Author’s Note: I conducted my interview with Steve Keith in the Spring of 2019 with the intentions of publishing this article in the Fall/Winter to line up with either the SEC or NCAA XC Championships. Unfortunately for my timing, the Vanderbilt Athletic Department has also published a similar story via video. I hope this article is as insightful as the fine work the AD produced.
The NCAA XC Regionals were held this weekend. On Friday, Vanderbilt produced two All Region Runners.
“I had to crawl to my hotel door,” Steve Keith said. It was the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, and Keith didn’t make it to the meet. “I thought I had the flu,” he said. His assistant coaches, Clark Humphreys and Donnie Young called the paramedics to Keith’s hotel room.
He was battling something more grave than the flu. “If I had stayed there twelve more hours, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Steve Keith is a Vanderbilt alumnus (‘81) and has been the Cross Country and Track & Field Head Coach since 2006. He has built the program to success not before seen at the University- an SEC Championship, multiple Regional Championships and All Americans, unparalleled academic success, hosting conference, and an effective coaching staff.
As an alumnus and coach, Steve has given his life to growing and supporting Vanderbilt Athletics, competing for and then fielding competitive XC and TF teams in the fiercest conference in the NCAA, all the while receiving treatment on the same campus where he attended school and now works.
Luekemia doesn’t sneak up on you. It didn’t sneak up on Steve Keith. From the Olympic Trials in June 2012 through the Fall, Keith said he didn’t feel well. He wasn’t training the same. Yes, even XC coaches train.
“We’re planners,” he says. The “we” being runners. They are a special bread, the type of person who is content running 50-70 miles a week cruising around town and trails just with their thoughts. That kind of commitment doesn’t come without highly structured days. “We like to manage our time and our life.”
Keith’s leukemia decided to throw his out of balance.
He thought it was a nagging bug, or aging. When it got worse at the turn of the year, he thought it was the flu. It was and it wasn’t. Keith’s immune system was bankrupt. His disease had wiped it out. He was sick with a virus, and nearly fatally sick with MDS.
Myelodysplastic syndrome is a disorder in which a person’s bone marrow does not produce enough functioning blood cells. Not only does MDS prevent appropriate functioning blood cells, it produces malignant cells, thus resulting in low counts of good blood cells and high counts of useless cells. Keith’s hemoglobin was at four.
The Fayatteville hospital stabilized Keith and Life Flighted him to Vanderbilt Medical Center. For the next 38 days, Keith stayed on the tenth floor of the hospital receiving chemotherapy until his cancer went into remission and he could receive a bone marrow transplant.
“The transplant was convenient,” Keith says. Not that any type of surgery is easy, but what he describes as “convenient” is his wry way of saying that his body accepted the transplant since his count was fatally low.
That’s Keith’s way, to be sardonic and understated, juxtaposing things together that shouldn’t be or two things that produce a serious outcome.
Keith graduated from Vanderbilt in 1981. He ran cross country for the Commodores during his four years at the University, while he studied Philosophy.
He started his coaching career at Emory and moved to Georgia Tech, then UTEP, then Alabama. All told, he produced 26 All Americans before coming to Vanderbilt. While leading the the Commodores, his program has accounted for All Americans in Cross Country, High Jump, Triple Jump, Pole Vault, and the 800m.
As a team, he led the Dores to their only SEC Championship in 2011 and two NCAA Regional Championships in 2014 and 2015. The XC/TF Program has been considered one of the top 15 programs of the year, when accounting for all three seasons (XC, Indoor, and Outdoor).
Additionally, for ten years straight, the Commodores have produced Academic All American status as an entire team.
Keith’s patient and strategic plan and vision for the program is clear in his 13 years at the helm. It’s more than just hard work and discipline. It’s takes the kind of mind that is unique to a runner.
Cross country types have are often stereotyped as being eccentric. It dates back to the likes of Prefontaine or Zola Budd. It comes out of the hours someone has to spend alone while running. In a piece I wrote for AoG last year, Keith told me that it takes someone special to be a runner. “You have to be okay being with yourself,” he said.
To run in general, let alone competitively, requires pushing one’s body past what the mind can think it can do. It hurts. It hurts to run when it’s so hot that your feet burn through your shoes or when its so cold that your teeth and lungs feel frozen hurts. It hurts to run to the point that lactic acid builds up in the muscles convincing your body it is poisoned so it causes you to vomit.
All of that pain and time produces mental toughness. Runners are often eccentric because they can be. Daily, they willfully engage and experience difficult tasks. The grind of the world doesn’t get to them, it inoculates them.
In disclosure, I spent two years working in the track program. I was a volunteer assistant in the jumps, working directly under Associate Head Coach, Clark Humphries. I was a kid in a candy store, asking questions, observing, looking at jumpers’ technique, helping run meets, etc.
Once during practice, Keith asked me to put a cone at a point across the track so he could know when his runner was crossing the distance he wanted. I placed it on the wrong white stripe. When he figured it out, he called to me, “what mark did you put it on?” He wasn’t asking because he didn’t know. Humphries looked at me with a look that said, “go fix it.”
Later that season, when a tragedy befell my family, I texted Humphries and disappeared for two weeks. Upon return, all Keith could do was smile, shake his head, and hug me.
Runners have a way of knowing difficulty and facing it head on. That’s how Keith faced his cancer.
“I have three birthdays,” Steve told me with a grin. He wanted me to ask. So I obliged. It turns out, it’s not uncommon for people who receive life saving transplants to call their transplant day their second birthday.
Keith had to have a second transplant, too. The first was from a German who was a complete match. Keith traveled to meet him years later, and he said their resemblance was striking.
Unfortunately, he relapsed in 2017 and required a second transplant. This one wasn’t nearly as intense and he required only seven days of shots.
During those four years between, Keith brags that he got his mileage back up to 50 miles a week. He was determined, even during treatment. For his time on the tenth floor, he said he was “very active.”
“I wanted to get my heart rate up to 120-130 [beats per minute] everyday. I kept me sane.”
Imagine that, for 38 days, Keith, totally bald from his treatment, was on the bike or treadmill for half an hour to a full hour every day, in the sterile section of the 10th floor in the Vanderbilt Medical Center.
He laughs, the expression of someone who knows he’s lucky. “I felt like I cheated.”
Once his condition stabilized, he continued coaching. He would get his treatment at the hospital or go to follow up appointments, and then walk ten minutes over to the track for practice.
“It’s nice to be at my alma mater,” he says, once again, in his understated manner.
Outside of a three year span in the late 90’s the XC/TF program had never sustained the level of success that Keith has built under his tenure.
No athletic success can match the importance of one’s life, but for Keith, the success of Vanderbilt’s Cross Country and Track and Field programs are his life’s work.
He has given his life to Vanderbilt, and over the last six years, Vanderbilt gave Keith his life back. He no longer has MDS in his blood, but he will always have Vanderbilt.