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Blackfeet man runs Boston Marathon

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TUCSON, Ariz. – John Bird ran his first Boston Marathon last month and hopes more will come in future years. John is 56, and a Blackfeet tribal member, but also has ties to the Haida people of Alaska. His paternal grandmother was a Haida member. He now lives in Tucson but returns each summer to his home near St. Mary’s Lake which lies in the valley on the eastern slope of Glacier National Park on the Blackfeet Reservation.

John moved to Tucson in 1997 and gives some credit of his marathon running to the running path a block from his home. “I just started getting out there and pushing it further and further. The next thing I decided to try a marathon. I was 54 when I ran my first marathon.” That was in San Diego. He missed the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon by just seven seconds.

“I kind of surprised myself because I didn’t know if I could run that far, and then didn’t know how fast I could do it.” So he tried again and ran the Phoenix Marathon in February 2009. His time of 3:41 bettered the qualifying time of 3:45 for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, the Boston Marathon was already full for 2009 so he had to wait.

“I’d been having some problems with my feet so it was a painful run, but because it was the Boston Marathon I made myself keep going,” he laughed. “I found out I was pretty tough like that. I can run a long ways and can endure pain for a long time just to get through something. I just wouldn’t give up.” That may have contributed to his time being a little slower, just a hair over four hours flat.

He hopes to run it again and is now looking for a Boston qualifying race to enter. He needs to again run under 3:45 to be eligible. The minimum qualifying time increases as runners age, but at 56 John has four years before that happens.

His training routine involves running six to eight miles three times during the week and then a longer run on the weekends. “As I start getting closer to a race I start kicking up the long weekend runs so that about three weeks before a marathon I’m doing a 20 to 22 mile run.”

He also trains at his Montana home on a gravel road in the St. Mary’s valley. “Two or three times I’ve run into bears but thankfully they were as afraid of me as I was of them,” he laughed. “They went one way and I went another.”

John has ancestral ties to running and athletics. His Haida grandmother went into a boarding school at age 6, “and didn’t come back out,” he said. “She ended up at Carlisle where she met my (Blackfeet) grandpa, Sam Bird. They got married there. He starred on the football team and was the team captain. Jim Thorpe arrived that year. Jim was the sensation and star and became the next captain. They were really good friends and Jim Thorpe came to Montana several times afterward to visit my grandpa when they were a little older.”

He also pointed out how a lot of tribal people have a long tradition of running. “Messages got back and forth between different camps and villages before the coming of the horses. In the Blackfeet culture they had buffalo runners – eeneewomahkan.” At a tribal ceremony last summer he said he would be running the Boston Marathon this spring. “An elder came up to me and said ‘we have a long tradition of runners that would send out to surround the buffalo to bring them in to where they could either be ambushed or run over a cliff. We called them the buffalo runners.’ I thought that was pretty cool.”

He also explained that mankind evolved as runners and was probably the reason Homo sapiens (modern man) survived and Neanderthal man didn’t. Neanderthals didn’t have Achilles tendons so couldn’t run as well. “We can’t outrun animals but can run further and can run deer to death – persistence hunting. Prior to the development of sharp points and other stuff, a lot of hunting was done that way.”

Bird wasn’t aware of any other Native Americans running in the Boston Marathon this year, but he wasn’t sure. It’s a distinct accomplishment to qualify for the Boston Marathon, placing oneself in the upper echelon of distance runners. He has every intention of returning to the marathon in the future.