“Most Navajos run all their life,” laughs Verna Volker. “But I was not that Navajo.”
Growing up on the Dzilnaooilii area of New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, Volker viewed running as a punishment. When her basketball team screwed up, they ran laps up and down the court. As a result, she never understood why someone would run long distance–for fun. “Honestly, I hated it,” says the 48-year-old founder of Native Women Running and HOKA ONE ONE Global Athlete Ambassador. “Running was never a love for me.”
All that changed when Volker toed the line at Minnesota’s Surf the Murph 50 miler in October 2019. Over the course of 14 hours on the trail, Volker came upon two realizations: She was a runner and she was unstoppable.
But it was a long, bumpy road to get the adolescent basketball player from the court to the start line. In fact, it took 11 years. In 2008, she and her now-husband relocated to the Twin Cities region in Minneapolis, but stress levels were high. Volker had just given birth to the couple’s third child so she was parenting a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler all while house hunting and crashing with her in-laws. “I was finding comfort in food and not taking care of myself at all,” she recalls. Fortunately, her sister soon came to visit and immediately noticed a trail on the side of the road. She suggested the twosome go for a run to help give Volker a little mental space. “It didn’t feel great and we only did a mile or two, but I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I should do this more often!’” Volker remembers.
Volker dabbled in running, logging miles when she could fit them around her family’s hectic schedule. She didn’t know anything about nutrition and bought her only pair of running shoes off the clearance rack. When she registered for her first race, she opted for a half marathon, unaware that most runners begin with shorter distances before scaling up. “I was clueless, but I finished,” she laughs. “I think my longest training run was 7 miles, but I’m not sure because I had no way to track distance back then.”
Clueless or not: Volker lit the fire. She knew she wanted to go farther, but also realized there had to be more knowledge involved to get her to those larger distances. She purchased a GPS watch and gleaned training schedules from the internet. She learned about fueling and hydration as she built up first to the marathon and then to the 50K distance. Then, in 2018, she set her sights higher: 50 miles. Volker was driven and ambitious, but the length of the course intimidated her. “It’s a really big jump from 50K to 50 miles,” she says. “You run a whole marathon and feel excited but then you’re like, ‘Wait, I still have a second marathon to go.”
Volker realized that she needed new tactics to get her across the finish line at Surf the Murph. For her, simply logging the training miles and consuming the calories wasn’t going to be enough. Instead, she needed to change her perception on running. Her mechanical training could only carry her so far; she needed her mental grit to do the work on the back half.
As mile after mile of Surf the Murph ticked by and her muscles grew more and more fatigued, Volker began unpacking the love and loss deeply rooted within her heart. The 50-mile course is designed with three 16.7-mile loops, so she dedicated each loop to a different love in her life. During the first loop, she channeled her father, who died when she was young. As the hot afternoon sun waned, she dedicated the second lap to her three siblings who had all passed in previous years. And as she headed into her final lap with heavy legs and a mushy brain, she dedicated her last loop to the years of generational trauma experienced by Navajo women. “It pushed me forward when I thought about all they had endured during their lifetimes,” Volker says. “It gave me purpose and strength to continue.”
As she plodded through the last few miles, alone in the darkness with nothing other than her headlamp for company, the pain in her legs was excruciating. Slowed to barely a walk, Volker inched through the final miles, constantly scanning the inky abyss for any signs of the finish line. Finally, off in the distance, she spotted a warm sea of lights before hearing her daughter’s voice cut through the silence. “Yay, mommy!” Volker felt her head pick up and her legs move faster as her family’s love propelled her closer to the finish line, and finally, through the tape. She ran for all of those she had lost and all that they had endured, but she also ran for those she loved and still held onto.
She found her why.