New York runner is a world record holder at age 100

Great-great- grandmother Ida Keeling holds the fastest time for American women aged 95 to 99 in the 60m dash. On April 30, she broke the world record for centenarians in the 100m dash.
Great-great- grandmother Ida Keeling holds the fastest time for American women aged 95 to 99 in the 60m dash. On April 30, she broke the world record for centenarians in the 100m dash.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Ms Shelley Keeling watching her mother, Ms Ida Keeling, doing push-ups. To maintain her health, the centenarian follows a stringent regimen of diet and exercise.
Ms Shelley Keeling watching her mother, Ms Ida Keeling, doing push-ups. To maintain her health, the centenarian follows a stringent regimen of diet and exercise.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Her daughter coaxed her to run at 67 after she became depressed over the deaths of two sons

On a cloudless Sunday afternoon last month, a 100-year-old woman named Ida Keeling laced up her mustard yellow sneakers and took to the track at the Fieldston School in the Bronx in New York City.

Her arrival was met without fanfare. In fact, no one in the stands seemed to notice her at all.

It was possible the spectators were distracted by the girls' soccer game taking place on the field.

Or perhaps they were simply unaware that Ms Keeling is a reigning national champion.

When she runs, Ms Keeling occupies a lane all her own.

She has held several track-and-field records since she began racing in her late 60s, and she still has the fastest time for American women aged 95 to 99 in the 60m dash: 29.86sec.

SAYING NO TO SEDENTARY LIFE

I was pretty fast as a girl. What makes me faster now is that everyone else has slowed down.

MS IDA KEELING, who broke the world record for her 100-plus age group in the 100m dash, with a time of 1min 17sec.

On April 30, the great-great- grandmother competed in the 100m dash at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

She broke the world record for her 100-plus age group, coming in in a time of 1min 17sec.

"You see so many older people just sitting around - well, that's not me," said Ms Keeling, who is barely 1.4m tall and weighs 37kg. "Time marches on, but I keep going."

She was not always such an accomplished runner. As a child growing up in Harlem, she preferred riding bikes or jumping rope.

With Title IX half a century away, there were few opportunities for girls, let alone black girls, to play organised sports. In 1972, landmark legislation (Title IX) in the United States banned sex discrimination in schools, whether in academics or athletics.

When she did run, it was always to race, never to exercise.

"I was pretty fast as a girl," she said. "What makes me faster now is that everyone else has slowed down."

A NEW BEGINNING

Good Lord, I thought that race was never going to end but, afterwards, I felt free. I just threw off all of the bad memories, the aggravation, the stress.

MS IDA KEELING, on completing her first 5km race when she was 67.

'Now I am just chasing myself - there's no one else to compete with'

When the Depression hit, her athletic inclinations receded into memory, supplanted by a series of jobs washing windows and babysitting for neighbours.

Her family, who for years lived in cramped quarters in the back of her father's grocery, was forced into even more humbling circumstances when the store went out of business. Her father began peddling fruit and vegetables from a pushcart for a living.

"I learnt to stand on my own two feet during the Depression," she said. "It taught you to do what you had to do without anyone doing it for you."

Her resilience only deepened with time. After her husband died of a heart attack at age 42, she was left to raise their four children on her own. She moved the family into a one-bedroom apartment in a Harlem housing project and took up work sewing in a factory, all the while contending with the abuses and indignities endured by black women in mid-20th-century America.

As the civil rights movement took shape, she became an active demonstrator, shuttling her children to Malcolm X speeches and boarding a pre-dawn bus for the 1963 March on Washington.

"I always understood from Mother that you die on your feet rather than live on your knees," said her daughter, Ms Shelley Keeling.

Over time, that resolve was gravely tested.

While serving overseas in the navy, Ms Ida Keeling's older son, Donald, developed a crippling drug addiction that he struggled to shed even after returning home to Harlem.

His habit ensnared his younger brother, Charles, who had served in the army.

Ms Keeling watched in horror as both boys, barrel-chested charmers whose friends joked they looked like superheroes, withdrew into the world of drugs.

In 1978, she received a call from the police informing her that Donald had been hanged. Around two years later, the phone rang again: Charles was dead - beaten in the street with a baseball bat.

Both killings were suspected to be drug-related; neither was ever solved. "I've never felt a pain so deep," she said, her voice lowering to a whisper.

"I couldn't make sense of any of it and things began to fall apart."

UNHEALTHY SPIRAL

As she fell into a deep depression, her health began to falter.

Her blood pressure shot up, along with her heart rate.

The image of her once-vital mother in such despair shook the younger Ms Keeling.

A lifelong track-and-field athlete whose trophies filled an entire room of her apartment, she intervened with the means of healing most familiar to her: running.

"It was trial by fire," said Ms Shelley Keeling, 64, who has coached track and field at Fieldston for 21 years. "Based on where she was emotionally, it just had to be."

After some coaxing from her daughter, Ms Keeling, then 67, registered for a 5km race through Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City.

It had been decades since she had last gone running.

The two women took off together, but the younger Ms Keeling soon darted to the front of the pack as her mother drifted far behind.

After a suspenseful respite, she was relieved to see her mother scamper across the finish line, barely out of breath.

"Good Lord, I thought that race was never going to end but, afterwards, I felt free," the older Ms Keeling recalled. "I just threw off all of the bad memories, the aggravation, the stress."

So began the sunset career of Ms Ida Keeling, at a time when most of her peers were settling in for a future of seated yoga or abandoning athletics altogether.

In the decades since, she has travelled across the world for competitions.

She often races alone, the only contestant in her age group.

"Now I'm just chasing myself - there's no one else to compete with," she said. "It's wonderful, but it feels a little crazy."

Running gives her a sense of serenity, she said.

Her sinewy arms urge her body forward, each stride stronger than the last as she picks up momentum.

Though she has developed arthritis and occasionally relies on a cane while walking, she betrays none of her ailments as she runs.

To maintain her health, she adheres to a stringent regimen of diet - "I eat for nutrition, not for taste" - and exercise - "I've got to get my hour in every day".

On a recent afternoon, Ms Shelley Keeling led her mother through a routine that included push-ups, wall sits, shoulder presses and sprints back and forth on the balcony of her apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

The older Ms Keeling lives alone and says that self-sufficiency is a key to her longevity.

"I don't beg nobody for nothing," she said. "I wash, cook, iron, scrub, clean, mop and shop."

She eschews food products with preservatives, favouring fresh grains and produce, along with limited portions of meat.

Desserts are rarities, and a tablespoon of cod-liver oil supplements breakfast most mornings.

Despite her exceptional discipline, she allows herself one indulgence. "This is putting gas in the car," she said before downing a tall shot of Hennessy.

There are days when she battles a surge of arthritis or a hint of melancholy. "I never want to go backwards," she said. "I'm a forward type of person."

As she navigated the track at Fieldston, a nasty cramp shot up her right leg, hobbling her gait.

For a moment she seemed to hesitate as she let out a deep sigh and slowed her pace.

And then she dispensed with the pain the only way she knew how. She ran through it.

THE NEW YORK TIMES


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'NY runner is a world record holder at age 100'. Print Edition | Subscribe