’s much more casual now considering the fact that I am not 92 any more. We kind of take our time.”

Glady says she and George have come up with a new avocation: encouraging marathoners. They head to Kapiolani Park most Sundays to talk to runners in training for the upcoming marathon.   

“For some reason, it means a lot to them for us to be there,” she says. “I am hugging sweaty people all the time.”

They like to pose for selfies with her.

“There’s a reason why so many people here have embraced her as their marathon hero.” — Michael Tsai

She says, “They appreciate someone who pays attention when they talk about their struggles with training. I keep encouraging them not to give up, “ she says.

Tsai says Glady has every reason to act “prideful and superior, yet she is the exact opposite.”

“She has a genuine warmth and positivity about her and you can see that in the way she connects with everyone she comes into contact with,” Tsai says. “There’s a reason why so many people here have embraced her as their marathon hero.”

Glady is slim, with perfect upright posture. She walks with a bit of a limp left over from a bout with polio when she was 11, but other than that she shows none of the stiffness you normally associate with age. Her upper body movement is fluid and athletic. She looks strong.

“I think she bathes in milk,” laughs her walking partner, the 71-year-old McCarthy.

Glady doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke, but she downs about a gallon of milk a week.

She has a banana and oatmeal with cold milk for breakfast each morning. And for special breakfasts she orders pancakes but sweetens them with berries instead of syrup.

She primarily keeps to a vegetarian diet. Desserts are not on her menu except for an occasional treat of ice cream.  At her birthday party she ate only a few bites of the Halekulani’s famous fresh coconut cake.

“Too sweet,” she says.

Gladys Burrill at her 97th birthday party.
Gladys Burrill at her 97th birthday party. Courtesy of Gina Ostman Burrill

I find out all this when I meet her and George on one of their walks a few days after her birthday party; my purpose is to discover how she manages to stay so athletic as she gets closer to a century of life.

When I tell my friend Betsy Lin I am interviewing the Gladyator, she laughs and says, “Ask her what’s on her playlist.”

Glady says, “No playlist.” She doesn’t listen to music when she walks.

“I just like to listen to the world.”

 And to George (McCarthy): “George and I do a lot of laughing together.”

She got together with George in 2008 at the insistence of his wife, Ann, Glady’s hairdresser.

George, a former vice president for finance with Hawaii Dredging and Construction Co., had just retired and Ann wasn’t used to having him around the house. She was encouraging him to find something to do.

Glady recently decided to live full time in Hawaii in an oceanfront condo she has owned for more than 20 years on Kalia Road in Waikiki.

For many years before, she went back and forth between Waikiki and her farm in the tiny town of Prospect, Oregon; 40 acres she takes care of herself. 

Glady is a widow whose husband of 69 years, Eugene Burrill, died in 2008.

She and her husband owned what became Southern Oregon’s largest family owned lumber company.

Glady, tall and beautiful as she zigzags through the throngs of tourists on Kalakaua Avenue, says, “People might look at me and think my life is so perfect, but it hasn’t always been so.”

She grew up impoverished on a hilly farm in southwestern Washington. She had to wear hand-me-down heavy, boys shoes and drab-looking clothes made out of flour sacks. She was the youngest of six children in a Swedish-Finn family. Her father, a coal miner, died of black lung disease when she was 2, leaving her mother to run the farm and raise the children by herself.

Everyone had a chore. Glady followed around her 13-year-old brother Francis as he did the hard labor.

A family photo includes Gladys as a little girl holding a doll with her mother and older siblings.
A family photo includes Glady as a little girl holding a doll with her mother and older siblings. Courtesy of Gladys Burrill

She says, “Pretty soon I learned to do anything a man can do.”

Walking up and down the steep hills on the farm helped her build the physical strength she retains today.

There were no Christmas presents and no treats. Glady says she so yearned to try the taste of an orange, she picked up and ate pieces of an orange peel a school friend tossed on the dirt as they walked home from school.

“To this day, I still love eating parts of an orange peel,” she says.

There were very few sports for girls in her school then, but she  declined to participate in the few activities the school offered because she was unaccustomed to using a shower and a normal restroom.

At home, their toilet was a wooden outhouse and they took their baths in a washtub.

She remembers the smell of peanut butter in the tiny store where her mother shopped for provisions, a luxury item her mother could never afford.

“The peanut butter was in a jar on front counter. I can’t tell you how wonderful it smelled.”

As an adult, her life gradually became more comfortable as she and her husband built their lumber company into a booming success. Then there was time for recreation. She began climbing mountains, scaling Oregon’s Mount Hood. She hiked across deserts, rode horses and became a multi-engine airplane pilot.

Yet there were great sorrows for this mother of five, including the loss of her son, Kevin who died of a brain tumor in 1985. And the passing of a son-in-law, two granddaughters and her great-granddaughter, Madison, who died this year.

She says her athletic ventures and religious faith have sustained her through much frustration and sadness.

Denby Fawcett, left, takes notes from her visit with Gladys Burrill.
Denby Fawcett, left, takes notes from her visit with Gladys Burrill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now at age 97, it is time for her live up to the truth of her name.

“When I was born, my father said he was naming me Gladys because I was to bring happiness to everyone around me,” she says.

George says, “If she has a challenge now, it is to see how many hugs she can give in a day.”

That will be her focus.

“I just want to keep going out and encouraging people. So many people need encouragement.

“I tell them it is important to have a dream. Even if the dream seems impossible, it will keep you going.”

And her best health tip is simple: “Just put one foot in front of the other and get out there and walk or run.”

About the Author