A Marathon Man

The 2022 World Women’s Curling Championships kicked off on March 19 in Prince George. Canada’s Kerri Einarson and team will undoubtedly make us proud with their precision and skill and commitment to being the best they can be. I know I am not alone, nor do I exaggerate, when I say curling is the lifeblood of winter. What better time to reflect on Kerri receiving the 2021 Tom Longboat Award from the Aboriginal Sport Circle (ASC) that recognizes First Nations, Inuit, and Metis athletes in their contributions to sport in Canada. The Tom Longboat awards were established in 1951 and Kerri is proud to be a recipient. Do you know the legacy of Tom Longboat? Let me tell you about him.

Longboat was born on Six Nations Reserve near Caledonia, Ontario in 1887. His Indigenous name was Cogwagee, translating to “everything”. He escaped residential school by running away. He was a long-distance runner, an extraordinary runner. Longboat began racing in 1901 when he was fourteen years old. He won the Boston Marathon in 1907, in a time that was four minutes and fifty-nine seconds faster than the ten previous winners. He collapsed in the 1907 Olympics marathon along with several others and a re-match was organized which Longboat won.

The reporting by the media of Longboat’s skill and ease of running and his training methods was thick with racism, but he was beloved by running fans. Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon in 1967. The race director attacked her and tried to drag her from the race while she was running because even in 1967 women were not allowed. I’m sure you can imagine how the media referenced Tom’s skill and endurance sixty years earlier.

Longboat served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a dispatch runner, running messages and orders between military units in France during World War 1. He was one of 630,000 Canadians of which 234,000 were killed or wounded. He saw the horrors of war at Vimy Ridge and Passchendale, and served in two world wars, standing for a country that had yet to give him the right to vote.

Indigenous spiritual belief gave those who committed to its practice the ability to control their bodies to do extraordinary things. These belief systems dwelled in the very core of Indigenous peoples, allowing them to survive and thrive in harsh conditions. Olympic runner Bruce Kidd wrote the story of Tom Longboat, first published in 1980, telling the truth of the racial slant the media had used in their writings of Tom. “He was the greatest runner Canada has ever known,” Kidd wrote, “who struggled against the vicious racism of his age.” Kidd retold the life of Longboat through a lens of truth and admiration. “Tom Longboat was determined to control his own life, even if it meant standing up to and then breaking away from the white sports promoters who tried to manage his career.” Toronto mayor Emerson Coatsworth promised Longboat, after his 1907 Boston Marathon win, $500 for his education. The promise was not paid until 1985, thirty six years after his death, when Kidd exposed the truth and had the city honour the $500 promise, now at $10,000 in present value, and award the sum to Longboat’s heirs.

William Brown wrote a thesis for his Masters at Concordia University in 2009 – Remembering Tom Longboat (www.spectrum.library.concordia.ca/id/eprint/976303/1/MR63314.pdf) In his writing, Brown references Shannon Loutitt, a Metis runner from Saskatchewan who ran the Boston marathon in 2007 as a “way of thanking Tom Longboat for the doors he opened for us as human beings. He gave us a different reference point for achievement,” she said of Tom. “Best in the world.” In his thesis, Brown exposed how Longboat was regularly ridiculed and falsely represented in news reports.

At age twenty-three, Longboat had “defeated every great runner in the world at least once,” (www.canadahistory.ca) When Tom was finished running professionally, he took up a job as a street cleaner in the City of Toronto, a job that allowed him to work outside and use his body, sweeping leaves and debris, working with horses, a job that made him happy. “A rubbish man,” the media called him. I think of those individuals we hold up as celebrities, as role-models, a list that includes names whose only pursuit is wealth and social recognition, who do little or nothing to better this world.

I am certain Tom Longboat’s spirit will guide Einarson as she vies for the world title, but more importantly, I am hopeful Indigenous youth watching her will be inspired to believe they too can strive for excellence in whatever passion burns within them. That is the legacy of Tom Longboat.