Libby James: A Long-Running Sensation
A small bookcase sits against a wall in Libby James' Fort Collins, Colorado, dining room. The shelves are full of running memorabilia and championship hardware that the 77-year-old has collected over the years. Pieces of pottery from one of her favorite local road races are scattered about in various modes of practical use. In her kitchen, a medal from her epic run up 7,815 feet at Pikes Peak Ascent is embedded into her concrete counter thanks to a custom design.
Standing just over 5 feet tall, this freelance writer and children's book author is one of the most accomplished distance runners on the planet. On the master's circuit, where times are age-graded for the purpose of comparison, akin to a handicap in golf, James tops just about everyone. In age-graded scoring, 90 percent or higher is considered world class. James regularly clocks times at or better than 100 percent. In the most literal sense, she's in a league of her own.
The matriarch of a large and growing family, she is a mother to four children, now in their late 40s and early 50s, as well as a grandmother to 12. Although running has become a family affair, James didn't even enter her first race until she was 40. At the time, none of them would have predicted that James' running career would make such an indelible mark on the family. Not to mention the record books.
Making of a champion
Born in Brentwood outside of London, in 1936, James came to the United States at the age of 4 with her American father and English mother when World War II broke out. After some back and forth between the two countries, the family settled in Seattle for a number of years, then moved to Philadelphia, where James finished high school.
She pursued a degree in English at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she met her husband, Dave. After graduation, they moved west to Colorado, where they had four children in five years, two boys and two girls. In addition to caring for the children, James found time to earn a master's degree in Western American literature, teach at a local community college and work as a journalist. Although she says she wasn't athletic growing up, she often joined her husband to play tennis and ski.
Then, in 1972, 35-year-old James read an article about running.
"I remember reading it and thinking, 'I'd like to try that,'" she said.
With a house full of teenagers, James would wake up early every morning and log a 1-mile run around the city park lake near their home in Fort Collins.
"She would get up, go run, shower and have breakfast ready for us before we got up," said her younger son, Jeff James, who is the vice president of the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. "She'd already have three loads of laundry done and would have made homemade yogurt and bread. We didn't think it was abnormal to have a supermom."
Libby James soon began building distance, and, when she reached the age of 40, a friend encouraged her to enter her first race at a park in Fort Collins.
"Back then women just weren't supposed to be competitive, and I had never seen myself as a competitive person," James said. "I eventually realized that maybe being competitive wasn't a bad thing and it was OK for me to see what I could do."
Enjoying the experience of racing, the next year she made her first attempt at the 26.2-mile distance at the 1978 Denver Marathon. "I read about marathons and thought, 'That's impossible!' It seemed so impossible, I wanted to try it," she said.
"I remember when she trained for that first marathon," said Jeni James Arndt, her youngest child, who lives in Fort Collins and is currently doing a different kind of running -- for state representative. "I was in junior high, and she and her friend would go out and run that 1-mile course 20 times with water at each end."
Clocking her debut marathon in 3 hours, 48 minutes, James was inspired to pursue a Boston Marathon entry. The only problem was, there was no classification for women over 40.
"I wrote the race director and he wrote back and said if I could run in the 3:30s he would let me in," she said. "So I ran a 3:39:47 in Denver, and I paid my $5 entry fee to run Boston."
Better with age
Into her 50s and 60s, James continued entering races from the mile to the marathon, logging times that were remarkable, mostly for the fact that they weren't significantly slowing with age. By 2009, she ran her first American record in the 70-74 age division at the Bolder Boulder 10K. Finishing in 48:55, she bested the previous record by almost two minutes.
It wasn't until 2011, when she logged her first world record for the 75-79 age group, running 1:19:22 at the Aetna Park to Park 10 Miler in Denver, that she was even aware she was setting records.
It seemed so impossible, I wanted to try it.Libby James, on running her first marathon
"When we got home from the race, my daughter Jeni got on the Internet and looked it up, otherwise we wouldn't have known," she said. "It's a lot of fun, but I don't spend my life chasing records."
Still, in 2011 she won the 75-79 age group at the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships with a 100.4 percent age-graded score, helping her team win a national title. In 2012 she snagged the American 5K record, running 23:34 in Albany, New York.
In 2012 she was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame and has since run a world record in the half marathon at the 2013 Walt Disney World Half Marathon, running 1:45:56, an age-graded performance of 103.75 percent. According to USA Track and Field, of the 14 million age-graded performances the year before, only eight were above 100 percent, and four of those belonged to James. She also was recently named the 2013 Masters Road Runner of the Year by Running Times and Road Runners Club of America.
Most recently, this past weekend, James snagged the 12K American record in the 75-79 age division at the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Washington. Running 1:01:11, she bested the 8-year-old record by 41 seconds. Next up is the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 26.
"At 77, she's a world-class stud," said Jeff, who greeted his mom at the finish of the Disney Half. "The funny part is that she stands probably 5 foot, 2 inches, just a tiny, little thing, and she looks calm and nice and motherly, but when you put her in the race environment, she turns into this animal. When she gets into race mode, get out of her way."
All in the family
There's no doubt most of the James clan caught the running bug from Libby. When Kristin, Jeff, Kurt and Jeni talk about their mom, their reverence is marked by a sense of humor they undoubtedly developed from getting regularly beat by someone who was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
"In August 2013, she ran a 6:58 mile, and when I asked her how she did it, her reply was, 'You really should be beating me by now,'" Kristin Lee, the eldest sibling -- who works for a telecommunications company in Cheyenne, Wyoming -- said with a laugh. "I agree I should be beating her, but I can't. And, yes, I do try."
Kurt, the second oldest, who lives in Tokyo and ran the Tokyo Marathon with his mom in 2012, said, "She kicked my butt, as expected."
"I beat her twice in races, and I vomited after," Jeni said. "I'm not going to do that again."
Even the grandkids joke about trying to outrun their grandmother. When Kristin's 24-year-old son, Adam, managed to finish ahead of her at the annual Thanksgiving Day race the entire family runs together, he laughed and said, "It was the happiest day of my life."
"One year my high school cross country team ran the Race for the Cure, and I started with my grandma," said Kristin's daughter, Amy. "I start races with her but never finish with her. She would have been third fastest on my high school team."
"When you lose to Mom, it doesn't matter," Kurt said, "because almost everybody loses to her. So you're in good company."
Despite the good-hearted banter, the family reserves a special sense of wonder when it comes to James' accomplishments.
"She is a tremendous role model for all of us, not just in her running but in all aspects of her life," Kristin said.
"She's absolutely inspiring," Jeni said. "It seeps into your bones, and running has become a family affair."
Libby James says that, although she hopes to be setting a good example, it's not why she runs. Throughout life and all of its triumphs and heartbreaks, running has been a constant. She still regularly takes a long weekend run of about 10 miles and goes 4-6 miles most other days.
"I love being outside and having time to think and work out issues," she said. "I ran when my husband was sick and having heart surgeries; I ran in Japan the morning my son got married; and I ran the day after my husband died. It has really played a big role in my life."
The remarkable part is that her children and grandchildren have absorbed important lessons about life through James' commitment to her running practice.
"You just hope that is who you are going to be when you are her age," Adam said.
Amy added, "It's hard to describe her. She's just so impressive, there's really no equivalent."