Nemaska. The height of summer. Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” is blaring through the speakers. Three days and many miles of swimming, biking, portaging, canoeing and running lie ahead in this community’s annual Fitness Challenge.
The 13th annual competition brings together some old faces from races past: John Gunner, Stanley Neeposh, Lena Petawabano, Jimmy Coonishish, Rod Blueboy and Wally Rabbitskin amongst others. Also presenting themselves this year, some young guns, like Holly Visitor, Sebastien Neeposh, Tyra Tanoush and Richard Jolly.
There is a festive air to the afternoon as the competition gets underway. Children splash in the lake. People feast on Robert Kitchen’s moose burgers as the organizers hawk raffle tickets and sirens scream for no apparent reason. Elders have brought their chairs with them and sit shaded under Nemaska’s many trees.
The men’s competitive starts again with the toughest portion of the race, the 1km swim. Waskaganish’s reigning champ Rod Blueboy is first out of Champion Lake with a time of 18:20. Fellow hometown boy Reginald Blackned trails close behind at 18:24. Next out of the water is Stephane Gunner with a time of 20:22. Swimming is not Stanley Neeposh’s strength. He trails more than two minutes behind Gunner. Neeposh winces in pain as he ascends the steps of the dock and dashes toward his bike. His foot bleeds and a nurse is called. He loses valuable time and strength as the wound is bound. Unfazed he jumps on his bike and continues on.
A cool wind blows out on Champion Lake as the race continues with the portaging and paddling of a 471b canoe. The distance: a 1-km portage followed by 2kms of canoeing. Gunner wins the portage but is beaten by Blueboy out on the water. Stanley Neeposh is still a contender as he comes in second in his canoe.
The final leg of the race will be on foot, a grueling 10kms. What will happen to Stanley with his hurt foot? Who’s leading? It is a race in itself trying to keep track of what’s happening. Only the ones following the racers in their vehicles appear to know.
“Next year, I’m going to train,” a happy but exhausted Evelyn Shecapio said.
Announcer Matthew Swallow seems to be more concerned with getting people to eat and the timekeepers have better things to do than keeping reporters informed. Other topics bandied about: Rod Blueboy is unnerved by the new young guns, according Jim Blackned. Stanley Neeposh holds the virtually unbreakable record of 12 consecutive races in the competition’s 13 years.
Amidst all the confusion Stephane Gunner crosses the finish line as the new champion. Asked if he’s going to Disney World with his winnings he smiles widely and says, “I’m going to pay my rent.”
Reginald Blackned comes in second and receives an emotional welcome from his proud mom and Waskaganish entourage. Former champ Rod Blueboy finishes third. Perhaps Rod was right about the young guns. Stanley Gunner is way back and pauses within sight of the finish with another lap to go. He looks like he’s ready to throw in the towel. His wife Emma and the team from Mistissini shout encouragement and he takes off running again. He finishes the race with a final time of 2hrs 40 mins and 6 seconds.
And this is just the Men’s Competitive. Over the three days there are numerous events: the Under-13 Triathlon (the inaugural year and very successful), the 13-17 Triathlon, the Women’s Competitive (Lena Petawabano won her third consecutive title), and the Relay Competition. Plenty of supporters are out each day, even during the pouring rain of Friday’s Mini Challenge. As the athletes cross the finish line they are met with handshakes and hugs from family, friends and fellow athletes.
A nasty rumour swirled around while the race was on that the Nemaska Fitness Challenge will be run for only two more years. Something or other about lack of funding. Yet there seems to be as much interest in the event as there was a decade ago. An educated guess revealed at least 200 spectators and participants following the races with much enthusiasm. Many people commented that they would like to see other communities field athletes, sounding a challenge to their neighbours. Someone suggested maybe the games could include more traditional challenges: fire-making, tea-boiling, bannock-baking, rabbit-skinning and fish-gutting competition for the Elders. Let’s see some of those young guns try that!
Founding member of the Nemaska Fitness Challenge Rodney Hester recalled a story that speaks to the lasting importance of this event. An Elder who brought his son to the competition year after year was speaking at the 10th anniversary banquet. During his speech, the Elder broke down saying the event had helped keep his son clean and free from alcohol and drugs. “You have to be dedicated, commit to the training, the healthy lifestyle. When you do that you feel strong,” said Hester.