Canada has had its fair share of amazing athletes, and many have gone on to represent us well. Whether it is in sports like hockey, baseball, football or basketball, or at the Olympic Games, we have always shined at certain moments.
One sport that Canada rarely seems to get a thought in though, is long-distance running. That was not always the case. There was a time when a man by the name of Tom Longboat was the greatest and most dominant runner in the world when it came to long-distance running.
The journey of Tom Longboat begins on June 4, 1887 when he was born on a First Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario.
As a child, he began to develop an interest in running races from Bill Davis, who was a well-known runner in his own right. In 1901, Davis would finish second in the Boston Marathon.
At the age of 12, he was sent to the Mohawk Institute Residential School. Hating life at the school, he made an unsuccessful escape attempt. Not deterred, he tried to escape once more and was successful. Hiding at the home of his uncle, he never went back. When he became a famous runner, the school invited him to come speak. His answer was a sharp, “I wouldn’t even send my dog to that place’.
With a natural ability for running, Longboat began to compete.
In 1906, he competed in the Around the Bay Road Race (today the oldest long-distance running race in North America). When he lined up at the starting line with 20 other runners, spectators laughed at him for wearing a cotton bathing suit and cheap shoes. By the end of the race, Longboat had won and defeated his closest competitor by three minutes.
The following year, he won the Boston Marathon wit a record time of 2:24:24. He was the first person of First Nations descent to win the race. It is said that he beat the 123 other runners and smashed the previous record by five minutes, while running the last 1.6 kilometres uphill, into the snow, for four minutes and 40 seconds.
On Sept. 15, 1906, a race was held in Lindsay, Ontario and Longboat took part. Easily winning, he set track record of 53 minutes and 24 seconds.
It is also said that in the same year, he outran a horse over a 12-mile course.
Two years later, he competed in the 1908 Olympic Marathon but collapsed during the race. As many other competitors also collapsed, it was decided a rematch would be held at Madison Square Garden that same year. Longboat went on to win the race, and made the decision to become a professional runner. One interesting tidbit from the Olympics was the United States said they would pull all their teams if Longboat ran, citing that he was better than a professional, yet competing as an amateur. Despite this, he was able to run.
That same year, he married Lauretta Maracle.
In 1909, he won the title of Professional Champion of the World.
After turning pro, and getting a lot more attention, many questioned the training method of Longboat. Unlike many runners, Longboat would do hard workouts with active rest, which included long walks. Many sports reporters felt he was lazy as a result. Today, the method of training hard, then easy, then having recovery days, is standard in many sports.
Feeling he was not training hard enough, his managers bought out his contract and as soon as LongBoat was left to his own training, his times immediately began to improve. He was able to set a professional record of 1:18:10 for 15 miles in 1912, which was seven minutes faster than he had run as an amateur.
One legendary story of the speed of Longboat comes from when his family said they did not believe he could run fast over a long distance. To prove them wrong, he raced his brother. He didn’t race his brother on foot. Instead, his brother drove a horse and buggy, and was given a 30 minute head start. Despite this, legend has it that Longboat still beat him.
Longboat would deal with prejudice throughout his career and life, despite being arguably the greatest runner in the world. Newspapers would call him “redskin” and “the original dummy”. In Boston, the newspaper congratulated his trainers and commended them on having “such a docile pupil”
When the First World War broke out, Longboat joined the army and was a dispatch runner in France with the 107th Pioneer Battalion. He was mistakenly declared dead during the war, and his wife remarried in 1918 as a result. When the war ended, he made the decision to retire and now divorced, would marry Martha Silversmith. They would have four children together and Longboat would retire to Toronto where he worked in the street cleaning department until 1944. During the Second World War, he returned to service and was a member of the Veterans Guard and was stationed at a military camp near Brantford.
He would pass away from pneumonia on Jan. 9, 1948.
Today, Longboat is considered to be one of Canada’s greatest runners. The Tom Longboat Awards were created in 1951, which honour outstanding First Nations athletes from every province. In 1955, he was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.
Each year, the Toronto Island 10-kilometre race commemorates Tom Longboat. Canada Post has also honoured him with his name and image on a stamp.
In 1996, Longboat was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
June 4 is officially known as Tom Longboat Day in Canada as well and Tom Longboat Junior Public School is named for him.