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Ben Pryor
Special to ICT

Verna Volker began running to improve her fitness after putting her health on the back burner for years in favor of her family and career.

A mother, wife and educator in Minneapolis, Volker started training in 2009 for her first 13.1-mile half-marathon. Since then, her running has been fashioned by the idea to not necessarily go faster – but farther.

Looking for Indigenous connections in the running world, however, Volker, who is Navajo, noticed a lack of Indigenous women runners on social media or in magazines.

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So she took the initiative to bridge that gap by creating Native Women Running on Instagram, an online community and presence for Native women to be seen and hold space in a sport where they’ve been historically excluded. 

In October, Native Women Running surpassed the 30,000-follower milestone on Instagram, continuing to be a place for the representation and encouragement of Native women.

And later that month, Volker, now considered an ultrarunner, made a go at the 100-mile Javelina Jundred race in Arizona, her first run at that distance.

“I want Native women to know they belong in these running spaces,” Volker told ICT.

A hundred-mile endeavor

Volker’s path to 100 miles hasn’t been easy.

She was recently diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis. Before receiving the necessary treatment, her knee would often swell up to the point where it was nearly impossible to bend. The condition generally flares up during long runs, but she is grateful to be able to run at all.

Verna Volker, Navajo, founder of the Native Women Running group that has an Instagram following of more than 30,000, greeted the runners as they finished the 100-mile Javelina Jundred race in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Volker made a run at completing the race but medical problems forced her to pull up short. (Photo courtesy of Sergio Avila)

In addition, she also battles severe asthma, which requires her to be mindful of her breathing and to carry an inhaler. Through all of that, she moves forward, one step at a time.

Her daily runs allow her to reconnect with family members who have passed on, she said. The connections help propel her forward during challenging moments, and she often imagines them watching her and cheering her on.

Running in honor of her late mother on Oct. 29-30 in the Javelina Jundred, she raced through the ancestral homelands of the Hohokam and lands of the Akimel O’odham. Runners attempt to run five laps of 20 miles in Fountain Hills, Arizona, less than an hour from Phoenix.

Traveling from Minnesota, where they had already experienced their first snow, the daytime heat of the Sonoran Desert was consequential. Unfortunately, after running 30 miles, Volker’s body showed clear signs that she needed to stop early.

She suffered swelling in her extremities to the point that she needed to remove the rings from her fingers. After consultation with medics at the race, the medical decision was made that she should stop to prevent long-term damage to her health.

After the race, Volker posted her immediate thoughts on social media.

“My first DNF (Did Not Finish). Heat exhaustion and asthma did a number on me,” she posted on Instagram. “My asthma was really triggered by the intense heat. Headache, dry heaving, cramping, and difficulty breathing were signs that I needed to stop.”

The love and support from the Native running community were unmistakable.

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“I’m so proud of her and the way she continues to open doors for others,” said fellow ultrarunner Lydia Jennings, Yoeme and Wixárika. “She really is the embodiment of a matriarch runner, creating spaces for the next generation of Indigenous women in the ultra running scene.”

Jennings’ note to Volker resonates with many in the running community.

“For all the things you do, but especially for sharing this moment in vulnerability, so that others know it’s ok too,” Jennings wrote. “Listening to your body so that you can run stronger in the future and the long term is a smart move. Congratulations on the miles you ran and the work you did to get so many others there.”

Visibility of Native Women Running

Native Women Running’s scope has grown well beyond Instagram.

The group has become a force in the running community with informative panels, virtual events and fundraisers, and organizes running teams at events across the U.S. Volker is proud of the organic growth of the network.

“I take pride in that something so small at one time grew into something big,” Volker said. “I share stories of our Native women and do my best to give everyone a platform.”

Running often promotes healing from trauma in the community. The trauma unfolds differently for many but may result from historical, intergenerational, or family wounds. For many in the Indigenous community, running is a lifeline to the process of healing.

The group frequently organizes teams of Indigenous women for running events across the U.S. Fellow NWR members joining Volker at the Javelina Jundred included Jofauna Shorty, Navajo; Anita Cardinal, Woodland Cree First Nations; Dawneen Ryan, Anishinaabe; and Mia Montoya Hammersley, Piro/Manso/Tiwa.

NWR crew member Sergio Avila was in Arizona for the race and witnessed firsthand the influence the team had there.

“The NWR Team accomplished its mission of giving visibility and representation of Native women in running spaces,” Avila said. “Team members came from Arizona, Minnesota, Utah, and Canada to represent NWR at the Javelina Jundred. They spread positivity and laughter, and created new memories for all. During the race, a Native mother of four expressed how inspired she was by the NWR Team, and I noticed young girls attentively observing team members during their run.”

These bonds extend beyond Indigenous people. Avila’s roots extend to the Zacateco people of central Mexico, but his connection with NWR is significant in developing a more meaningful Indigenous connection.

Avila’s insights on Volker and NWR help encapsulate the weekend and everything the organization represents.

“Verna continues to be the role model for the community she wants to inspire: positive, humble, and caring,” said Avila. “Though she didn’t complete the individual goal she set for this run of 100 miles, she waited for each team member to finish and created a family atmosphere with her crew, friends, and fans who visited throughout the weekend.”

Looking ahead

Volker is now back in Minneapolis, resting up from the Javelina Jundred. She’s trying to decompress but has already signed up for another 100-miler, Dark Anchor, in Savannah, Georgia, on Jan. 20.

Despite the cold weather, she runs outdoors as usual, with additional layers, and does training on the treadmill.

And she’s not discouraged by her first run at 100 miles. Although the race didn’t go as planned, Volker feels okay with it. It’s ultimately about more than the miles. It’s about community and connection for her and Native Women Running.

“The weekend has been incredible,” she said, after the race. “Even though it didn't turn out the way I wanted, the crew that we have and the people just make you feel so good. This is what it’s about.

“The community and being together and laughter were so fun, to be together and laugh as Native people,” she said. “I leave here hopeful and happy that this is what it's created. That just brings me much joy.”

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