Fauja Singh

Fauja Singh was born in 1911. Until 1993 he was a farmer in a village in northern India. He had moved there in 1947. At that time, India was partitioned and a new country, Pakistan was formed. Fauja is a member of a Hindu sect, the Sikhs, and, as happened to many Sikhs, his life was disrupted by the partition. He had to find a new home and start over again.

Before he was forced to move, Fauja had been a keen amateur runner. After the partition, he gave up competition, but he kept running. Even when he was in his seventies, he habitually got from one place to another by jogging.

In 1993 Fauja’s wife died and his oldest son Sukhindjer invited him to come and live with him in London, England. Fauja went, but at first he was not happy. Suddenly his life seemed to have no meaning.

There was a large Sikh community in London, however, and there were regular religious celebrations. Fauja began to attend these events and discovered that they often included athletic competitions. This gave Fauja an opportunity to start running again.

He began challenging other old men to run 100-meter races with him. He always won. He was encouraged by this and started issuing challenges to 200-meter races, but he found that no one in his age group could even get to the finish line.

Fauja was cheered up by his success and started running regularly. He ran farther and farther — up to five kilometers, and then up to ten. In 2000, he was watching television. and happened to see an advertisment for the upcoming London marathon. He was surprised to see how many old people were able to run so far — forty-two kilometers. He decided to try it himself.

In 2000, when he was eighty-nine, he ran his first marathon. The next year he completed the London marathon in six hours and forty-five minutes. That was a world record in the over-ninety category — more than an hour better than the previous record. In the London Marathon of 2003, Fauja lowered his time to 6:11.There were more than 32,000 runners in the race. Fauja crossed the finish line ahead of more 10,000 of them.

In 2003 Fauja ran in the Toronto marathon. He wanted to run there because the Toronto Marathon course is flatter than most. That makes it a good place to set records — and Fauja wanted to be the first ninety-year-old to run a marathon in less than six hours. He finished in five hours and forty-four minutes.

Fauja does not see his running as something private, something he does only because he enjoys it. He runs to help other people as well. Marathon runners often collect ‘pledges’ before a race. These pledges are promises to give a certain amount of money to a charity if the runner finishes the race. When he runs in London, Fauja collects pledges to give money to a charity called ‘Bliss’ which provides help to prematurely born babies. He says his motto is: “The oldest helping the youngest.”

When he is running abroad, Fauja collects pledges for local Sikh charities.— and he tries to strengthen the prestige of his religion. After he had decided to go to Toronto to run in the marathon there, the editor of a Sikh newspaper in New York City asked him to run in the New York marathon instead. He told Fauja that Sikhs in New York had a bigger problem with their image than did Sikhs in Toronto — and he said that things had got worse since the September 11th attacks.

Fauja felt that he had to help the Sikhs of New York, so he decided he should run there as well as in Toronto. This meant that he would have to run in two marathons in six weeks. His doctors advised him against that. They said he needed at least four months rest between marathons.

Fauja went ahead and ran anyway. He finished but it wasn’t easy. He had a bad ankle and he had to stop several times for medical treatment and bandaging. It took him more than seven hours to finish.

Sikh men are expected to wear turbans at all times, and Fauja always wears one when he is running. In New York a few people yelled, ‘Saddam!’ or ‘Osama!’ as he ran past but this didn’t bother him. He says he is proud to run in a turban because it makes people more aware of the Sikh religion. Even the idea of dying when he is running appeals to him. He says: “If I die when I am running it will make a bigger impact, more people will know about Sikhs and our cause.”

Fauja was back in Toronto for the 2004 marathon. But this time he only participated in the half-marathon which is held at the same time. He finished in two hours and thirty minutes — a record time for his age group. He plans to restrict himself to half marathons for the next few years. He’s doing this as a way of preserving his strength until 2009 when he will be ninety-eight years old. No one older than ninety-seven has run a marathon. Fauja plans to run another marathon in 2009 — and become the oldest person ever to complete the race.

In the meantime, Fauja intends to continue his regular training program. He will walk or run ten kilometers or more every day. He will stick to his vegetarian diet, eating lots of bread and beans and drinking a lot of green tea. And he will continue his daily meditation. He says running has given him contentment in his old age. He believes that God has given him his good health — and he says that his running is a way of giving back.

- information from: National Post, 04.09.27 (Joseph Brean); Toronto Star, 04.09.27; National Post, 04.09.25 (Joseph Brean); Toronto Star, 04.09.10 (Diane Scarponi); Toronto Star, 04.05.07 (Chris Young); News India, 04.10.08 Times of India, 04.12.23; India Abroad, 03.12.05 (Arthur Pais); India Abroad, 03.11.14 (Thayil Jeet); UP International, 04.03.24; Birmingham Post, 02.04.15; Toronto Star, 03.09.29 (Randy Starkman)