Why members of London's Indigenous Running Club say running is for everybody

Runners with the Indigenous Running Club say they've made significant progress in a short time.

'Running is for everybody, it doesn't matter your size, your shape,' says club founder

Joel Kennedy (bottom left) and Nancy Doxtator (bottom right) pose with other members of the Indigenous Running Club at Greenway Park. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Nancy Doxtator, 52, has a pretty lofty goal: to run a full marathon by the time she turns 60. 

The grandmother from Oneida Nation of the Thames is already off to a good start. She does a five-kilometre run three times a week and is training for a half-marathon this fall. 

Just a few years ago, all of that would have seemed out of reach for Doxtator, a former smoker. That changed in 2016, when she quit smoking and joined the newly-formed Indigenous Running Club, run out of the N'Amerind Friendship Centre. 

"When I first started, I couldn't even jog one minute without being out of breath," said Doxtator, as she cooled down from a brisk 5K through Greenway Park in London. 

But now, she says she's in the best shape she's ever been. 

"I get emotional thinking about it, because I've come a long way," she said. "I keep up with my grandchildren, I play with them... And it's like I'm 30, instead of 52."

For Doxtator, none of it would have been possible without the Indigenous Running Club.

Joel Kennedy, the club's founder, is in the process of training for a marathon. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Founder Joel Kennedy, also from Oneida Nation of the Thames, started the club just a few weeks after he'd completed his first race—a downtown 5K where he finished last. 

That experience was when Kennedy began to fall in love with the sport.

"All the way when I was finishing, all the [runners] that were already finished kept encouraging me, cheering me on and I even had a few people that ran beside me to support me going through that last little bit," said Kennedy.

"I just said 'I'm gonna do it, and I'm gonna stick to it and finish it.'"

Joel Kennedy poses with a police escort who accompanied him as the last runner in a 5K run in 2016. (Submitted by Joel Kennedy)

With limited coaching experience himself, Kennedy had members work through a basic running app on their phones, alternating a few minutes between running and walking. 

Just a year later, Kennedy had progressed to a half-marathon and lost about 100 pounds.

"It just feels natural, it feels like what I'm meant to do is to run," he said. 

Legendary Onondaga runner Tom Longboat won the famed Boston Marathon in 1907. (Charles A. Aylett/Library and Archives Canada )

For his inspiration, Kennedy points to legendary long distance runner from Six Nations of the Grand River, Tom Longboat. 

Longboat attended the Mohawk Institute Residential School, running away twice. As an adult, he went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1907. 

"Every year in September, the second Sunday in September, they have a Longboat Island run on Toronto Island to acknowledge his accomplishments and his legacy," said Kennedy. "So every year, we have a group that goes out and runs it so this will be our third year that we'll be attending."

Club is growing

Since the program began in 2016, London's Indigenous Running Club has racked up a steady group of about six core members, with additional members coming and going. And new faces are joining often.

Three members, including Kennedy, are training for their first marathon in the fall.

But Kennedy stresses that anyone, of any fitness level, is welcome to join, including cyclists and walkers. The point of the club isn't to train everyone to do a marathon. It's to show that anyone can run if they want to. 

"I constantly have people talk to me about the inspiration that I give them, or other people in the group give them. Just motivating them to stay active," said Kennedy. 

Three club members pose at the "Around The Bay" 30 km race in Hamilton, Ont. in March of 2018. (Submitted by Joel Kennedy)

Kennedy says he hopes the group will change what people think of as a runner's body. He says many assume that runners need to be tall and very slender, but that's not the case. 

"For people that don't know me, they're surprised about the distance that I'm running because I don't look like a natural runner," he said.

"Running is for everybody, it doesn't matter your size, your shape. Everyone has different levels of fitness, and your body doesn't necessarily indicate your fitness level is."

And for Doxtator, that idea rings true. 

"Runners come in all shapes and sizes," she said.