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This 96-Year-Old’s Competitive Fire Stoked by Virtual Racing

Betty Lindberg spent her COVID-19 summer setting world bests.

Even when COVID-19 canceled all of Betty Lindberg’s upcoming races for masters running, the 96-year-old grandmother of three didn’t let that stop her. Instead, she took to the roads in her Atlanta neighborhood to pursue a new challenge: virtual races.

Over the course of two weeks, from August 3 to 17, Lindberg completed not one, but seven races: the 50-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1-mile, and 5K. The events were part of the 2020 USATF Masters Virtual Summer Challenge.

With no access to a track, Lindberg and her 69-year-old daughter plotted out each event’s course along neighborhood streets. After routes were selected, the duo tackled the distances together. Lindberg’s daughter taught her how to use her new phone—an iPhone 11—and Apple watch to track the events. If she was pleased with her finish time, she would submit it, along with photographic evidence, to USATF. If Lindberg was not content, she would tackle the distance again, on another day. With no cheering crowds or finisher prizes, Lindberg said she raced purely for fun.

“It was just good to be able to go out and have some competition and give it a try,” Lindberg said.

Even without the physical presence of competitors, Lindberg still found ways to challenge herself. Before each race, Lindberg, an active member of Atlanta Track Club’s Masters team, looked up the current masters running world records for her events. Her goal was simple: to beat them all. Lindberg said she was successful, setting a new, but unofficial, world record in almost every event.

Shattering world records is nothing new for Lindberg.

In May 2016 at the Atlanta Track Club’s All Comers meet, Lindberg, 91 at the time, completed the 800-meter race in 6:57.56. Lindberg had bettered the previous 90+ age group record by less than two seconds but was oblivious to her accomplishment.

The next morning, Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah called Lindberg to share the news.

“I was astonished, absolutely flabbergasted. I didn’t even know there were records to be beaten. It was just a big surprise,” Lindberg said.

Since her accidental achievement, Lindberg has set another world best (in the mile) and numerous American records (in the 200-meter, 400-meter, and 5K). But Lindberg wasn’t always a decorated runner. In fact, until she was 63, Lindberg described herself as a “couch potato.”

In 1987, after driving family members to the start of the AJC Peachtree Road Race, the nation’s largest 10K, Lindberg was intrigued.

“I’d never even heard of the Peachtree. I didn’t know anything about it,” Lindberg said. “I thought, who is getting up on the Fourth of July to do this? I thought it was real interesting and that I could do it.”

Soon after, Lindberg started training with her husband by running around their neighborhood. The following year they finished the AJC Peachtree Road Race, and 2020 marks Lindberg’s 30th time completing the event. This year’s race looks slightly different. Due to the global pandemic, the race has shifted from Independence Day to a virtual event on Thanksgiving. Despite the modification, Lindberg, who typically completes the race with family, plans to keep that tradition consistent.

Betty Lindberg has been masters running for more than 30 years.
Photo: Courtesy Betty Lindberg

Lindberg, who lives alone following the death of her husband in 2006, said that running has given her purpose during the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine just staying in the house and not being able to go out do anything. I’ve got something to look forward to every day. I feel lucky every morning I wake up,” Lindberg said.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, Lindberg and her daughter run three miles together to get “warmed up a bit.”

“I’m careful. I go over to see my daughter, but we keep our distance,” Lindberg said.

Thanks to social distancing and mask wearing, Lindberg meets with a personal trainer in a limited capacity gym three times a week for 30-45 minutes. With a focus on strength training and endurance, Lindberg exercises using weights and ropes and doing toe touches.

“My theory is you’ve got to keep moving. That’s what I tell everybody. You don’t want to sit down. Once you stop, you’re not going to get up again. I hope I can just keep it up,” Lindberg said.

But that doesn’t mean Lindberg neglects her off days; Saturdays are solely dedicated for rest.

“I go get my hair done! Everybody needs a rest day.”

Lindberg said she also believes that people should indulge in cheat foods every so often. Her ideal splurge is a hamburger and French fries.

“Once in a great while, I pull into a McDonald’s or a Checkers and say, ‘OK, today, I’m going to really live it up.’”

Lindberg said she has been blessed with good health and no serious medical issues, aside from a hip replacement a few years ago, which now “works just real fine.”

“I’m really lucky, and I think maybe the running that I started may have helped me along,” Lindberg said.

She plans to keep racing for as long as she can, with aspirations to beat the world bests, this time officially.

“I know I’ve done it, so I’ve got to get it when it can be official. Let’s get these races going again!” Lindberg said.