Rajinder Singh was five when he learned to run. While his father hand-cut the grass to feed their buffalo, in the village of Devidaspura in Punjab, Singh sat on a nice clean sheet, so the ants didn’t bite, and watched. When the work was done, his father taught him “how to jump rope, how to run, how to look after yourself”.
His father, a keen athlete who had served in the second world war with the British Indian army, told him: “‘I’m going to beat you in a race.’ But he never beat me. He ran [as if] to beat me, but he knew I was trying 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 will never enjoy it.’ He picked me up, gave me a nice cuddle, that I never forget.”
Now 74, Singh is preparing for his first marathon, in London, in October. And at weekends he pays forward his father’s encouragement at the junior parkrun near his home in Harlington, west London. Still, 26.2 miles is a lot further than a parkrun. Does he worry he won’t finish?
“No. I trust in God,” he says. Singh recently received an MBE for his inspiring exercise videos during the pandemic. He is a sort of older, turbaned, more homespun take on Joe Wicks; his skipping videos often take place in his allotment, where he, too, hand-cuts the grass, another great way to stay fit, surrounded by stacks of planks and plastic trugs.
“I sometimes overdo it,” he admits. He tries to speak positive thoughts to his right knee, which was injured when a dog bit him in a park six years ago (“I say to it: ‘You have to help me out till I do the marathon’), and his back, which has severe rheumatoid arthritis. His biggest run to date is 13 miles. So why do it? “Exercise is my lifeblood,” he says. “Sport is my family.” There is encouragement to be had from running, he says, “that you can’t get anywhere else”.
Running has flowed through his whole life. Singh moved to England alone in 1971, to join his uncle. As soon as he started working, helping his uncle with his repair business, he bought his first tracksuit “and carried on running”. Jobs with a joiner, an airline caterer, Mother’s Pride bakers and Heathrow airport followed; he worked there as a driver for nearly 28 years. Even when he took double shifts, racking up 16- or 20-hour days to save enough to buy a house, he still found time to run, and eschewed the free car park pass to commute on foot.
Sadly his dad never managed to visit. Three times Singh sent him the sponsor forms, but he was deterred by a friend’s warning that he could be seated on the plane next to a person eating beef. In 1985, mid-shift at Heathrow, Singh received a puzzling telegram. “It said: ‘Your father is expired.’ I went straight to my manager. I said: ‘I can’t understand those words.’ He said: ‘Your father is not any more on this planet.’” Later, Singh found out that his father had been strangled; no one was ever brought to justice.
From the way he talks about running, it is clear that even when Singh runs alone, he runs as part of a crowd. “When you are on your own, you make company,” he says. At parkrun, he is clapped. “That’s what I call family,” he says. He runs with his daughter, Minreet, and his wife, Pritpal Kaur, who is herself mastering hula hooping. 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 truly runs alone. “Every time I run, first step, my father comes into my mind.”