Fauja Singh is so light on his feet that he could be treading on air. He runs past mustard fields, a gentle breeze making the bright yellow flowers bow to him. He runs past shimmering wheat fields, sentinel lines of poplars, and tight little mango groves. As he enters a gnarly brick lane that runs through a warren of two-storey houses, Singh slows to a trot, then comes to a stop in front of an old house in yellow and blue, now being refurbished. This is Beas Pind, a village near Jalandhar, with the Jalandhar-Pathankot highway running past.
“This is where I was born,” he says, a gleam in his eyes. “And this is where my children were born. It’s changed a bit now.”
No doubt. It’s been almost 103 years since Singh was born. His ancestral house has been rebuilt many times since then, but Singh is still standing here, his silver and grey beard blowing in the wind, the sharp shafts of sun, filtered through black clouds, giving it a preternatural wizard-glow. Singh’s not just standing, he is still running.
“Seven to eight kilometres every day,” he says. “I walk some, jog some, and run some, but I am slowing down a little.”
By slowing down, he means that he is not going to run a marathon again. He ran his last race, a 10K, on 24 February last year in Hong Kong, just a month short of his 102nd birthday. He finished it in 1 hour, 32 minutes and 28 seconds, on a muggy day with a light drizzle.
“I was nervous because it was my last race,” he says, sitting on the terrace of his house. “I asked my coach, will I finish this one? And he said, ‘Of course you will.’ But there were so many people, so many flash-bulbs going off, that at first I could not even figure out if I was running in the right direction.”
After he had gone past the 5km mark, Singh says he felt confident that he would finish the race, but after another kilometre, he fell badly, bruising his knees. “People rushed to help me, because every time I fall, I think people are scared that I will not get up again,” he says, laughing with uninhibited glee. “But my time has not come yet. People tried to make me drink some water, but I refused. I got up on my own, and began running again. And then while I was running, someone came and sprayed something on my knees, and the pain went away.”
For a moment, he hallucinated—he thought there were pretty women in traditional Punjabi clothes dancing the bhangra and the giddha—but they were young local girls who were cheering him from the sidelines.
“When I crossed the finish line, I felt so light, so painless,” he says. “I thought, God was running with me.”
And there it was, the end of the most extraordinary long-distance running career that can be imagined: first marathon at 89, and nine more since, and a half-dozen lesser distances; the oldest man to run a full marathon, when he completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon at 100; and a fantastical timing posted in 2003, 5:40:04 at the Toronto Marathon, at the age of 92, prompting Adidas (which sponsored him) to include him in their Impossible Is Nothing ad campaign, alongside David Beckham. The tag line of the ad said: 6:54 at age 89. 5:40 at age 92. The Kenyans better watch out for him when he hits 100. Since then, Singh has had tea with Queen Elizabeth II, a woman he is impressed with: “Maharani England di tagri hegi-ae” (the queen of England is a strong woman); run with the Olympic torch during the London Games in 2012; developed a serious fetish for suits, ties and shoes (he has over a hundred suits, colour-matched with nearly that many pairs of shoes—“a strange thing,” he says, “considering I spent 90 years more or less wearing the same type of white kurta-pyjama”); and of course, run more marathons.
The year Singh was born, the British Imperial capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, and Elizabeth II’s grandfather, George V, was crowned the emperor of India. Singh is a time machine. How the world has changed since his birth would make a fascinating book—two world wars, the discovery of penicillin, stainless steel, short-wave radio, electron microscope, ad infinitum. Through most of this time, Singh was just a simple boy born to a family of farmers, unschooled except in farming, born emaciated and with weak legs which did not allow him to walk till he was 5. When he did walk, he quickly gained a reputation for being the most active boy in the village, always climbing trees, jumping into ponds, and running after kites (he’s still fidgety and garrulous, and hardly ever sits still). But running as a sport, or just for the joy of it, was forgotten as the child turned into a man, took over the farm, married and had six children—three daughters and three sons. One by one, his children migrated, to England and Canada, and Singh and his wife Gian Kaur worked their ancestral farm with their fifth child, Kuldip. Occasionally, the family would visit their children in England, and that’s how, in the early 1960s, Singh’s date of birth was registered as 1 April 1911 in his passport—birth certificates were not common in India till 1969.
In 1992, Gian died, Singh was 81. “She had a good life,” Singh says, “and I thought, surely my time is near, and I was at peace with that.”
Two years later, Singh’s peace of mind was shattered in the most gruesome of ways. It was July, the monsoon had arrived, and Kuldip and he were fixing an irrigation ditch next to an outhouse on the periphery of their farm, when a storm hit them. As they were hurrying back to their house, the corrugated metal roof of the outhouse was wrenched out by the storm and came flying at Kuldip, slicing his head off as Singh watched.
Everything changed after this. His youngest child, Harvinder, says that Singh began losing his mind. He would not speak for days, and when he did, it was to pick a fight. He would wander aimlessly around the village, crying, at all times of the day and night. The doctors advised his family to take Singh away from his village, and this is how, towards the end of 1994, he found himself living with his eldest son in London. He visits his village in India once a year.
“I was there to forget, yes,” Singh says, looking listless for the first time in the day. “But I kept coming back here. Nothing seemed right.”
Then, slowly, he began making friends with fellow Sikh expats in London, many of whom were of his vintage. He found out that they often went running in the morning, and desperate for any kind of distraction, he joined them one day.
“I found out that I could run faster than all of them,” Singh says. “And I could run on and on.”
His first major run was a 20km charity event in London, and he loved it so much that everyone in his family, and all his new friends, began encouraging him to take part in more such races.
“And that’s how I began running,” Singh says. “And that’s what keeps me alive. One day I will be running, and the earth will claim me back and it will be wonderful. How can you be scared of something like that? But that day is still a little further away.”