In the Beginning: Native Americans
by Andy Milroy
North America has a long, rich history in ultrarunning, one that stretches back thousands of years. For much of that time, walking and running were the only means of travel and communication to bridge the
huge, open spaces of the American continent.
The migration route to the Americas was through the steppes and tundra of Siberia and Alaska, via the Bering land bridge, which was exposed by vast quantities of water locked up in the huge ice caps of the
last Ice Age. Sometime between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, humans followed mammoth, musk ox and caribou through a gap in the ice sheet that dominated North America, to emerge upon the great plains.
These earliest inhabitants of the continent probably marched in small groups, most of their meager possessions perhaps carried by women using head straps (loads of as much as 150 pounds were reported
in the pre-equine era among plains Indians). From the great plains the way was then open for their descendants to walk across mountain and desert, through jungle to the far reaches of Patagonia, a journey
that may have taken less than a thousand years.
Without the horse for transportation (until the Spanish introduced it in the sixteenth century), these Native Americans evolved a lifestyle delineated by their abilities as walkers and runners. Surprisingly, however,
the first recorded ultra distance performers in the Americas were not born in the Western Hemisphere, but came from across the sea.
By 1000 A.D., the Vikings from Norway had established colonies in Greenland, and in the year 1009 Thorfinn Karlsefni set out to explore a new land that had been discovered to the West, Vinland. He had been
given two Scottish runners, a man named Haki and a woman Hekja, both reputedly fleeter than deer. When Karlsefni arrived in this new land, he put ashore the Scots, ordering them to run south, to discover the
nature of the land and to come back before three days had passed. The runners wore only a bjafal or kjafal, a hooded poncho, which fastened between the legs. It is likely that the Scots explored what later
became known as Newfoundland. They returned three days later carrying grapes and self-sewn wheat, which may sound surprising today, but 1,000 years ago the province had a warmer climate than at present.
Native Americans that the Scots may have met would have been part of the running culture that permeated the entire continent. There were, in fact, extensive trading routes throughout pre-Columbian America,
used by traders and their porters traveling on foot. Within this wider context, early European settlers were to record networks of runners that tied tribes together. In the Northeast, in what was to become New York
state, the Iroquois Confederacy was held together by running messengers who could cover the 240-mile Iroquois Trail within three days. In the far South, Aztec relay runners brought their king, Montezuma, news
of the Spaniard Cortez’ landing at Chianiztlan, covering the 260 miles in relay fashion within 24 hours. In 1680, a network of Hopi and Zuni runners coordinated a revolt against their Spanish conquerors among
some 70 pueblos or villages, covering over 300 miles in what is now Arizona and New Mexico.
Without horses, using only dogs as pack animals, Native Americans were conditioned to cover great distances on foot from an early age. It was recorded that Apache Indians, who were renowned for their
toughness, at the age of 15 or 16 had to undertake a long run over rough country carrying a load on their back. Young men would be expected to go without sleep in a vigil that could last 48 hours. They then were
required to go out into the wilds for two weeks, living through their own skill and toughness. An adult Apache could travel on foot over the roughest terrain from fifty to seventy-five miles a day, keeping this up for
several days at a stretch.
Outstanding runners in such a culture would become key figures in holding together widespread associations, such as the Iroquois Confederacy, or even loose groupings of proximal tribes, by carrying news and
other urgent messages. A typical example of the role such runners played is recorded in Peter Nobokov’s excellent book “Indian Running.” In the 1860s a messenger runner of the Mesquakie tribe in his mid-fifties
ran 400 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin to warn Sauk Indians along the Missouri River of an enemy attack. Such messenger runners were probably part of the culture of the Sauk, Creek, Omaha, Kickapoo,
Osage, and Menominee tribes, and possibly many others. Such runners dedicated their lives to this endeavor, following a strict diet and often practicing celibacy. On their runs they would carry a dried buffalo heart.
We can get some idea of the kind of distances such runners covered from the journals of early settlers. As early as 1794, James Emlen wrote that Sharp Shins, one of the Iroquois Confederacy messengers, ran
90 miles from Canandaigua to Niagara between sunrise and sunset.
In 1835, a correspondent to The Spirit of the Times newspaper told of a Native American who had run 100 miles in a day carrying a sixty-pound bar of lead. Another wrote of a member of the Osage tribe to skeptical
members of the Indian Commission. Seeking to prove his veracity, he proposed a wager. An Indian was to take a message to Fort Gibson at sunrise and return with an answer before sunset, a round-trip journey
of some 80 miles. The wager was won.
In 1876 Big Hawk Chief ran from the Pawnee Agency to the Wichitas, a distance of 120 miles, inside 24 hours. His claim to have run such a distance was not believed. The Wichita chief arranged to ride back with
him, sending a relay horse to the 60-mile point so that he could change horses there. Before the 60-mile point, the Wichita chief’s horse was forced to stop and rest, but Big Hawk went on. The Wichita chief
eventually reached the Pawnee village before sunrise, less than 24 hours after their start, and found Big Hawk asleep. He had come in around midnight, covering the 120 miles across mountains, hills, and streams
in about 20 hours.
Other writers recorded similar feats. The Hopi Indians particularly have many stories told of their running prowess. Walter Hough described a Hopi Indian running 65 miles in eight hours, from Oraibi Pueblo to
Winslow, before turning around and running home. George Wharton James wrote in 1903 that on several occasions he had employed a young man to take a message to Oraibi to Keams Canyon, a distance of
72 miles, and that he had run the entire way and back within 36 hours. Another Hopi, Letayu, carried a note from Keams Canyon to Fort Wingate and returned, covering over 200 miles in three days.
The greatest feat attributed to an Indian runner was by Charlie Talawepi in the early 1900s, when reportedly he ran from Tuba City to Flagstaff and returned to Moenkapi, covering around 156 miles in about 24
hours. Charlie was apparently reduced to a walk by the finish, and took days to recover. For this feat he was given a twenty-dollar silver piece.
The most famous of the Hopi Indians was Louis Tewanima, who won the silver medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1912 Olympics, and finished ninth in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. In his younger days he would
reputedly run from his home to Winslow and back, some 120 miles, just to watch the trains pass.
In the Native American culture, the ability to cover great distances on foot was not limited to males. Around 1866 eight Tarahumara women contested a 100-mile race around an oblong mountain on a loop of
some 7.7 miles. Two villages had selected them as their fastest runners. Having started at 6:35 a.m., by 92 miles only three women were left. Wild betting was to be a feature of the contest over the last few miles.
It was two women from the village of Baconia who finished together, in a little over half a day. Like other Native American ultrarunners, they had eaten parched corn in the form of a gruel, sweetened with sugar.
Some of the early European settlers adapted to the Native American style of life and became adept at covering great distances on foot. In 1778, Daniel Boone was returning home from the depths of hostile
territory when his horse became exhausted and had to be turned loose. He was forced to cover 160 miles through the wilderness on foot in under four days, much of the time on limited or no rations.
A more remarkable feat was recorded for an earlier female settler escaping from the Shawnee. Mary Ingles, age 23, was abducted in July 1755 and carried far from any white settlement. She eventually escaped
with a Dutch woman. Living on nuts, roots, berries, and wild grapes, and wrapping their feet in strips of cloth torn from their clothing to replace their disintegrating moccasins, they began their long walk home
through the Appalachian Mountains. By mid-November, after walking more than 700 miles, the two women reached safety.
Life in the nineteenth century was a little easier for later immigrants, but they still needed considerable endurance. Although they may not have been used to covering great distances on foot within days, as the
Native Americans did, they generally came from cultures that were used to walking. Wagon trains from Kansas to California and Oregon carried the goods of the overlanders, as they were called. Many pioneers
had to walk alongside the wagons. One publication extolling the healthy virtues of the overland route described the immigrant as “fresh, vigorous, inured to exposure, able to walk his forty miles a day and thrive
on it.” Others walked all the way anyway, pushing a wheelbarrow or handcart carrying their meager belongings.
By the nineteenth century, white Americans were regularly recording feats of their contemporary native American runners, but by now the entire Native American ultra culture was in decline. The horse, introduced
by the Spanish to the New World, had meant that the ability to cover great distances on foot was no longer crucial to survival. Over very long distances, a runner could still outlast the horse, as shown by the exploits
of Big Hawk. But as Native American areas contracted under the pressure of white settlement, Indian running messengers became an occasional convenience for the thinly spread white settlers, instead of the
precious lifeline among Native American communities that they had once been.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Native American runners were to feature in a series of well-publicized ultra distance races, and indeed they also made an impact on the early American marathon
scene. However gradually, the changing lifestyles of the Native American communities and access to motorized vehicles were to gradually eradicate the last remnants of the Native American ultra culture. The
lone exception seems to be the Tarahumara tribes of northern Mexico, who have managed to maintain their Native American ultra culture despite the challenges of the entire century, and have recently begun
to merge it with the modern American ultrarunning culture of today.
Like many present-day African runners, Native Americans had the “advantage” of lifelong conditioning. From childhood, running games, hunting, and often a nomadic lifestyle inured Native Americans to covering
long distances on foot. This ability to cover ground on foot was of paramount importance. Such were the pressures on the pedestrian nomads that no allowances could be made for anyone who could not keep up.
Sometimes cruel necessity forced tribes to abandon the aged and infirm, in order to reach areas where game could be found. It would be those individuals who would implore their families to leave them. One such
was reputed to have said, “I am old and too feeble to march; my days are nearly all numbered, and I am a burden to my children. I cannot go and I wish to die.”
Such evolutionary pressures would ensure that only the strong, enduring individuals would survive. However, studies such as those on the cardiovascular systems of the Tarahumara Indians in the early 1970s
have shown that a significant part of the Native American’s great endurance capability was due to lifelong conditioning. Sedentary Tarahumaras have running capabilities little different from the average individual.
It is ironic that many modern-day American ultrarunners should seek to escape the pressures of everyday life, and to unconsciously emulate their Native American forerunners, following trails running across
mountains and rivers to reach distant destinations, viewing panoramas first revealed to tribal running messengers hundreds—even thousands—of years ago.