If Lance Armstrong destroyed your faith in endurance sports, an illiterate, turban-wearing pensioner could restore it. Not that drugs would ever appeal to devout Sikh athlete Fauja Singh, 101, the world’s oldest marathon runner who has announced his retirement.
"I recognize that the longer distances are becoming challenging and taking part in races adds pressure on me as I like to be seen to be enjoying myself and not struggling," Singh told Metro from India. "I’m not sad and want to retire at the top. I have achieved all I wanted and there are no more records to be broken."
The Indian-born Briton, who ran his first marathon at age 89 and seven more since, now has an eye on his legacy.
"I want the young to be inspired to take up physical activity and maintain it through their lives. Hopefully they will see the folly of taking drugs. I also want the elderly to embark on getting fitter – if I can run my first marathon so late in life, no one should use the excuse of old age as a barrier."
Singh’s epic journey has seen him post records in eight distance categories, including his best time of 5 hours 40 minutes at the 2003 Toronto Marathon. His achievements have earned him a lunch date with Queen Elizabeth II, and a starring role in TV commercials alongside David Beckham.
Harmander Singh, his coach of 13 years, credits Fauja’s enthusiasm. "He was my best trainee, always keen to do more than I expected. I would suggest a 10-kilometer run and he would ask 'why not 20?'"
Harmander describes his student as a "simple and humble man" – he has always been illiterate – who has stayed close to his faith.
The pair established the ‘Sikhs in the City’ running club in London, now participating in inter-faith marathons across the world. In retirement, faith and sporting charities will become his focus, along with "meeting people at a more leisurely pace."
Fauja’s achievements have become a reference point for sports scientists.
"He has demonstrated the limit of human capacity," Professor Jose Gonzalez-Alonso, Director of the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance in London, told Metro. "I’m sure it will motivate other elderly runners to beat his times."
Fauja’s last official race will be a 10-kilometer event in Hong Kong on February 24.
Q+A with Fauja Singh
Metro: What has been the proudest moment of your running career?
Singh: Every moment has been topping the last but I was particularly pleased to have completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon at the age of 100 and finally my home London Marathon – I also value crossing the finish line of my first marathon as special.
Who is your sporting hero?
When I was young there were great Punjabi and Sikh wrestlers who were legends and everyone wished they could be like them. Later it was Ajit Singh from Huddersfield and Amrik Singh from Glasgow, friends who ran many marathons all over the world long before me, and persuaded me to try longer distances than the 100 and 200 metres I used to run.
Would you like your record as oldest marathon runner to be broken?
All records are meant to be broken, but it is great while they last. I wish the next record breaker well and hope they enjoy doing it.
Do you wish you had taken up running a bit earlier?
I never worry about things that I cannot control, I am grateful to God that I have lasted this long as it can be tiring to be ahead of the field for so long – 13 and a half years is I am told exceptional to be at the top. No British Prime Minister has lasted as long.
How you can still be running aged 100 – with Professor Jose Gonzalez-Alonso