On a cloudless Sunday afternoon in April, 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. Her arrival was met without fanfare. In fact, no one in the stands seemed to notice her at all.
It is 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 ages 95 to 99 in the 60-meter dash:29.86 seconds. In the week to come, she plans to compete in a 100-meter event at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, where she hopes to establish a new standard for women over 100 years old.
“You see so many older people just sitting around — well, that’s not me,” said Ms. Keeling, who is barely 4-foot-6 and weighs 83 pounds. “Time marches on, but I keep going.”
Ms. Keeling 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 organized sports. 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 slowed down.”
When the Depression hit, Ms. Keeling’s athletic inclinations receded into memory, supplanted by a series of jobs washing windows and babysitting for neighbors. 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 and her father began peddling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart for a living.
“I learned 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.”
Ms. Keeling’s resilience only deepened with time. After her husband died of a heart attack at 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, Ms. Keeling became an active demonstrator, shuttling her children to Malcolm X speeches and boarding a predawn 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 Shelley Keeling.
Over time, that resolve was gravely tested. While serving overseas in the Navy, Ms. 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 who friends joked looked like superheroes, withdrew into the world of drugs.
In 1978, Ms. Keeling 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,” Ms. Keeling recalled, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I couldn’t make sense of any of it and things began to fall apart.”
As Ms. Keeling 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 fill an entire room of her apartment, she intervened with the means of healing most familiar to her: running.
“It was trial by fire,” recalled 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 five-kilometer race through Brooklyn. 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,” Ms. Keeling recalled. “I just threw off all of the bad memories, the aggravation, the stress.”
So began the sunset career of 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 traveled 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 Ms. Keeling 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, Ms. Keeling betrays none of her ailments as she runs.
To maintain her health, Ms. Keeling 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, 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. 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.”
Ms. Keeling eschews food products with preservatives, favoring 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, Ms. Keeling allows herself one indulgence. “This is putting gas in the car,” she said before downing a tall shot of Hennessy.
There are days when Ms. Keeling 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. But then Ms. Keeling dispensed with the pain the only way she knew how. She ran through it.
Author: Noah Remnick