Legendary Six Nations runner featured in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame storytelling series

Tuesday, June 11th, 2024 3:13pm


Image Caption

Tom Longboat and his great, great, great niece Cindy Martin.
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Even before he was a teenager, legendary First Nations runner Tom Longboat had come close to covering the marathon distance of 42.2 kilometres while trying to escape residential school.

Longboat’s great, great, great niece Cindy Martin provided details of his life during a keynote address in Calgary on June 7.

The talk was titled “Storytelling Series: Celebrating Indigenous Sport Heroes with Cindy Martin.” And the speech was part of the effort by Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame to promote Indigenous sporting stories in June, which is National Indigenous History Month.

Longboat was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 posthumously. The Onondaga runner from Six Nations in Ontario had died six years earlier. His accomplishments include winning the 1907 Boston Marathon.

During her talk, Martin said Longboat was 12 years old when he was taken to a residential school with his younger brother.

That school, Mohawk Institute, was in the city of Brantford, about 35 kilometres from Longboat’s home.

About six months after being forced to go to the school, Longboat ran away and headed back to his community.

“That was his first marathon that he basically had done,” Martin said.

But upon returning to his home, school officials were waiting for Longboat and took him back to the Mohawk Institute. His penalty for running away included being placed under a stairwell for about a week with little food and water.

Martin said Longboat knew right from the beginning that he was not going to like his life at the Mohawk Institute.

“When Tom went there, he was telling our different family that when he first got there, he had seen a grown man hit a young boy like he would be hitting a grown man,” Martin said. “So, that violence that he saw made a big impact on him saying that he wouldn’t be safe there.”

Longboat ran away from the school a second time. But this time instead of heading for his home he went to live with an uncle. And school officials never determined his whereabouts.

Martin said Longboat became a strong runner because that was his mode of transportation while growing up.

“We didn’t have the paved roads that you see now,” she said. “It was all gravel pathways, and it was tremendously more wooded than you would see today.”

The first major race Longboat won was in 1906 when he beat all the other entrants in the Around The Bay Road Race in Hamilton, Ont., an event that continues to be held annually.

The following year marked his Boston Marathon triumph.

“His life had changed instantly,” Martin said. “And the opportunity for him to run internationally blossomed.”

Longboat was also chosen to represent Canada at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, England. But several runners, including Longboat, did not finish the men’s marathon event as they are said to have suffered heat exhaustion.

Longboat went on to win numerous professional races after that.

And then in 1916 he joined the Canadian military and was sent overseas to serve as a dispatch runner during World War I. His job was to run great distances to convey messages to Canadian officials located in different locations.

“He would be expected to carry messages,” Martin said. “It wasn’t so much paper. It would be in his mind in case he was captured. As far as I know he would have been invaluable for making sure that he fulfilled his task, his mission.”

While overseas, Longboat was mistakenly presumed dead. That message reached his wife and family in Six Nations.

“When he returned home, he found out that his wife had remarried,” Martin said. “And to his disappointment, she chose to stay with her current husband.”

Longboat did remarry, however, and had four children with his second wife.

In his honour, Six Nations stages the annual Tom Longboat Run. The 25th annual race was held earlier this month and attracted about 400 participants.

Martin has been one of the run’s organizers since its early years. She currently works in Six Nations as a traditional wellness co-ordinator, promoting traditional foods, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

Martin also teaches archery and paddling programs in her community.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.