Salluit runners bring some northern perspective to Hawaii marathon

Seven runners from the Inuit community of Salluit travelled that distance to Hilo, Hawaii last month to run in the Big Island International Half‐Marathon.

7 members of Salluit Running Club compete in the Big Island International

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      A half‐marathon is a distance of 22 kilometers – no easy task.

      Now imagine travelling 7,539 kilometers just to get to the starting line.

      Seven runners from the Inuit community of Salluit – the second northernmost community in the province, on the shore of Hudson Strait – travelled that distance to Hilo, Hawaii last month. They had trained all winter to run in the Big Island International Half‐Marathon. 

      Salluit is the second northernmost community in the province, on the shore of Hudson Strait. (Google Maps)
      The seven are members of the Salluit Running Club, started by local educator Maggie MacDonnell. About five years ago, she helped start up a fitness centre in Salluit and started looking for activities to encourage people to stay active throughout the year. Someone suggested running races.  

      She signed people up to train. 

      In 2014,  she organized a trip to the Kauai Half‐Marathon with one of her runners, Mary Pootoo. 

      When her fellow students saw Pootoo return with a 2nd place medal around her neck and tales of travelling, the bug was planted. 

      "What's great about these events is they're so inclusive, " MacDonnell told the CBC. "Whether I have a competitive athlete or someone who's new to working out, we can all travel to these events together. And when you're out running, you're running your own race but you have the support of 1,000 or 2,000 other runners, too." 

      Luke Amamatuk, 18, has been running since he was 13.  He came fourth in his age category in Hilo. He says training in Salluit's winter conditions wasn't always easy.  But he insisted on running outside as much as possible, even in blizzard conditions: "One time I lost feeling in my thumb!" he said, chuckling.

      Larry Thomassiah is "frozen" but smiling after a half-marathon training run in Salluit, Que. (Submitted by: Larry Thomassiah)
      "It gets pretty cold," said coach Maggie MacDonnell. "Pretty cold in Salluit terms is around minus 25 C. It's the wind you really feel."

      MacDonnell said that when the conditions became impossible, her runners would take to the treadmills at the Salluit fitness centre. In fact, they've actually run two treadmills into the dust with all their training.

      Larry Thomassiah, 18, started running when he was a kid, providing company for a cousin who was a hockey player who used to jog around Salluit to train.

      When McDonnell suggested he try training for distance running, he decided to give it a try.

      He said it's made him stronger and fitter.

      "I see a lot of people … when they try to go for a run for 10 minutes, they can't even last that long. I could last for at least two hours."

      Both young men said running provides them with an outlet when things get difficult.

      "It's like a therapist," said Amamatuk.

      Thomassiah agreed. "When I'm facing problems, it clears my mind."

      Difficult realities

      Maggie MacDonnell said there's no doubt her students are surrounded by realities that make it difficult to cope at times.

      "We had 6 suicides last year, all affecting young males between the ages, say, of 18 and 25. These young people are affected by that. They know those young people and share their stories in many ways."

      She said credit has to be given to the community of Salluit for finding space and funding for the fitness centre, a resource that provides young people with a way to deal with some of the stress in their lives.

      Proud of results

      Amamatuk came fourth in his age category in the Hilo half‐marathon. He said his finish made all the hard work worth it. 

      "I was pushing myself to be stronger and smarter."

      A week after the marathon, he was off to a regional science fair in Mistissini, Que., where his project took first prize in the Secondary 5 category.  He's in the process of deciding between studying to be a sound engineer and attending  CEGEP Marie‐Victorin in Montreal "to open up to other people, and to learn a lot more."

      I was pushing myself to be stronger and smarter.- Luke Amamatuak, Salluit Running Club member

      ​Thomassiah cramped at the 18‐km mark and had to be helped across the finish line in Hawaii.  But the trip has left an indelible mark. Leaving the cold of Salluit for the lush warmth of Hawaii has given him the thirst to see more of the world. "That trip was unbelievable.  I couldn't believe I was in Hawaii for the first two days. When I woke up I would go out to the balcony and just take a look at the view. It was beautiful. I couldn't believe that I woke up there."  

      The Salluit Runners Club was giving back to the community as they raised funds for their trip to Hawaii.  They managed to raise $30,000 for the North West Company's Healthy Horizons Foundation, which invests in healthy living programs through the Inuit communities of Nunavik. 

      MacDonnell says it gives her a lot of pride listening to her young Inuit runners describe what the running program has done for them. But she won't take a lot of the credit.

      "When I first started the running program I can say maybe I was the one pulling them along. Now I'm just chasing them," she said. "Their motivation, dedication and dreams are what's setting the course now."