“Chaos in a jar” is how Grace Masse of Brandon, Manitoba describes her life. She’s raising six children on her own, teaching Indigenous languages, completing her master’s degree and somehow finding the time for triathlon. A relative newbie to the sport, she will complete her first full-distance race in a campaign that is raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous people in Canada.
Masse is Cree and grew up in Brochet, Manitoba as an active kid involved in competitions for snowshoeing, canoeing, long-distance portaging, trap setting and more. In high school there was rugby and she played volleyball during college.
She began running in 2014, clocking about four km in April and working up to her first half-marathon that June in Winnipeg. A year later, she ran the half at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Her shirt, made specially for the race, drew a lot of attention with its message, “Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.”
#ThrowbackThursday to when Grace ran for for Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Dedication to this important and ever more relevant cause – it keeps us going: one foot, one step, one stride, always forward. pic.twitter.com/RV8wCRzOZo
— Doug Hahn – IronEagle4MMIP (@IronEagle4MMIP) May 14, 2020
“I was very happy that I ran that race and met so many people who wanted to talk,” explains Masse. “It created a drive in me to run for a cause.”
A few years later, she would find that cause through triathlon.
In January 2019, while studying at Brandon University, Masse became interested in triathlon through a friend.
“I was already running, but doing pool laps and wearing goggles was completely alien to me,” she says.
She started cycling at her local Y and slowly climbed a significant learning curve of training.
Masse was driving from Ste. Rose to Brandon, two hours each way, for classes while getting ready for her first tri that June.
“It was kind of chaotic and I don’t know how I did it all, but the training was what I did for me. Everything else was about my children, the students I teach and my community. But the training was the glue that held me together,” she explains.
Did she enjoy that first triathlon in Birds Hill Park?
“I felt like a star after doing a sprint,” she replies.
Swimming in the open water was difficult and she missed listening to her favourite Cree music while running and cycling. It was a hard race but she persevered, or as Masse puts it, “There’s no way anyone was going to see this Indigenous woman quit.”
That September, Masse ran the Treherne Marathon, which coincided with Orange Shirt Day, a commemoration of residential school survivors; in particular, one child whose orange shirt was forcibly removed during her first school day. Masse ran for her mom who spent seven years in a residential school.
“It was a very good run,” she says, “just one degree out and it was raining. Some people stopped because it was so cold, but there was no chance of me quitting.”
The next month, Masse started training with Winnipeg tri coach Doug Hahn. He was planning to use his experience in Ironman and 70.3 competitions to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous people. Masse had found her running cause and she joined Hahn’s team.
With an intense schedule of 13 full-distance races across Canada in 24 days – one in each province and territory – the Iron Eagle Journey of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) shares stories of those directly affected and hopes that more Canadians will recognize this as a serious nation-wide problem. The team welcomes new members and sponsors.
Originally set to begin in spring 2020, Hahn was crushed when he realized that COVID required putting things on hold until next year.
“Despite the uncertainties around what 2021 will bring in terms of COVID restrictions or complications, we would like to make this happen,” he says. “The team is discussing strategies and contingency plans, and we are continuing to encourage people to submit stories.”
Those stories are featured at ironeagle4mmip.ca to remember loved ones and show the impact of their loss.
“I feel the stories will help bring out empathy in the hearts of the readers; to be able to see these missing and murdered as someone that they can relate to – family and loved ones – and this will be a beginning to break the barrier for reconciliation,” says Masse.
Because she is Indigenous, learning to live in both worlds, and speaks the language, Masse wants to be a bridge for the team and their mission. At some races she has been the only non-white competitor and she hopes her participation might spark a way to see Indigenous people differently.
The Journey will be Masse’s first time competing in over the Ironman distance, although she first swam four km in the summer of 2019 and there’s no doubt she’ll succeed in this new quest. Masse moves into the 40 to 45 age group in 2021, but isn’t assuming her placement guarantees success – she recalls being passed by impressive 70 year olds in the past.
Masse finds that every triathlon she attends is full of conversations with new and old friends. She finds the tri community to be supportive and enthusiastic and really enjoys making connections. With her formidable determination, positive outlook and sense of humour, Grace Masse is an inspirational ambassador.
Helen Powers is from Dundas, Ont. and is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada.
This story originally appeared in the November issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.