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Run like a granny

Mann Kaur, one of the world's fastest centenarians, talks about running and fitness

Kaur celebrates after her win in New Zealand in 2017. Photo: AFP
Kaur celebrates after her win in New Zealand in 2017. Photo: AFP

Mann Kaur sips her tea, unfazed by the dozen or more fans gathered around the couch she’s sitting on, aiming to take a selfie with her. Kaur, 103, smiles nonchalantly. She is dressed in a tracksuit, but you cannot miss the beige dupatta that trails from her head. In between shots, she makes known that her chai, served in a Mumbai cutting style, is not as sweet as she likes it.

At Pinkathon, the country’s largest women’s run that sees nearly 100,000 participants across eight cities every year, Kaur is a star athlete this year. Kaur made history last year after winning the 100m sprint at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Auckland, New Zealand, clocking in 1 minute and 14 seconds. With that, she became one of the world’s fastest centenarians and, in the process, also the oldest Indian woman athlete to win the title. At Malaga, Spain, in September, Kaur won the 200m gold in the 100-104 age group, and also clinched the gold medal in javelin throw.

Since it started in Mumbai in 2012, the face of Pinkathon, essentially a charity event for raising funds towards treating cancer for underprivileged women, has been its co-founder Milind Soman, a passionate marathoner. But as of last year, the centenarian athlete, known as “The Miracle from Chandigarh", has been chosen as the mascot for Pinkathon.

Kaur is accompanied by her 80-year-old son Gurdev Singh, an athlete himself, who played a key role in his mother taking up athletics at the age of 93. And during our meeting, he is also the translator.

Kaur won her first medal at the Chandigarh Masters Athletic Meet in 2007. Originally from Chandigarh, Kaur and Singh moved to Patiala, to focus on their athletic training. Kaur says she trains for just half an hour every morning on the grounds of Punjabi University in Patiala. “I wear my salwar-kameez when I train. It is only when I am competing that I switch to a tracksuit," she says.

Singh describes her nutrition chart and explains that she has fruits, sprouts and a mandatory glass of soya milk every day. “Whether you are young or old, good food and good exercise are important. My mother is so fit that she rarely complains of headaches when she travels," he says.

Kaur says she got married when she was 18 and was used to a life of hard work: she had three children and used to work as a nanny in the royal household of Patiala. Today, Singh chaperones her across the world for various athletics meets, and is aiming for World Masters Athletics Championships Indoor at Toruń, Poland, next year. “I will keep running as long as my health allows me to. My friends keep asking me to leave running, but I won’t," Kaur says, adding, “It is important that girls are able to find how important healthy food and fitness are."

At the Pinkathon run in Mumbai on 16 December, its last event for the year, participants can expect the centenarian mascot to join them briefly. Having Kaur at the forefront of the event also reiterates their message that it is never too late to embrace fitness.

“Kaur is incredibly inspiring. We have seen that women don’t make time for their health and don’t prioritise fitness. Kaur’s work addresses this...she is a good example to show that you can start anytime and that changes perspectives," says Soman. “The young are already fit—they are full of it. It is only when they begin to realize that they are losing it, that they realize they need to work on fitness."

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