Pounding the Pavement with Verna Volker

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When she came to Minnesota 13 years ago, Verna Volker was running on empty. Between the stress of the move; staying with in-laws; and momming a preschooler, toddler, and 2-week-old, life did not allow much time for self. Struggling with her weight, she wanted to find a healthy outlet, an escape from the chaos. So she started running, first just a few blocks, then a few miles. Eventually she ran half-marathons, then marathons. Last month, she attempted her longest distance to date: a 100-mile trail run in Arizona.

Along the way, Volker—who is Navajo and grew up in New Mexico—started posting her personal accomplishments on social media. She saw other women out there like her with goals to lose weight, with struggles and stigmas, but they weren’t among the athletes at the races she was running. In 2018, she set out to change that by creating Native Women Running.

What got you to start running?

I remember thinking that I wasn’t taking care of myself. When I went for my first short run and made time for that and myself, it was really huge because, as a mother, you pour so much of your time into your children, especially when they’re young. That alone time became critical for me, and running became something internal in my heart.

How did Native Women Running take shape?

Around 2016, I was in a runners’ group on Twitter where we posted photos of our runs, and I eventually started following different Native women on social media. Here I was, seeing all these women from different tribes and nations running 5Ks to big races, and I thought, Why isn’t anyone highlighting their stories? In 2018, I created the Native Women Running Instagram account to simply share stories of women’s running journeys and give them a platform. It was about creating space for Native women in a space that is majority white—to show that we are here, we exist, in life, in our families, as a nation, as a tribe, running.

What I’m really proud of is that it’s grown organically. I just let people find us, and it snowballed into something beautiful. Oftentimes, as Native people, we have the stereotypes and stigmas that we come from the reservation, we’re alcoholics, we’re poor—just so many things that I feel like we have to fight against. I wanted to create something that was positive and uplifting.

What’s next?

We’ve started sponsoring Native Women Running teams. Oftentimes there is a barrier for our women to get to these races. Registrations, accommodations—all that travel costs a lot. So I make it my mission to get these women to the starting line. I work with races and through partnerships with companies to get registrations. A company reached out to me offering registrations for the Boston Marathon, which is a huge race that everybody wants to get into, and we created a Native Women Running team. We use the profits from selling our shirts and merch to help pay for the women’s expenses.

We also have a partnership with a Canadian running company, which opened doors for our Indigenous women in Canada.

Can you share any compelling stories of some of the women you’ve worked with?

Oh, there are so many doing amazing things right now. There are a lot of women who run simply for healing, and I’ve seen that across the board, the trauma of losing loved ones in their lives. I’m pretty open about my own struggles, losing my parents; I’ve lost three siblings. I’ve shared how I’ve had to heal from that. A lot of our women run for those reasons, and it’s been incredible to receive messages telling me, “I’m running for this. Thank you for this.” That’s been really powerful, and it reminds me that this is the work I’m supposed to be doing.

How was your experience at Evereve?

I was surprised because I thought, OK, I’m just going to try on some clothes, but they made me feel like a queen. It felt really good to be taken care of and to wear nice clothes instead of always being in my running gear.

On Volker: Faherty “Portia” top ($138), Evereve “Marren” moto jacket ($158), Citizens of Humanity “Isola” cropped boot jeans ($228), Sorel “Hi Line Heel” Chelsea boots ($190) from EVEREVE, evereve.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine as part of our series, The Foreword, presented by Evereve.

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