Track Stats - Arthur Keily

“Life does not grow old”: Arthur Keily’s 60 years of happy sporting endeavour

Arthur Keily was one of Britain’s leading marathon runners and competed in the Olympic Gmes of 1960. Interviewed by Michael Sheridan. Published in “Track Stats” November 2008.

When Arthur Keily ran his first marathon at the age of 32 in April 1953 he was tackling one of the most challenging events in athletics but one where British athletes had been posting some of the fastest times on record in the preceding seasons. The 10 fastest times in history at that date were:

2:20:42.2   Jim Peters (Great Britain)1952
2:21:42Stan Cox (Great Britain)1952
2:23:03.2Emil Zátopek (Czechoslovakia)1952
2:23:07.8Charles Dewachtere (Belgium)1952
2:23:35Jean Leblond (Belgium)1952
2:23:59Vasiliy Davidov (Soviet Union)1952
2:24:15.8Alexsandr Kolupayev (Soviet Union)   1952
2:25:19.2Veikko Karvonen (Finland)1952
2:25:35Reinaldo Gorno (Argentina)1952
2:25:39Yun Bok Suh (Korea)1947

The fact that, with one exception, all these times were achieved the previous year shows how quickly the event was developing. Jim Peters was to record three sub-2:20 times in 1954, but his running career was to end later that year. Keily was just beginning at the classic distance and in the next seven years he would run 27 marathons, gaining 12 victories, and would become a sub-2:20 man like Peters.

Arthur Keily was born in Derby in 1921. His parents hailed from County Cork, in Ireland, and emigrated for the most common motivation of those who leave their roots – to find work, ending up in the industrial city of Derby. The Keilys were a solidly working-class and Catholic family. There were 12 children, of whom nine survived. Arthur was the eldest and has vivid memories of the financial problems experienced by the family. In 1935, at the age of 14, he became an apprentice blacksmith with British Railways earning five shillings (25 pence) a week. To bring extra money into the house he operated the lights at the Grand Theatre, Derby, each evening after finishing his day job. He also recalls that, with his brother Jerry, he would collect discarded boxes from the local fruit and vegetable market, bringing them home for firewood, and any surplus they would tie into bundles and sell them from house-to-house as another means of augmenting the household income.

From an early age Arthur was keen on sports, specialising at first at soccer – his team, Osmaston Rangers, developing into one of the strongest in the local leagues. Come the Second World War and Arthur enlisted in the 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. He was sent to France, but an abscess in the rectum put him on the sick list and he was returned to England. Shortly afterwards his regiment was disbanded and, although he was placed on a reserve list, he was not conscripted again.

In 1946 Arthur began a lifetime's partnership when he married Freda. Interestingly, given what a talented runner he was to become, any serious running did not begin until 1949 when Arthur was already 28 years old. His brother, Bill, joined Derby and County Athletic Club. Arthur thought to himself, “I'm faster than him on the football field”, and so he joined the club as well, together with another brother, Joe (eventually all the six Keily brothers took part in running events). In the following years Derby had a squad of distance men which was the envy of most other clubs. Like most club-men at the time Arthur was delighted to turn out in club colours in a range of events – road relays and individual road races, track events and cross-country were all the same to him.

It was on 6 April 1953 that Arthur lined up for his first marathon race – the annual Doncaster-to-Sheffield event. It was a tough challenge. In his own words: “'I really struggled to finish, breathing like a leak in an old tyre”. But he did complete the distance, recording 2:46:22 in 12th place. The winner was Bill McMinnis, then serving in the Royal Air Force, with a time of 2:33:00. In view of the wide range of events he had been competing in since joining the Derby and County club, perhaps Arthur did not realise that day how important a part marathon running was to play in his career, as his subsequent record set out below shows:

19 April 1954Doncaster-to-Sheffield1st2:30:452nd  Bill McMinnis (Sutton Harriers)2:30:50
26 June 1954All-Ireland, Dublin1st2:35:332ndBob Crossan 
14 August 1954Liverpool Marathon1st2:30:282ndAlan Lawton (Leeds Harehills)2:31:42
18 June 1955Polytechnic Marathon23rd 2:45:141stBill McMinnis (Sutton Harriers)2:26:22
13 August 1955Liverpool Marathon1st2:34:252ndEric Smith (Leeds Harehills)2:34:52
16 June 1956Polytechnic Marathon*3rd2:22:37.2     1stRon Clark (Herne Hill Harriers)2:20:15.8
28 July 1956AAA Marathon, Port Sunlight4th2:32:041stHarry Hicks (Hampstead Harriers)2:26:15
11 August 1956Liverpool Marathon1st2:34:012ndBill McMinnis (Sutton Harriers)2:36:19
7 October 1956Kosice Marathon, Czechoslovakia12th2:27:19.81stThomas Nilsson (Sweden)2:22:05.4
22 April 1957Doncaster-to-Sheffield1st2:27:212ndEddie Kirkup (Rotherham Harriers)2:27:39
25 May 1957Hull Marathon1st2:29:542ndEric Smith (Leeds Harehills)2:29:58
15 June 1957Polytechnic Marathon*3rd2:38:071stEddie Kirkup (Rotherham Harriers)2:37:04.4
10 August 1957AAA Marathon, Watford2nd2:22:341stEddie Kirkup (Rotherham Harriers)2:22:27.8
17 August 1957Liverpool Marathon1st2:29:512ndJoe Lancaster (Salford AC)2:30:51
12 October 1957Kosice Marathon, Czechoslovakia6th2:28:061stIvan Filin (Soviet Union)2:23:37.8
17 April 1958Doncaster-to-Sheffield1st2:26:252ndPeter Wilkinson (Derby & County AC)2:26:42
28 June 1958Polytechnic/AAA*3rd2:23:321stColin Kemball (Wolverhampton Harriers)   2:22:27.4
24 July 1958British Empire/Commonwealth, Cardiff  12th2:34:59.41stDave Power (Australia)2:22:45.6
16 August 1958Liverpool Marathon3rd2:28:341stBob Pape (Royal Navy)2:27:09
30 March 1959Doncaster-to-Sheffield4th2:28:161stPeter Wilkinson (Derby & County AC)2:24:56
13 June 1959Polytechnic Marathon*2nd2:28:361stDenis O'Gorman (City of St Albans AC)2:25:11.2
11 July 1959Peterborough Marathon1st2:26:162ndChris Fleming-Smith (Rotherham H)
25 July 1959AAA Marathon, Watforddid not finish1stChris Fleming-Smith (Rotherham H)2:30:11
15 August 1959Enschede Marathon, Netherlands6th2:37:241stPavel Kantorek (Czechoslovakia)2:26:48
18 April 1960Doncaster-to-Sheffield1st2:19:232ndPeter Wilkinson (Derby & County AC)2:19:54
11 June 1960Polytechnic Marathon*1st2:19:062ndBrian Kilby (Coventry Godiva H)2:22:53
10 September 1960Olympic Games, Rome25th2:27:001stAbebe Bikila (Ethiopia)2:15:16.2
* Windsor-to-Chiswick

27 marathons would probably represent the bulk of a career for some. Not a bit of it for Arthur Keily. He competed in a myriad of other road events, his winning record being prodigious:

Melton Mowbray 10195949:56 (new record)
Roundhay (Leeds) 10196050:17 (new record)
Staveley 10195951:34 (new record)
 196050:20 (new record)
Morpeth to Newcastle 13½ miles19571:09:15.8
 19601:06:03 (best ever time for half-marathon)
Belper 1519541:14:31
Nottingham 1519571:16:23
 19591:16:10 (new record)
Sedgley 1519541:25:38 (new record)
Walton 1519561:21:47 (new record)
Winnington Park 1519571:23:08 (new record)
Halesowen 1619601:23:32 (new record)
Liverpool Pembroke 2019571:47:52 (new record)
Inter-Counties 2019591:43:54 (new record)
Wakefield 2019571:55:00 (new record)
South London Harriers 3019553:05:43
 19582:59:08 (new record)

Arthur with the trophy after winning the
1960 Polytechnic Marathon

Wearing his Derby & County vest, Arthur was an integral part of the club's road relay teams. In 1957 he was one of six runners who all broke the course record on stage seven of the London-to-Brighton relay (in effect, the national championships). Derby & County AC finished 5th in the team race. In the same event in 1958 he broke the record on stage eight and the club were 2nd. The same year he was part of the Derby team which won the Manchester-to-Blackpool relay for northern clubs and was in their team which repeated the success for the following two years. 1960 was a great year for the club. They won their first English cross-country team title with Arthur in 35th place. Later they again demonstrated their eminence in the distance-running sphere by securing 1st place in the London-to-Brighton relay.

In addition to the achievements detailed above, Arthur has vivid memories of two track races in which he took part which showed his abilities at even longer distances. The first in October 1956 was a three-hour race at the Stompond Lane track, in Walton-on-Thames, organised on the initiative of the Road Runners Club. It is instructive to note that this took place only 23 days after Arthur had recorded 2:27:19.8 in the Kosice marathon. On the Walton cinder track, he not only won the race, covering 31 miles, 877 yards and 11 inches in the three hours, but en route he set a series of records – 2:29:32 for the marathon distance, 2:50:49.4 for 30 miles, and the first man under three hours for 50 kilometres amongst them. A year later at the same track in another Road Runners Club promotion he was entered for a 50 miles race (200 laps of the track). This one was only seven days after another marathon run at Kosice. He never intended to go the whole way, but he did lead from eight miles to 39 miles, retiring at 40 miles with an English Native record of 4:05:55 (the winner at 50 miles was Gerald Walsh, of South Africa).

In 1957, after working in the railway industry for over 20 years, Arthur took up employment as a machine worker at Rolls Royce. In 1960, having missed Olympic selection in 1956, he did find himself in an Olympic team, but it was not a successful experience for reasons which he describes below. He called a halt to his competitive career at the end of that year. In 1962 he left Rolls Royce and initially worked on promotions for Derby County Football Club. He did much work for charity. Then he was the greyhound-racing adviser for the “Derby Evening Telegraph” newspaper and became an expert on systematic betting. In this case it did not turn out to be “a mug's game” as he bought a second-hand white Rolls Royce with his winnings and the rest he invested in a house.

Arthur with medals for winning
British Masters titles

Arthur Keily came back as a veteran runner. In 1991 he recorded 3:24:22 for the marathon, a world's best time for a 70-year-old. He was still competing 10 years later when he was British Masters champion at 400 metres and 3000 metres walks in the same afternoon!

I asked Arthur about his reputation as one of the earliest British exponents of high-mileage in training. He told me: “I ran backwards and forwards to work, starting three miles there and three miles back, gradually building up to 11 miles there and 11 miles to 15 miles back. For seven years I ran 100 miles weekly. In my job I was crawling in and out of boilers, with riveters bringing rust all around, and balancing with a 15-pound sledgehammer on the footplate. I reckon the athletes of today would find it hard to cope with that!”

There were disappointments in his career – he just missed out on selection for the 1956 Olympics; he was ill at the time of the 1958 Empire/Commonwealth marathon race; and in 1960 he feels the marathon runners were taken to Rome too late to acclimatise properly for the Olympic marathon (he was still in Derby when the Games began). He says ruefully: “I had a lot of aggro from bosses putting me on all the heavy demanding jobs because I was the fittest! Sometimes the day before my races I was swinging the sledgehammer on the side of trains and dirty smoke boxes. Don't forget I was already 39 when I went to Rome”. Why did he take up running so late? I wondered: “For one thing I did not think I was good enough! I was hooked on football from the age of 14 and played for the top teams in the Derby area, winning six league championships and six cup finals”.

Athletics is so different today from the world Arthur experienced. He comments: “I can't understand athletics today. Look at my own club, I never see a Derby athlete mentioned in ‘Athletics Weekly’. Yet look at the rewards for successful athletes – what we could have achieved with those in our day! I look at the times in ‘AW’. There are few British runners near my times. Something is radically wrong. I think most of the coaches today are theologians and not practical men. My father (also Arthur) was a Sergeant and PT Instructor in the Army. He always drilled into me – if you want to excel at sport, don't drink and don't smoke. He got killed at Dunkirk, so he never knew about my sporting endeavours”.

A fine athlete and a man of trenchant opinions, Arthur has published a number of books on the sport and on health and fitness generally which are inspiring. I can end this article in no better way than to quote from his splendid volume, “Sixty years a happy, healthy sportsman”: “I remember about 35 years ago when I won a mile race at Leicester. As I stood in the tent I overheard a runner ask another runner if he knew who had won. He said: 'Some grey-haired old bugger!' The keynote of life is growth not ageing. Life does not grow old. The life that flows through us at 70 is the same that energised us in infancy. So-called age is the deterioration of enthusiasm, faith to live and will to progress”.