Running changed two Haudenosaunee men in Ontario. Now one of them is headed to the Boston Marathon

On Monday, the Boston Marathon will see 30,000 runners for its 126th race.

Among the thousands will be one Haudenosaunee man running for charity.

Joel Matthew Kennedy, 37, a Bear Clan member of the Oneida Nation, is setting off from his home in Ontario Friday, travelling to Boston for the Easter weekend race. 

It’s a goal he can hardly believe he is close to achieving. 

“If someone told me back in 2015 that I would be running marathons at this point I wouldn’t believe them, I wouldn’t believe myself,” the London-based father said. “Even when I started running my five and 10 kilometres, I never thought I would progress to a marathon as fast as I did. I knew at one point, down the road, it would happen but I didn’t know it would be that quick.”

Kennedy won’t be the first Haudenosaunee man to run in Boston. Legendary long-distance runner Tom Longboat, from Six Nations of the Grand River — who twice ran away when attending the former Mohawk Institute Residential School — won the marathon in 1907. 

More than 100 years later, Kennedy is following in his footsteps. 

Legendary runner Tom Longboat, from Six Nations of the Grand River, won the famed Boston Marathon in 1907. (Charles A. Aylett/Library and Archives Canada )

His own running journey began around 2015, when he was out to improve his health with the desire to prevent diabetes. First he lost nearly 150 pounds. Then he started to run. 

He founded the Indigenous Running Club in 2016 and entered his first marathons. He has now run several, including in Calgary and Chicago. 

“Knowing how overweight I was and how much I changed my life is just overwhelming as a bigger picture,” he said recently, before the Boston race.

That “bigger picture” mentality is what pushed Kennedy to make his runs about raising funds for charity. He had COVID-19 in January 2021, and the virus affected his lungs.

“I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to run. Part of what got me through it was praying and thoughts. I remember thinking ‘I want to run for more than myself now,’ because up to that point I was always focused on improving myself,” he said. 

After his recovery from the virus, he went on to run a 50km Ultra Marathon in Calgary in September 2021, raising funds for Yotuni, a London-based social enterprise that supports Indigenous youth. 

After recovering from COVID-19 in 2021, Joel Matthew Kennedy went on to compete in the Chicago Marathon in October, running the race in under six hours. (Submitted by Joel Matthew Kennedy )

Kennedy’s story is one that caught the attention of the Official Charity Program of the Boston Athletics Association, which oversees the applications to run the marathon for a good cause. 

As part of his application, he needed to choose an organization to offer donation to, and not finding an Indigenous organization on the approved-charity list, he selected the Peer Health Exchange. The organization began in 2006 and focuses on support for youth in the greater Boston area. He said that what pushed him to select the Peer Health Exchange was its focus on BIPOC youth. 

And what would he say to youth with an interest in running or pursuing a goal that feels out of reach? 

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that they can achieve it,” he said. “The important thing is to keep your goal. Understand that you might have to make other goals to reach and obtain that large goal but you will get there. It may take time, it will take commitment, but you will get to that goal. You just have to allow yourself to believe in yourself and what I like to say is ‘put in the work that is needed to reach the goal, because having a goal without a plan is just a wish.'”

Kennedy is one of just two chosen to run for the Peer Health Exchange. His plan is to hit the US$10,000 donation mark by race day, and as of Thursday was US$1,500 shy of the goal. 

‘Once in a lifetime’ experience

In October, Kennedy ran the Chicago Marathon, one of the six World Marathon Majors, in under six hours — his first time doing so. The time is a requirement for charity runners. 

“Boston isn’t an easy marathon to get into,” he said, adding that 80 percent of participants qualify by their run times. “It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of improvement but with this kind of run, you put in all of the work leading up to the run and you have to trust the process.”

Another requirement is to raise that US$10,000 amount (around CAD$12,500). The N’Amerind Friendship Centre in London, where Kennedy works as the Urban Aboriginal Healthy Living Coordinator, offered a donation early on in his pursuit.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and the money is going somewhere good,” he said, noting that if he can’t reach his fundraising goal, he will consider paying for the rest of the donation himself.   

Members of the Indigenous Running Club have competed in races around Ontario, such as the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton. (Submitted by Joel Kennedy)

He acknowledged that the Boston Marathon is a bucket-list item for many long-distance runners, and that his qualifying is something he hopes will inspire other Haudenosaunee people to break new ground and normalize pursuing and achieving their goals.

“When you take a step back and look at the overall picture of how much you improve your health, it’s really overwhelming just to think about where you were and how far you’ve come. The biggest thing about my journey is that I started sharing it and the impact that it had on the people and community around me,” he said. 

Inspiring others, like Lyall Martin of Six Nations

Kennedy is currently working towards his coaching certification through the National Coaching Certificate Program. He hopes to focus on developing runners with similar backgrounds as himself in the near future. 

His story has already hit close to home, and helped to begin the running journey of Lyall Martin. 

Martin, 42, is a Turtle Clan member of the Mohawk Nation of the Six Nations community and a father of two. 

Having both a 22-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Martin’s interests are held firm in improving and maintaining his health to ensure longevity and fulfilment for his family, he said, much like Kennedy.

“I just want to be around as long as I can to watch them grow, and running is the health component for me,” he said.

Having grown up in Hamilton, Martin later moved to London, where he met Kennedy in 1990. The two have been friends since meeting in public school. Martin explained that he was part of a group on social media that included his brother, Kennedy, and Kennedy’s brother and through the group, Martin found the inspiration to run. 

“[Kennedy] would post pictures and updates into the chat and about a year into his journey,” he said. “He posted inspirational content and as time passed, he just kept progressing.”

Martin said that he would run at the Emily C. General Elementary School grounds on Six Nations, where he now lives once again, and was the only runner from Six Nations to run with the Indigenous Running Club. 

I just want to be around as long as I can to watch [my kids] grow, and running is the health component for me.– Lyall Martin 

His first run took place in June 2016, when the club began. He has since completed runs in Six Nations, Toronto, London, Burlington and Waterloo.

But with his love for the activity, he said that he faced his own set of obstacles. Two years ago, after climbing a tree to install a security camera outside of his home, he slipped and fell. This caused a fracture to his left leg that resulted in bone chipping and cracking from his ankle to below his kneecap.  

“They had to put a steel plate and 12 screws in there, and this happened back in 2020. I couldn’t run and through that whole year, I was off of work for four months. But the next year, in 2021, I was able to run two kilometres, but the hardware got infected and I had to get that taken out. I couldn’t run again,” he said.

Following the fracture, Martin also contracted COVID-19.

“The same thing that happened to Joel also happened to me, where we both had COVID-19. I had it back in January,” he said.

Lyall Martin, 42, is a Turtle Clan member of the Mohawk Nation of the Six Nations. Martin says he was inspired by Joel Matthew Kennedy’s running journey. (Submitted by Lyall Martin)

Now recovered, Martin would like to change his trajectory this month. 

“I really wanted to get back to my running journey, I really like to run. It’s just something that I can’t even explain, but it’s kind of a lifestyle. I mainly started running because of Joel, but I want to keep my heart and lungs up to par so I can live to be an old man and watch my children and grandkids grow.”

But it’s not just about health for him. 

“Running gives you solitude, and a lot of time to think and de-stress,” he said. “When you’re running with other people, it helps a bit because you won’t want to stop. Especially when you see a 70-year-old woman pass you, it inspires you. I’ve been all over Ontario and the people that run are nice, they’ll say ‘hi’ to you, and sometimes you’ll have a random conversation with people you don’t know.”

When asked about advice he would offer to youth looking to start running, he said that the discipline can impact life in more ways than one.

“I used to work at the youth drop-in here so I always have a soft spot for the youth, I almost wish I still did so that I could get them into running,” he said. “Running teaches discipline and purpose and that translates into life; my advice is to never give up and keep pursuing.”

It’s stories like Martin’s that will be with Kennedy as he runs in Boston this weekend. 

“I just can’t believe how far my story has reached and how many people it has inspired to improve their health,” he said.

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