Fauja Singh ran his farewell road race last Sunday. A sprightly 101 years old (that is not a typo), Singh ran his last competitive loop in Hong Kong, covering a 10-kilometer route (6.25 miles) along the city’s harborfront in slightly less than 93 minutes. That works out to roughly 4 miles an hour. Not a bad pace for a centenarian set of legs.
The Indian-born Singh, a Sikh from Punjab, didn’t become a running devotee until he approached his 90th birthday. It was sorrow that started him on his way, not long after he lost his wife, and then a son, Kuldip, in a span of about two years.
Both farmers, father and son were working their land during a storm one day in August 1994 when a sheet of wind-blown corrugated steel decapitated Kuldip. The elder Singh was overwhelmed by the horror, the sense of loss, and subsequent depression.
“He didn’t think his life was worth living without his son,’’ friend and coach Harmander Singh told reporters during an interview prior to Sunday’s race.
So Singh began to run. And run some more. And more. He moved from India to Great Britain to live with his youngest son, then joined a running club in East London, and in 2000, he ran his first marathon in London at age 89.
Yes, Marathon No. 1 at age 89. How are we feeling now, weekend warriors? And if your Bavarian cream hasn’t gone totally flat, hold this thought: Singh in 2011, at age 100, zipped through the Toronto marathon in 8 hours 11 minutes. Eight years earlier, he posted his personal best, 5:40, over the same 26-mile course in southern Ontario.
He also was one of the torch bearers when the Olympic Games came to London last summer. Not bad for a guy who was just a little, uh, late to the game.
All the running, the Punjab-speaking Singh told reporters through an interpreter last weekend, “put new focus in my life.’’ And from tragedy, he added, “has come a lot of success and happiness.’’
Out of personal tragedy, Singh carved a unique niche for himself as the old guy who went out and got himself some giddyup. Not only was he down the road in years when he began, but he also ran while sporting India’s traditional headwear, earning him the nickname Turbaned Tornado.
The turban Singh wore Sunday was a bright saffron, somewhat reminiscent of the golden helmets often worn by top scorers in European hockey leagues or the better-known and coveted yellow shirt of the Tour de France leader.
Don’t worry, cycling fans, we safely can dismiss any notion that Singh may have doped. He is 101 years old, 5 feet 8 inches, a waifish 115 pounds, with a flowing white beard, and he paired self-healing and charity fund-raising as the root of his running. He and a bunch of elderly Sikh pals, in their 70s and 80s, formed a running club, “Sikhs in the City’’ (we are not making this up) in East London, and charity work was central to membership.
Idle thought: I wonder if the Sikhs in the City one day would take a dip with the L Street Brownies? Or is there a 100-year-old Brownie who could cover 10K of Boston Harborfront in a little under 93 minutes? Probably in a sedan, though doubtful in a turban.
Marathons, Singh noted in recent years, didn’t present him much struggle over the first 20 miles.
“But the last 6 miles,’’ he said, “I run while talking to God.’’
Whatever gets you home, I say.
When he wrapped up his career Sunday, one of some 72,000 runners in the Hong Kong 10K, Singh sounded melancholy but also relieved to be at the end of the road. He looked tired, gaunt, the edges of his lower eyelids ruby red, his tiny frame looking frail, spent. They had been a challenging 93 minutes for the little man of a century-plus.
“I am happy that I am retiring at the top of the game,’’ he said. “But I am sad that the time has come for me not to be part of it.’’
As a child, according to reports, illness prevented Singh from taking his first steps until age 5, but he eventually gained strength, walked, ultimately ran. But for some 70 years he had run very little when he finally put on his sneakers in London. His coach there said he arrived at his first practice in suit and street shoes and needed to be persuaded to wear something more, shall we say, road-race-worthy.
Singh, according to media reports, has no birth certificate to back up what he says is his birth date: April 1, 1911. His British passport includes that as his D.O.B, but he has been denied recognition by the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s oldest marathoner because he cannot validate his birthday.
India, a country of more than 1.2 billion today, can’t find the paper trail for a guy born poor on a farm in Punjab a little more than a year before Fenway Park opened. That’s as unsurprising as it is humorous.
The world’s oldest marathoner (my validating source: last Sunday’s pictures from the Hong Kong 10K) has made it this far, he figures, because he has lived a life free of smoke and alcohol. He is also a vegetarian.
Beyond that, Singh claims not to have followed a diet specific to running nor adopted unorthodox or punishing training methods. He’s just a guy who ran, a guy who one day plummeted to a low in his life, and amid the loneliness and hurt and silence, figured running could provide a self-renaissance.
So Fauja Singh ran, never thinking, never lamenting, like so many of us do, “But I’m too old to start.’’ Perhaps he was just too old to explore the thought. Or perhaps too wise.
“If something makes you happy,’’ said the wise Turbaned Tornado, his running résumé dotted with nine lifetime marathons, “you’ll do it well.’’