Community Against All Odds: Why now more than ever, Tom Longboat is the...

Against All Odds: Why now more than ever, Tom Longboat is the runner we need

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Photo courtesy of Fred Anderson Windham, NH

Most Tom Longboat stories begin in the bowels of the cavernous Madison Square Garden in 1909 at a sold-out match race between Longboat and famed British runner Alfred Shrubb.

Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner from the Six Nations Reserve, escaped from residential school, won the Boston Marathon, served in the Canadian armed forces, and went on to represent Canada at the Olympic Games.

Match races over the marathon distance were all the rage back in the day, and this was akin to the race of the century as thousands packed the arena to the rafters including many from Toronto and Buffalo who took the train down to New York City.

Wagering was rampant, a band played for entertainment and the runners went head-to-head over hundreds of laps in the smoke-filled room.

Shrubb, more of a 15-mile specialist, took off like a shot and built up a 15-lap lead over Longboat before the tide turned and the Onondaga sensation started to make his move.

“Longboat would make a casting motion as he came up behind Shrubb and make this motion like, ‘I’m reeling you in,’” says former Olympic runner and Longboat biographer Bruce Kidd.  “Then he’d go by him and say something, and gradually he caught up every one of those laps and went on to win. Over the last three or four miles people were on their feet screaming.”

The people weren’t just screaming for his performance, but also how unlikely it was. Tom Longboat was born in 1887 and grew up on a small farm near Brantford, Ontario. His father died when Longboat was young. At the age of 12, he was forcibly taken from his home and placed alongside other First Nations youth in the Mohawk Institute Residential School. He would promptly try to escape, twice. The second time stuck and he fled on foot to his uncle’s farm, where he was hidden from authorities. He began to run at the West End YMCA in Toronto and it was there where his raw talents were honed. 

Each year to commemorate his June 4th birthday, the Six Nations Community of Oshweken, Ontario host the Tom Longboat Run where participants take a short jaunt down Fourth Line in this rural town.

The organizer of the race for the past nineteen years is Cindy Martin, the great great grand niece of Longboat. In attendance is Phyllis Winnie, Longboat’s 98-year-old daughter, his last living child, alongside many other friends, family and members of a community of people committed to honouring his legacy.

For them, Longboat or Cogwagee, his Iroquois name, symbolizes much more than simply running excellence. For them and for other Indigenous peoples across the country who learn his story, he has come to symbolize freedom itself as he continues to instill hope in generation after generation.

“In his time, you had to get a pass from the Indian Agent to even leave the reserve for whatever reason, no matter how long,” says Martin, who is the traditional wellness coordinator on Six Nations of the Grand River reserve. “For him to even leave is remarkable, let alone go to the United States, to the Boston Marathon, to travel abroad. He represented freedom for all Indigenous people and the right to pursue not only athletics, but the right to move around and travel and pursue our dreams.”

Martin talks about him often — although to her growing up he was just Uncle Tom — especially when a kid shows up to run and feels less than adequate because he doesn’t have the latest $200 running shoes, let alone compression socks and an array of pricey athletic props. She simply tells the story of Longboat and how he came to line up at his first big race.

On Oct. 18, 1906, Longboat, who at that point was coached by fellow Six Nations runner Bill Davis, toed the line at his first Around the Bay road race with some old sneakers and wearing what has been colourfully described as a “droopy cotton bathing suit.” People may have laughed at the idea of running nineteen miles in such a get-up, but by then the swift-footed youngster was already long gone and on his way to winning the race and launching a career that would catch the attention of the world. 

The following April, the Boston Marathon would be his prize. In the early 1900s, even more than it is today, the Boston Marathon was the premiere race event in the world. In its eleventh running, Longboat set out alongside 126 entrants in a snowstorm and would clinch first place with a record breaking time of 2:24:24, breaking the existing world record by more than four minutes.

The Boston Globe wrote glowingly of the 20-year-old runner: “The thousands of persons who lined the streets from Ashland to the B.A.A. were well repaid for the hours of waiting in the rain and chilly winter weather, for they saw in Tom Longboat the most marvelous runner who has ever sped over our roads. With a smile for everyone, he raced along and at the finish he looked anything but like a youth who had covered more miles in a couple of hours than the average man walks in a week. Gaining speed with each stride, encouraged by the wild shouts of the multitude, the bronze-colored youth with jet black hair and eyes, long, lithe body and spindle legs, swept toward the goal.”

He followed this up in 1908 with a summer Olympic Games race, which saw him out in front and on his way to a victory before falling violently ill. Some suggest that he was slipped a drug of some sort. Others say he almost died that day. As with much of Tom Longboat, we may never know what really happened.

But criticism also dogged the most powerful racer of his time. During his heyday, he was portrayed by some, including those in the media, as a person prone to fits of laziness, lax in his training, with a taste for alcohol which led to squandered opportunities.

That is until Bruce Kidd, himself a former Olympic runner, set out to correct the record on Longboat. His 1980 biography explodes the myths rooted in the anti-indigenous lens through which the running legend had been viewed.

“The sentiment of the day was that Longboat was a tremendous talent who won some important races but refused to train and abused his body—that was my starting point,” he says. “But I was a runner myself and when I read his performances it just didn’t make sense to me that this guy wouldn’t train, or he’d be hungover at the starting line, yet run these spectacular races.”

Kidd soon realized that racist view of Longboat got the story of this high-performing athlete completely wrong.

“He had a terrific understanding of his own body and he relied upon a traditional Iroquoian and indigenous way of training and nobody even recognized it,” says Kidd, referring to one particularly damning attack in the pages of the Toronto Star that stated Longboat refused to train, and all he does every day is go out for a 20-mile jog. Ahem.

“In the 70s, runners were rediscovering the concept of long slow distance as at least an important stage of endurance training,” says Kidd. “Some people, who were very successful, such as the New Zealanders, only did long slow distance runs, which of course are practiced by nearly every marathon runner to this day.”

But back in the 1910s, following the success of Longboat, other runners began to incorporate the methods of the legendary runner long before Joe Henderson came along and popularized it in the modern era.

Kidd realized that Longboat was misunderstood, and misrepresented, when, in fact, Longboat had a remarkable understanding of how to train, how to pace, how to race well and how to win.

“I went to the reserve and talked to people and learned of the long tradition of distance running, whether it be for fitness, races, a message system or warfare, they were used to covering long distances,” he says. “Longboat’s form of long slow distance was rooted in this tradition of Iroquoian endurance running.”

That doesn’t surprise Cindy Martin, who speaks of the history of distance running dating back hundreds of years before the arrival of the horse. She says stories passed down from generation to generation speak of runners so gifted they could run hundreds of kilometres without stopping. (We also meet runners like this in the nonfiction book Born to Run). 

“Running was a way of life for passing messages from community to community. Before telephones and vehicles, we had long distance runners and they were remarkable,” she says. “I couldn’t tell you how far they could run, but some say 300 kilometres in a day. It seems almost impossible to think about, but for him to run as fast as he did over those distances, you can almost see it.”

When Longboat was confronted with those who questioned his methods, Kidd says he did what nobody else did at that time, white or otherwise. He bought out his contract and managed his own career, including executing a successful European tour that included wins at several professional races.

“He broke a lot of boundaries in that time period and that gave people a whole different perspective,” says Martin. “So Canada celebrates him, instead of forgetting about his legacy, and we appreciate that.”

There is one last race in the Longboat legend that gets far less fanfare. One that Martin’s family still remembers well and passes down like so much folklore. It was run over a distance of approximately 15 kilometres from Caledonia to Hagersville. On this particular day, Longboat raced and defeated a horse. He was that fast.

Tracie Leost heard very little of Tom Longboat while growing up in Manitoba and attending a predominantly white school. But, when she found running, she found Longboat.

“His story is literally everything,” says Leost, a 19-year-old Metis runner from Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba. “For one, he was a residential school survivor and then won the Boston Marathon and went on to join the Canadian Army. At that time, Indigenous Peoples were not even considered humans. In 1906, Indigenous Peoples would still be forced into residential school for another 90 years. So, running is one thing, but then winning the Boston Marathon as an indigenous person after going through something so horrific is something you never hear about.”

When Leost talks about Longboat, she doesn’t concentrate on his athletic feats. She talks of what he had to overcome, the struggles, the racism, and what his story means to her.

Leost’s own motivation for running was as a conduit to channel her own grief after her father was in a near-fatal car accident. She ran because it made her feel good and provided some relief. And she’s never stopped.

Like Longboat, she wanted to do something more, and in 2015, when she was just 16 years old, she ran 115 kilometres over four days to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women. One day, her blisters got so bad she couldn’t even lace up her sneakers, instead running part of the way in moccasins.

“At that time, it was something that Canada was ignoring, and I wanted to bring attention to a Canadian crisis by doing something I was good at,” says Leost, who last competed in Toronto at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games. “It meant everything to me.”

During World War I, Longboat served as a dispatch runner. It was a dangerous job that saw him go missing for long stretches of time. As a result, his unit declared him dead on a number of occasions, but he safely returned to Toronto in 1919 after the war and worked in the public service until 1944 when he retired and moved back to the reserve—honouring his past and cementing his legend.

While it took decades, Longboat’s impact has slowly been recognized. In 2008, June 4 was officially declared Tom Longboat Day in Ontario. Toronto named a road after him in the St. Lawrence Market area. A concert venue in the city’s Queen and Dovercourt area now bears his name. A popular running club named after him hosts the Longboat Toronto Island Run every fall. And just this past June, Google honoured his 131st birthday with one of their famous Doodles.

“He was a remarkable athlete and, for the most part, self-trained and managed,” says Kidd. “And he was a very popular runner and despite mistreatment and some difficulties, he always held his head high and treated others with respect. He was a remarkable man.”

Leost, for one, is sure to pass his name down to her own family and others who need a little hope and tell of how a special young man from the reservation made his dreams come true despite incredible odds.

“His story gives people hope,” she says. “Now, an indigenous person sees that someone who went through residential school can overcome that and win the Boston Marathon, what can they do? That is something I will pass on to my kids, and something I believe in.”

Read more about Tom Longboat here:

Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport, by Janice Forsyth

Tom Longboat, by Bruce Kidd

Meet Tom Longboat, by Elizabeth MacLeod