Tom Longboat ran everywhere as a kid. He chased cows. He ran to town from his home on the Six Nations Reservation. He ran back to his home, always beating his mother who travelled by horse-drawn cart. At 12, he ran away from Anglican reform school. They brought him back, and he ran away again. 

He worked in his uncle’s fields for a few years, then in 1905 ran a race in Caledonia, Ontario. He placed second, so he ran another race in Hamilton, Ontario. This time, he won by four minutes, despite taking a wrong turn. He joined the West End YMCA in Toronto where he lived and trained for the 1907 Boston Marathon, which he won as well— smiling the whole time and winning by such a wide margin that he had time to get a sandwich before second-place came in (he also broken the previous course record by five minutes).


He returned to Toronto, joined a new club, began working with a manager, and kept on racing. His legend grew to the point where experts picked him to win the London Olympic Marathon. In that race, he stuck with the leaders for twenty miles then collapsed. Some sportswriters claimed he was undertrained. One Canadian official claimed Longboat’s manager had poisoned him to collect on huge wager against him. Longboat, embarrassed, simply stated “It was terribly warm.”

That day, half the competitors had succumbed to the heat and dropped out. The first runner to reach the finishing straight, an Italian named Dorando Pietri, stumbled and fell three times before the crowd helped him across the line, thus disqualifying him. Two minutes later, an American named Johnny Hayes finished unassisted and won a very controversial gold medal. 

The drama of London’s marathon had triggered a Marathon Mania across the Atlantic, so Longboat turned professional and hit the racing circuit. In December of 1908, he and Dorando Pietri dueled over twenty six miles inside the smoke-filled Madison Square Garden. For 249 laps Longboat and Pietri ran neck and neck, then, with eleven laps to go, Longboat surged. Pietri held on for three laps then collapsed. 

They raced another marathon a few weeks later with the same result. A month after that, in Madison Square Garden, Longboat faced Alf Shrubb — the world record holder in every distance from ten kilometers to ten miles. For 150 laps, Shrub led, lapping Longboat over and over and over, until— with ten kilometers to go— Longboat began to close the gap. With five kilometers left, Shrubb was walking, and Longboat sailed past him, now the undisputed Marathon Champion of the World. 

Two months later, Longboat, Shrubb, Pietri and Hayes all lost a Marathon Derby in New York’s Polo Grounds to Henry St. Yves— a French man with far fewer marathons in his legs than his competitors. Longboat’s manager and the press attributed his loss to laziness and lack of training. Exhausted from six straight months of Marathon Mania, Longboat bought out his contract and returned to Canada.

On fresher legs, he faced Shrubb often, losing anything under twenty miles but winning everything over. Despite relentless accusations of laziness, he set a world record in the fifteen miles. In 1912, with professional running hitting it’s twilight as the age of the Olympics dawned, Longboat retired. 

Tom Longboat embodied freedom. When white Christians attempted to stomp out his heritage with reform school he ran away– he worked out in the open air, unintentionally building an aerobic system that would carry him to fame. When his club tried to impose curfews, abstinence and temperance upon him he ran away– he found a new club that could arrange races and help him earn a living without inflicting a lifestyle. When his managers demanded that he work out too hard and too often, he ran away– he trained himself, alternating days of hard running with days of easy walking, and set world records. Over and over, he fearlessly chose independence in the face of a ruthless, racist, judgmental society. He trusted himself; he trusted his legs.

When he died, at sixty one, his coffin had a v-shaped notch in the lid, so that his spirit— in its last act—could run away.