The pain of running a 62-mile race over 22 hours can feel unbearable — but ultramarathoner Verna Volker said she's had ample training: She birthed four kids without medication.
Volker, 48, tries to keep pain in perspective as she trains for her next ultra, defined as any race longer than a 26.2-mile marathon.
She drinks coffee in the dark and starts running on the river bluffs at 4:30 a.m. Stopping for TikTok dance breaks, she runs at what she calls a "turtle" pace, sticking to soft trails to manage inflammatory arthritis in her knee.
When the pain is sharp, Volker remembers why she's running, and it's not for speed. She runs to greet the morning in prayer. She runs to uplift and encourage Indigenous women. And she runs to heal.
"I have these moments where I get emotional because I think of people who have gone," said Volker, who has lost three siblings and both of her parents.
She imagines her ancestors telling her, "Yeego Anit'i," which translates as "Do your best" in Navajo.
"Somehow to cry through that run, or even that little part of your race, seems to be some kind of healing," she said.
Volker, of Minneapolis, took up running in 2009, aiming to lose baby weight after her family moved to Minnesota from Nebraska. When she couldn't find runners who looked like her in running magazines and apparel ads, she created the Native Women Running Instagram page in 2018.
Today, the page has nearly 30,000 followers and spotlights hundreds of Indigenous women in the sport. Volker's background is in education and she taught second grade during the pandemic, but now works full-time for Native Women Running.
Golden Valley resident and Osage Nation member Kaniah Konkoly-Thege appreciated finding the Native Women Running community, especially during the pandemic.
"So many other running sites are focused on these really super-fit athletes," she said. "As much as I would love to look and be like them, that's just not happening. Being able to see a site that just positively highlights women of all abilities and celebrates each and every woman is super inspirational for me."
Beyond the community, Konkoly-Thege finds that the group's mission deeply resonates. She participated in a Native Women Running virtual run last fall in memory of 215 Indigenous children found in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada.
"Growing up on reservations, you heard these stories," said Konkoly-Thege. The U.S. Department of the Interior is working to address the troubled legacy of federal policies that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes from 1819 to 1969 and sent them to federal boarding schools, including 21 schools in Minnesota.
"I think every one of us, we know someone who was in these schools," Volker said.
Native Women Running also hosts virtual runs to raise awareness and funds for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Running in the Boston Marathon as one of eight Honorary Women's Team members, Volker wore a photo of Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo woman missing since June 15, 2021, last seen at her residence in Arizona.
"Ella Mae was an elderly grandmother, and her disappearance was such a mystery," Volker said.
Volker grew up in the Blanco Canyon area of New Mexico. Her father marched in protest in the early 1970s after three white teenagers received a light sentence for murdering Navajo men near Farmington, N.M.
"My family always tells me that story, because I didn't realize how much of an activist my father was, and why it's ingrained in me," she said. While Volker emphasizes that she does not speak for all Indigenous women, people across the country are listening.
Volker wore her father's name along with other family members' at last fall's 100K Javelina Jundred in Arizona. People she only knew through Instagram showed up in person to serve as her crew. They helped her stay awake with pizza and Coca-Cola, kept her company as pacers, and cheered as she crossed the finish line at 5 a.m.
The experience inspired Volker to organize more Native Women Running crews, particularly to support first-time ultrarunners who may be running too fast or need better hydration.
"You're in the middle of the desert [thinking], why am I doing this?" Volker said. "One of my crew, who is Navajo — he ran for his father in Boston — told me, 'Remember who you're running for.'"
Volker is currently partnering with race events throughout the country to host Native Women Running teams. She's prepping new merchandise for the online store, where proceeds from stickers and shirts support virtual runs and sponsorships so Indigenous women can access races with costly entry fees. And she's training for a 100-mile race in the fall, remembering why she runs.
"I always think about the little Navajo girl who grew up in poverty and who lost a father at the age of 3, just so many losses. She gets to be here now. She did it. She's doing it," Volker said.
She's showing Native girls, including her daughter, that anything is possible.
"Despite how your life could turn out or what you're around, you can get out of that," she said, "and you can rise above."
Michelle Bruch is a freelance writer based in the Twin Cities.