He speaks no English, only his native Punjabi. But at the venerable age of 100, runner Fauja Singh’s message of offering only your best is eloquent in any language.
Fauja -- the name means soldier -- is a former farmer who began running at 80 after the passing of his wife and son. At 89, he became an everyman-type racer. On Thursday, he ran eight world record times for his age group in less than five hours at Scarborough’s Birchmount Stadium track, from distances as short as 100 metres to as long as 5,000 metres. He’s hoping to add a ninth for the Guinness World Record book, as the first centenarian to run the entire 42.195-km distance in Sunday’s Scotiabank Waterfront Toronto Marathon. The times, witnessed by officials of Ontario Masters Athletics, will be sent to the governing International Association of Athletics Federations for ratification.
The Turbaned Tornado, as he’s been called, stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 115 pounds. Accompanied by an escort, he’ll start his slow, deliberate run at the end of one of three waves of a total of about 20,000 runners in the marathon, half-marathon and 5-km runs.
Fauja Singh celebrated his 100th birthday on April 11. At that age, you run not against fellow racers -- face it: who makes it to 100 in sneakers -- but against everyone’s adversary, the clock. The man with the long white beard, who runs in a yellow turban, began knocking off records easily. People might doubt Fauja age, but he travels with a passport and with the telegram from The Queen which marked his 100th birthday.
“He doesn’t think of himself as old. He dresses to the ‘T’ in Boss and Armani,” said trainer Harmander Singh, who coaches the Sikhs in the City community group based in England where Fauja trains. Not all members of the running group are Sikhs; it’s a multinational, multi-faith band with women on its relay squad, Harminder says.
He says the trick to coaching seniors involves no life secrets or a special diet, but “to make them believe in themselves.” The qualities that has made them valued members of society -- hard work and determination -- didn’t vanish with the turn of a calendar page, the trainer said..
“They’re achieving something for themselves. Fauja has a passion to want to do things. He believes that health is more than wealth. When you get old, you become like a child -- you crave attention and this gives him all the attention he needs. What keeps him going is that he thinks positive thoughts, avoids negative people, and does whatever he can for others. He believes God has given him blessings [of old age]to do things for other people,” such as setting a good example and talking with children’s groups.
He already set two records for runners over 90 on the Toronto waterfront, running the half-marathon in 2004 (2 hours 29 minutes 59 seconds) and a full marathon in 2003 (5 hours 40 minutes 1 second). He runs 9-10 miles a day in training.
Thursday’s spate of records came with a cost. Fauja stiffened up with a cramp during the 5,000 metres and began weaving like a zombie. A well-meaning spectator offered assistance but was shooed away and Fauja regained a comfortable walking gait for the last four Birchmount laps to inscribe an age-group record for the distance.
“Getting records is God’s will. Part of it is I have no expectations, only a wish [to do it]and God made it possible,” he said.
People ask him why he still runs, and he answers that he’d heard in San Francisco woman wanted to have a baby at 75, “and if a woman can have a baby at 75, then a man can have a dream to run a marathon at 100.”
He cited the legend of the persistence and devotion of Sikh martyr Baba Deep Singh, whose head was almost severed in a battle, yet still found the strength to put the head on his shoulders and scare off attackers before reaching his goal and finally succumbing. “That is the heritage that we are made of,” Fauja said.
Fauja had blood tests and a bone density test when runner was 99. Doctors, kept blind to the identity of their subjects, felt they were dealing with a 40-year-old in the blood tests. On bone density, Singh’s left leg was found to be comparable to that of a 35-year-old; his right leg had that of a 25-year-old.
“His response was, ‘I knew my left leg was weaker,’” said Alan Brookes, race director for Sunday’s event.
World age-group records pending for 100-year-old runner, after runs by Fauja Singh, Oct. 13, 2011:
100 metres -- 23.40 seconds (previous 29.83); 200 metres -- 52.23 seconds (previous 77.59 seconds); 400 metres -- 2:13.48 (previous 3:41.00); 800 metres -- 5:32.18 (no previous record); 1,500 metres -- 11:27.00 (previous 16:46.00); mile 11:53.45 (no previous record); 3,000 metres -- 24:52.47 (no previous record); 5,000 metres -- 49:57.39 (no previous).