When the career of a track and field athlete comes to a close, few can accurately state they ever performed at a world-record level. It’s as exclusive of a group as you will find in the sport and Libby James has been able to place her name next to elite company well into her 70s.
Age-grading is popular among masters distance runners. A process similar to a handicap in the sport of golf, age-grading evens the playing field by combining a runner’s age and performance to determine a final number that is an athlete’s age-grade percentage. That percentage indicates the strength of the performance regardless of age. A 100 percent score is considered a world-record level performance.
At 76 years old James not only reached a handicapped world record level performance, but took the age grade to levels rarely seen. At the latest Disney Half Marathon, James ran a time of 1:45:52, which translated into an age-grade performance of 103.75 percent.
“It makes me feel so very fortunate that I can still run and I am still having fun with it,” James s
aid from her home in Fort Collins, Colo. “I have always been persistent about my running. Part of it is luck and part of it is being able to keep at it.”
To add context to the performance, according to USA Track & Field Masters Long Distance Running Chair Don Lein, the accomplishment was “a once in a blue moon kind of phenomenon.” Lein said of the near 14 million age-grade performances from 2012, just eight of those performances were over 100 percent and none were as high as James’ 103.75.
The top age-grade performance from 2012 was 103.12 percent, which was also held by James. Of the eight performances over 100 percent in 2012, four of them belonged to her, but none quite to the level of the time she ran at the Disney Half Marathon.
“In short, she is a phenomenal athlete, almost in a league of her own,” Lein said.
“I hadn’t really experienced it (age grading) until December of 2011,” James said. “We went to Seattle for the USATF Cross Country Championships when I heard about the age grade thing and I found out this was a big deal. But before it hadn’t really registered.”
James involvement as a masters distance athlete has been a continuous learning process. She didn’t start running until after the age of 40 and didn’t discover using racing flats for competition until 2009.
In addition to running, her life consists of being a freelance writer where she has authored or edited a total of six books. She also spends time on the unique hobby of creating art from used tea bags.
But as others may have slowed down, James’ involvement with running has increased over the years.
“When I turned 70 I thought I would quit, but I was having so much fun,” she said. “I guess I have the right physical makeup.”
Having the motivation to continue training and racing is easy for James as it has become a true family activity. She has two daughters, two sons, six grandsons and six granddaughters. She says three-fourths of them are consistently active in running. One reason she chose to pursue the Disney Half Marathon is that her son works for Disney and she previously traveled to Tokyo to do a marathon with her other son who lives there.
James has had little choice but to pay additional attention to age-grade performances with all of the added attention she is receiving. She set a high standard for herself in 2012 to attempt to repeat this year.
“I am impressed with the people that are into all of the statistics,” she said. “I am now paying more attention to those numbers.”