In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industries tell us how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and so much more. Here, Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running, discusses the importance of community, diversity, inclusion, and representation in fitness.
When Verna Volker took up running, she wasn’t looking to start a movement; she was just hoping to lose some weight. But as the 48-year-old former schoolteacher got more active, she noticed a complete lack of people like her — a self-proclaimed “chubby” middle-aged Native American (Diné) — represented in fitness media. So she decided to carve out space for herself and her community.
At first, the mission for Native Women Running (NWR) was fairly modest: creating a social media presence to showcase its namesake. But soon after Volker debuted the NWR Instagram account in 2018, it took on a life of its own. Today, that community consists of 30,000 followers from all across North America, with sponsored teams at top races like the Boston Marathon and annual charitable runs that have raised more than $150,000 to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis.
Volker grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico as the youngest of 10 children, spending the first three years of her life in a traditional hogan with a dirt floor. She’s found that running—including a 100K, four 50Ks, and two 50-milers to date—has helped her process both personal and collective trauma. Now living in Minneapolis with her husband and four kids, she recently retired from teaching to focus full time on NWR. Plus Volker also helps hold fitness companies (like her sponsors HOKA, Suunto, and Lily Trotters) accountable on their diversity promises, in part by providing them with tips for being impactful allies.
Here, Volker tells Bustle about her mission to make running more inclusive, one race at a time.
What does representation in running look like to you?
I started Native Women Running because I didn’t see myself in running, which is such a white space centered around the blond, fit, fast girl. But for me, it’s every body type and every group of people, specifically Native women representing their tribes and sharing their journeys, no matter what level they’re at.
Many people don’t realize that running has long been part of Native cultures. Even though I found running later in life, I remember hearing a story growing up that was passed down from one generation to the next: When you wake up in the morning before the sun rises, you run to the east to greet Creator and say your prayers, which helps you stay in balance in life. Now that I run, that makes so much sense to me.
A lot of that has been lost over time because of erasure. I recently talked to an older white gentleman at a marathon expo who told me, “I’ve been running all my life, and I never realized how your people could be excluded from running.” It hits him. That’s why we’re creating space with groups like Black Men Run, Latinos Run, and Native Women Running.
Looking back, what are your proudest accomplishments thus far?
I’m really proud of how we’ve grown organically. I started this as a Native woman simply trying to give others like me a platform to share their stories. Now it’s become a full-fledged movement.
Representation has always been our goal, but we’re actually putting that into action. Within the past year, we’ve created teams at races like the Boston Marathon and Run Crazy Horse. Our sponsorship application includes questions like, How are you building up your Native community? How are you supporting other women? I don’t want to give these sponsorships out to just anyone; I want you to be a part of this movement to lift each other up.
I’ve done a lot of work with race companies to provide registrations for free. We ask that women try to pay their own way, but if they can’t, we’ll cover travel expenses like flights, hotels, Ubers — whatever they need to get to that race. Because when these women show up at these races, they encourage each other, they laugh and cry together, and they become friends who go on to run more races together. It’s building community. To me, that’s what Native Women Running is.
Can you talk more about your impressive activism initiatives?
In 2018, the same year NWR was created, May 5 was designated the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women. We decided to host a virtual event, where anyone could run wherever they were wearing red in honor of MMIW, [and] then we would share their Instagram posts. It totally blew up.
When I think of activism, I picture those women on the front lines doing the work in Washington, DC But I can’t do that; I’m a mom and can’t just leave. So I wanted to create something that lets everyone be a part of this movement, even if you’re on the reservation and just step outside and run. We’ve been doing an MMIW virtual run every year, and we’ve raised more than $150,000 for organizations like MMIW USA and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Why do you think running is so healing for Native peoples?
As a leader, I share a lot about my life, like childhood trauma and the loss of my parents and three of my siblings. I run all my races in honor of the loved ones I’ve lost and write their names on my shoe. There’s just something about being out in nature, letting go, and processing all these emotions. Across our community, the women who share their stories aren’t just running to be competitive; they’re running for so much more. Running is medicine. Running is healing. Running is our prayers. I think that’s pretty powerful.
Where do you hope NWR goes from here?
I hope people will continue to be receptive to our stories as Native women in this space. I’d like to grow my team, which right now is just myself and two volunteers. I’d love to start running groups in the United States and Canada. I’d love to develop a program for children, because we have a lot of young ones looking up to us. Hopefully someday we can make all of that happen, but we’re already expanding as it is.
Finally, how can fitness companies do better when it comes to inclusivity?
Companies really need to get to know us as individuals and develop more authentic, trusting partnerships, which takes a lot of time. They need to let us have a voice in these spaces and understand our history and us as people. Land acknowledgments are becoming a trend at races, but I really encourage companies to go beyond that. For example, what are you doing to support Native organizations in that community? Can you provide scholarships or other opportunities? Above all, companies need to offer a safe, welcoming space for Native runners that recognizes the trauma we carry. These conversations can be hard, but we need to be heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.