No one could have foreseen the future that would unfold for the baby boy born on June 4, 1887, to the Longboat family at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario.
Tom Longboat, Runner Extraordinaire
The parents, members of the Onondaga tribe, gave the baby the Native name Cogwagee, meaning “Everything” and named him Tom.
From his earliest years, Longboat loved to run. He ran to work in the fields and ran to collect the tribe’s cows and herd them home. When his parents sent him away to a school for Natives, he was so unhappy that he ran back home—about 12 miles.
At age 17, Longboat entered the Victoria Day 5-mile race in Caledonia. He finished second, and losing convinced him to train harder.
Longboat went everywhere on foot, and his family often didn’t believe his tales of how far and fast he had run—until he beat his brother to Hamilton, some 20 miles distant, even though his brother had had a head start and driven a horse and buggy!
In 1906, Longboat entered the Victoria Day race again, and this time he won. Watching him was Bill Davis, another Native runner, who soon became his coach.
Later that year, Davis entered Longboat in the 19-mile “Around the Bay” race in Hamilton. Spectators placed wagers on runners, although few bet on Longboat. Some laughed at him. On Davis’s advice, Longboat followed the pace of the race favorite, John Marsh. It was a strategy that worked: Longboat won and nearly broke the course record. As he won more races that year, he began to make headlines.
On April 19, 1907, a cold, rainy, sleety day, Longboat ran the biggest race of his life—the Boston (Massachusetts) Marathon, then a 25-mile course. Reporters, some of whom had nicknamed Longboat “The Speedy Son of the Forest,” “The Indian Iron Man,” and “The Running Machine,” begged to interview him. Thousands turned out to watch 124 runners compete.
Longboat led from the start, with Charlie Petch, also a Canadian, dogging him. He was so worried that Petch might get ahead of him that he skipped several breaks for lemons and tea.
After 22 miles, the runners arrived at the foot of Heartbreak Hill, a series of famously steep climbs. Here, Longboat pulled ahead of Petch and secured the lead. The Boston Globe reported that Longboat smiled at the crowd as he passed and described him as “the most marvelous runner who has ever sped over our streets.” He ran the last mile in 4 minutes 45 seconds—30 seconds shy of the world record of 4:15.
Spectators cheered and tossed hats, canes, and umbrellas into the air as Longboat crossed the finish line. His time of 2:24:24 was 5 minutes faster than the course record and put him ¾ of a mile ahead of the second-place finisher.
Canadians welcomed Longboat home with a victory parade. He rode in an open car to a celebration at Toronto’s City Hall.
Tom Longboat has been called the greatest marathon runner of all time. He died in 1949 at age 61.
Did You Know?
- Tom Longboat spent 4 years in the Canadian Army as a runner and message carrier during World War I. (People joked that he could outrun bullets.)
- The Longboat Roadrunners of Toronto formed in 1980 in Longboat’s honor. They hold an annual 10k race and award a scholarship at the University of Toronto to a Native Canadian who excels in running.
- In 1998, a Canadian magazine proclaimed Longboat to be one of the 100 most important Canadians in history. In the category “Stars,” he was number one, ahead of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and singer Celine Dion.