On Boston Marathon, history of Indigenous runners should not be ignored

Nancy Armour
USA TODAY

The more Verna Volker scrolled through the social media feeds of different running-related companies, the more frustrated she got.

A member of the Navajo Nation, Volker knew from personal experience that there were many other Indigenous runners. But the runners in ads didn’t look like her. The athletes being profiled and highlighted by running magazines and websites didn’t have stories like hers.

Even when she went to races, she’d look around and rarely find anyone like her.

“I remember seeing the image of the same type of runner: beautiful, blonde, fit,” Volker said. “I just remember thinking, `There has to be more.’”

In January 2018, Volker founded Native Women Running, an online community designed to amplify, support and encourage Indigenous runners. Its Instagram account now has almost 26,000 followers, and Hoka, a running shoe company, has made Volker one of its global ambassadors.

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“Native people,” Volker said, “just want to be included in the narrative.”

The brazen killing last year of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was chased down by three white men and shot to death while out for a mid-day run, prompted a reckoning in the recreational running community over its lack of diversity.

While much of the focus has been on how to make Black runners feel safer and more included, the same barriers have long existed for Indigenous runners.

“A lot of it comes back to access,” said Dirk Whitebreast, a co-founder of Red Earth Running Co., which is Native-family owned and operated from the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa.

The costs for running can be prohibitive for everyone. Good running shoes often run $100 or more, and entry fees for races also have gotten increasingly pricey. The entry fee for Monday’s Boston Marathon, for example, was $205, and participants had to either qualify through an earlier marathon – which would require another entry fee -- or raise at least $5,000 for one of the official charities.

Even Turkey Trots and other 5 and 10k fun runs can cost upwards of $50.

But just getting to the race can present an additional challenge for those who live in tribal communities.

“It’s, `How do I physically get to the starting line? How do I train for this?’” said Guarina Lopez, whose essay, “You cannot erase us: Letter from an Indigenous runner,” was published in Trail Runner magazine in July.  

And, once Native runners are at a race, or find a running group, will they feel welcomed? Or will they feel ignored or unseen?

Whitebreast told of spotting another Native runner when he ran the Nashville Marathon several years ago. He made a point of keeping up with the man until he could catch his eye, and the two then talked about how rare it was to see another Native runner.

Lopez is also a cyclist, and she had the opportunity this summer to participate in races with other cyclists of color. The impact was empowering, she said.

Sad, too.

“If I had known about this in my 20s, I could have been in different place,” Lopez said. “When you put individuals on the starting line and children see that, they don’t even need to know the whole back story … you automatically feel more comfortable. And the possibility of being that person when you grow up, it heightens that possibility of entering that sport or doing what that person is doing.”

Google's Doodle honoring Tom Longboat, a Canadian long distance runner.

All of this is particularly disheartening because Native Americans were this country’s first runners, with running serving as both a means of transportation and expression of spirituality. Today, many races, trails and everyday runs occur on traditional Indigenous lands.

“Indigenous people are treated as relics of the past, who don’t exist from 1900. We still get it today,” said Jordan Marie Daniel, a professional runner and founder of Rising Hearts, an Indigenous-led grassroots group dedicated to racial, social, climate and economic justice.

“It just comes down to ignorance, racism and a lack of education,” Daniel added. “It’s why we’re really pushing the narrative within the running community of having these conversations. There is history there. It’s living in that soil.”

Take the Boston Marathon. It was rescheduled from its traditional April date because of COVID-19, immediately drawing criticism from Daniel and local Indigenous leaders. Organizers eventually acknowledged picking the new date without considering its impact on Indigenous Peoples Day.

Part of the marathon course also occurs on traditional Indigenous land.

The Boston Athletic Association apologized, and Daniel worked with the race to find ways to spotlight and honor the contributions of Indigenous people to the running community. There will be a land acknowledgment before the race, recognizing the Indigenous people who were the original stewards of the land.

The marathon also will celebrate Indigenous runners who participated in past years, including Ellison Brown, who won both the 1936 and 1939 races, and 1907 winner Tom Longboat.

Wings of America, which uses youth running groups to build stronger Native communities, usually takes a group of high school juniors to Boston for marathon weekend. They race in the B.A.A. 5k, and tour Boston-area colleges.

With no trip this year because the 5k was held virtually, Wings of America executive director Dustin Martin lobbied the Boston Athletic Association to offer more bibs to Indigenous runners. Martin said he now knows of at least 12 Indigenous runners who will be doing the marathon Monday.

“I don’t think the B.A.A. would have addressed the fact they had rescheduled the event for Indigenous Peoples Day had Indigenous organizations not held them to account,” Martin said. “That organizing work of Indigenous people is becoming better educated. It’s a good sign.”

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That doesn’t absolve the larger running community of its responsibility to make the sport more inclusive.

The decision-makers at large brands are often white. So, too, the owners and operators of the local running stores that are often the lifeblood of the recreational running community. Ditto for running magazines.

Too often, that has led to people of color being overlooked or ignored. Like when Trail Runner magazine ran an article earlier this year suggesting Chris Goetze, a white man who set several records in 1958, was the first American trail runner.

“To insinuate that a white man was America’s first trail runner is not only inaccurate but also hurtful and disrespectful. To claim that trail running was invented by white settlers is to intentionally erase history. This does concrete harm to Indigenous communities,” Trail Runner wrote in an apology published on Instagram in June.

“We own this mistake and the hurt it caused. Indigenous erasure, or the re-writing of the past and re-centering of settler societies, is evident throughout history and today. It’s prevalent in every corner of a culture, including trail running, but that needs to change. Writing Indigenous peoples out of any story perpetrates continued violence, displacement, political disenfranchisement and stereotyping.”

In response, Trail Runner published Lopez’s essay in July. Zoe Rom, the magazine’s publisher, is also doing a webinar with Daniel on Nov. 16 on the erasure of Indigenous runners and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

And last year, a small group of running brand executives, retailers and runners came together to form the Running Industry Diversity Coalition. Its goal is not only to make the running community more inclusive, but to ensure there is diversity throughout the running industry’s leadership and workforce.

“There is this sense of diversity and inclusion that running and (white) runners have. We have age groups! We have groups for women! Any shape is welcome!” said Chris Lampen-Crowell, owner of Gazelle Sports in Michigan and a co-founder of RIDC.

“But there’s this blind spot of racial diversity and inclusion,” he said. “That’s where we really need to lean in and listen and learn, and bring (Black, brown and Indigenous runners) on board.”

When RIDC started, Lampen-Crowell said they hoped to get 300 members in the first year. Within a month, they had 600.

Now, a year after it was formed, there are about 1,200 members.  

“We’re really trying to hold the running industry accountable for doing these things,” Lampen-Crowell said. “It cannot be, `This is a strategy that I’m going to check this task off.’ It’s got to be personal, that I’m going to be willing to make these changes.”

Diversity and equity should be everyone’s priority, simply because it is the right thing to do. For the running community, there is an added layer to that motivation.

“I think it’s important for people to understand why we need to exist. It’s important for people to understand why it’s important for Indigenous people to have a running community,” Whitebreast, the owner of Red Earth Running Co., said.

“The history of this land, you think about courier runners and the trails … running is part of your bloodline.”