Interviewed for article, originally published in Newsday
A balanced life. A life in which the soul is cultivated, while the body is kept strong. The life of the sant-sipahi: the “saint-soldier.”
That’s the tradition of Sikhism, a religion that originated in northern India more than 500 years ago. Adherents, known as Sikhs, have been a growing immigrant community in the New York area over the past 30 years and, during much of that time, a consistent presence in what might at first glance seem an unlikely venue for a group comprising mostly bearded men in turbans:
The RXR Long Island Marathon.
As they have for the past two decades, a contingent of Sikh runners from Queens and western Nassau will participate in Sunday’s events in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, which consist of a 26.2-mile marathon; a 13.1-mile half-marathon and a 10-kilometer race (6.2 miles).
“Everybody likes Long Island,” said Avtar Singh Tinna, 64, a dentist from Jamaica Estates and the Sikh team captain. “It is mostly flat!” he adds with a chuckle.
The runner-friendly topography of the course is not the only reason Tinna and his group return to the event year after year.
“We can drive there, and everybody’s friendly,” adds Tinna, who also has completed 22 New York City Marathons.
The Long Island Marathon weekend started Saturday with the running of the 1-mile, 5-kilometer and Kids Fun Run races. The marathon attracts more than 9,000 people a year, but it’s easy to spot Tinna’s group in the bunch.
“It’s such a neat thing to see them here,” said race director Jason Lipset. “Obviously, with their cultural dress, they stand out.”
Terry Bisogno of North Massapequa, the event’s finish-line announcer since 2005, notices them, too. “They add an international flair to the race,” he said.
A pleasant LI experience
Tinna first ran the Long Island Marathon in 1992, completing the half-marathon the day after son Maan (who will graduate from Dartmouth College this month) was born. “He was born at 9:12 on Saturday night,” Tinna said. “I started running at 8 a.m. Sunday. I ran that race one, two, three. I was so excited.”
Not all of his marathon memories are quite so pleasant. One of the first times he ran in the New York City Marathon, Tinna said, “a guy asked me if I was Ayatollah Khomeini,” referring to the infamous, turbaned Iranian leader (and a Muslim, not a Sikh) who came to power in 1979, months before the Iran hostage crisis. In recent years, Tinna said, the reaction from other runners, especially on Long Island, has been inquisitive and friendly.
“Long Island people are very civilized people,” he said. “And they are educated. Most of them know who the Sikhs are.”
Tinna said he has had contingents of up to 47 Sikh runners participating in the Long Island Marathon, mostly men, but a few women, too. This year, because of other area road races, the group will be smaller: 10 men and two women will participate in Sunday’s run, most of them in the 10k.
Runner Kuljeet Kaur Ahluwalia, an accountant, said her goal for Sunday’s 10k race is to actually run 10 kilometers. Ahluwalia, 54, admitted that in 2012 she got confused at the split — the point on the course along Old Country Road when the half- and full marathoners go left (north on School Street and into Westbury); and the 10k runners go right (south on Salisbury Park Drive, and on to the finish in Eisenhower Park).
Despite the signs, Ahluwalia, who lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and has been running for 20 years (the past five to six with Tinna’s group), said she went left instead of right. After a while, other Sikh marathoners running in the half who knew she had signed up for the 10k saw her. “They said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” she recalled with a laugh. Ahluwalia managed to find her way back to the 10k course, and, despite the extra couple of miles, was correctly scored as a 10k finisher. “A slow one,” she said with a chuckle.
On race day, she will wear traditional running clothes, and the one mark of her religious affiliation will be the kara-a steel bangle that is one of several articles of faith Sikhs wear.
She will be joined in the park by Sadnam Singh Parar, a contractor from Cedarhurst. Parar, 58, was a soccer player in India before he immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. As he began to achieve the American dream — raising a family, building a business, buying a home — Parar fell victim to a common American affliction: a sedentary lifestyle.
“I got lazy and fat,” he said.
About seven years ago, Tinna invited Parar to join his group, which trains on Sundays in Alley Pond Park in Queens, between Douglaston and Bayside. He started running in Long Island Marathon events soon after and has completed the half-marathon six times.
“I’m in much better shape now,” Parar said. “Health wise, my doctor says my heart is much better than 10 years ago. Plus, when you are a sports person you don’t want to drink liquor. You are more concentrated on your health.”
A growing population
Sikhism, which originated in the Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan, is distinct from Islam or Hinduism, the dominant religions of that part of South Asia. “It is an independent tradition with its own prophets, scriptures, revelation, rituals and disciplines,” said Simran Jeet Singh, 29, a Sikh who is also a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Department of Religion and a marathon runner.
And it comes with its own color. Singh added that yellow/orange is commonly worn at public gatherings, though it does not have religious or historical significance. Sikhs in America members wear the color in their practice sessions and wore it last month when they ran in the Vaisakhi 5k in Queens.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Sikhs grew from 13,000 in 1990 to 78,000 in 2008 (other estimates put the number of Sikhs in America much higher).
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion whose followers believe that everyone has equal standing in the eyes of God. Two of Sikhism’s most visible customs are designed to remind followers of that: One is the mandatory wearing of a turban by men to conceal their hair, which is not cut. The turbans are tied and are typically made of cotton, but size, shape and color are an individual choice. Another reminder of the equality of all is the fact that Sikhs share a common name — Singh (which means lion) for men and Kaur (denotes princess) for women.
A core belief of the faith is the importance of what Westerners might call self-actualization. According to the Sikh Coalition, a Manhattan-based Sikh advocacy and information organization, “The Sikh is essentially a person of action, with an overwhelming sense of self-reliance.”
Those happen to be useful traits for a sport like long-distance running, where success is ultimately measured by one’s own willingness to work, to put in the training, go the distance, to endure.
Tinna’s route to road running came by watching the New York City Marathon on television. “I saw the people who were running very slowly,” he said. “I saw the old people who were running. I said, ‘I can do that.’ “
Initially, he trained with some of the high school students from his temple in Richmond Hill. But as he began to compete in long-distance races, Tinna’s fellow Sikh adults began coming to him to get involved in the sport.
“The local Indian paper wrote about me,” he said. “I got famous in my community.”
Many of Tinna’s and Parar’s fellow Sikhs have been inspired to run by a British Sikh named Sardar Fauja Singh. In 2011, he became the oldest marathon finisher in history when he completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon at age 100. Singh has since retired from marathon running, but the influence of his performance, plus the saint-soldier tradition, has sparked a bit of a running boom among America’s Sikhs.
“Our tradition has been that we are internally developed and physically fit,” said Jeet Singh, who lives in Manhattan. “In India, the Sikhs were renowned for their martial-arts prowess. In the Western world, that has translated into running.”
Many in Tinna’s group wear shirts that read “Sikhs in America.” When they first wore them at the 2011 Long Island Marathon, they brought extras, which turned out to be a good idea. “We gave them away; a lot of people wanted them,” Parar said.
The Sikhs are part of a larger trend in an event that was once mostly male, mostly Caucasian, mostly Long Island. Last year’s marathon included runners from 36 states and five nations. More than 52 percent of the participants were female. Reflecting the increasing diversity of Long Island and Queens, there are also greater numbers of Latino, Asian and African-American runners.
Still, few runners of any background or affiliation stand out like the Sikhs in America, who enjoy running Long Island for a reason that transcends even their religious culture: It’s fun.
“We run, we give a smile, and we get a smile back,” Parar said.
ON YOUR MARK, GET SET . . .
Sunday’s RXR Long Island Marathon, half-marathon and 10k races start at 8 a.m. on Charles Lindbergh Boulevard in Uniondale, and finish in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, across the main park drive from Parking Field 5. For more info, visit run-li.com. For more on Sikhism, visitsikhcoalition.org.