By Mark Nickolayou
John Fineday ran the second leg of The Great Canadian Death Race for the team from Saskatoon called Run for Reconciliation.
His story is not unlike that of other Indigenous People in this country and on this planet. Most reservations in Saskatchewan are in rural areas and often unless there is key economic activity close by, the future is uncertain for many of the people and the ability for them to have the life they want may be out of reach.
John Fineday is a member of the Sweetgrass First Nation on Treaty Six Territory, where his mother and very large family live. At times growing up was difficult there, however he used fitness and physical activity to keep his blood flowing with positivity and has been very active since he was 8 years old.
The ingredients he uses for this great meal of life include soccer several times a week; running daily for possibly 5 km or 15 km depending on the day; hockey in the winter; and cross-fit daily. He is going to increase his cross-fit training to compete at the adaptive level and will start playing softball again as well.
The “why” for him is simple: keeping his mind clear and for fitness. He is able to relax and put his day at ease when he runs and you can tell he loves it just by the manner he speaks about it.
He competed in an adaptive category because he is a congenital amputee with part of his arm missing from about the elbow. You may presume that his balance may be skewed while running on such treacherous conditions where most of the runners are using poles for balance, John’s balance seemed to be fine, in fact he stated that he ran down most of the very steep and unstable places where others were struggling with balance and using their poles.
He says he has very good balance and his thinking was that it would slow him down if he had to try to use poles, and since he knows no other way since birth it doesn’t appear to be a problem at all.
His story is inspiring. A poor upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, however rich with love and activity, you may think that John is hoping others will take up these challenging feats, get off the couch and get active, test yourself, and push limits but not so. His goal is to impress his 8-year-old self and his 88-year-old self. He is setting new goals yearly, with no additional thought to it and to keep doing it for himself.
I questioned him on this process and if what he does motivates some family, friends or complete strangers. He admitted that his friend Daniel Albert inspired him and other First Nations people. He doesn’t intend to inspire, but if it helps others and they try to better themselves after they see how he chooses to live, then he is all for it.
The experience of running the Death Race as a Run for Reconciliation really represents a unique and fitting metaphor for John.
He attended St. Michael Residential School in Duck Lake for one year and knows firsthand how that education format impacted him and his people and how this run brought about by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon and the Diocese of Saskatoon Catholic Foundation of Saskatoon helps bridge the gap between people of different origins and traditions.
It appears that John doesn’t harbour any ill will toward the aforementioned organizations, and I wonder if that’s because of what’s to come in this story. Or possibly I’m not aware of his true feelings and could have asked more direct questions about his experiences at school. But then I ask him about how he makes sense of the current world around us and how he makes peace with it.
He has a unique perspective, as John looks at the world around him in a bright and special way, he doesn’t view people based on their race, or how they live, it’s about treating everybody with respect.
“The CEO of a large company or my family members on the street, you should embrace them and that’s the way it should be with everybody. Whether your First Nations or non-First Nations, you’ve just got to respect each other and the values that they have; you may not understand their values and their ceremonies, but just respect it”, Fineday says.
He is not speaking out of his hat on this topic for he met and fell in love with a woman from the Ituna area who was Ukrainian Catholic. In order for them to have a life together, John was baptized and became a practicing member of her church because that’s how she grew up: those values were hers and were important to her. John respected her and her values and took it all into his life and it’s still something he cherishes. Even though he still participates in his Indigenous traditions at home, and is baptized as Ukrainian Catholic, he asks: why can’t you mix those traditions together?
“That’s what reconciliation should be, whether you agree or not, respect their traditions and live together”, John says. It’s clear to me why he is at peace with the world around him simply because his journey is not only about him and his people.
John says he does want to move back to North Battleford to be closer to family and says that is the place where he feels most comfortable.
It does take a desire to learn and understand how countries were settled and the long-term ramifications of what transpired.
In early 2000 we had the chance to travel overseas to New Zealand to live and work for about six months. What impressed me the most about that country was the food, fresh, clever, and clean recipes leaving you wanting this for your home country. At one of the markets we frequented to buy our groceries, I was amazed by how different the food choices were and yet how close our countries were based on our shared Commonwealth history. It is similar when it came to the values and the ideology of how they were dealing with Indigenous Māori people, their culture, and traditions.
The key to all of this is getting out and travelling and if you can, see people for who they are and where they come from. You will do John and others a great service by trying this. We so often want to think as a nation we are better than most and, we have just decided to think “our problems” aren’t really ours but in essence, someone else’s.
His life journey now includes completing Leg 2 of the Death Race, Flood and Grand Mountain Slugfest, 27.4 kms. (Elevation+1,624m / -1,526m) That leg includes about 1 km of pavement. The rest is dirt trail with rocky and swampy sections and approximately 6 km of hard-packed dirt road. Net elevation gain is 500 feet, but the total elevation change is well over 6,000 feet. This leg of the race is characterized by long sustained climbing with about 3 km of very rough terrain and two creek crossings. The trail from the summit of Flood Mountain to the summit of Grande Mountain is the roughest piece of trail in the Death Race. The power line down the front of Grande Mountain leading back into town is the most dangerous part of the entire course. This is due to the steep, rocky drop-offs and unstable footing while running downhill. The Slugfest is the most technical section and is rated the second hardest leg of the Death Race (although many rate this leg as the hardest of all).
The Near Death Marathon course bypasses the Flood Summit Loop but otherwise is the exact same Legs 1 and 2 and finishes at the Start/Finish Line at the end of Leg 2. It is a leg that offers some of the most challenging terrain, narrow paths and slippery rock.
Prior to the start it was obvious that this run wasn’t going to faze John, or at least he wasn’t letting it seem so. That may be one of the best techniques for coping in these situations as there is nervous tension in the air at each checkpoint and yet as soon as the runners are off it seems to fade.
As I never met John prior to this weekend, I didn’t know a lot about his abilities or strengths as a runner, but soon realized he comes by those naturally, since his brother also runs marathons and he hopes to run with him in the New York City marathon this fall.
It wasn’t long after the race that we were back in Saskatoon leaving the golf course at Silverwood and we spotted John heading out to the driving range, golf clubs in tow. I thought to myself what else can this guy doa? Wait and see I thought, wait and see.
Love helped bridge the gap between two people from vastly different backgrounds and even though they didn’t stay together, it was love that helped build a family and entrust that they would have a bond forever. So many times I am reminded of the gifts around us, the gifts that help overcome adversity, physical limitations, and painful history. A story that started about amateur runners with a focus on reconciliation has become one about forgiveness and love.
For the source of the course description and for more information about each leg and the race as a whole see The Great Canadian Death Race website at: https://www.sinistersports.ca/deathrace/course.php