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Fauja Singh Keeps Going | Children’s Book About 109-Year-Old Runner – runnersworld.com

At 109 years old, Fauja Singh (pronounced foh-jah) says he doesn’t have many life regrets. He overcame a disability that prevented him from walking until he was five years old, he’s traveled the world, and he’s set world records in running.

But the Sikh runner wishes he had done more in his life to inspire young people, especially those from his community who have endured racism and xenophobia.

“I could see the pain in his eyes,” Simran Jeet Singh (no relation to Fauja), who was inspired to write Fauja Singh Keeps Going, a children’s book about the famous runner, told Runner’s World. “He was 102 [when we first spoke], and he had this sense that it was too late to do it.”

Simran—who is a professor, writer, activist, and runner—wished there was something he could do to help Fauja. Three years later, in 2016, Simran met Singh again. The 105-year-old held Simran’s two-month-old daughter while he talked.

“That’s when I knew how I could help Fauja,” Simran said.

He would write a children’s book honoring Singh’s achievements in an effort to inspire people of all backgrounds. Simran spoke with Runner’s World about this new book, , which was released August 25.


Runner’s World: How did your idea for a book about Fauja Singh’s life come to be?

Simran Jeet Singh: Do you want the long story or the short story?

Definitely the long story.

Singh: I was born and raised in Texas, and I was one of the only kids in all of south Texas who wore a turban. I was constantly looking around bookstores and libraries for characters who looked like me and my family. And every time I’d walk away feeling disappointed.

I wanted to be able to show my classmates, my neighbors, and my friends that we [members of the Sikh community] were as much a part of this society as everyone else.

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon

amazon.com

$10.99

I remember once, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I asked a librarian if there were any books with characters that looked like me. And she told me those stories aren’t relatable enough. It wasn’t malicious, but that’s how privilege works. You don’t understand the impact of what you’re saying. But the message to me was that our stories didn’t matter. People don’t care about us.

When my daughter was born 30 years later, I went back to the same libraries and bookstores and realized nothing had changed; there still weren’t characters that looked like myself and the people I love. Actually, what had changed in 30 years, was there were a lot more hateful attacks and violence against our community. There were more negative representations of us, but there weren’t any positive ones.

I looked at my daughter and thought, It’s time to write this book. I didn’t want my kids to grow up feeling the way I had, that their stories didn’t matter, that their lives didn’t matter.

I started to think about the biggest inspiration in my life, and I thought about Fauja Singh. When I was in grad school, my friends and I were watching sports, and an adidas commercial came on with David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, and an elderly Sikh man who was running. I had never seen a man who looked like me on TV represented in a positive way. To see him as a sports figure with some of my sports heroes was the coolest thing. I had to learn more about his story.

I started following Fauja’s journey. At the time, he was in his 90s and breaking all sorts of running records. When he was 101, he crossed the finish line at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, becoming the oldest person to finish a marathon. That was the year I ran my first marathon. I fell in love with running, and it changed my life. I owe that to Fauja.

Courtesy of Simran Jeet Singh

What sort of research did you do for your book?

Singh: I first read a small biography about Fauja, published in India. It wasn’t polished, but it was a good starting point. Then there was the Turban Tornado, but I wasn’t totally satisfied. I read all I could online. There was a beautiful writeup from ESPN Outside the Lines, which helped me really understand the depth of Fauja’s story.

I got in touch with Fauja’s running coach, and while I didn’t need permission to tell someone’s story, I really wanted Fauja to be part of the process. Fauja doesn’t read or write English, so his coach would take the story to him and translate it to Punjabi. I asked his coach to get a reaction and what Fauja felt good about or what was missing.

My illustrator and I also flew to London to spend time with Fauja once the first draft of the book was completed. It was to really get a sense of who Fauja was so we could capture his spirit. It didn’t change the way we told the story, but it gave the story layers and added his personality. The illustrator was able to better capture how he looked and the way his body moved.

Simran Jeet Singh

Why was this story important to tell—not just for people of color and religious minorities but for white people, too?

Singh: Representation matters for kids who belong to marginalized communities and don’t have the opportunity to see themselves as heroes of their own stories. I think a lot about what stories like Fauja’s can do for kids who aren’t used to seeing people with diverse backgrounds and experiences as heroes for all of us.

Part of what drew me to Fauja is that he has so many aspects of his life: He’s elderly, he dealt with a disability, he’s an immigrant, he has a turban and a beard. These aren’t the types of heroes we see, but my thesis in my justice work is if we can teach our kids to see humanity that is most different from them, they can see humanity in all they encounter.

[With a book like this], all of a sudden we can counter negative messages about people who look like me with something positive. To me, that’s the potential for books like this. Story-telling is a way to humanize people who have been dehumanized for way too long.

You have young children, 2 and 4 years old—what was their reaction to this book?

Singh: My daughter, who’s 4, loves any story you tell her so she’s not a good test audience. But when we looked at the illustrations, there is one of a younger Fauja braiding his daughter’s hair. His daughter was around my daughter’s age. She turned to that page and said, “That’s you and me every morning.” It’s cliche, but it totally melted my heart. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.

Baljinder Kaur

For me, and for other parents I’ve heard from, we get to share our love for running with our kids. My kids aren’t at the age at which I can take them out on a run with me, but this book has created the opportunity to share my love for running and talk about the powerful gifts running has given me, including perseverance, fortitude, and resilience. Now they’re excited about running.

What do you hope this book will do for young children, runners or not?

Singh: The biggest message in this book is to help our young kids open their minds and hearts to reimagine what our heroes can look like. For runners, there is so much inspiration to derive from Fauja. He’s such an incredible human being. So much of his story is his journey and the steps he takes along the way—his commitment to overcoming adversity. His resilience. There is so much we can gain from seeing light like his in our world.

Everywhere I went, I was told that nobody would be interested in this story. There’s no market. There’s no precedent. But I knew in my heart that it was just a good story.

Freelance Writer Heather is the former food and nutrition editor for Runner’s World and the author of The Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook.

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