Khushwant Singh

Fauja Singh British Marathon Runner

‘Oh dear!’ exclaimed the new coach when he saw Fauja turn up for his training in a three-piece suit. He could surely pass off as a dapper model for octogenarians, but it was evident that his new student was not even remotely close to turning into an athlete. ‘He was wearing so many clothes and I had to virtually undress him, layer by layer,’ says Harmander Singh, recalling the first day of the training. A defiant Fauja had initially refused to de-layer himself stating ‘thand lag jaoo’ (I will catch a chill), till the coach explained to him that his body would soon warm up. Harmander by now had also realized Fauja’s miscalculation between kilometers and miles, but he preferred not to contradict him, as he feared it would lower his morale.

The training venue was Redbridge, Essex, two and a half kilometers from the coach’s house where Fauja’s son would drop him every Sunday morning.

It was a well-conceived training area for various reasons, and Fauja used it till he capped his career in 2013. As part of the warm up, Fauja and Harmander would run up to Redbridge from his house, after which they would take a two-kilometer lap of an earmarked area. On the first day, Fauja completed one lap in eighteen minutes, which was neither encouraging nor discouraging for the coach. With only ten weeks to go for the marathon, the coach had his task cut out for him. However, what comforted him was Fauja’s zeal and determination to conquer the track at that age. And that is all that Harmander required in an eighty-nine-year-old man, aspiring to be an athlete. He worked hard on Fauja running alongside him and helping him to develop stamina, good running and breathing technique.

Finally, the day of reckoning arrived. It wasn’t a bad deal for someone attempting to become a marathoner at age eighty-nine, especially when he could barely walk till the age of five. Fauja was triumphant, and he completed his first marathon in six hours, fifty-four minutes and forty-two seconds. Unfortunately for him, he could not get the satisfaction of being the oldest runner in the race. One Abe Abrahim, a US citizen was older to him. He even completed the race an hour ahead of Singh.

Elated with his success, Fauja was keen to run again, and he kept up with his regular training. ‘I had enjoyed every moment of the race. The joy I got on completing the race and raising the money for the cause of premature babies made me very happy,’ said Fauja. In other words, Fauja not only aspired to bring a positive change in his life but through running, he also wanted to raise money for charities, which he did with the utmost commitment in his entire career of running of thirteen years.

On 1 April 2001, Fauja Singh turned ninety. Age, yet again did not deter him from running and he was all set to run that year’s London Marathon too. This time he was the oldest participant, and he set a new record for the age-ninety category. Though it was by virtue of him being the lone ninety-year-old participant, Fauja to everyone’s surprise held on to his previous timing of six hours and fifty-four minutes. Never had a ninety-year-old completed a marathon in less than seven hours. Suddenly, Fauja Singh was being noticed, and stories about his achievement started making their way into newspapers and radio broadcasts. The year 2002 further consolidated his position, as he became this new trailblazer on the running track breaking record after record in his age category. At the 2002 London Marathon, he beat his own record to complete the race in six hours and forty-five minutes. All these superhuman achievements attracted the media towards him, and soon he got suffixes like ‘The Sikh Superman’; ‘The Turbaned Tornado’; and ‘The Running Baba’. There were a few others who called him the ‘Gritty Great-Grandfather’ and some even associated him with the movie character, Forrest Gump.

Khushwant Singh