Fauja Singh, the “Turbaned Tornado,” achieved an impressive feat of will and strength in Hong Kong on Sunday. At 101 years of age, the former Punjabi farmer who is now based in London completed his final competitive road race.
Waving a Hong Kong flag and wearing a saffron turban, the headpiece characteristic of Sikh men, Singh crossed the finish line, flowing white beard and all; finishing the 10km race along Hong Kong’s scenic harbor in one hour, 32 minutes and 28 seconds. That’s half a minute faster than last year. Not bad for a centenarian great-great grandfather.
“Five or six kilometers into the race, I really decided to go for it,” he told CNN. “I had lots of power today because I was very happy.” Minutes after crossing the finished line, he added, “I will remember this day. I will miss it.” Singh, who is only fluent in Punjabi, speaks through his coach and interpreter Harmander Singh.
There are late bloomers and then there is Singh, who didn’t even start running competitively until he was 89 years old. It was a family tragedy that first prompted him to lace up his shoes. Singh lost his wife and fifth son, who died in front of his eyes in a tragic farming accident in India in 1994. Struggling with grief and depression, Singh found himself alone in Punjab, his other five children having already emigrated.
"I suffered a tragic incident in my life, a traumatic experience; I took up running as a new focus in life. And then marathon running developed from there," he told CNN before Sunday's race.
Singh ran his first road race in his adopted London in 2000, followed by more in New York, Toronto and beyond, including nine marathons. His career best marathon time was in Toronto in 2003, where he finished in 5 hours, 40 minutes. In completing the Toronto’s Waterfront Marathon in 2011, Singh became the first centenarian to ever finish a full marathon.
As his fame rose, Singh was selected to serve as a torch bearer at the 2012 Olympics. Adidas even featured him in the company’s “Impossible is Nothing” advertising blitz, which also featured star athlete David Beckham and the legendary Muhammad Ali. A vegetarian, Singh also appeared in a PETA advertisement that shows him running by in a black track suit and black turban.
During his sporting career, Singh has raised thousands of dollars for charity and has inspired an impressive global following, with more than 55,000 fans on his Facebook page at the time of writing. After the race on Sunday, messages of tribute poured in from around the world.
Despite the support of his fans and his undeniable dedication, Guinness Book of World Records has been reluctant to grant Singh the official title of world’s oldest marathon runner. The problem: no birth certificate.
"This is a case of institutional racism," coach Harmander told ESPN. Like many other countries, India did not issue birth certificates when Singh was born, although his passport duly lists his birthday as April 1, 1911. For perspective, from the time Singh was born India would still be under British rule for another 37 years.
Downplaying the treatment by Guinness, Harmander told ESPN, “They're in the business of trivia. What does it matter if Fauja's name is in the same book as the lady with the longest fingernails in the world?”
Fame was never Singh’s goal anyway. He starting running as a way to ease his grief. The rewards have already been plentiful.
Thinking back to his first days hitting the pavement, he recalled, “I felt connected to God.”