Before there was a Wayne Gretzky, before there was a Bobby Orr or Maurice Richard, and even before there was a National Hockey League, Canada had an enduring sports legend.
Tom Longboat, who wore running shoes, not skates, was the fastest man of his age. The Boston Marathon, scheduled for Monday, marks the 100th anniversary of the record-setting victory by the member of the Onondaga Nation in one of the world's most famous sports events.
Time has struck down most who would remember Longboat, but nothing erodes his legend. He braved sleet, driving rain and bitter cold winds to win that year in 2 hours 24 minutes 24 seconds, a Boston record by almost five minutes and a time that still would rank him 27th among 20,000 runners last year.
In the course of the 1907 race, he had to beat a freight train to a level crossing. Most remarkable: After running a punishing 25 miles, Longboat, six weeks before his 20th birthday, showed a mature runner's power and endurance to gallop the last mile in 4:45, when the world record for the mile was 4:15. The Boston Globe heralded Longboat as "the most marvellous runner who has sped over our roads."
"We're quite in awe, it's surreal just being in this place," said Shannon Loutitt, 34, of Regina, for whom this centennial run is a pilgrimage.
She made a point of taking up the marathon to celebrate the Longboat anniversary and her aboriginal (Métis) heritage. She ran the classic distance of 26 miles 385 yards for the first time seven months ago in Regina, then travelled to Toronto last fall to push herself to meet the qualifying standard for Boston. She will be at the start line with some 23,800 others on Monday -- hundreds of them Canadians -- but thinks none will be prouder than aboriginals in the field and the 26-member contingent of the Toronto-based Longboat Roadrunners, named for the man still revered in running circles.
Loutitt met yesterday with Longboat's daughter, Phyllis Winnie, 87, who brought with her the cherished metre-high bronze sculpture of the wing-footed Mercury that was presented to her father in 1907.
"She says she's giddy: 'I never thought I'd live to see this day,' " Loutitt related.
"As a Canadian, this is my way of thanking Tom Longboat for the doors he opened for us as human beings," said Loutitt, whose cousin Jason is one of Canada's best elite marathoners. "Tom Longboat gave us a different reference point for achievement, best in the world. It makes you push yourself that much harder."
That Longboat is remembered a century after his triumph is not surprising. That so much appreciation comes 58 years after his death in 1949 is a shame. His fame and deeds were buried for a time under the weight of a personal life that turned upside down, a series of meaningless, menial jobs and ultimately a society that once honoured him as a hero discarding him as an aging, "wayward" aboriginal.
He was born with the aboriginal name Cogwagee, on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., on June 4, 1887. His talent was spotted early by a Mohawk coach from Oshweken, Ont., named Bill Davis, who had placed second in the then fledgling 1901 Boston Marathon. Longboat began breaking Canadian records from his third competitive race and, at various times in his career, Longboat set every Canadian distance record for running a mile or longer.
The 1906 autumn Around the Bay race in Hamilton was considered his breakthrough, when he destroyed the field. Ten days later, he won a 15-mile race in Toronto by three minutes, and before the year was out he smashed the Canadian 10-mile record by 2½ minutes. After winning Boston in 1907, he never got to defend in 1908. Longboat and three other runners were declared ineligible because accepting expense money in another race had made them "professionals."
It was an era when footraces were major sports entertainment spectacles, like today's wrestling shows.
"It was dominated by staged showdowns, marked by fierce wagering, rampant promotion and frequent cheating," said Dean Tweed, a Longboat Roadrunner member and editor of the club's newsletter.
Racing was the working man's sport. "Competitors went to great lengths to develop personas for themselves and frequently toured like circus exhibitions, putting on bizarre demonstrations that pitted them against horses or relay teams."
"People knew the aura of Tom Longboat, even if they didn't know the specifics of his races," added Bruce Kidd, an Olympian and dean of the faculty of physical and health education at the University of Toronto. Kidd wrote a biography of Longboat, as well as papers that redefined his career and image.
"There was a period when he was being described as a failed athlete, or that he'd just been a natural athlete, with racist overtones, who pissed away his abilities with wayward living. In fact, he was just a superb athlete. You cannot be hung over and perform the way he did. He was a brilliant strategist who could win by running up front or reel you in running from behind."
When his racing career was past its prime, Longboat enlisted in the army in 1916 and used his talents for Canada on the battlefields of France, in the dangerous role of messenger between posts. It was joked he could outrun bullets -- most of the time. Longboat was wounded twice, and mistakenly reported dead. He returned home in 1919, only to find his wife Lauretta had remarried.
According to David Blaikie, author of Boston: The Canadian Story, Lauretta elected to remain in her new marriage. The heartbroken Longboat eventually accepted the loss and married Martha Silversmith, a woman from his own Six Nations reserve. They had four children.
He was unemployed for stretches after the war and the only key to success he had known, his running career, was over. Longboat took several mill and factory jobs in Southern Ontario, then tried farming in Alberta, only to encounter dustbowls and the Depression. He pawned his racing medals to make ends meet.
Eventually, Blaikie writes, Longboat returned to Ontario where he found work with the City of Toronto. He drove horses, swept leaves and for the most part collected garbage. He had an arrest for intoxication, but more often, it was found that other men were posing as Tom Longboat, seeking free drinks and getting into trouble.
"Longboat remained an employee of the city for nearly 20 years, a dependable man who worked quietly, owned a car, provided for his family and had a circle of close friends. But in the eyes of the public . . . he had fallen to the bottom," Blaikie says. "Collecting garbage was an ignominious end for someone who had risen to such fame and glory. A newspaper writer once described him as '. . . an Indian rubbish man whom young boys no longer look up to.' "
Redemption of his name took time.
In 1999, Maclean's magazine proclaimed Longboat the top Canadian sports figure of the 20th century, ahead of any star of the rink or boxing ring or race track or pool.
And in Boston, where Longboat stopped the clock in record time 100 years ago, his legend never stopped shining.