The first time I ever went for a run, it was because my runner girlfriend dared me to do it. She told me to set the pace and said she’d catch up to me; in about 10 seconds she told me I had to slow way down. I cut my pace in half, and she said, “No, no. You have to do it way slower than that if you want to last more than two minutes.”

With her guidance – running a few minutes, then walking a minute – I was able to keep going for 20 minutes, the longest run of my life. I won’t lie: the next day I felt like a truck had backed over me. However, part of the dare was that I would run five times, with a one-day break in between each outing. The second run started out sore, but as soon as I got warmed up, I felt fantastic. My girlfriend kept slowing me down, but I kept saying to her, “I can’t believe how good this feels! I always thought running was torture!” That was 10 years ago and running has been a part of my life ever since.

That kind of experience is one that the Mistissini Runners’ Club hopes to introduce to even greater numbers of locals with its weekly meetings (from 6:30 am to 7:30 am, every Tuesday, at the Track and Field). At the moment, about 10 people come out to run with the group every week, but organizer Cindy Pressé hopes those numbers will increase.

Wally Rabbitskin

Wally Rabbitskin

Pressé, who moved to Mistissini from Montreal three years ago, holds a Master’s degree in Applied Physical Activity and coordinates the Cree En Forme programme to encourage physical fitness in the community. The Runners’ Club has existed for three years, and even though her contract in the community ends in July, she wanted to make sure it continued this summer.

“I’m here until June 30. I really wanted to keep going with it because there are people who like it,” she said. “What’s nice about walking is that it’s a tradition here, and people really enjoy it.”

Wally Rabbitskin is a Planning and Programming Research Agent for Mistissini Public Health – and he’s also well-known as a competitive marathon runner, who came in third overall in the 1998 Ottawa Marathon, and has repeatedly finished number one in his age group in the Montreal and Toronto marathons. He said Cree people used to run a lot more than they do today.

“Traditionally,” he said, “I think some people did run. In the past, a lot of people who were out hunting walked on snowshoes, and I think they ran sometimes when they had to pursue an animal. People walked whenever they needed to get wood or hunt. Nowadays it’s different: our communities are different.”

Like they do in most other places, people in the Cree Nation often have jobs that keep them sitting behind a desk. At the same time, non-traditional foods full of sugars and starches are everywhere. The result has been the rise of obesity and diabetes – and with those problems has come a new interest in physical fitness never before seen in the Cree Nation.

“A lot of people are trying to get into a healthier lifestyle,” Rabbitskin said. “I think that’s a reason why [people have become more interested in running]. Also there’s a lot more information from the Public Health department trying to convince people to live a healthy lifestyle. So people are hearing these messages on the radio and in newsletters, and I guess they’re acting on them.”

Pressé knows that people coming to the Runners’ Club aren’t serious athletes, so she tailors the group to meet the needs of everyone who comes out.

“Different people will come, though it’s not always consistent,” she said. “It might not be the same people every week. The distances are pretty short. The people who come are not runners. They like walking and running, and having a coach there to be with them.”

Instead of getting everybody going at the same speed, she prefers to instruct the runners and walkers to go at a level of effort (like “run or walk for a minute at an effort level of eight out of ten”) that’s personal to them, and means something different to everybody.

“Some people who are faster can go faster,” she said, stressing that the club is open to people of all speeds. “We start with a 10- or 15-minute warm-up, since people sometimes come late. Then we’ll do a bit of dynamic stretching, and then I give a set. For example, one minute of brisk run followed by two minutes of an easy jog or walk, times 10, for 30 minutes. Some people might just walk really fast for a minute, then go really nice for two minutes to relax and shake it out. Other people might really sprint for that one minute, and then the two minutes take it at an easy jog.”

And even if the same crowd isn’t guaranteed to show up week to week, she’s excited to see the group’s Facebook page is active, and often club members will approach her and ask her to write them running sets for them to do on their own, or appeal to other members of the club to write sets as well.

However slowly, the trend for physical fitness seems to be taking off. Pressé says that even in the three years she’s spent in Mistissini, she’s seen interest in running on the rise – as well as interest in cycling.

“My first summer here cycling wasn’t as big,” she said. “Now, you’ll see elementary school kids biking on the main roads with their parents in the car behind them with their flashing lights on. I cycle a lot myself, and from my first year to this year, [I’ve noticed that] cars have really gotten careful. They move out of the way or even switch lanes if they see you. People are really considerate. I feel really safe.”

Pressé noted that an upcoming project for Cree En Forme is to start a cycling club in Mistissini similar to the Runners’ Club to help make physical fitness even more popular.

“Compared to a couple of years ago, when a lot of people didn’t really exercise, nowadays more and more people are walking, or doing some physical activity,” said Rabbitskin. “It’s something that’s coming up slowly. We would like to see more people go out there and walk. We’d like to see different organizations and entities promote physical activity within their workplaces – to encourage their employees to be physically active and healthy. Even giving time to employees to go out and walk, just give them the opportunity to exercise.”

He noted that 30 minutes to an hour of walking a day offers huge health benefits and can help fight obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases. Plus one of the things that makes the Runners’ Club attractive is its social aspect.

“People can meet other people, and associate with their friends and with different people,” he said. “We also try to encourage families to go out and do activities with their children. They’re the role models for the children. If your children see you exercising – whether it’s walking or running – they want to do it.”

Alongside the running, Pressé noted that other forms of fitness are taking off. Late this spring, the community paid to train eight locals as personal trainers, and already three are giving courses.

“There’s one class at lunch, for example. I’m really trying to develop local people to be the ones running the program,” she explained. “It’s a process. It isn’t just getting [certified] as a personal trainer, so you’re ready to teach now. Some don’t feel comfortable teaching people, so it helps to be there to remind them of things: do the warm up, the main set, don’t forget the cool-down, remember to keep talking to people. The pedagogy about it is something that’s missing, and I hope I’m giving them confidence. That’s my personal goal of something to give back to the community.”

But above all, she wants to get people comfortable with the idea that they can get in shape and enjoy themselves doing it. Many people approach her telling her they’d like to lose weight or become better fit, but she says it’s often hard to find the will-power necessary to come out for that first workout.

“There’s saying it, but then there’s actually doing it. I can tell them, ‘Fantastic, there are fitness classes!’ One of the people who just got trained is doing a women’s fitness class for beginners, so I can tell them to try that class – it’s perfect because it’s basic, it’s only women so they’ll feel more comfortable, and it’s in the morning. The first week is free. It’s a great start. But it’s up to them to have that motivation to show up.”

Rabbitskin reminded new runners not to get too excited about starting out. “Don’t push yourself at the beginning. Listen to your body,” he said. “When I first started running, the first couple of days were pretty hard. My bones were aching. So I listened to my body and the only time I’d go out and run was when I felt really good. Afterward, though, it was something that really helped me. If you’re doing it every day, eventually your body is used to the activity. Start slow, and if you feel pain or tired, it’s a good thing to stop and rest for a while before you begin again.”

Pressé encouraged potential exercisers not to feel intimidated by their limitations.

“Diabetes and obesity can be factors that keep people from even participating sometimes – people think they’re too big, or that it might hurt them. But it’s all about one step at a time, and one day at a time.”