Sikhs Cultivate Body and Soul Through Running

Runner’s World published an article on Sikhs running in the NYC Marathon. I am posting PDF images from the print edition of the November 2014 issue, as long as the full from the online version. 

RunnersWorldFull-1   RunnersWorld-Full2

Amid all the color and spectacle of New York City and its marathon are the Sikhs–a religious group whose adherents are identifiable by their beards and turbans (men) and steel wristbands (worn by both men and women). An estimated 35 sikhs–male and female–are expected to make the 26.2-mile trek to Central Park from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on November 2.

Running and Sikhism, it seems, are a natural fit. At the heart of the religion, which stems from the Punjab region of northern India and Pakistan, is the idea of sant-sipahi (“warrior-saint”), a person who strikes a balance in life in which the soul is cultivated and the body is kept strong. “Sports and fitness are a centerpiece of our tradition,” says Simran Jeet Singh, 30, a doctoral student in Columbia University’s department of religion, who will be running his third NYC Marathon. “Sikhism also puts great emphasis on community service and philanthropy. Fund-raising is a part of the running culture, so our values align very nicely.” This year, Simran is running for the National Stroke Association and will also serve as a New York Road Runners social media reporter (he’ll Tweet @SimranColumbia during the race).

Fauja Singh, a London-based Sikh who became the oldest marathon finisher in history when he completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2011 at age 100, is credited for the boom. Think of him as Frank Shorter in a turban: Just as Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic Marathon prompted a generation of Americans to hit the roads, many Sikhs have followed in Fauja’s footsteps.

While these clubs tend to attract a younger generation of Sikh runners, the community has its seasoned veterans. The elder in the New York City area is Avtar Singh Tinna, a 64-year-old dentist from Queens, who does Sunday long runs with a group of Sikh running pals. Tinna will run the NYC Marathon for the 23rd time this year, wearing his trademark orange racing shirt, with “Proud to Be Sikh” printed on the back. When he first ran the race in 1992, a spectator shouted at him and asked if he was Ayatollah Khomeini, the infamous Iranian leader–who was a Muslim, not a Sikh. “I guess he thought all guys with beards and turbans were Ayatollah Khomeini,” Tinna says.

There are still misconceptions and even acts of violence against Sikhs: In September 2013, a Columbia University professor, who was also a member of the Fauj Running Club, was assaulted in an attack that was classified as a hate crime.

Fortunately, such bigotry doesn’t extend into the sport, where the Sikhs say they feel welcome. “In our religion a lot of attention is placed on building a community of like-minded people,” Simran says. “That’s one of the beautiful things about running. Runners have created this larger community of people with a shared passion and purpose, and it’s exciting that we’re now part of it.”

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