Creating a movement toward health: Blackfeet tribal member brings together generations

Story by RACHEL CRISP PHILIPS
for Montana 55

Alger Swingley is a hard worker. With his job as an outfitter, he’s always done plenty of hiking and guiding across the great Montana outdoors. So when he was asked to start a Blackfeet team for the Montana Spartan Beast Race in 2015, as he neared 60 years old, he wasn’t worried. But, as he remembers that first race, “I finished, but barely.”

The challenges of the first year prompted Swingley to stop living a sedentary lifestyle, give up alcohol and focus on training.

“The first year I was in I lost 45 pounds for the Spartan race, so I feel much better, much stronger,” Swingley said.

Swingley’s involvement with the Spartan races began when Diane Medler of the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau asked him to put together a Blackfeet team for the annual springtime race in the Flathead Valley.

“They know I’m involved, and try to get people involved, to try to create a movement toward health,” he said. “Because diabetes, and all the diseases, are not just a Native problem it’s definitely an American and international problem; we’re all suffering with poor diet and all that.”

Alger Swingley and his Spartan Beast Race team members.

Obesity is indeed epidemic across the United States, with Native Americans being hit disproportionately hard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans have a greater chance of contracting diabetes than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.

“It’s really important to understand that the Native cultures have only had a couple centuries of the food that’s killing us, the processed sugars and flours,” Swingley said. “And unfortunately the Native populations have been fed that, almost primarily, because the Natives were put on the reservations and promised health, education and welfare.

“In the mid-1800s they started bringing supplies to the tribes because all the buffalo were gone and so it changed the diet. There are some good foods, good choices can be made, but feeding a family on commodities is a lot of macaroni and a lot of cheese and all the stuff that just packs the pounds on.”

Additionally, the drastic shift in lifestyle for Native Americans had a large impact on health.

Swingley said: “For a hunting and gathering culture to go to kind of ‘stay at the fort and wait for supplies,’ it’s definitely changed. So it’s nice to see these young kids are coming back, bringing back the traditions of good fitness.”

Those traditions are seemingly being revitalized within the Blackfeet team as they teamed up to take on the Spartan Beast, where teams can come together to compete in a series of extreme obstacle races of differing lengths and difficulties. The Montana Spartan Beast race takes competitors across 12-plus rugged miles of terrain. There’s also a Spartan Sprint, which covers 3 miles, and at other Spartan
races across the country there are even longer races that cover marathon-length courses.

Swingley said the organization sponsored the Blackfeet team, and he credits its online programs for diet and exercise with his training success.

“It’s been a real life-changer for myself and for a number of us involved,” he said. “It’s about mental toughness. The race itself, mentally sometimes it just seems like you can’t do it and that’s when you bear down and get through it. Teammates help one another through tough parts of the race and that’s the beauty of having a team.”

Swingley reached out to the community to recruit members by coordinating with the Blackfeet Community College, as well as the high school in Browning. With members ranging in age from 16 to 60 working together on the racing team, lasting friendships were formed along with a cross-generational vision of restoring health to the community.

“We all have the same mentality with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and everything that’s related to poor diet and lack of exercise. So that’s been a real good cause amongst our friends that have been involved,” he said, beaming.

This year at the Montana Spartan Beast Race, which was held on May 7 at Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge, Swingley stepped into a new age class of 60 to 65 and finished in eighth place.

“I felt pretty strong finishing it,” he said. “The course seemed easier. They said it wasn’t, but it seemed easier to me. I guess that was from training.”

With more races on the horizon, training is a constant part of Swingley’s life these days and he appreciates the opportunity.

“This year I am training for what they call the Trifecta; that’s completing the Sprint, the Super, and the Beast race. There’s a couple of my teammates that are going to try to do that with me as well. So that’s our goal this year,” he said.

As he settles into his 60s, Swingley shows no signs of settling down and plans to continue racing for as long as he is able.

“I think the oldest racer at Bigfork was 78, and I’d like to exceed that,” he said.

He’s noticed many other older participants at the races, as the program seems to be catching on with that crowd.

He added: “To me and to the ones that have been involved, it’s such an accomplishment when you finish, you want to train harder for the next time.”

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