101-year-old Fauja Singh gears up for the Mumbai Marathon

Jan 19, 2013, 09:20 IST | Hemal Ashar

Fauja Singh 101, UK-based marathon running wonder in Mumbai for marathon; to run senior citizen's event in city tomorrow

They call India’s Olympian Milkha Singh, The Flying Sikh. Let’s dub Fauja Singh (101) The Never Tiring Sikh. The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon to be run on Sunday, January 20 got another shot in its pounding feet. The event announced the participation of an inspiring guest -- The Never Tiring Fauja Singh who is here to participate in the senior citizen’s section (4.3 km) of the race.

Fauja and biographer Khushwant Singh
Fauja (with mike on right) and biographer Khushwant Singh at the press conference yesterday. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Fauja set a slew of several records as the oldest marathoner in the world before he officially "retired" from marathon running, when he was 94 (whew!). Today this deceptively frail, long, white-bearded Sikh who left Biaspind near the Jallandhar-Pathankot Rd in 1992 for London, is a legendary figure in long distance running.

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With brown suit and brown turban to match, Fauja spoke at a press conference yesterday evening at the Mumbai marathon media centre. Fauja spoke in Punjabi, saying in response to a question, “Wahe Guruji -- God gives me the strength to keep on running.”  With the help of a translator, Khushwant Singh who is also his biographer and has written a book on Fauja called Turbaned Tornado, Fauja said, “It is running that has taken me across so many countries, to different Continents and I am enjoying the adulation it has brought me.”

Elite Indian athletes are simply raring to go. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Khushwant laughed as he said, “Recently, Fauja was in Mauritius and his coach Harmandar Singh said that once, nobody could find him in his hotel! There was a panic situation till they realised that Fauja had wandered away to some sugarcane fields. Fields still bring out the farmer in him!” Fauja, who will turn 102 on April 1, 2013, said he was still careful about his diet. “The day I wake up and do not feel comfortable as I put my foot on the floor, I know I have eaten something that I should not have. If I get up with a spring in my step then I know I have eaten right.”

Fauja has run for a number of charities all his life and said his adopted country has acknowledged his contribution and honoured him for it. “When I was supposed to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, my coach Harmandar Singh warned me not to give her a friendly hug as I do with children and the girls in Punjab,” said Fauja eliciting laughs. He said of Punjab, “You know when Punjab was poor, people used to labour and they were healthy. Now they have wealth and some of them do not labour as much, so they are not as healthy,” explained Fauja.

Wave rave Fauja’s fandom spans all countries

When Fauja hit a century in 2011, as he turned 100 on April 1, Fauja son, Sukhjinder Singh speaking on the phone from London had said, “My father becomes 100 years old, on Friday, April 1. We are planning a small celebration at home, with family. Nothing very elaborate, just a heartwarming party and my wife is going to bring home the cake today (Thursday) evening.”

The family lives in the Seven Kings area of Essex (London). Sukhjinder, who owns a bathroom and plumbing store had added, “My father has retired from full marathon (42 km) running some time ago. Yet, even at 100, he is in fairly good health and very mobile. He undertakes walks of 2-3 miles with kids to encourage a love for nature, sport and healthy habits in youngsters. At 100, I can say, he is still loves being outdoors and is fit.”

Fauja has two sons and two daughters. Sukhjinder’s brother Harminder Singh, Fauja’s son lives in Punjab. One of Fauja’ daughters is in Vancouver (Canada). The Queen felicitated the turbanned wonder on December 7, 2005, at the Buckingham Palace in London at a Christmas reception for, “making a significant national contribution to public life.”

Fauja has achieved iconic status in Britain because of his running exploits. He was even contacted by the Mumbai marathon committee to participate in the event way back in January 16, 2005 but he could not make it. To rewind, his coach and manager, Ilford-based Harmander Singh had said more than seven years ago, “As a responsible manager looking after Fauja’s health, I have retired Fauja from marathon running as he is now 94. There is nothing to prove, really, as Fauja has already broken the world record for the over-90s in the 42 km distance clocking 5 hours and 40 minutes in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon last year.”

Fauja has, most fully embodied the never-say-die spirit of long distance running, becoming a symbol of grit and determination, with his shadow falling beyond the Ilford track and terrain on which he trains. His coach Harmander had said, “Because of the huge publicity that Fauja receives, he is now a recognisable face all over Britain and beyond too. I am training Fauja only, but he is so inspiring that people of all ages run along with him and we have now become an informal running club.

This running club includes some Asian elderly women too who have been inspired to start running hearing about Fauja!” Fauja earned renown and was invited to several global events, but, at his age has had to sift through and be choosy about what to attend though he does not like to turn down requests. After a reception at the Buckingham Palace in 2005, Fauja flew out to Kenya to inspire the finest distance runners in the world. Some years ago, Fauja was sponsored by Adidas, and became the sports giant's poster boy along with football greats like Zinedine Zidane, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and cricket’s biggest name, Sachin Tendulkar.

Fauja, when he was running, raised money and was involved in charity work for BLISS (a charity for premature babies). Adidas that provided Fauja with his running kit, also donated to BLISS. Fauja had said to English newspapers about his support to BLISS, “I like the idea about the oldest helping the youngest.” Fauja’s biggest contribution to humanity has been his spirit, every footfall of the man “who liked to win” spoke of indefatigable will and kindled fires in people who think that if Fauja can do it, so can they.

Fauja had even spoken on phone to this paper in 2009, sending a message to Mumbai marathoners at that time. He has said, “I would like to wish everyone taking part the best of luck and hope that they all enjoy the experience of joining the small set of individuals, who have reached a level of human achievement that sets them apart from those who just dream. I am happy to see people attempt and participate in a race such as the Mumbai Marathon as it brings all communities together. The camaraderie amongst runners of all abilities is unique and to be treasured. It is a greater achievement to try than to find reasons not to try.”

Fauja has also become symbolic of serious running to raise awareness. Like he was part of the New York marathon where he became a part of a group of Sikhs who used the race to make a statement. They ran to prove to people that Sikhism was a different faith from Islam; Sikhs had a different identity from Muslims. (Sikhs had been mistaken for Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on USA. A Sikh had lost his life after he was shot dead, allegedly mistaken for a Muslim in the 9/11 aftermath). Harmander had said, “We wanted to raise awareness of Sikhs as a different community.” It had been reported that when Fauja ran, there were shouts of Bin ‘Laden, Bin Laden’ from the crowd though he refused to comment on this, simply telling a website that he was “not upset” by the shouts.

Today, as Fauja is in Mumbai, he espouses most fully Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s immortal lines, which the poet wrote for his dying father: “Rage, rage against the dying light; But do not go gentle into that goodnight.” which means fighting against age and not giving in to physical frailties of advancing years. Fauja certainly does not give in and remarkably at 102, Fauja does not wear glasses, "Though my vision maybe a little weak, I can still see in front of me quite well. I do not need to aim with a gun anywhere, so I don’t need to wear glasses,” finished Fauja at the conference. Mumbaikars, with glasses or without, would surely be moved by the sight of this slight figure. Mumbai get ready to cheer this Singh who is truly king. Chakde Phatte Fauja!

Quick Fauja facts
>> Fauja Singh, born in India is based in Essex, Ilford in England.
>> Fauja Singh was born on April 1, 1911 and was an amateur runner in the Punjab before giving up the sport in 1947 at the age of 36.
>> When his wife died, Fauja moved to London to live with his youngest son and decided to don the trainers and pound the streets again.
>> Fauja attributes his success to ginger dal, “curries” he used to call them, sending the English press into paroxysms of delight. His coach Harmander Singh says:
>> Fauja eats very little and drinks nothing stronger than water.” Fauja is reported to have said, “My diet is simple phulka (chappati), dal (lentils), green vegetables, yoghurt and milk. I do not touch parathas, pakoras, rice or any other fried food. I take lots of water and tea with ginger.”
>> Fauja was felicitated by the Queen at the Buckingham Palace in London on December 7, 2005, at a Christmas reception for, “making a significant national contribution to public life.”
>> His coach said above all, he is a very determined person.

Shining Fauja! His achievements
>> Marathons run: London (5), Toronto (2), New York (1)
>> Marathon debut: London, 2000, aged 89
>> London Flora Marathon 2000: 6:54
>> London Flora Marathon 2001: 6:54
>> London Flora Marathon 2002: 6:45
>> Bupa Great North Run (Half Marathon) 2002: 2:39
>> London Flora Marathon 2003: 6:02
>> Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2003: 5:40
>> New York City Marathon 2003: 7:35
>> London Flora Marathon 2004: 6:07
>> Glasgow City Half Marathon 2004: 2:33
>> Capital Radio Help a London Child 10,000 m 2004: 1:08
>> Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon 2004: 2:29:59
>> Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2011: 8:11:06
>> Hong Kong Marathon (10 km) 2012: 1:34 (raised $25,800 for charity) 

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