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Tom Longboat, who had been coached by another Six Nations runner, Bill Davis, ran his first race on October 18, 1906. As he lined up at the starting point with 20 other runners, people laughed at him: he was wearing a droopy cotton bathing suit and cheap sneakers.
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However, this didn't stop Longboat from winning the 19-mile race, with a time of one hour, 49 minutes and 25 seconds. So at age 19, Longboat had won his first race by a full three minutes.
After winning the Herald road race, Tom was entered in the 15-mile Ward Marathon which he won by 500 yards. It was true that Tom had won both the Herald and the Ward races, but while they were important to Canadians they didn't have the international prestige of the Boston Marathon. That was the big one that Longboat had to win before he could be classed with Sherring and other greats of his time.
On April 19, 1907, against snow, rain, slush, the tough hills of the old course and 125 other entrants, Tom Longboat won the Boston Marathon in the record time of 2:24:24, a new record by five and a half minutes, the equivalent of a mile of running. It had become the fastest time ever made in a marathon race in all sports history. This new record was not to be broken until the course was made easier.
Increasingly, protests appeared about the Indian's amateur status, even from Canadian officials. In fact the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union declared him a professional. The U.S. threatened to pull out all their olympic teams if Longboat was allowed to run. Somehow Longboat squeaked by the olympic committee and was declared eligible for the 1908 London Olympics.
However, Longboat was not to repeat Billy Sherring's victory of 1907. He collapsed after being in second place at the 20th mile. So high had expectations been that immediately there were rumours that he had been doped. J. H. Crocker, manager of the team, stated in his report: "I consider it my duty to state that my experience in racing leads me to believe that Longboat should have won his race. His sudden collapse and the symptoms shown seem to me to indicate that some form of stimulant was used contrary to the rules of the games. I think that any medical man knowing the facts of the case will assure you that the presence of a drug in an overdose was the cause of the runner's failure."
Longboat ran a number of races as an amateur after his olympic failure, with uniform success, including his third straight victory in the Ward Marathon over a field of 153 runners.
Once more a hot property, Longboat turned professional and was matched against Dorando Pietri of Italy. The race was won in Madison Square Garden on December 15, 190. Longboat won when Dorando collapsed with half a mile to go.
In one race in New York in 1909, which writers proclaimed the "greatest marathon race of the century", Longboat raced against the Englishman Alfie Shrubb, who had
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constantly challenged him as an amateur. Shrubb led for the first 20 miles, but the Indian's steady inexorable pace gradually ate into the tiring Englishman's margin. During the 24th mile, Tom finally spurted past him whereupon Shrubb and Longboat coasted home.
Longboat was at the peak of his fame and generally regarded as the world's best distance runner.
He was shocked when Flanagan, a Toronto Irishman who had been his promoter-trainer since after the Boston Marathon in 1907 sold his contract to an American promoter for $2,000. "He sold me just like a racehorse," said Longboat, but Flanagan had his reasons. Having done very well out of the Indian, he saw the time had come to sell his meal ticket.
At the age of 21, Tom was beginning his downhill slide. Within a few months he had been sold again for $700. Despite a series of thrilling races with Shrubb and a brilliant race on Toronto Island in 1912 in which Tom set a new record for 15 miles, a fatal pattern had appeared. This 15 mile record still stands today. In 1911 he received a suspended sentence for drunkenness in Toronto and rumours of his drinking bouts were rife.
Longboat served overseas during the first war. On his return to Canada, he drifted from job to job, his winnings long gone, winding up as a helper on a Toronto garbage wagon in 1927. He died back on the Six Nations Reserve in 1949, a victim of his own talents, the rapaciousness of promoters, the short-lived worship of the public and his vulnerability to the corruptions of white society.
His trainer once said after he died, "I often thought if we could've kept him on the reservation, brought him out just to run, what he could have done, would have been even more remarkable".