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‘Born to Run’ Book Hero Arnulfo Quimare Making Boston Debut

He's running as part of the Boston Marathon's first-ever celebration of its Native American running tradition

[Editor’s note: Arnulfo Quimare finished the 120th Boston Marathon on April 18 in 3:38:11.]

Arnulfo Quimare, the ultra-running Tarahumara hero of the best-selling Born to Run, makes his Boston Marathon debut Monday. Also in the field is Irma Chávez Cruz, a Tarahumara community mayor, and expert in the language. Both will run in a traditional loose-fitting colored costume (a dress for Chávez Cruz), with headbands. Chávez Cruz opened a special session at the Boston Marathon Expo speaker series Saturday with a song in the Tarahumara language, a first at any running seminar.

Quimare and Chávez Cruz are in Boston as guests of the Boston Athletic Association, to be part of the marathon’s first-ever celebration of its Native American running tradition. Eighty years ago, the 1936 Boston Marathon was won by Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett of Rhode Island. That was the race that gave the infamous Heartbreak Hill its name, when Johnny Kelley (the older) gave Brown a patronizing pat as he came confidently past at the foot of the hill, only to provoke the Native American into a powerful winning surge that (they wrote at the time) broke Kelley’s heart.

Brown won Boston again in 1939. Tom Longboat, Onondaga Six Nations from Ontario, won in 1907, and Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot from Maine) was second in 1912 and 1913. All became Olympians, Longboat for Canada. All are represented in this year’s Boston race by “Honor Runners,” running in their names.

The BAA also joined Harvard University and its Peabody Museum in sponsoring a free, public conference, on Friday April 15, “Native American Running: Culture, Health, Sport.” The highlight was a moving presentation by the 1964 Olympic 10,000 meters gold medal winner, Billy Mills, whose dramatic sprint on the wet Tokyo cinder track launched a lifetime’s work in helping fellow Native Americans to find purpose and education. Mills grew up as an orphan in poverty as Oglala Dakota Sioux on a reservation in Pine Ridge, became an officer in the Marines, and adopted running as a means of “healing my broken soul,” he told the large conference audience Friday.

“Our young people must have a dream, and hope,” he said. “The conference at Harvard was a major step in giving recognition to our people. Running is a means of healing. We need healing from the long-time negative impact of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ which deemed, when Europeans first came here, that non-Christians—that is, the Native people—had no right to own land.

“I love this country and served as a Marines officer, and I welcome this step toward our country helping its Native American people to heal.”

Mills is national spokesperson for “Running Strong,” creating opportunities for American Indian youth. The educational/running program “Wings of America” was also represented at the conference by its program director, Dustin Martin (Diné), an alumnus of the program and former team member of the Columbia University track and cross-country teams.

Mills and Martin both stressed the value of using the innate running abilities of Native American youth to give focus and self-esteem. Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Science at Harvard, showed the evolutionary and physiological basis of those abilities.

A full-house follow-up session at the Boston Marathon Expo introduced marathoners to Quimare and Chávez Cruz, who (through an interpreter for Quimare) spoke of the traditional ball-race of the Tarahumara people, an ultra event that can last for more than 24 hours, and acts as a social gathering for the whole community (not unlike a modern city marathon like Boston).

“We don’t train in your way, because running is simply part of our way of life. Running is a form of prayer, and the way we connect with the natural world,” Chávez Cruz said.

Other speakers included Born to Run author Chris McDougall and the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, Rob de Castella of Australia, who heads the Indigenous Marathon Project, a program that promotes health and social change among Australian aboriginal people through running.

President Obama awarded Mills the Presidential Citizens’ Medal in 2012, the only track gold medalist to receive that honor for his later life work.

“When I lived in Tokyo, I used to run by the stadium and was always thrilled to see the name of Billy Mills engraved there among the gold medalists. Now Billy and Rob are showing that running, and the Boston Marathon in particular, lead to social benefit far beyond merely the sport of distance racing,” said BAA’s Executive Director Tom Grilk.

“We’re proud to work with our friends at Harvard to explore all facets of Native American culture through running.”