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The Story of Tom Longboat

Written by Jack BattenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jack Batten


List Price: $10.99


On Sale: June 05, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-77049-063-5
Published by : Tundra Books Tundra
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Tom Longboat was a hero. A member of the Onondaga Nation, he was born on the Six Nations reserve in Oshwegen, near Brantford, Ontario. Despite poverty, poor training, and prejudice, Longboat went on to become one of the world’s best runners. In 1907, at the height of his fame, he won the Boston Marathon and ran in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. Longboat was one of the best-known people of his day, and certainly the most prominent member of the Six Nations. Throughout his career he had to race against opponents, as well as rumors of illegal running activities. Nevertheless, he maintained his dignity, and his achievements still inspire people who understand the great pleasure of running, and running fast.


The Best Runner in the World

To us, today, the race seems peculiar. It consisted of two fit young men running around the small track at Madison Square Garden in New York City 262 times. This event took place on the night of December 15, 1908, and it involved the two competitors circling the track time after time to cover the marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (42.2 kilometers). With about four laps to go, one of the two – Dorando Pietri of Italy – pitched forward on his face, barely conscious and unable to muster one more step. The other runner, close to exhaustion, struggled on alone over the rest of the distance. When he crossed the finish line, he had been running for 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 5.2 seconds, and he won a prize of $3,750. The victorious runner was Tom Longboat of Canada.

For sports fans of the present, accustomed to quick, busy, high-energy action, more attuned to team games than individual contests, the race at the Garden comes across as the athletic equivalent of watching paint dry. But in the early years of the 20th century, such events as the Tom Longboat-Dorando Pietri race were all the rage. Fourteen thousand roaring spectators packed the Garden to cheer the runners that night, and hundreds more– unable to buy a ticket for the sold-out event – milled in the streets outside, impatient to learn the race’s outcome.

These fans, unlike today’s, preferred man-on-man rivalries to team sports, and they applauded endurance over style. They flocked to thirty-round boxing matches, two-mile single-scull rowing events, and, above all, to long-distance running races. There was a craze in North America for distance running in the years before World War I, and two-man races, like the one on the night of December 15, 1908, were the centerpieces of the sport’s enormous popularity. In the winters, these races were held in indoor arenas and in military armories. In the summers, they switched to large open-air stadiums, two-man competitions at such venues as the Polo Grounds in New York and the Hanlan’s Point Stadium on the Toronto Islands. More conventional distance events figured into the racing mix too; these were usually marathons featuring fields of many competitors running over roads on the outskirts of a city and into the downtown core. Spectators lined the streets and cheered themselves hoarse for the runners, especially for Tom Longboat.


In the age of the long-distance runner, Longboat was the greatest of them all. He won more races than any of his contemporaries, and he triumphed at every distance from three miles to the marathon. He seemed almost superhumanly tireless, ready to run any race at any time. In the six weeks after his 1908 victory over Dorando Pietri, he ran two more indoor marathons – one in Buffalo, the other back in Madison Square Garden. Longboat won both, and as if to show how secure he felt about winning, he took a few days off between races to get married and take part in a wedding reception for hundreds of guests at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

Longboat’s running feats made him by far the best-known Canadian abroad during the first two decades of the 20th century and the most popular Canadian at home. His fellow citizens couldn’t get enough of Tom Longboat. On an autumn Saturday in the first year of his growing celebrity, 1907, he set off on an exhibition solo run – who could imagine such a thing today? – that covered 35 miles from the city of Hamilton, east along Lakeshore Road, to the center of Toronto. Nearing the Humber River three-quarters of the way through the run, Longboat developed severe foot blisters and limped into an accompanying automobile. The police were horrified by Longboat’s withdrawal from the run. One hundred thousand of his fans had gathered along the route at the Toronto end, anxious for a glimpse of their hero. The police feared a riot if all that rewarded the people’s wait was a shadowy Longboat in the rear of a Model T. They pleaded with him to return to his run, just for the last mile. Longboat obliged.

It’s difficult to measure such an entity as public adulation, but Longboat was probably as idolized in his time as Wayne Gretzky was in his. Glory and grace touched both men in their different athletic performances, and fans responded to each with equal degrees of helpless admiration. Both men seemed accessible and friendly; nothing stuck-up about Tom or Wayne. And, in a satisfying coincidence, both came from the same part of the world – Gretzky from the town of Brantford in Southern Ontario, and Longboat from the gently rolling countryside immediately to the town’s southeast.

But it isn’t helpful to pursue the Longboat-Gretzky comparison to its limits because one unbridgeable divide separates the two men: Gretzky is white while Longboat was Native. The gently rolling land where Longboat grew up was an Indian reserve, the Six Nations. It was a place where many people lived in drafty shacks, rarely earned a white man’s wage, had bad teeth, and died young. Natives made up Canada’s underclass, Longboat included, and no matter how much adoration the public heaped on him as an athlete, Longboat was never allowed to forget what he was and where he came from.

All he had to do, if he needed reminding, was look in the daily newspapers. Sportswriters routinely identified him by such insulting terms as “the Redskin,” “Heap Big Chief,” and “the Injun.” The Globe once pointed out, with apparently no conscious racial sneer intended, that Longboat possessed only “the light veneer of the white man’s ways.”


Longboat was a Native, and it cost him. After his death in 1948, he was quoted by one of his sons as having advised years earlier: “Don’t go into running. There’s no money in it.” Longboat was wrong; there was very good money in running, just not for him. The white men who managed Longboat’s career and promoted his races were mostly well-to-do businessmen before their associations with Longboat, and they were measurably more well-to-do after the associations ended. But the money Longboat earned with his magnificent running never seemed to stick to his own fingers. And after his retirement from racing, the best job he ever found was with Toronto’s City Street Cleaning Department. From 1927 to 1944, Longboat picked up garbage from the streets where his fellow citizens had once cheered him to the skies.

Longboat was never known to express bitterness or regret over his fate, at least not when a reporter with a pencil was around to record his reflections. Longboat left the impression, which was surely true in large part, that the running itself brought him pride and satisfaction. He found joy in running. He loved to run as a boy, and when he became an elderly man, he loved equally to set off on long walking rambles. In his final three years, ill with diabetes and living once more on the Six Nations reserve, he used to hike from his home to the town of Hagersville several times a week, each walk adding up to a round trip of 20 happy miles.

Running was what defined Longboat to himself. He was a good husband and father, a diligent worker, an amiable and gentle man, but most of all, he was a runner. He rejoiced in running, and for a long and significant period when distance running was the king of sports, Tom Longboat was the best runner in the world.



Many years after the fact, Longboat put his finger on the humble event that got his life launched on its course to unexpected fame. This event, Longboat recollected, took place at the beginning of the lacrosse season when he was 17, which would put it in the early spring of 1905. Young Tom, a member of the Onondaga nation, played for the Onondaga team in a Six Nations league. North American Natives had invented the sport of lacrosse centuries before white people arrived.

In the sport’s earliest times, teams made up of dozens – even hundreds – of players competed against one another in games that lasted for days on fields that were six times the size of a modern football field. These games were seen by the North American Natives to have spiritual elements, and were often played as a curing ritual for sick or injured people. White settlers took up their own version of lacrosse, which was streamlined with far fewer players and a much smaller playing area in accordance with rules developed in 1867 by a Montreal dentist named William George Beers. The game became Canada’s most popular team sport, until hockey displaced it, and it was this modern version of lacrosse that was eventually adopted by the Natives in the late 19th century.
Jack Batten

About Jack Batten

Jack Batten - The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone

Photo © Majorie Harris

Tundra’s Jack Batten is a well-known author, journalist, reviewer, and radio personality. He has written over thirty books on subjects that include biography, crime fiction, law and court cases, and sports. Jack Batten’s first career was as a lawyer. After four years, he turned to writing. He has been a staff writer at Maclean’s Magazine and the Star Weekly. Batten has written for many magazines, including Chatelaine, Rolling Stone, and Toronto Life. He has written radio plays for the CBC and a jazz column for The Globe and Mail. Nowadays, Jack Batten writes books and reviews crime novels for The Sunday Star. The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone is Jack’s most recent book, for which he was nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction, the biggest prize in Canadian Children’s literature.


–Winner of the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction–

“…fast-paced, deeply researched and fresh…treats the reader with respect and the subject with great respect…throws new light on the little-known Longboat…vividly readable…brilliantly done!”
Norma Fleck Jury

“[T]his book is a superb narrative – and a revelatory one – about a largely unknown if not quite unsung Canadian icon.”
The Globe and Mail

“…a wonderful book. Jack Batten has written a riveting sports story…an intriguing slice of social and economic life in the early decades of the 20th century, raising some provocative questions…”
Books in Canada

“Dozens of photos complement the exciting prose of Jack Batten.”
Owl Canadian Family

“This biography of Canada’s greatest runner salutes him while providing a not-too-pretty lesson in Canadian sports and social history… Jack Batten…writes in a colloquial, entertainingly frank style….”
Quill & Quire

“It is an engrossing and poignant story…a fascinating look at the history of running, the history of prejudice and the legacy of a man who’s enduring story continues to inspire.”

“Batten writes with honesty of the hypocrisies and injustices of the time: here’s one biography that doesn’t gloss over the more ugly aspects of our culture…. [a] clear, sensitive biography…”
The Toronto Star

“Batten tells a fast-paced, deeply researched and fresh story while unflinchingly facing up to the everyday bigotries of Canadian society…”
The Vancouver Sun
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


Hamilton, Ontario; October 1906. An unknown youth stood at the starting line of the Around the Bay Race, a grueling run of over 19 miles. Unlike the other 25 competitors, some of them top runners, the newcomer did not wear a fashionable racing outfit. His plain bathing suit and jersey, and cheap canvas shoes revealed his humble background. The young man’s running style impressed no one. But the unknown runner swept past the competition and crossed the finish line well ahead of his nearest challenger. The sporting world was astounded.

Tom Longboat burst from total obscurity into the wildly popular sport of long distance running and quickly rose to international fame. He set new records, won the prestigious Boston Marathon in 1907, and ran for Canada in one of the most controversial events of the 1908 Olympics. In his time, he was as famous as Wayne Gretzky would be in a later era.

But his triumphs did not bring Tom the financial security and social standing today’s successful athletes enjoy. Tom was a Native Canadian, an Onondoga who had grown up in poverty on a reserve. In the white society that cheered his victories, Tom faced age-old prejudices. His acclaim was undermined by stereotyping and by an often-biased press. Men he trusted as friends profited from his accomplishments and then betrayed that trust. When his athletic career was over, and after he had served his country in war, the man who was faster than everyone was forgotten.


Canadian author Jack Batten has long been acquainted with the world of sports. In his youth he was taught to box by the former Canadian flyweight champion Alex Burlie. Mr. Batten’s biography on Tom Longboat, The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone, won the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction in children’s literature. He has written 30 books on such diverse subjects as sports, law, biography, and crime fiction. Among his other titles are Blood Count: A Crang Mystery, Hockey Dynasties: Blue Lines and Bloodlines, and A Brilliant and Appalling Life: The Story of Criminal Lawyer Ross Mackay. Jack Batten is also a radio personality and a columnist for the Toronto Star. He lives in Toronto.


Curriculum Connections

Physical Education
In his Victoria Day race in Caledonia, Tom came in second. What important lesson did he learn from that competition? What caused Tom to lose the Police Games race in Toronto?

What historic event brought the Iroquois people to what is now Ontario? What was the advantage of the Grand River Reserve to the British? What were the consequences for the Iroquois?

What was the Canadian government’s purpose in sending Native children to schools like the Mohawk Institute? In what ways were these schools oppressive?

The two men who had the greatest influence on Tom’s career and legacy were Tom Flanagan and Lou Marsh. Discuss some of the things these men did (or were alleged to have done) that would be considered unethical.

People who bet on sporting events want to know the “odds; ” that is, how great or small the possibility is that a given competitor will win. In the Around the Bay race in Hamilton, Tom Longboat was a newcomer. Most people did not think he could win, so the odds against him were high. Therefore, when he won, small wagers that had been placed on him paid high returns. Once people knew how fast Tom was, the odds in his favor were high. A gambler who bet on him stood to win only a fraction of the wager if Tom won the race. If the odds in favor of Tom winning a race were ten to one, and a gambler placed a $10 bet on him, how much money — besides the original wager — would the gambler receive if Tom won the race?


1. Personal courage is a a recurring theme in Tom Longboat’s story. Ask students to discuss how Tom displayed courage (a) in his race in Buffalo with George Bonhag and (b) in the Canadian army during World War I.

2. As a Native Canadian, Tom Longboat faced well-
entrenched racial attitudes. Ask the class to discuss how these attitudes were revealed (a) in the press and (b) in the treatment he received after his career as a runner had ended.

3. The expression “cultural clash” does not necessarily mean racism, although racism can certainly be involved. Have the class discuss how Tom and his trainers experienced a cultural clash. What aspect of the trainers’ viewpoint might be said to have not been racist? How did the Native perception of running differ from that of the whites?

4. Early in his career, Tom ran as an amateur. Have the class discuss the differences between amateur and professional. What did Tom have to do to maintain his amateur status in Canada? Why was he banned from running as an amateur in the United States? What was one major consequence of the American ban?

5. Today performance-enhancing drugs are strictly prohibited in amateur and professional sports. Have the class discuss the reasons for this. How might a performance-
enhancing drug have contributed to Tom’s disastrous
Olympics experience? Why would it have been difficult for officials at that time to detect drug use among athletes?

6. Tom Flanagan was an opportunist who never missed a chance to exploit his relationship with Tom Longboat. Have the class discuss how Flanagan did this (a) in the race with Barney O’Rourke’s horse and buggy, (b) at Tom and Lauretta’s wedding, and (c) in Tom’s race with Alf Shrubb at Madison Square Garden.


1. Long distance running was a much more popular spectator sport a century ago than it is today. Ask students why people of that time would become excited about a long foot race. Tell them to think about the pace of daily life back then, and what was available for entertainment and diversion.

2. Today’s athletes earn considerable incomes endorsing products. Ask students what products they think Tom Longboat might endorse if he were a celebrity athlete today. Have them give reasons for their choices of products.

3. Other Native Canadians, from Tom Longboat’s time and in the decades since, have achieved fame in various fields. Ask students to look up some of them at the library or on the Internet and to write a brief report. Possible suggestions: Pauline Johnson (poet), Jay Silverheels (actor), George Armstrong (hockey player), Graham Greene (actor), Tomson Highway (playwright), Susan Aglukark (singer, songwriter), Buffy Sainte-Marie (singer, songwriter), Brian Trottier (hockey player), Kenojuak Ashevak (artist), Jeanette Armstrong (writer).

4. Ask students to imagine that they are going to a stadium in a Canadian city in 1910 to watch Tom Longboat compete. What sort of clothes would they wear? How would they get there? What would they take with them?

5. Ask students to write down three questions they would ask Tom Longboat if they were reporters interviewing him after he had won a race. Tell them to keep in mind things they know about him from Jack Batten’s biography.

6. Other Canadians have made names for themselves as runners. Ask students to research and write a brief report on one of the following: Percy Williams, Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo, Donovan Bailey.


From the Boston Globe, April 20, 1907

Caffrey’s Time Improved by About Five Minutes
Fowler, Himself a Mark-Shaver, Half-Mile Behind at Finish

Thomas Longboat, a full-blooded Indian from Hamilton, Ont., won the famous B.A.A. Marathon race of 25 miles from Ashland to Boston yesterday in 2h 24m 24s, beating the record for the course 2h 29m 23 3-5s, which was made by J.J. Caffrey, also of Hamilton, in 1901, when the latter won the race for the second time.

The thousands of persons who lined the streets from Ashland to the B.A.A. were well repaid for the hours of waiting in the rain and chilly winter weather, for they saw in Tom Longboat the most marvelous runner who has ever sped over our roads. With a smile for everyone, he raced along and at the finish he looked anything but like a youth who had covered more miles in a couple of hours than the average man walks in a week. Gaining speed with each stride, encouraged by the wild shouts of the multitude, the bronze-colored youth with jet black hair and eyes, long, lithe body and spindle legs, swept toward the goal.

Amid the wildest din heard in years, Longboat shot across the line, breaking the tape as the timers stopped their watches, simultaneously with the clicking of a dozen cameras, winner of the greatest of all modern Marathon runs. Arms were stretched out to grasp the winner, but he needed no assistance.

Waving aside those who would hold him, he looked around and acknowledged the greetings he received on every side. Many pressed forward to grasp his hand, and but for the fact that the police had strong ropes there to keep all except the officials in check, he would have been hugged and sqeezed mightily. Then he strode into the club, strong and sturdily.

Results: Time:
1.T. Longboat, West End Young Men’s Christian Association, ON 2:24:24
2.R. Fowler, Cambridgeport Gym, MA 2:27:54
3.J.J. Hayes, St. Bartholomew Club, NY 2:30:38
4.J. O’Mara, Cambridgeport, MA 2:35:37
5.J.J. Lee, St. Alphonsus Athletic Association, Roxbury, MA 2:36:04
6.C. Petch, North End Athletic Club, Toronto, ON 2:36:47
7.S. Hatch, Chicago, IL 2:37:11
8.J.H. Neary, Natick, MA 2:37:59
9.J. Lindquist, Swedish A&G Club 2:38:58
10. C. Schlobohm, Mercury Athletic Association, NY 2:42:02


Suggested Reading

Tom Longboat
by Bruce Kidd
Ages 9-12, ISBN 1550418386

The Matchless Six: The Story of Canada’s First Women’s Olympic Team
by Ron Hotchkiss
Ages 9-12, ISBN 0887767389

Rapid Ray: The Story of Ray Lewis
by John Cooper
Ages 9-12, ISBN 0887766129



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