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The indefatigable spirit of a 100-year old marathoner

Fauja Singh, 93, being congratulatred after setting a record in his age class in the Toronto Waterfront marathon in this Sept. 28, 2003 file photo.

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

At 100 years old, Fauja Singh is a poster boy for indefatigable spirit. At an age most people would like to just reach, the Indian-born Briton is running marathons.

"God has given me this opportunity, and I feel blessed with this and enjoy running," Singh said through an interpreter. "If I could run even when I'm dead, I'll try."

Singh didn't run his first marathon until he was 89, and has since smashed one world age-class record after another — and shattered notions about aging along the way.

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He will be gunning for the Guinness World Record for oldest marathoner when he runs the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct. 16.

Singh, recognizable by his turban and long white beard, will run alongside 12 members of his London running club "Sikhs in the City." There are no plans for added medical personnel.

"We do not need medical staff, trust me," said Harmander Singh, the marathoner's coach, friend and sometimes-interpreter. "They couldn't keep up anyway."

Fauja Singh, a vegetarian who carries just 115 pounds on his spindly five-foot-eight frame, has found fame in his fountain-of-youth quest.

He was featured in Adidas' "Impossible is Nothing" campaign. He's the subject of the biography "Turbaned Torpedo," which he can't read because he's illiterate. His Facebook page has over 16,000 members. And he received a congratulatory telegram from Queen Elizabeth on his 100th birthday in April.

Singh, who was born on a farm in a remote part of India, admits he loves the attention.

"I cannot think of anything bad about running at all, there's only good in it, because not only am I healthy, but I get the recognition that inspires me and motivates me to carry on," Singh said.

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"It's God's will what you're allowed to do and I feel that I'm blessed with this, I look forward to any target dates and when the next event is. I look forward to something like a child would. Like children you need the attention and running gives me that attention."

Singh ran in his youth before taking a break from the sport that would last half a century. Following the deaths of his son and wife, he needed to find a new focus in his life and took up running, completing his first 20-kilometre race at age 88.

His debut in the gruelling 42.195-kilometre marathon was in 2000 in London, which he ran for BLISS — a charity for premature babies.

"We thought we could have a strapline: the oldest running for the youngest," said Harmander Singh, who added the runner has raised thousands for various charities in his running career.

Fauja Singh finished the London race in six hours 54 minutes, knocking 54 minutes off the previous world record for his age.

He also holds the marathon world record for runners over 90, finishing in 5:40 at the 2003 Toronto Waterfront race, one of 11 world marks he holds in that age class.

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He covers between 13 and 16 kilometres a day in training, alternating walking and running — the balance between the two shifting as the wheels of time turn. His only injury came when he tripped over the cables of a television camera. He claims the secret to his longevity is his diet of ginger curry and tea.

Fauja Singh, who said he doesn't consider himself old at all, has a message for elderly people, and North Americans in general.

"The first thing is to get rid of this notion that you're old," Singh said. "The other thing is, some people die of starvation in some parts of the world, but in western countries people die of overeating. And they don't do enough exercise to burn it off. You eat to live, not live to eat.

"Many people have been inspired enough to get off their backsides, but I'd like more people to do that. It's one thing to say you're inspired, but another to prove it, to actually do something about it. My message to all elders is if you give up, it's going to give up on you."

Three days before running the marathon in Toronto, Singh will attempt to set age-class records at almost every distance on the track up to 5,000 metres. Because there are no records for 100-year-olds, all he has to do is finish.

It's the same deal for the marathon. Singh's coach said he's on pace to run about 6:50 in the marathon, but going out too fast carries the risk of not finishing.

"The record is to be the oldest runner, not the oldest fastest runner," Harmander Singh said.

Canada boasts its own fleet-footed senior. Ed Whitlock, who turned 80 in March, has been smashing age-class world records in long-distance events, including shattering the world record for runners 80-84 in April.

Whitlock, from Milton, Ont., will be racing to lower that record in Toronto next month.

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