Chasing Herself in the Race Against Time

At 102 years old, Ida Keeling is still moving forward.

“Exercising is one of the best things ever came out in the world,” said a passionate Ida Keeling, “Just keeps you moving and keeps you functioning all over.”

Ida’s drive has come through a lifetime of hardship, struggles, and something she picked up from her father.

“I think I was something like him,” said Ida regarding her father. “He don't let nothing keep him down.”

Born in 1915, Ida grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, not far from Harlem. Her parents owned a grocery store and were able to provide for Ida and her seven siblings.

“Those are special days,” said Ida reflecting on her youth, “So, everything was great. The schools were good.  You had good friends. Harlem was a beautiful place during some of my childhood.”

Her parents were also Christians, who taught them the values of faith, hard work and perseverance. They would need all of these traits when in October 1929, the Great Depression began.

“So he (her father) lost the store and he lost the house.  You don't even think about it until you get old enough to realize what a depression really is,” said Ida. “Two words came up back there, ‘make do.’ I just go with the flow and do the best you can with what you've got.”

Her father began selling produce out of a cart and they found a new apartment. To help the family, Ida looked for work. But jobs were scare, especially for a teenage African American female.

“Going in there and ask for a job, they would come tell you that, ‘We don't hire coloreds.’  What kind of foolishness is that?  What's the color got to do with the power of the people?” said Ida with frustration. “You just have to stay focused. I’d never go downtown looking for a job or anything, and come back empty-handed.  I'd walk until I’d find something.”

Then at 17, she landed a job at a sewing factory.

“I made $6 a week!” exclaimed Ida. “Whatever they had, I took.”

For the next two decades, Ida continued working, and witnessed the tragedy and triumph of World War II, America’s return to prosperity. During that time, she married Lawrence Keeling and had four children.

“Your children is always your main thing,” said Ida, “I don't care how old they get or what, they're still yours.”

Then in 1953, she and her husband separated after he became an alcoholic. While Ida persevered as a loving, working mother, another African American woman was about to make history. On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to take her seat in the back of the bus, starting the firestorm that was the Civil Rights Movement.

“We marched and we marched, protested. And I also been in pickets” said Ida remembering the Civil Rights Movement. “And was always some problem. ‘oh, you can't stand here. You can't do this, you can't do that’ the law allowed it, but here comes another piece of the law who would start trouble.”

Even as racial tensions and riots spread across the country, Ida hoped, and believed for peace and had faith that justice would prevail.

“It's something out there, some power out there greater than them and their guns. That power, is the power of God” said a Ida with confidence.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to begin a process of healing and racial acceptance.

President Lyndon Johnson addressing the nation:
“We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.”

“That was beautiful” said Ida. Civil Rights was beautiful. It brought people together, also make you feel better about yourself.”

But the fight for racial equality was far from over, as America, and Ida rolled into the tumultuous 1960s.

“Like my father said, ‘that's part of life. Things go wrong when you don't expect it,’” reflected Ida.

With racial unrest and American fighting and dying in Vietnam, drug use pervaded the country.

“The drugs really messed up people awful,” said Ida. “All the ‘Harlems’ of America where people don't have nothing. So many of our boys died.”

Ida’s two sons, Donald and Charles, served overseas in the military. Both returned and fell into years of drug use. By 1981, both had died because of their drug addictions.

“That was sad times for me,” remembered Ida, “that's when I felt really lost, really broken down. I was not me. I was just always sad, feeling down in the dumps, wondering what did I do wrong.”

For the first time, Ida needed help moving forward, so her daughter Cheryl had a proposition.

“She asked me, ‘mom, you want to go on a 5k run with me?’” said Ida. “I said ‘uh, ain't nothing else working.  So I’ll go on the run.’"

At 67 years old, Ida ran her first race. And through running, Ida found healing.

“It helps you feel good” said Ida on running. “It just gives you something to look forward to and hang on to and say ‘I’m going to make it.’ Even though it hurts, it's like the Bible says, ‘that too shall pass’ and it passed.”

Ida hasn’t stopped running since, and over the last thirty-five years, she’s set several records in her age divisions. Today, she stays active with Cheryl, her daughter and coach, speaks on the importance of staying active and has written a book on her life’s journey.

“I'm going to keep running until I can't,” said Ida. “I'm 102 but I thank God every night for my blessings and also keeping me focused and alert and helping me move on like I need to move.  And that’s the end of my story.”

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