The late-April crowd at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field rose to its feet, more than 44,000 cheering Ida Keeling on as she moved closer to a world record with every step.
And when Keeling, who turned 101 Sunday, leaned into her daughter’s arms after crossing the finish line at the 122nd Penn Relays, she had made history and gained a legion of new fans along the way, from local spectators to Olympic gold medalists. With a time of 1 minute 17.33 seconds in the 100-meter race for mixed masters age 80 and over, Keeling set a world record in the distance for women ages 96-100 — which she later celebrated by doing push-ups on the infield as the crowd roared.
“That was wonderful,” Keeling said in a recent phone interview. “It was great help, because most of the time I don’t hear anything when I’m running. But that was all around me, so I couldn’t miss it.”
For her efforts, Keeling, who lives by herself in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City, was named the USA Track and Field Athlete of the Week, and her story continues to resonate. But don’t think that the great-great grandmother is slowing down any time soon.
“I feel that I’m still at it,” she said. “I’m still picking up speed. I just go with the flow, go with what I have. That’s all I can do: take care and do the best I can with what you have. And I think I’m doing pretty good.”
Keeling exercises every morning before even getting out of bed. She’ll kick her legs up, twist and lift her back up while reaching over her head, displaying a level of flexibility that many people a quarter her age can only imagine. Afterward, Keeling will eat a breakfast of oats with raisins and a touch of cinnamon. She’ll occasionally drink orange juice with cod liver oil or blend her own vegetable juice. Her approach to food is “eat for nutrition, not for taste.”
She still cooks her own meals (lamb is her favorite dish) at her studio apartment and avoids food with lots of salt, grease or sugar.
“I have to keep my body healthy,” said Keeling, who stands at 4 feet 6 inches and weighs 83 pounds. “I try to eat as plain as possible.”
Depending on the weather, Keeling will either train on the track at the nearby Fieldston School, where her daughter, Shelley, is the track and field and cross country coach, or stay in and exercise on her stationary bike, while adding in weight training with dumbbells. Keeling estimates that she gets on the track about twice a week.
Running was not always a part of her life, though. In the late 1970s, Keeling, whose husband passed away from a heart attack in 1958 at age 42, learned that her son, Donald, had died, as detailed in a recent New York Times article. About two years later, her other son, Charles, was also killed. Both incidents have been suspected to be drug-related, and neither has been solved.
Keeling started running at age 67 to cope with her losses and joined Shelley for what she called a “mini-run” — a 5K race through Brooklyn.
“When I got back, I felt like I was getting stronger. I felt more relieved,” Keeling recalled. “I felt like things weren’t as bad as they were.”
She started going on Saturday-morning runs with Shelley and her friends at Van Cortlandt Park and no longer felt that she was running away from what she described as a “deep hole.” Running had instead become an activity she enjoyed simply for the exercise, for the way it made her feel.
“Mommy, she will not let anything keep her down,” said 64-year-old Shelley, her mother’s coach. “She’s resilient. She is absolutely resilient and determined. And I like that about her. She’s not fearful.”
Indeed, she is not done seeking records. She and Shelley will be going for more this summer in New York.
“Don’t feel like you’re too old or you’re tired or nothing,” Keeling said. “Just keep going. You can’t keep moaning and squirming and all that. Keep doing what you can do. Don’t ever say, ‘I’m too old.’ Just say, ‘I’m young.’
“Young is in your head. Not old age and tired. Talking about ‘you’re old’ and all of a sudden you’ll feel feeble and tired. … You just have to be strong for yourself.”