Mary Jo Brinkman Runs the World

Jul 1, 2024 | Featured, People


“I’ve never had a runner’s high; it’s a struggle. It’s never been easy. It’s mind over matter every time.”

In 2005, Mary Jo McDermott Brinkman could barely make it around the track at Marvin Altman Fitness Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And no wonder. She’d already survived a spin class and climbed a flight of stairs. What more could you expect from a sixty-three-year-old?

Mary Jo, now eighty-two, had grown up on her family’s farm in Colon, Nebraska, a town of approximately 100. From her parents, she’d learned tenacity and hard work. From her genetic makeup, she’d inherited a competitive spirit. Mary Jo did not like to be outdone.

As a girl, she’d attended a one-room school where she learned to speak fluent German. When it was time for college, she attended St. Mary’s in Omaha, the same place her mother, a teacher, had gone. The closest she’d gotten to physical activity was playing saxophone in the marching band.

Even the dress code discouraged rigorous exercise. When she and her classmates (St. Mary’s is a women’s college) were taken outside to stretch their limbs, they wore what she describes as pantaloons—modest attire but not the least bit practical.

“I don’t think there were any sports for girls back then,” Mary Jo says and shrugs. She is perched on a plush chair in her living room, wearing a slim black and white shift dress. Her eyes are brilliant blue.

By the time she was in her early sixties, Mary Jo had begun to gain a few pounds. Small-boned and only 5’3”, she knew she had to do something. In 2005, she found herself in a class at Marvin Altman taught by Susan Coon. “I started in her spin class. Then she added the stairs, and one day, Susan said, ‘Let’s run.’ The faster ones were up ahead; she stayed back with me.”

Mary Jo knew she could do better. One day, she’d keep up with the faster classmates. After that, who knew?

In 2006, she found herself at her first marathon in San Diego. “My legs gave out at Mile 18, and I had to walk in.” The standard length of a marathon is 26.2 miles. Runners have six hours to complete the course.

Sixty-four by then, she could barely walk the following day. “But I trained really hard, and the next January, I ran Dallas.” It was there she qualified for the 2007 Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest such race. She’s now run the Boston Marathon five times. Mary Jo was there on April 15, 2013, when the Boston bombing occurred. More than 26,000 athletes from across the globe were running.

“I was about five miles from the finish line, and I had taken my shoe off because it hurt so bad. I never ever stopped that far into the race, but I think that’s what saved me. I was very close.”

The first homemade bomb detonated about five hours into the race. Twelve seconds later, the second bomb exploded.

It took Mary Jo a bit to realize what was going on. “The police told me to stop, and I didn’t. After you’ve run twenty-some miles, things don’t register. People were coming back toward me, and I wondered what they were doing. Finally, a policeman said to me, ‘Ma’am, there is no finish line; it’s been blown up. People are dead.’”

Up ahead was the bus that had taken runners to the starting line in Hopkinton. It had moved past the finish line in Boston to pick up those same passengers, and Mary Jo’s things were inside. “I got to the bus and found my bag, and they started yelling, ‘Drop those bags, there could be bombs in them! Get out of here! Walk, get a ride, go!’”

Cell service was shut off. The city was in lockdown. Air traffic was restricted, and buildings were being evacuated. Every route to Mary Jo’s hotel was barricaded. Someone had wrapped a foil blanket around her shoulders. Ambulances screamed in the background. It was chaos.

The crime scene covered fifteen square blocks. Three spectators were murdered, the youngest an eight-year-old boy. More than 280 were injured, 100 of them seriously. The FBI was called in to investigate. Two brothers were identified as the domestic terrorists responsible for the devastation. One was killed in a shootout with police. The other was sentenced to death and now sits inside a prison cell.

Mary Jo was seventy-one years old at the time. She raced in Boston the following spring. Not once did she consider not going.

In the eighteen years since Mary Jo has been running the world, she’s competed in more than thirty marathons in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Her Berlin run almost didn’t happen. While training in 2022, Mary Jo fell, gashing her head and injuring her knee. “Dr. Tobey looked at the MRI. He said my knee looked a lot like a football injury, where a helmet hits a knee. I wasn’t able to run for months, but I could bicycle.”

Cycling was enough. Mary Jo made it to Berlin, finishing in five hours and thirty-seven minutes. In her heyday, she could run a marathon in four hours and fifteen minutes, but slowing down is a natural consequence of aging.

She’s run past the Eiffel Tower in Paris, through Dublin, in Madrid, across London. Not that it’s been easy. In her early seventies, she developed sciatica. Mary Jo’s had knee problems. Through it all, she’s learned to respect her body. If there’s trepidation, it’s this. “I fear falling. I look down at my feet a lot. It’s not great posture. I don’t do trail running; I’m too clumsy. I have to stay on the road.”

Earlier in 2024, she finished the Tokyo run, the last leg of six prestigious races (London, Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, New York City) that ushered her into an elite group of athletes. She smiles as she holds the medal she received after that race, the Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Championship award. She is officially one of the world’s greatest runners.

Mary Jo brushes back her thick, shoulder-length hair from her face. She lifts another award – the Abbott World Marathon Majors Six Star medal – from a nearby wooden table, and it covers her small palm. Only 17,000 runners have earned the award since its inception in 2006.

In 2025, she plans to run the London Marathon again. Mary Jo runs nearly every morning. On Monday nights, she runs with her team from the Western Arkansas Runners. On Thursday nights, she’s with the True Grit Runners. Mary Jo still cycles at Marvin Altman, and her daughter, Bridget, a yoga instructor, helps keep her in shape. Her son Sean, once an All-State track star at Southside High, gives her occasional tips.

Others pace themselves. That doesn’t work for Mary Jo. “I run as hard as I can, as long as I can. I don’t get tired, but things start to hurt.” The strategy was especially helpful in Tokyo, where runners were timed as they ran. The ones going too slowly were pulled from the marathon.

Mary Jo works full-time at Baptist Health. Retirement is not in her future. She’s unsure what to do with an entire day without a plan. Her free time is spent with family, especially her grandson, Leo, who recently graduated from the fifth grade. The two have even run a marathon together.

“I thank God every hour of every day for my life,” Mary Jo says of her longevity and good health. “I’m in His presence. And one day, when I’m not here anymore, I’ll be with Him.”

In the Bible, Christians are advised to fight the good fight and finish the race. Keep the faith. Mary Jo may be the best example. Her feet are swift, her faith strong, and her heart uncompromised. Mary Jo’s race, though, is far from finished.

Mary Jo helps organize the 5K and 10K Stampede Run in Fort Smith, held September 21, 2024. For information, visit The Stampede on Facebook.

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Mary Jo Brinkman


Do South Magazine

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