Canada 150

Tom Longboat: A man called Everything

In 1907, Tom Longboat went down to Boston and stunned the field in a snowstorm by winning the already famous marathon, arriving back in Toronto at night to a torchlight parade from Union Station to the Y.

Canada's Six Nations' hero won Boston Marathon back in 1907

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

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday in 2017. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome and auto racing's Villeneuve family. We've also looked back at the Richard Riot and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

Round and round and round they went, two marathon runners circling the indoor cinder track at Madison Square Garden on a February night in New York in 1909.

Tom Longboat, Canada's "Indian" hero, and England's star Alfie Shrubb, running 250 laps in a smoke-filled arena packed to the rafters with gamblers, drunken louts and more than 10,000 fans wanting to see how this latest match race would end.

Longboat, winner of the Boston Marathon back in 1907, and a multiple record holder, had fallen behind eight laps by the halfway mark, and it clearly looked decided. Until the Canadian began to move...

There are three ways to look at Tom Longboat, one of Canada's greatest athletes — biographical, statistical and cultural.

The first two are quite simple .

Born in 1887 on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ont., Longboat was an Onondaga whose native name, Cogwagee, meant Everything. While still a young teenager, he ran away from the Mohawk Institute Residential School (twice) and eventually lived with his uncle and did odd jobs.

Longboat's training methods, considered lazy by some contemporaries who didn't understand them, proved to be ahead of their time. (The Canadian Press)

This might have been the end of it but for one key talent. The young man could run — endlessly, everywhere, as long as you wanted and faster than anyone else.

Longboat was living and training at Toronto's West End YMCA (still there today) by 1903, from where he went on a tear, breaking local, provincial and national amateur records and telling a world besotted with distance running that a new name had arrived. 

In 1907, he went down to Boston and stunned the field in a snowstorm by winning the already famous marathon, arriving back in Toronto at night to a torchlight parade from Union Station to the Y.

"[Longboat] was a brilliant athlete," says Dr. Bruce Kidd, himself an Olympic distance runner and one of the long-ago star's biographers. "He could run from the front and win. He could run from behind and win. He beat everybody of his generation ... he set record after record after record.

"And he did so through training methods that he inherited or acquired through his indigenous community and those exemplars, and he did so really in a way that many other people subsequently adopted to their advantage."

Using the modern vernacular, Tom Longboat was a superstar. 

The crowd at the Garden had been restless for the first hour as the Canadian dropped further back. Gamblers stared morosely at their slips, wondering if the day was already lost, until the boosters noticed a change. 

Longboat was moving... lapping at a much faster pace, passing Shrubb once, again, again, closing the gap as the military bands played Canadian marches and airs now, and the thousands crowded in the caged infield began jumping up and down to see what was happening ...

Was there a chance? 

The Olympic Games beckoned in 1908, at London, under the new marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards — calculated so the Royal Family could watch the start from Windsor Castle — and Longboat was a favourite despite having just turned 21.

For 20 miles everything seemed to be unfolding for the Canadian, who was comfortable in the lead pack before disaster struck and he collapsed. Longboat's heart was racing. He was physically sick. Some accounts say he almost died.

Since then, much speculation has held that the Canadian was quietly slipped a stimulant — either to help or hinder him, depending on the rumoured culprit. This was not unusual for sporting events at the time as a "little something" had been part of the gambling-soaked scene for decades.

Professional running beckoned for the next five years, where the Canadian beat most comers, set many more records at different distances, and made some good money before giving it up in 1912 when people's interest began to move towards other sports, especially baseball.

He would serve with distinction in the trenches of the First World War and then lived in Toronto raising a family until his death in 1949.

Ahead of his time

While it would be easy to focus on the achievements, there should be an equal spotlight on what Tom Longboat had to overcome.

"The history of his life was an artifact of how racism clouded an athletic biography," says Kidd. "But through that, at least to me, it showed his tremendous strength and that not all whites wanted to be exploitative."

Longboat served with distinction in the trenches of the First World War. (Canada Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada)

Some reporters and some of his own managers wrote of Longboat unfairly — that he was lazy because he wouldn't work hard every day, that he drank too much, that he was difficult to handle, that he was not, to put it another way, like a white man.

He was to so many not "the Canadian" but "the Indian." 

Some others were ferocious defenders, Kidd says. 

Today the soft racism of low expectations is becoming familiar, but more than 100 years ago it was the hard racism of high expectations met but still not good enough because it wasn't somehow done the "correct" way.

His training wasn't lazy — it was decades ahead of its time by combining hard days with softer days, long-distance walking and more. His drinking (hardly excessive) wasn't more than anyone else was doing in those days leading up to Prohibition when there seemed to be a saloon on every corner and ale was considered by some coaches to be helpful to distance athletes.

Hard to handle? He stood up for himself by wanting to be part of the training discussion, not simply follow someone else's ideas.

As Kidd notes, if he were a British aristocrat "we would admire him for those qualities."

In the Garden there was no doubt now ... Longboat was running Shrubb down in the late stages of the indoor marathon. Two laps down, one down and the Englishman must have already sensed the jig was up.

The Canadian was now too close, the finish line still a few miles around the cinder oval ahead, so when he was finally passed, it was over. Shrubb stopped dead, walked off the track, and the race was simply a case of finishing the laps left and being carried off by those who chose the man they called Everything.

Kidd, who himself was a multiple Canadian champion at different distances and was twice the nation's athlete of the year (1961, 1962), is highly equipped to speak of what Tom Longboat should most be remembered for.

"I see him ... as one of the very best to ever come out of Canada ... an Onondaga ... in the group of the very best [track] athletes ever produced, along with the [Donovan] Baileys and the [Percy] Williamses and the [Harry] Jeromes." 

Tom Longboat Day is celebrated each June 4, but his memory deserves to be honoured every day.


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