Forrest Gump ran and ran. At first, he ran up to the end of the road, then across town, eventually criss-crossing the country for the next three years until one day he stopped running suddenly, turned around and walked back home. Fauja Singh hasn’t heard of Forrest Gump, the protagonist of Winston Groom’s eponymous novel, which was subsequently filmed in 1994. But he hasn’t stopped running, nor does he plan to—not even when he turns 99 on April 1.
Fauja is the world’s oldest marathon runner, sweating it out at most competitions in the United Kingdom. A thin frame weighing 52 kgs, nearly 6 ft in height, with a flowing silver beard, sparkling black eyes set in a wrinkled face, a neatly tied turban on his head, watching a sprightly Fauja on the track is a bewitching sight—incredulous and inspiring. His matchstick-like legs seem to belie his grit, but they carry him with ease, and not a step falls out of line. Bathed in sweat, and with a placid expression permanently etched on his face, he steams his way to the finish line.
“Marathon is punishing, even for the most youthful. Training Fauja to the level of the required strength under a strict regimen was a challenge for us both.”
Harmander Singh, Trainer and mentor of Fauja Singh
Fauja has participated in innumerable competitions worldwide, his fame prompting then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf to invite him to run in the inaugural Lahore Marathon in January 2005. He holds 12 Commonwealth, European and British records for his age-group, ran as one of the torch-bearers for the Athens Olympics in 2004 and was chosen, in 2005, as the Official Starter of the second biggest marathon in the UK, held in Edinburgh. Fauja has broken bread at the Buckingham Palace with the Queen, who awarded him the runner-up award of Living Legend at Windsor Castle in 2006. More recently, Fauja was part of the Queen’s Baton Relay, when it was flagged off in London as the run-up to the Commonwealth Games 2010 to be held in Delhi later this year.
His indefatigable spirit has won him a legion of fans. Impressed, sportwear giant Adidas chose Fauja to feature alongside David Beckham on its ‘Impossible is Nothing’ campaign. Not only was his face splashed on huge billboards globally in 2004, Adidas named a shoe-range in his honour. And to think, Fauja hadn’t heard of Beckham until he was contacted for the ad campaign. About the campaign, Fauja recalls, “My grandsons told me he was a very famous boy who played football. I was taken to a big stadium where they took my photos. Later, they gave me these shoes.” He excitedly rolls up his trousers to reveal trainers named after him.
From living in a small town, Bias Pind in Punjab, for most part of his life— where his only skill was growing sugarcane and wheat—to becoming the poster boy for a whole generation of marathon athletes, the story of Fauja’s life reads like fiction. But the marathon man ascribes his tremendous feats to god. “It’s all scripted by the almighty, you do as he wishes. I am soldiering on, to his beckoning,” he says demurely in Punjabi, the only language he can read and speak in.
He came to live in the UK after he lost his wife and a son in quick succession over two decades ago, and moved in with another son in East London. Unable to cope with the bereavement and loneliness of living in a foreign country, a desperate Fauja realised he needed something that could alleviate his pain and infuse a sense of purpose in his otherwise vapid life. Before long, he rediscovered the passion of his youth. Fauja started running.
But to become a marathon man required training. As luck would have it, Fauja happened to cross paths with Harmander Singh, who had narrowly missed representing the UK in 10,000 m in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Harmander was both intrigued and impressed by his new protege. As he told Outlook, “Marathon is a punishing discipline and even the most youthful and physically fit cannot run for 26 miles if they haven’t followed a dedicated and challenging training regimen to first build their endurance. Training Fauja to that level of strength was not only a challenge for me but for him as well.”
Mentored by Harmander Singh, Fauja went on to run in the London Marathon in 2000, his first, at the age of 89, clocking 6 hours and 54 minutes. Fauja recalls his London experience, “I didn’t feel tired at all and could go on running with everyone else. I found it peaceful as I could talk to god while running.”
“Fauja eats very little, his body is inexplicably adapted to the tough routine. He’s 180 per cent fitter than a man of his age, and walks or runs 7-10 miles daily.”
Nirmal Lotay, Deputy trainer
Thereafter, it wasn’t just about completing marathons, but also about improving his timing. Sharpened further by his mentor, the nonagenarian went on to run the next five successive London marathons, gradually improving his time to 6 hours and two minutes. His personal best was in the 2003 Toronto Waterfront Marathon—he hit the finish line in 5 hours and 40 minutes.
For Harmander, Fauja’s body is a mystery. As Harmander says, “You will be surprised to know how little he eats. We have not given him any special diet. His body has inexplicably adapted to the demanding physical routine and we do not want to interfere with it.” At 99, which is three decades more than the UN-defined average life expectancy for Indians, Fauja’s fitness leaves most others around him dumbstruck. Says Nirmal Lotay, Harmander Singh’s deputy trainer, “He’s 180 per cent fitter than an average man of his age and has remarkably high bone densities in both his legs. He walks or runs 7-10 miles every day and has a training session with his coach once a week.”
The man of many marathons himself says he gave up meat and alcohol years ago and furnishes details of his daily menu. “I start my day with a cup of tea and a few pinni (a type of sweetmeat). For lunch, I like to have one chapatti with daal and vegetables. But I always have ginger curry for dinner, which is the secret of my strength.”
For one whose personal philosophy has placed running close to godliness, money isn’t a consideration—he has donated every penny he raised running to various charities. “What will I do with the money? To be able to run at this age is a reward in itself. God is watching me, please give this money to those who need it,” Fauja Singh says with humility. To be a successful marathon man, you need a big heart.