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October 4, 2018

Running History: Examining Deerfoot

Deerfoot grew up on an Indian reservation and used his his feet for transportation. Once grown, he stood a massive six-feet tall and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds. He excelled at Seneca contests of lacrosse, which was then called “The Creator’s Game” and featured  teams battling over sprawling plains. When he left the reservation to earn a living, he discovered that he ran faster than almost anyone at fairs and footraces.

In 1861, he met up with an English promoter named George Martin. Martin had brought a stable of champions over from England and watched fascinated as the tall, lithe and largely-unknown Deerfoot fight them mile after mile. Martin saw potential in the towering Indian. He also saw an image that he could exploit. Later that year, Deerfoot sailed to England and immediately posted a challenge in a London newspaper: He aimed to break the world record at six and ten miles. Anyone that wanted to run against him should meet him at the Spotted Dog Bar on the following Sunday with an eleven-pound wager.

Deerfoot lost that first race. But, he won the second and then won the rest. He battled England’s best over distances from one to ten miles. He infuriated his opponents with a flurry of surges and slows before finally breaking them and jogging to victory. He showed up to races bare-chested, clad in a short, beaded skirt with a feather in his hair.

The sight of his powerful bronze body shocked most of London, as George Martin knew it would. Martin draped Deerfoot in a bearskin cloak, had him holler war cries before and after races, even went so far as to stage a scalping to promote a competition. The only authentic Iroquois detail about Deerfoot was his footwear. He scorned the heavy, metal-spiked racing shoes in favor of his own lightweight moccasins.

Then Deerfoot won too many races and London gamblers couldn’t make money off of his victories. So Martin gathered a troop of athletes with Deerfoot at the headline and barnstormed across England, hoping to shock the small towns with his Native American Spectacle. Deerfoot would race daily. He stopped in an English village, laid waste to any local challenges and then ran to the next town. After three months of this traveling athletic circus, Deerfoot returned to London to win actual titles and set actual records.

In October of 1862, he broke the world record for the one-hour run. In January, he did it again. In April, he ran a one-hour race against William Lang, who was the world record holder in two and six miles. In that race, he gave Lang a 100-yard head start. Deerfoot passed ten miles in 51:26, a world record and then pulled even with Lang. Though Lang battled back wand on by inches, Deerfoot had run a hundred yards further and set a world record. He covered eleven miles, seven hundred and ninety yards in one hour.

As a child on an Indian reservation, Deerfoot used his feet for transportation. As an adult racing in England, he used his feet to earn a living. Though Deerfoot famously claimed “I have never trained,” He lived every moment of his life like a runner.

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