September 26th, 2023 - Lake Nokomis: Founder of Native Women Running Verna Volker jogs around Lake Nokomis.

Nearing the halfway point of her first 50-mile race, Verna Volker wasn’t sure she would make it to the finish line.  

“Yéego,” she said out loud. Volker felt like she was channeling the voice of her parents: Work hard. Keep going. 

Volker grew up the youngest of 10 siblings in a traditional one-room home, called a hogan, on the Dzil Naoodilii, a sacred mountain in northern New Mexico. Her tribe, the Navajo Nation, has a deep history of running. But as a girl, Volker hated running. She used her athleticism on the basketball court, instead. 

It wasn’t until Volker moved to Minneapolis, at age 34, that she started running. Now 49, and a mother of four, she has changed careers to launch and manage Native Women Running, a company dedicated to creating community and breaking down barriers for runners like her. 

At the Twin Cities Marathon this weekend, 12 members of Native Women Running will gather for the first time as a group of mostly Minnesota runners. Nine runners will line up in downtown Minneapolis for the popular 10-mile race on Sunday, an hour before the kickoff for the marathon. The other three athletes will tackle 26.2 miles.

Native Women Running is Volker’s contribution to increasing representation in a sport where most runners are white and 96 percent of running industry business owners and organization leaders are white, according to a new study from the Running Industry Diversity Coalition. Through sharing stories online and running together at races across the country, Native Women Running also honors lost traditions of Native Americans and helps women find health and healing through running. 

‘The minority of the minority’

When I met Volker earlier this month at a coffee shop in south Minneapolis a few miles from her home, she described what first inspired her to give running a try. After moving to the Twin Cities, she constantly watched runners filling the vast sidewalks near her new home. After the birth of her third child, she was looking for a way to get in shape. Through running, she got stronger and started feeling fit. In 2009, she ran her first race: the Urban Wildlands Half Marathon, in Richfield.

September 26th, 2023 – Lake Nokomis: Verna Volker, originally from the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, is the founder of Native Women Running. Credit: Aaron Nesheim

Volker also realized that running went beyond the physical: It became a sacred time of prayer and healing. During her runs, she felt closer to the five members of her immediate family who have died: her father, who died of cancer when she was 3; and more recently, three of her siblings and her mother. 

The finish line of that first half marathon, 14 years ago, proved to be just the beginning. Since then, she’s run over 50 races, at ever-increasing distances, topping out last January at 94 miles, during a 34-hour race called the Dark Anchor, in Savannah, Georgia.

Volker found it easy to commit to running: An introvert by nature, she prefers doing her long runs on hilly trails while the sun rises. 

But that enthusiasm didn’t translate to a sense of belonging in the running scene. She rarely saw other Native runners at races or on social media. People say running is for everyone, Volker explained, but she didn’t experience that to be true. This sense of marginalization in the running scene felt especially unfair given that her Navajo people have been running for more than 1,000 years.  

At 5 foot 4, the 49-year-old Volker exudes fitness of a sort not usually found in the pages of Runner’s World. On the day we met, she sported a red Native Women Running T-shirt, beaded earrings, and Hoka running shoes (one of the companies she partners with). It’s not hard to imagine her running for hours at a time. 

But Native runners, she said, are “the minority of the minority.” 

“In the running space, it’s a lot of white, blond Boston qualifiers,” she said–referring to sleek, competitive runners with fast race times. “That’s not me.”

The lack of representation became the impetus to start Native Women Running as an Instagram account in 2018. She polled some friends about the idea of creating a space for Native women runners. Yes, they responded, they would love to follow an account that shared those stories and profiles. 

“You should totally do it,” said Marlinda Francisco, a Navajo and Tohono O’odham runner who’s now a member of the Native Women Running leadership team, and coaches cross country at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona.

Volker was busy teaching second grade at the time. Originally, she mostly reposted the stories of Native women runners. During the pandemic, Volker started approaching race companies: Could you follow us on social media? As the platform grew and the pandemic waned and runners returned to racing, she started asking for more: Could you comp some race entries for our runners?

It should just be a given that race companies give free registration to Indigenous runners, when races are hosted on our land.

Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running

“I want race companies to understand that we’re here,” Volker said. Native Women Running now enjoys partnerships with 18 companies, including Hoka, REI, the sock brand Lily Trotters, Twin Cities in Motion, and Vacation Races, with support ranging from tables at expos to free race entries to ambassadorships.

“It should just be a given that race companies give free registration to Indigenous runners, when races are hosted on our land,” she said. 

In March of 2022, a group of Native runners met in person the night before the Antelope Canyon Ultras in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. The women represented Native Women Running for the first time as a team. During the race, a man approached Volker at an aid station: “Native Women Running,” he said, looking at her shirt. “I’ve heard of you—so it’s a movement, huh?”

That’s the goal, Volker realized. As of now, Native Women Running is a full-fledged company with a leadership team of four women who represent four different Native communities from around the country. They work with Volker to get comp entries to races, form teams of Native women to run in them, and raise funds for airfare and lodging. 

The enterprise does not make money, but that’s not the goal, Volker said. Native Women Running has supported over 130 runners at races since that first race in Arizona, from Tribal Nations across the country. Most women range in age from 25 to 60, Volker said.

Without sponsorship from Native Women Running, the races would be out of reach for many. A typical marathon registration costs at least $75; ultra registrations can cost upward of $400. Out-of-town runners often need to come up with airfare and hotel fees, too; the cost for one runner to tackle an ultramarathon can total around $3,000. And some races award entries only to those who win lotteries or enter fast qualifying times. 

Most races, Volker has found, will happily waive entrance fees for 5–10 runners, and waive qualifications. Still, there are always more women who want to compete than Volker can cover. So she asks women to submit an essay with their applications to help the leadership team decide who gets to go. 

‘Running with my mother, who is no longer here’

Women pour their hearts into these essays and the decision is often excruciating, explained Francisco, the Native Women Running leader in Arizona.

Desiree Pettibone, 35, of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation, won one of the spots to run this weekend’s 10-mile race in Minneapolis. In her application, she wrote about what running means to her: 

It means healing for me. Running is my medicine. Running is my prayer. Running is my way of connecting with myself. Running is usually the only time I get time for myself as a mother. It is also a time where I am able to connect with my children when they join me. As well as community members. Running is what makes me feel free and happy. I am able to run wild with Mother Nature. I am able to sing out loud and run to music, or I am able to run in silence and pray. It means running with my mother who is no longer here. It means running for my family and friends that are in the spirit world. It means using my medicine (running) to help bring awareness to important issues and help heal others and communities.

For the team reading the essays, the sentiments feel very familiar.

“All our stories sound the same,” said Francisco, who often cries while reading the essays. “We all run for the same reasons…You know what they’re feeling.”

It’s a sisterhood, Volker said. When the runners meet for the first time in person, there’s usually an instant understanding. 

“Running as a Native person—something which non-Natives won’t understand—oftentimes running is more spiritual,” Volker said. “We’re competitive in many things, but it comes down to heart. Two of the women we chose for New York City: One is running in honor of her daughter who passed at age 4. And another is running in honor of her father who passed two years ago. When we announced it on a Zoom call—you guys are running New York City!—they were crying.”

‘This is who we are’

After the Twin Cities Marathon this weekend, Volker’s next race will be the New York City Marathon, next month. This will be another “bucket list” race–something she says she couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Last year, she ran the Boston Marathon as a representative of Native Women Running. 

And last week, she participated in something else she never thought she’d experience: Runner’s World sent a crew to photograph her. “I never thought they would recognize me,” she said.

Volker embraces the opportunity to increase the public visibility of Native women in the running world. But the experience itself, she says, is often interior—something spiritual and communal. Running has been lost as a practice among many Native tribes, and bringing back the tradition helps heal historical trauma, Volker said. 

Francisco seconds this thought: “This is who we are. As Navajo, down south in Arizona, we’re known as runners,” she said. “A long time ago that’s how we relayed messages, by running to villages.”

While specific traditions vary, the idea of running as a form of prayer or spiritual exercise is almost universal among Native runners. For example, Pettibone, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, carries tobacco while she runs. 

“Running means a lot to Native people,” she said. “It’s just that everybody has forgotten it.”  

Navajo runners often set off running east toward the rising sun, sometimes yelling, Francisco said, to “tell creator that we’re awake and he knows we’re out there.”

“It’s our medicine,” said Volker. “Our women run in honor of loved ones, and I think that’s been really powerful. I share my story of trauma, of losing my parents and siblings. Every race I run in honor of them.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...