Mother. Sister. Teacher. Runner. Verna Volker plays many roles in life, but a new one is leader. As the youngest of 10 children, she chuckles that she is used to following, but a passionate calling pushed her to make a positive change in the world and in herself.
As the founder of Native Women Running, Volker feels thankful that people trust her. “I will just put something out there and people will do it—it’s amazing and warms my heart.”
Running is something that Volker picked up later in life, shortly after the birth of her third child. “I was always an athlete, but never a runner,” she explained. “I didn’t start until about 12 years ago, when I was at my heaviest, about 200 pounds. We had just moved from Nebraska to Minnesota, and I had a preschooler, a toddler and a newborn. But, in Minneapolis, I noticed that there was a really good trail and park system, so I saw people running a lot and thought, ‘I should try that.’ I started running, but I was so clueless. I didn’t even know how to shop for shoes, but I just kept running.”
On a whim, she set a goal of completing a half-marathon and, from there, she gradually pursued marathons and then ultramarathons. She is currently training for the Javelina Jundred, a 100-kilometer (62-mile) endurance race taking place Halloween weekend.
Volker says that as a mother, finding the time to train can be a challenge, but it affords her the chance to mentally reset and let out stress. The rugged, rolling terrain of Afton State Park along the wooded banks of the St. Croix River, and Lebanon Regional Hills Park, offering a backdrop of prairie and forest not too far outside Minneapolis, are favorite spots. “I love waking up early, getting out there and running in nature. It’s beautiful; I could spend hours there.”
This connection to trails and running has deep roots for Volker, a Navajo who grew up in New Mexico. “One of our Navajo teachings is you get up early in the morning and you run to the east to greet Creator and say your morning prayers. A lot of our stories talk about running. In our culture, when a girl turns into a woman she goes through this ceremony where she has to run to strengthen her—throughout the night, she runs.”
This source of strength has profoundly affected Volker. “I’ve had a lot of loss and trauma in my life; often, my running is filled with tears,” she said. “If I’m running a race, I’ll dedicate it to my father, who passed, and I’ve had three siblings pass away. Dedicating a race pushes me to accomplish it. Running has physically helped me, but, emotionally, it’s also healing me.”
But there was something that bothered her about the sport. “I noticed there were a lot of people posting their runs on social media, and I realized that there was always a certain type of runner that was shown: the blond, fit, white runner,” explained Volker. “And in running magazines, too. It was always that same type of runner, and I felt like I didn’t see myself.”
So, in 2018, the resourceful second-grade teacher set to work creating Native Women Running as “a place of inspiration, representation and community,” which she hopes “will help others like me feel like they’re a part of running.”
The call for inclusion was answered: just in the last three years, the group’s social media presence has grown to 24,000 followers. Administered solely by Volker, the organization also does a virtual running event in support of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) each May, and hopes to do more. “This year, I thought we’d get 500 people for the event, but over 3,500 people registered, and we raised over $86,000 for MMIW USA—that was incredible.”
In her own family, Volker is proud of her oldest son, who’s 17 and started running every morning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although her other children don’t run yet, she added, laughing, “I was never into running until later in life, so I have hope for all of them.” She noted that her children are her motivation for her work, especially her daughter. “I want her to see what mom is doing, so that, someday down the road, if she ever gets into running, she’ll find that place and that belonging.”