FRANKFURT -- The star looks as if he’s asleep. His trainer says he isn’t. “He’s wide awake and can’t wait until the next race,” says Harmander Singh. His protégé looks like he in fact could wait. His arms folded, his head -- wrapped in a dark blue turban -- tilted forward, Fauja Singh is sitting in the lobby of a Frankfurt hotel. His eyes are closed. Two weeks ago, he was the first 100-year-old to run a marathon. The effort has tired him out, which is why he’s taking a catnap – or at least that’s what it looks like. But his trainer isn’t having any of it.
"He says he’s delighted with his achievement and all his fans,” says Harmander Singh, speaking for Fauja Singh, who has yet to utter a word. Now, however, the aged runner opens his eyes. The scrawny Kenyans who won the Frankfurt Marathon point at him, whispering and giggling. His build is similar to theirs: short, slight, with thighs thinner than a well-fed person’s upper arm. However, because Fauja Singh is old, his muscles are weak, and he needs six hours longer than they do to cover the 42 kilometer (26 mile) stretch.
Still, Fauja Singh is the one the blonde wearing tight pants and a bright smile wants to have her picture taken with. "You are sooo fantastic," she says in English. The runner nods. He strokes his long grey beard and grins at the camera. As his fan leaves, he looks after her and says: “Why wasn’t she around when I was 20.”
The ‘turbaned tornado’
Singh has been a well-known figure on the marathon scene for years. In 2000, aged 89, he ran his first race in London -- but it wasn’t until his eighth event, as a centenarian, that he moved toward legend status in the running world. That was two weeks ago, in Toronto. In small, quick steps, his upper body mostly bent over, eyes down, he ran the 42 km through the Canadian city. It took him 8 hours, 25 minutes and 16 seconds. He came in 3,850th place. "To have achieved that is like – getting married again,” he says.
Newspapers worldwide celebrated the "Turbaned Tornado." In Frankfurt, too, where Singh ran after Toronto, a dozen journalists were covering him even though he did not go the whole distance. Doesn’t matter, a BBC journalist said: “he is just amazing." A French reporter gushed: “I love him." She asked him if he’d marry her. He said no, but she kissed him anyway. "He calls me baby," she said proudly, as he started running.
He joined the race at 36 km, chatting with fans as he passed, waving. He called it a “nice little round of jogging” after he reached the finish line. It didn’t matter that he’d only done a portion of the event. All the attention was on him anyway.
Now, in the hotel lobby, his trainer, Harmander Singh, is surrounded by journalists. In his mid-50s, the small man has a T-shirt that reads "Sikhs in the City" stretched over his belly. He too is clearly enjoying the situation. “Just tell us what you want, we can accommodate,” he says.
Fauja Singh is now silent again. He in any case speaks only broken English: his trainer translates all the questions into Punjabi for him, though he doesn't get a lot of answers besides an occasional “yes.” Fauja Singh agrees to be photographed standing next to the limo of a race sponsor, dons some red running shoes for a sports brand, and tries on the jacket that has “100” emblazoned on it. He says yes to everything. According to Harmander Singh, the runner isn’t making any money from this. "He does it because he enjoys it. He loves all the attention.”
So how about an interview? "With pleasure," says Fauja Singh, taking a seat and scratching underneath his turban. But once again it’s Harmander Singh who does all the talking. He is a practicing Sikh, he says, and like Fauja uses the name Singh for religious reasons. They are not related. He is Fauja Singh’s trainer, friend and interpreter – in a manner of speaking. Fauja Singh utters one sentence, then Harmander Singh delivers 10.
He recounts how Fauja Singh was born on April 1, 1911 in India, then a British crown colony. There he eked out a meager existence as a farmer. Later he lost both his wife, and then his son, Kuldip. "He was killed in an accident, right in front of his father,” says Harmander Singh, adding that the widower became depressed “and was even thinking of taking his own life.”
Instead, in the mid-1990s, Fauja Singh moved to East London, to live with his youngest son – and, with other Sikh seniors, began running competitively. In marathon running, his best time so far is 5 hours, 40 minutes – he achieved that aged 92. If he won’t make it into the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest marathon runner, it’s because he can’t produce a birth certificate. "He has a passport with his age in it, and a 100th birthday letter of congratulations from the Queen, but no birth certificate since they didn’t have those in India back in 1911.”
Without the certificate, it was no go for Guinness – but Fauja Singh doesn’t care. "I just want to run,” he says. "When I stop I will die."
Read the original story in German
Photo - Suddeutsche Zeitung video