'Eek' Keller's racing time and winning

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eugene Keller is not the man he used to be. Hasn't been for years.

''I want to get back in another marathon, but I can't do the miles,'' the Finneytown runner explained. ''I don't recover well in the mornings. My lung capacity seems to be shortened somewhat. Once I reached 80, it was just like I hit a brick wall.''

The ravages of time reach us all eventually, even E.E. ''Eek'' Keller. At 82, he finds himself forced to make some small concessions to the calendar. He will compete in Sunday's Cincinnati 14K Tradewinds Race, but there are no marathons in his foreseeable future. Nor has Keller any immediate plans to swim the Channel.

This is a man who knows his limits. He ought to, for he is forever testing them.

For most of the last 15 years, Keller has been Cincinnati's pre-eminent senior distance phenomenon. He has held national age group records at 10,000 meters and once set a world steeplechase standard in Rome. Last year, he ran the fastest recognized 15K of any octogenarian in America.

It is a small field, granted, but that hardly detracts from the deed. Eek Keller covered 15,000 meters last year in just under 84 minutes, which is roughly equivalent to running nine nine-minute miles. That is a feat, however old your feet.

''There are some age tables that you can use to compare your performance (against other age groups),'' said Bob Roncker, the local running entrepreneur and expert. ''Based on that, it's conceivable that Eek's the fastest runner in the area.''

'Keep the juices flowing'

Like many runners, Eek Keller is part athlete, part missionary. He shames the sedentary each time he trots along Winton Road. He forces men half his age to ask themselves how they turned into couch potatoes.

''Maybe I shouldn't be running,'' he said Wednesday. ''But I'm encouraging people to do things, to not sit in the rocking chair. You don't have to give up great sports when you're older. You don't have to ride a cart.

''It's psychological, I think. As you get older, people think it's time to slow down and really it isn't. You have to accept that you have to work harder, but your body craves movement. Like Satchel Paige said, you've got to keep the juices flowing. Once you start to do it, it becomes easier and easier.''

Keller did not start running seriously until his mid-60s, but he has always been athletic. He played halfback at Xavier University in the late 1930s after it was determined that he was too little to play the line at 140 pounds. He later embraced golf and skiing, and entered the 1980 Ohio Senior Olympics as a tennis player.

While he was there, on a whim, Keller talked his way into some of the track events, and finished second at 400 meters in his tennis shoes. This was more than enough encouragement to continue.

Too many trophies

Keller has won so many races that he has come to dread the thought of bringing home another trophy.

''My wife is sick of them,'' he said. ''Medals aren't too bad. You can put them in a suitcase and they're out of sight. But I don't need any more trophies.''

'I think he's got more metal,'' said race director Don Connolly, ''than the ironworks in Middletown.''

Tonight, at the Carthage Knights of Columbus Hall, Keller will receive a plaque and induction in the Caldwell Hall of Fame. Yet the real measure of this man is not his metal, but his mettle.

''He's my hero,'' said Julie Isphording, the Olympic marathoner. ''He's one of those people you walk away from and you can't believe what you see. When I'm 80 years old, I'm going to be in a rocking chair. I hope I can keep the chair moving.''

Eek Keller's goal is to still be running into his 90s, and to provide others with incentive to give chase.

''If you've got pressure, you can run some of that anger and frustration off,'' he said. ''Then you get lost in a reverie. It's fun.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 26, 1996.