For most of their lives, they were non-entities, living far away from the spotlight. Now in the last leg of their lives, their brush with global glory has become an inspiration for all. Google Fauja Singh or Mann Kaur and it will provide search results running into six digits — an indication, if one was needed, of their fame.
Both the centenarian runners hold the world record in their respective events.
Chandigarh’s Mann Kaur, 100, recently hit the headlines by becoming the world’s fastest centenarian during the American Masters Games held in Vancouver and is now eyeing another track to conquer. She aims to represent the country at next year’s World Masters Games --- the Olympics of the veterans --- in Auckland. On Sunday, the great-grandmother will be a special guest at a marathon in Patiala.
“After coming from Vancouver, she had fever which took a toll on her. I almost thought she would not survive. Thankfully she recovered and all her reports are good. Even her haemoglobin level at this age is 12.4 (women above 18 years have a mean level of 14 grams/deciliter),” her son Gurdev Singh, 78, who also competes in the masters’ event and has won dozens of medals at national and international levels, says.
“Last week we completed the registration process for the 2017 World Masters Games and will compete in four events, 100m, 200m, Javelin throw and shot put.”
Fauja Singh, who featured with football star David Beckham and boxing legend Muhammad Ali in an Adidas advertisement in 2004, holds the world record for the fastest marathon by a centenarian. In fact, he is the only centenarian in the world to run a marathon, in 2011 clocking 8:25:17.
Even at 105, Fauja runs 5 miles daily. “For the last 20 years, running has become an integral part of my life. Rather, you can say I am only living to run. The day I stop running, I will die,” says British passport holder Fauja Singh, interacting with HT at his native village Beas in Jalandhar district. He was in India for a short visit. “I love meeting people and when they ask for a photograph with me I feel really happy. This is my real motivation, which keeps me going.”
Mann’s sports journey started at the ripe age of 93.
Mann Kaur too was introduced to athletics at the age of 93. Before that she had never taken to running. It took her a further two years to don the track pants for the first time in her life, in the 32nd national masters meet. She won gold in the 100m and 200m races in the 90+ age category.
It was while participating in the World Masters in Canada in 2008 when her son Gurdev saw a 90-year-old woman competing in the 100m. That moment changed everything. “I was hesitant at first, when the idea of stepping into the competitive arena was thrown at me. Later on, I started enjoying running,” says Mann Kaur, who had worked as a caretaker to the queens of Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, before Independence.
Mann, whose grandchildren are settled abroad, got her passport made only in 2011, when she was picked to represent the country in the World Masters Athletics Championships at Sacramento, US. There she won gold with new world records in 100m and 200m races and was adjudged ‘Athlete of the Year’. Till date, she has competed in five international meets and won 17 medals, all gold.
Secret of her good health? “Start the day with a glass of kefir and have chappatis made of sprouted wheat. No place for fried food.”
Nicknamed Turbaned Tornado because of his running feats, Fauja Singh ran the first marathon of his life at the age of 89, during the London Marathon in 2000. He hogged the limelight, when at 93 he completed the race in 6 hours, 54 minutes, almost an hour faster than the previous record in the 90-plus category.
“It was a family tragedy that introduced me to running and later to marathon. My son Kuldeep died in 1994 and I couldn’t come to terms with the loss. I almost lost my mind. The villagers suggested my family take me away from here or otherwise I would die. Finally I came to England in 1995,” recalls Fauja. “Because of the cultural gap, initially I found it really difficult to adjust. So, most of time I used to go for long walks. One day I met some elderly people, who told me about a charity run, and that made me to start running.” “Later, I came in touch with coach Harminder Singh who introduced me to the world of marathons,” adds Fauja, who has run eight marathons, the last in 2011 in Toronto.
“If not a full marathon, I can run at least a half-marathon now. But my coach has stopped me from participating in competitive events. But my day never ends without running five to seven kilometers,” says Fauja, whose secret of good health is eating less and trying not to criticise anybody.