R.ajinder singh was five when he learned to walk. While his father mowed the grass by hand in the village of Devidaspura in Punjab to feed their buffalo, Singh sat on a clean sheet to keep the ants from biting and watched. When the work was done, his father taught him “how to jump rope, how to run, how to take care of yourself”.
His father, an avid athlete who served in the British-Indian Army during World War II, told him, “‘I’ll beat you in a race.” But he never hit me. He ran [as if] to hit me but he knew I was doing my best so he stayed behind. I said to him: ‘Dad, you can win, why did you do that?’ He said, ‘If I discourage you, you’ll never enjoy it.’ He lifted me up, cuddled me nicely, I’ll never forget that. “
Now 74, Singh is preparing for his first marathon in London in October. And over the weekend, he pays out his father’s encouragement at the junior park run near his home in Harlington, west London. Still, 26.2 miles is much further than a park run. Is he worried he won’t finish?
“No. I trust in God,” he says. Singh recently received an MBE for his inspirational exercise videos during the pandemic. He’s kind of an older, more turbulent, easier way of dealing with Joe Wicks; his skipping videos are often in his allotment garden , where he also cuts the grass by hand, another great way to keep fit surrounded by piles of boards and plastic boxes.
Singh trains in West London. Photo: Antonio Olmos / The Guardian
“Sometimes I overdo it,” he admits. He tries to direct positive thoughts to his right knee, which was injured when a dog bit him in a park six years ago (“I say, ‘You have to help me out until I finish the marathon’), and his back, which has severe rheumatoid arthritis. His biggest run to date is 13 miles. So why do that? “Sport is my elixir of life,” he says. “Sport is my family”. Running is encouraging, he says, “you can’t do it anywhere else”.
Running has flowed through his whole life. In 1971 Singh moved to England alone to see his uncle. When he started working and helping his uncle with his repair business, he bought his first tracksuit “and kept walking”. Jobs at a carpenter, an airline caterer, Mother’s Pride baker, and Heathrow Airport followed; he worked there as a driver for almost 28 years. Even if he put in double shifts and piled up 16 or 20 hours a day to save enough money to buy a house, he still found time to walk and gave up the free parking card to commute on foot.
Unfortunately, his father never managed to visit him. Singh sent him the sponsorship forms three times, but he was put off by a friend’s warning that he might be sitting on the plane next to someone eating beef. In 1985, mid-shift at Heathrow, Singh received an enigmatic telegram. “It said, ‘Your father has expired.’ I went straight to my manager. I said, ‘I can’t understand these words.’ He said, ‘Your father is no longer on this planet.’ ”Singh later found out that his father had been strangled; no one was ever brought to justice.
It is clear from the way he talks about running that even when Singh is walking alone, he is walking as part of a crowd. “When you’re alone, you make company,” he says. He gets applauded at parkrun. “I call that family,” he says. He runs with his daughter Minreet and his wife Pritpal Kaur, who is a master of hula hooping herself. He is also building an online community where he is known as the “Skipping Sikh”; people often send him fancy ropes. But of course he never really walks alone. “Every time I run, the first step, my father comes to mind.”