Summer. Nemaska. Morning. The 14th annual Nemaska Fitness Challenge is off to a late start. It’s probably not the first time in the 14 years so no one seems concerned. I advise, rudely, to no one in particular that a starting time be set and if any competitor isn’t ready by then, then tough titties, the race starts without them.

I thought of bringing up discipline, but who am I to talk?
Previous champion Jimmy Gunner is leisurely waxing the underside of a canoe, but he’s not competing this year.

Steve Cheechoo is getting ready and struggling into a wetsuit for the first portion of the race – a grueling swim on the appropriately named Champion Lake. A young competitor’s mom is nag-ging him to stretch before the race. He makes a show of stretching and stops.

My niece Lorna, is still trying to find a bike to race with and debating whether to pay the entrance fee while trying to remember the canoeing lessons from the evening before. Hulking Redfern Cheezo is displaying his impressive physique to the cop on race duty and arm wrestling with a friend. Perhaps getting ready for the event to be held later. I bravely suggest he get into better shape for next year’s challenge. He towers over me and says, “I’ll get into shape.” Whew!Finally, it looks like the race everyone is here to see is about to start. Most of the competitors are in the lake wetting their wet- suits when they are called back to the main tent for introductions a prayer and a minute of silence for the dearly departed. That done, the racers swim to the starting point and line up in anticipation of the starter’s pistol. The constable fires a shot and the race is on.

The racers splash into the lake. In a sign of things to come, Waskaganish’s Rod Blueboy, has everyone swimming in his wake as he claims a huge lead, winning the big race easily. “Swimming is the hardest part of the race,” says Redfern Cheezo, “I would come out of the water feeling dizzy.” He should know. He was the first out of the water back in 1997.

Rodney Hester has moved on since he helped create this race years ago. “I never thought it would keep going this long,” he said later while we were waiting for a flight at Chibougamau Airport. “Who won?”“Rod Blueboy again,” I said.

We waited for the plane, smoking, and reminisced of races past and laughed. Arnold of Chisasibi, giving up a few swimstrokes into the race after his fans back home had raised five grand to bring him here. The tenacious untrained Jody House refusing to give up and finishing the race after five-and-a-half hours of hell. Jody’s first words, heavily panted, after finishing, “I feel like shit!” Good times.