In a community loaded with strong runners of all ages, 53-year-old Bellingham businessman Henry James has one of the most unusual running resumes in Whatcom County.
James is the epitome of the classic late bloomer, having returned to running only 10 years ago after experiencing little sports success in high school other than in wrestling.
Make that a versatile late bloomer, since he has won local, state and national master's honors at whatever distance he decided to focus on running in recent years.
"I'm a better runner now than I was in high school," said James, who qualified for the state wrestling championships twice at Everett High School but was not a standout in track or cross country.
He doesn't have any trouble explaining his motivation: "If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I did my best,' that's a pretty darned good feeling."
Despite a tender ankle, the former national master's medalist hopes to have that feeling on Saturday, Sept. 10, in his second crack at the Fairhaven Runners Waterfront 15K.
"I really enjoyed my first time in the race last year," said James, an erstwhile sprinter and middle distance runner who finished second in the men's 50-54 division and averaged a little over six minutes a mile for the 9.3-mile course. "It's such a beautiful race."
With three children and a wife of 26 years, James is a devoted family man and coaches youth soccer, so he hasn't been able to compete in every race he would like in the past decade.
Nonetheless, his accomplishments have been nothing less than amazing since returning to running two decades after he graduated from Western Washington University in 1981 with a degree in computer science and a varsity letter in wrestling.
"I remember why I returned to running. I had a friend, Monique Brown, who was training for a marathon 10 years ago," he said. "She told me, 'If I can train for a marathon, you can train for one.' Stacy encouraged me to go for it, so I did."
There was one problem, however - "I wasn't plugged into the local running community, and I really didn't know what I was doing. I just found some programs online and went out to run on my own."
The result at the 2002 Portland Marathon "was not a very good experience," James said. "I cramped up, and I found I wasn't very well prepared."
But his pride wouldn't let him quit running. He found a local running club coached by longtime Canadian master's running standout Diane Palmason.
"Diane taught me a lot and suggested I compete in track," James said. "In 2004, I did my first masters meet, the Seattle Masters Classic, and I won the 400 meters with the third fastest (46-50 division) time in the nation - 52 seconds. I also won the 200 and the 800."
James had successfully scratched the running itch, but little did he know there was a lot more to come after taking a couple of years off serious training to focus on other aspects of his busy family, professional and coaching lives.
"I couldn't stop running. I decided I wanted to keep running and establish a base of fitness, so I started running again in 2007," said James, who joined the Greater Bellingham Running Club not long after.
Since then, "fit" has become an understatement when describing the personable runner.
In 2008, he decided he had more goals in sprinting. He won the 400 at the Washington State Senior Games with a meet record "of 54 seconds or so." Then he finished second in the 400 at the U.S. Masters Championships in Spokane.
"I remember how nervous I was at the U.S. meet," he said. "My son B.J. came down and sat with me, and he gave me a special bracelet to wear for good luck. It really helped take my nervousness away."
Now he wears special bracelets for luck, such as the blue one given to him by the girls on the Rangers U18 Blue team he helps coach with Dean Haverstraw.
James scratched his running itch again in 2009, only this time he focused on the 800. He took the Washington State Senior Games title in a meet record, then won both the 800 and the 400 in the Senior Nationals at Stanford University, setting a meet mark in the 800.
"That was too far to go for only one race," James said with a grin, explaining why he couldn't resist running both events at age 51.
To no one's surprise, he tackled yet another new challenge, the 1,500 meters, in 2010. He went to the Senior World Huntsman Games in Utah last fall and not only finished second in the 1,500, but won the 800.
What's ahead? Something different, of course.
"I've never won a road race," he said, while talking about - what else? - his fast-developing affection not only for running road races, but for road biking as well.
"I just starting cycling a few months ago and I love it," said James, who finished second in his age group earlier this summer at the Lake Padden Duathlon, a run-bike-run event. "It really is all about the personal challenge. To see if I can train hard enough and prepare myself well enough to hit the time I want to hit."
FAIRHAVEN RUNNERS WATERFRONT 15K
When: 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10
Start/finish line: Fairhaven
Registration: $25 (closes Sept. 8)