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Harlem Running Legend Left a Lasting Impression Beyond Her Own Community

Ida Keeling died at age 106.

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Masters record-holder Ida Keeling didn’t have the typical trajectory of a track and field athlete. She’d been active all her life, and had loved riding bikes and jumping rope as a child growing up in Harlem, New York, but she only took up organized running at the age of 67. Keeling, who died on August 28 at 106 years old, started running at the urging of her daughter, Shelley Keeling, an avid runner herself. Shelley recognized that her mother was severely depressed, having tragically lost her husband to a heart attack and, later, her two sons to gun violence. So she signed herself and Keeling up for a local 5K in Brooklyn with only a day’s notice.

“Mother initially thought I was just bringing her to watch me run the race and was surprised when I showed up at her house with a pair of sneakers,” Shelley, now 70 and a longtime track and field coach at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in The Bronx, says. “I told her to just follow everyone else and had had no idea how her performance would be. But it never occurred to me that she couldn’t finish the race, since she’d always been extremely active.”

Keeling not only finished the race, but was immediately hooked on the sport, realizing how much lighter she felt, both physically and emotionally.

“She was all-in and said early into the race that she felt like she was running up and out of a hole, like someone had watered a plant that had not been watered in a long time,” Shelley says.

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From there, Keeling spent much of the next decade participating in local races, ranging in distance from 5Ks to four and five miles. Coached by Shelley, she ran about three days per week, often training with a masters group on the back hills in Van Cortland Park, which was close to her home in Harlem. Keeling would also accompany Shelley to track practices and events at Fieldston and participate in various competitions. One day, at age 77, she took part in a 100-meter event at Shelley’s son’s school. Shelley was astonished watching how fast her mother ran. Still, “Miss Ida,” as members of the Harlem running community affectionately called her, wasn’t pursuing records at the time, and was still running for pure enjoyment.

“It was the thrill and the joy and how good she felt that kept her running,” Shelley says. “She was extremely flexible and would say exercise and running were the best medicine.”

Ida Keeling celebrating a track race with her daughter
Ida Keeling, right, celebrating a track race with her daughter, Shelley. (Photo: Courtesy Shelley Keeley)

“I knew Ida through Shelley, after she brought her mother to the track at Fieldston one day in the early 2000s,” Zakia Haywood, a New York City–based runner and friend of the Keeling family, says. “Everyone was just amazed by this woman who was so full of energy, was so engaging, and had the brightest smile, and I remember being really captivated by her spirit, humbleness, and sense of humor.”

Eventually, Keeling stopped training for longer distances, with Shelley noting that her mother intuitively knew to listen to her body and not push herself too intensely. She continued to practice at the Fieldston track, which made Shelley feel more comfortable about keeping an eye on Keeling and giving her stretching exercises to do during this quality time together.

“If it did not feel good to her, she was not going to do it, and she did only as much as felt comfortable and to complete the distance that she knew she needed to run for the next race,” Shelley says.

Still, Shelley suspected Keeling had some speed in her, even though she was in her 90s. Out of curiosity, she researched what the 60-meter world record was for women in her age group of 90-94. She learned that there wasn’t one, which meant Keeling could obtain it just by pursuing it in an official race. In 2008, she did just that, setting her first world record at age 92 at the World Athletic Veterans’ Association (now known as World Masters Athletics) World Championships in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

As she got older, Keeling followed the same pattern for her subsequent age groups, setting records in the 95-99 and 100-104 categories. She even fractured her femur in 2017 and after surgery, rehab, and recovery, Keeling came back to set another 60-meter record in 2018, at age 102.

“She has a couple of records that still stand, but I always felt excited by the fact that her records were being broken, because that meant that she had inspired other centenarians just to get up and give it a go,” Shelley says. “And they did, and so I think that she is a great example of what can be. She always had high standards and was demanding and disciplined with me, and that lent itself to her goals.”

“I first heard about Miss Ida from a 2016 New York Times article, and I reached out to the author of the article immediately to get in touch because I was so inspired,” says Alison Désir, founder of Harlem Run in New York City and director of sports advocacy at Oiselle. “The fact that she lived in Harlem was a sign to me that I had to connect with her and celebrate her. For a woman who suffered so much hardship, you would never have known it. She was a light and a truly gifted athlete. Her story reminds me that you are never too old (or too anything) to start.”

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Haywood also shared a memory of attending the 2016 Penn Relays with Keeling in her attempt to break her age group’s world record for the 100-meter dash a week before her 101st birthday.

“When they got her on the field and announced her name and that she was 100 years old, the roar of the crowd was just overwhelming, and she inspired the hashtag #100wonder and became a racing celebrity from that point on,” Haywood says. “When she crossed the finish line, all the pros came down to shake her hand and take pictures with her. It was such a glorious moment to see.”

According to Shelley, Keeling absolutely credited her level of exercise and activity, along with her wholesome diet, to her longevity.

“She ate and drank everything [in terms of] fruits and vegetables, as well as small amounts of meat, and all of her body’s organs and systems were functioning in excellent condition,” Shelley says. “Mother called me her ‘recycled twin’ because of how much time we spent together and I’m absolutely inspired to prioritize my health and activity the same way.”

While continuing to inspire members of the community, Keeling also went on to publish her memoir, Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down: Chasing Myself in the Race Against Time, in 2018, which detailed her experiences living through the Great Depression and Civil Rights movements, surviving the tragic losses of her husband and sons, and her journey and pursuit of her running endeavors.

Although many members of the Harlem running community who knew Keeling said she showed them that it’s never too late to start something like running, Shelley noted that it wasn’t necessarily the message she nor Keeling would want to impart.

“It’s true that you’re never too old to do anything, but in all those years between 67 and 92 that Mother was running, there weren’t other women [competing against her], and that’s the void that I see in running,” Shelley says. “I would love to see more women starting sooner with more exercise, strength, and conditioning because [regular exercise] helps with things like bone density, sleep, and maintaining a healthy respiratory system.”

“Ultimately, her attitude was ‘Can’t nothing bring me down,’ which was also the title of her book,” Shelley says. “Her position would be don’t give up the fight. You’ve got to fight the good fight if you want to live a life where you are fulfilled.”

“Ida was independent and a queen in so many ways and it’s so hard to see her go. She was a prime example of how age is nothing but a number and you can live a full and robust life well into being a centenarian,” says Haywood. “She showed us that you can take your life and turn things around just by taking that first step forward. She will be missed so much.”

Shelley has set up a fundraiser in Keeling’s memory to raise money for athletic scholarships for high school athletes who show promise and potential in the 100-meter dash. To donate, visit the GoFundMe.