Fauja Singh is truly one of a kind. At 101 years of age the Sikh marathon runner believes in one God and one goal: keep on running. This week, as Olympic athletes around the world rest their weary feet, Beyond the Headlines looks at the man whose years will surely out run them all.
Fauja Singh was born in a time and place where birth certificates do not exist. Born April 1st 1911 at Beas Pind in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, but with no paper-proof of it, one hundred years later Singh was denied his place in the 2011 Guinness World Records as the oldest man to have completed a 42km marathon. Having never actually heard of Guinness before, Singh, who now lives in Ilford, London, barely bat a wrinkled eyelid. Record-breaking and moneymaking are not, after all, what keeps this particular athlete treading the tracks.
When we caught up with Fauja’s coach Harmander Singh this week he informed us that it was in fact GWR who pursued Fauja, not the other way around. 53-year-old Harmander has been Fauja’s coach for thirteen years and has an astonishing 61 full and (in a few weeks time) 200 half marathons worth of experience behind him. GWR’s reluctancy to accept Fauja as a legitimate record holder after finishing the marathon in Toronto at a time of eight hours, 25 minutes and 16 seconds was ‘unhelpful’, says Harmander. It is ‘obstructing the move to making the world a smaller place where people are comfortable with one another’, he explains. The coach believes that the decision was ‘institutionally racist’, and he’s got a point. Many developing countries do not have the Western recording system of certification (for birth, marriage, death) that we abide by today, let alone a century ago.
Taken after Fauja became the first 100 year old to complete a marathon
Just because Guinness has overlooked Fauja – whose name means ‘army’ in Punjabi – this has not stopped the runner running, or his fans supporting him. Like Forrest Gump in a turban, the unshaved runner has a dedicated fan base both in London, India and undoubtedly many more countries. Fauja was selected as a torchbearer for the Olympic Torch Relay for London 2012 and, dressed in white from turban to toe, received the most cheers. He has also had numerous television appearances; become the vegetarian poster boy for PETA; and his facebook page credentials are through the roof. An infamy Fauja would never waste his time dreaming of.
In 2004 Fauja was even featured in an advertising campaign for Adidas alongside David Beckham and Muhammed Ali. Fauja’s eyes are not on the prize or money, however, with what he does raise going to charity. Raising money for a charity that supports premature babies is how Fauja got into marathons in the first place. In his biography, Turbaned Tornado, author Khushwant Singh recounts how at 88 years old Fuaja was initially denied entry into the first marathon he applied for. Because this denial was on account of being too late to sign up (rather than Fuaja’s grand old octogenarian age) neither runner nor coach were prepared to take no for an answer. Coming up with the tagline ‘Oldest running for the youngest’, they were finally allowed to enter Fauja into the race on the condition he could raise £1400 for Bliss. This was the first race he ran and only one of many he would finish.
After spending ‘endless hours’ with the illiterate runner, Khushwant Singh’s biography is a work of wonderful storytelling and pure admiration for Fuaja. In the preface he humbly writes ‘If I have been able to capture even an iota of his invincible spirit in this book, I would have achieved my goal’. Fauja’s achievements since that first race, and in the 88 years that led up to it, have been on par with miraculous.
As a young boy Fauja would ‘“sit like a cripple” as other children played’, he tells Khushwant. Matchsticks for legs are just the beginning. ‘Son, it is only now that things have improved back home otherwise dhakke hi khaade hai (I have had a tough life)’, he admits. After loosing his son in a freak accident outside his house, Fuaja fell into deep depression. When his other children eventually got their broken father to leave his farm and come to England he rejected the move calling it a ‘captivity of the soul’. He returned to his farm to continue mourning his stolen son. When he eventually returned to England in 1995 with a visitor’s card in his pocket and not a word of English on his tongue, Fuaja integrated into the Sikh community through its temples. It was through watching the men and women participating in marathons on television that he learnt about a new kind of freedom.
Fauja’s unshakeable faith as well as his dietary habits (a lifelong love of mangoes, a peg of whiskey every so often) are perhaps what has kept his beard so long and his heart so strong for all these years. Unlike most runners, facts and figures, best running times and records are just numbers that fly far over his head (in his first race he mistook twenty kilometres for miles). ‘It is very rewarding to see people exceed their personal goals’, says Harmander, who continues to coach Fauja to this day. Personal, transcendental and (even if Guinness doesn’t say so) record-breaking. Fauja has said he wants to carry the torch again at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. For a man who could not walk until the age of 5 to want to run at the age of 105 is truly extraordinary. It must be the mangoes.
Words by Zara Miller
Featured image via ibnlive.in.com