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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, November 25, 2004

86-year-old woman eager to compete in first marathon

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Glady" isn't short for Gladys.

Gladys "Glady" Burrill, 86, will attempt to walk 26.2 miles when she competes in her first marathon on Dec. 12 in Honolulu.

Photos by Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

It's long for glad.

And glad Gladys "Glady" Burrill is — for the robust health she still enjoys at age 86, for the good man who has loved her for a lifetime, for two sisters still alive on opposite sides of the country, and for the six children, 18 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren who have taken her embrace of life and stretched it farther than even she can walk.

"My father wanted me to be named Gladys," she says, "to bring happiness to the family because he knew there was a lot of sadness and tough times ahead."

And glad is Glady Burrill for what the present brings: that 86th birthday two days ago, a 65th wedding anniversary next month, and, oh yes, her very first marathon.

On Dec. 12, Burrill will join an estimated 23,000 other runners, walkers and wheelchair competitors at the 33rd annual Honolulu Marathon.

Anyone who doubts an 86-year-old woman can walk 26.2 miles under the glare of a Hawaiian sun knows not a lick about the woman who grew up in sack-cloth dresses, who overcame polio, who earned a pilot's license as a grandmother, and who, when the mood strikes, will still take off alone into the mountains of her native Pacific Northwest or the deserts of Arizona or the wilds of Alaska.

"With my mom, it's not 'if' but 'when' she finishes," says Mike Burrill Sr., Glady's 62-year-old son. "I have no doubt she's going to finish."

Mike; his son, Mike Jr.; and Mike Jr.'s wife, Carolyn, will try to keep up with Glady on the course. Husband Eugene will be waiting for them at the finish line with their daughter, Gina. Friends and family from around the country will track her progress via the Internet.

Recently, Mike Sr. was asked by his Rotary Club to say a little something about what it will be like doing the marathon with his mother.

"I told them the truth," says Mike. "My mom is going to kick my (butt)."

In all fairness to Mike Sr., mom has kicked a lot of butts in her day.

Whether it was following her big brother all day around the family's 80-acre farm in Washington state as a child or walking seven miles to get to a high school dance, Glady always has been a nonstop engine of self-locomotion.

That was Glady the mother-to-be standing up in the stirrups on a 7-mile mountain trek so the horse she was riding wouldn't jostle her unborn baby. That was her not so long ago leaving her husband in the dust on a rocky Wyoming trail because she just couldn't bring herself to stop so long as there was a higher peak around the next bend. With each day and each new accomplishment, Glady exhibits reserves of strength and endurance that have made a mockery of traditional notions about the limitations of gender and age.

"I've always walked," says Glady, shrugging. "I was born walking."

Flour sacks, saw mills

Here's Glady in her spotless but homey studio apartment in Waikiki, a warm-weather home-away-from-home that she and Eugene bought a dozen years ago. It was on the lanai just outside the sliding doors that Glady and Eugene watched and listened to the start of last year's marathon. It was a spectacle Glady found so emotionally powerful that she knew she had to be a part of it.

"My husband and I thrive on challenges," she says. "He said to me, 'Why not try it?' "

Here's Glady with her blonde hair cut short around a long, lovely Nordic face that hides neither the soft weathering from a life spent under open skies nor the fleshy furrows left by a million of her quick, bright smiles. She wears a blue Nike running top, synthetic sweats and one of several pairs of Nike running shoes on which she allows herself to splurge.


• Age: 86.

• Height: 5-feet-6.

• Weight: 130 pounds.

• Family: Husband Eugene; children Celeste, Mike, Sandy, Kevin (deceased), Gina, and Helen; 18 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren.

• Training: Walks as few as three miles or as many as 12 miles daily, usually from her apartment in Waikiki along the marathon route. Once a week walks up to 20 miles with training partner Ed Scriven.

• Diet: Mostly vegetarian, with occasional chicken or fish. Avoids caffeine. Doesn't eat desserts. Race-day breakfast will probably include soy milk with Spiruteen and bananas.

• Injuries: Took three weeks off after injuring a heel while kicking a stubborn irrigation valve.

• She says: "When I saw the marathon last year, I said to myself, 'I've got to do this.'"

It's a childhood thing, perhaps: Glady remembers getting her first pair of patent-leather shoes at age 8; so sad was she when they started to age that she washed and scrubbed the soles trying to make them look new again.

Glady's address is direct but warm. Talk to her all day and you'll still never hear a word of self-pity or self-satisfaction — despite ample cause for both.

Glady is the youngest of six children born to immigrants from Finland, and the only one born in America. Her father died of consumption when she was just 2, a grim fulfillment of his prediction of the "sadness and tough times" ahead.

Held together by a strong mother and a strong faith in God, the family managed to maintain their sprawling dairy farm. Despite a bout with polio when she was 11, Glady embraced the hard work of the farm, milking the cows, baling hay and attending to other chores.

Still, money was always tight and feeding a family of seven was difficult.

"Growing up we ate a lot of bread, and my mother would use the flower sacks to make us dresses," Glady recalls. "They called us the flour-sack girls."

The family couldn't afford meat, but Glady's mother did buy bones for soup. Sometimes the meat man would stop by with his young brother-in-law, Eugene Burrill.

"I guess Gene saw me one day and liked me and decided that we were going to get married one day," Glady says.

Glady was 12 at the time; Eugene, 11. They married nine years later.

The Burrill name is well known in Oregon and Washington, largely because of the Eugene F. Burrill Lumber Co., the business Eugene and Glady started in 1941.

The mill proved that Eugene and Glady worked as well together in business as they did in marriage. Glady covered for Eugene when he would spend summers flying firefighting planes in Canada; he'd do the same when she'd take her vacations in Hawai'i.

The mill operated for 57 years before Eugene and Glady finally retired six years ago. These days, Eugene focuses his own considerable energies on restoring World War II-era planes.

Glady just keeps on walking.

One step at a time

To prepare for the marathon, Glady walks as many as a dozen miles a day, usually starting at her condominium in Waikiki, looping around Diamond Head and Kahala, and back. She also does an extra-long walk of up to 20 miles once a week with Ed Scriven, a family friend from back in Oregon.

Scriven has completed the past eight Honolulu Marathons. He usually runs the course in under five hours, but last year he was forced to walk because of an injury.

He'll walk again this year, but for a much better reason.

"My wife said to do it for Glady," says Scriven, 63. "For me, it will be a pleasure and an honor."

Scriven has known Glady and her family for 40 years. He admits that he was concerned about Glady's age when they started their training.

"But after walking with her over the summer, I have no doubts," Scriven says. "Her attitude is so good and she's in great shape. She just keeps plugging away."

Glady expects to finish the marathon in about seven hours, roughly three times as long as the likely winning time. The patience required to walk at her furious pace — a Honolulu Marathon Association staffer recently wore himself out trying to keep up with her — makes the challenge of the race as much mental as physical.

"When Gene and I had the mill we used to have to drive 300 miles to Portland," Glady says. "I thought I couldn't last the whole distance, but Gene told me to break it up. Think of getting to Roseburg, then to Eugene, then to Portland.

"That's what I do when I run now," she says. "I just think about getting to the next milestone."

For Glady, a Seventh-Day Adventist, walking is also a spiritual experience.

"God is important in my life," she says. "I do a lot of talking to him when I walk."

Glady hopes her marathon adventure will also speak to a generation of younger people for whom the outdoors is something to be held at bay by tinted windows and air-conditioning.

"I'd like them to care more about their health," she says. "Anybody can afford to walk. It's healthy and it's good therapy. Sometimes it seemed like the weight of the world was on my shoulders when I started, but when I got back I was so invigorated."

When Glady crosses the finish line on marathon day, family and friends plan on celebrating.

After all, Glady — being Glady — is plenty to be glad about.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.