An avid St Kilda supporter and running legend, my Great Poppy, Ray Kemp, is an inspiration to his five children, ten grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren (of which I’m his first, and obviously favourite).
Throughout his lifetime he ran 15 marathons, breaking the record in five of them: “My best time was 2 hours 54 minutes at 60 years old; you always remember your best times.” Even at the age of 88 he’s still a trooper, running every Sunday morning and going to the gym four times a week. I was beyond shocked to hear he even went for a run the very morning I spoke to him!
During my trip to Melbourne he fed me home-made sausage rolls while we chatted about the highlights of his life. Have a read below:
Why did you start running?
I worked for a couple of professional runners and they talked me into training with them, and from there I was hooked. Everything I started, I liked to finish.
Do you have any funny stories from your career?
It’s hard to know about funny things because in professional running we concentrate all the way. I ran about 500 professional cross country races over a distance of 5 to 15 kilometres; I won 12 of these. But I can tell you, a funny story was this: This morning I was spraying water into the fish pond and whatever happened, the hose leapt from my hand and I ended up hosing my great-grandkids. (This is true, our socks were soaked all morning!)
What was your biggest setback?
Injuries all the time; calves, hamstrings, you name it. Do you know how that happens? From training too hard. I also had two partial knee replacements in 2014 and 2015. After I ran my last race at the veterans world games in 1987, I hit a brick wall at 30km and nearly killed myself. I’ve never had such a feeling; how I finished I’ll never know. After one week I got this shocking knee pain and my left leg started wasting away and I thought I was going to be crippled forever, you know? I went to physios and was told I could never run again- this was when I was 60. That was one of the worst things that ever happened.
How did you overcome your knee injury?
I decided to join a gym, and every morning every week I’d be there, so after a few months I was able to get myself back up. I ended up breaking numerous records. Since I joined that gym in ‘87 I’ve been going four days a week, and still am. People down the gym tell me I’m their inspiration.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I joined Victorian athletics when I was 51 and the first race was a 16km championship, and I won that in 62minutes, which is less than 4min/km. Just a wonder how I could run so quick. I held 40 records between when I was 51 and 80. My best 5km is 18 and a half mins, and I won the most consistent runner in professional athletics twice. Over the years I’ve been running I’ve only gotten one decent publicity when they put me on the headlines on the front page of the news.
Jenny (Ray’s daughter): There should be a whole movie about him. Poppy beat Cliff Young, who ran from Sydney to Melbourne in gum boots. There’s a movie on him, and poppy was better than him.
Robert (Ray’s son): He used to hang all of his sashes above the couch there.
Shirley (Ray’s wife): Yeah, until someone bloody spilt Coca-Cola over all of them!
Robert: Wasn’t you in a drunken frenzy, was it?
Shirley: Me, my friend, drunk? I don’t know, but they’re all bloody dirty.
Could you tell me about how you used to sing?
I used to sing with a dance band over at a public hall, where I met your great Nan. Three nights a week we used to go dancing. I used to sing the modern waltz songs. I reckon I was a pretty good dancer, and if I hadn’t gotten into running I could have been like Fred Astaire!
What did you enjoy about performing?
It was good singing there because you could hear your voice bounding from wall to wall … it was so good. There was a camp down the country somewhere and they had a Crooners Competition, which I won, and from that they got me to sing at Hawthorn Town Hall with the band. They were trying to find someone to go the tops, but I wasn’t as good as they thought I would be! They thought I’d be a mix of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Ben Crosby. Oh well, I still had 3 or 4 girls chasing me.
What do you love about the girl you did end up marrying?
I’ve been married to Shirley for 67 years. That’s a good question: she’s so good, such a good person. And she looks after me like I’m a two-year-old. If I’m trying to get out of the door with a stain on my shirt she’ll pick it up and tell me to change it.
Do you have a motto you live by?
My motto is just try, try and try. When I get in a race and I’m completely exhausted, I still run myself right into the ground.
Robert: As kids, we used to go with him every Sunday morning and train at the racecourse. I blame dad for my love of buying shoes.