Cari­bou Legs: Des­tined to Run

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

In the past four years, Brad Firth, known as Cari­bou Legs, has be­come an ac­com­plished ul­tra­run­ner, log­ging 18,000 kilo­me­tres (and count­ing) on Canada’s roads and trails. But he has been through tougher strug­gles in his life than push­ing through 100-kilome­tre days. For nearly 20 years, Firth lived on the streets of Van­cou­ver’s down­town east­side, ad­dicted to crack co­caine. He’s been sober for five years, and run­ning is his new ad­dic­tion. He sets the bar higher and higher with each run, test­ing his lim­its.

In the past four years, Brad Firth has be­come an ac­com­plished ul­tra­run­ner, log­ging 18,000 kilo­me­tres (and count­ing) on Canada’s roads and trails. But he has been through tougher strug­gles in his life than push­ing through 100-kilome­tre days. For nearly 20 years, Firth lived on the streets of Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side, ad­dicted to crack co­caine. He’s been sober for five years, and run­ning is his new ad­dic­tion.

By the timeBrad Firth ar­rived in Ucluelet, B.C., he was drenched in sweat, but the black and red war paint he’d smeared on that morn­ing still held firm to his face. It was mid-Jan­uary, but the tem­per­a­ture hov­ered above zero along the western edge of Van­cou­ver Is­land. Firth de­cided to call it a day and check into a mo­tel. He’d left Tofino that morn­ing, run­ning the 40 kilo­me­tres to Ucluelet in about five hours. The high­way, nar­row and wind­ing, had re­quired his full at­ten­tion. It was the first day of a three-week un­sup­ported run across the is­land, though Firth didn’t know the to­tal dis­tance. “You know what, that’s a re­ally good ques­tion,” he says. “I never added it all up.” Firth was eas­ing back into run­ning – by his stan­dards – af­ter over a month off. Last year, he ran un­sup­ported across Canada, start­ing in Van­cou­ver, where he lives, and fin­ish­ing six months later in St. John’s.

The following day, he wanted to reach Port Al­berni, 100 kilo­me­tres north­east. He as­sumed it would take 12 to 14 hours, and, con­sid­er­ing there would only be nine hours of day­light, this pre­sented a prob­lem. He hoped to make it to a ho­tel, but if not, then per­haps some­one might let him camp in their house along the way. “I’ve slept in some re­ally weird and awk­ward places,” he says, rhyming them off: in a cul­vert, in a bro­ken-down mini­van, un­der tarps at con­struc­tion sites, in an out­house in Mount Revel­stoke Na­tional Park, in a large garbage bin in North­ern On­tario. Firth doesn’t carry a tent or sleep­ing bag, so he looks for a place – any place – that of­fers shel­ter so he can sleep. When you run un­sup­ported, he says, you can’t be picky. He won­ders aloud about the next day’s 100 kilo­me­tres: “I’m not sure what I’m go­ing to do.” But he doesn’t sound con­cerned. “Most of my run­ning, I just wing it and have a lot of faith.”

It was a friend up north who gave Firth the nick­name Cari­bou Legs. Firth is Gwich’in, a na­tion of indige­nous peo­ple who live in Alaska, the Yukon and the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. The Gwich’in have re­lied on cari­bou meat and hides for thou­sands for years, following the herds across the Arc­tic land­scape. The cari­bou is also an en­durance an­i­mal, known for its long an­nual mi­gra­tion.

The name fits. In the past four years, Firth, 47, has be­come an ac­com­plished ul­tra­run­ner, log­ging 18,000 kilo­me­tres (and count­ing) on Canada’s roads and trails. But he has been through tougher strug­gles in his life than push­ing through 100-kilome­tre days. For nearly 20 years, Firth lived on the streets of Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side, ad­dicted to crack co­caine. He’s been sober for five years, and run­ning is his new ad­dic­tion. He sets the bar higher and higher with each run, test­ing his lim­its. “It’s a way to ad­dress my demons and iron them out and ac­cept them,” he says. “As f lawed as I am, run­ning re­sets that and makes me feel f law­less… You can throw the worst things at me and I’ll over­come them.”

Firth was born in 1969 in Inu­vik, n.w.t., 200 kilo­me­tres north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. He grew up in an ath­letic fam­ily. Firth’s older twin sis­ters, Shirley and Sharon, were na­tional cross-coun­try ski­ing cham­pi­ons and com­peted at four Olympics in the 1970s and ’80s. Firth started ski­ing at age six. On school days, when the lunch bell rang, he would race home to eat. “Mom had to get back to work, so there was no time for dilly-dal­ly­ing. We were al­ways mo­ti­vated – if you want to eat, get home fast.”

When Firth was seven, he and his cousin were play­ing near a lake and found a bot­tle of whisky. “Be­cause I’d seen a lot of peo­ple drink­ing at that time, I took a swig of al­co­hol,” he says. They took turns un­til they fell un­con­scious. Luck­ily, both boys sur­vived – they had their stom­achs pumped at the hospi­tal. In high school, Firth started smok­ing pot and drink­ing. He quit ski­ing and joined the hockey team – the play­ers par­tied on week­ends and Firth wanted to

be a part of that. He was good at hockey, but he bailed on tour­na­ments and games. It turned his coaches against him. “I wasn’t a team player,” he says. When Firth was go­ing into Grade 12, he fa­thered a child. He dropped out and moved to Fort Smith, n.w.t., about 1, 400 kilo­me­tres south, for a car­pen­try pro­gram.

In 1994, Firth headed to Van­cou­ver to work in con­struc­tion. One night, he was hang­ing out with his co-work­ers when some­one pro­cured some crack co­caine. Firth was hes­i­tant at first, but he tried it. “This eu­phoric feel­ing grabbed me,” he says. “Be­fore I knew it, I was un­em­ploy­able. When you’re stay­ing up all night smok­ing co­caine, it takes away the de­sire to go to work and earn a liv­ing.” He learned ways to get the drug – steal­ing and work­ing for street gangs. He’d sleep un­der bridges, in back al­leys and at shel­ters in the down­town east­side. For a few months, he went to jail for theft. “I was just a one-man wreck­ing ma­chine,” he says. “When you’re up for days and days us­ing co­caine, you have all kinds of en­ergy and you just keep go­ing and go­ing, un­til you ac­tu­ally just crash right there on the side­walk … I look back at it and it’s just a gross feel­ing, a re­ally gross way to live. I try not to beat my­self up be­cause of that. I try to make my past make me bet­ter.”

The po­lice of­fi­cers pa­trolling the neighbourhood had come to rec­og­nize him, of­ten spot­ting him with what they sus­pected were stolen goods. They’d shout at him to stop. “I ran,” says Firth. “Fast.” One cop who caught him sug­gested he join a run­ning group for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in the area. By this time, Firth was tired of liv­ing the way he was. He still felt ashamed about how he’d wasted his ath­letic abil­ity when he was younger. He wanted to change.

Benji Chu started Run for Change in 2010. An avid run­ner, he wanted to pro­vide some phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and pos­i­tive so­cial in­ter­ac­tion for peo­ple in the down­town east­side. When Firth first showed up, he was very skinny, with long, stringy hair. Chu re­mem­bers a 12-kilome­tre run they did to­gether – “I couldn’t even keep up with him,” he says. John Hill, the coach of the Van­cou­ver Fal­cons Ath­let­ics Club, was sim­i­larly im­pressed by Firth’s abil­ity when he first came out to a club work­out on the trails of Stan­ley Park. “He was al­ready faster than half or a third of the group when he started,” Hill says.

For Firth, some­thing clicked. He felt con­nected to his body again, the nat­u­ral ease with which it moved. “It lights my mind up like a Christ­mas tree, run­ning on all kinds of lights and beau­ti­ful feel­ings,” he says. It felt spir­i­tual. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Firth was try­ing to get sober. The thought of go­ing to jail again ter­ri­fied him. He joined an anger-man­age­ment pro­gram and be­gan par­tic­i­pat­ing in a drum­ming group. In 2012, he ran the Sco­tia­bank Van­cou­ver Half-Marathon in 1:22. Then Firth told Chu he wanted his help train­ing for three 100-kilome­tre runs from Van­cou­ver to out­ly­ing cities.

With 20 kilo­me­tres left in the third run, a semi-truck clipped Firth’s el­bow. The force spun him around, shat­ter­ing his el­bow and break­ing the bones in his hand. His new con­fi­dence was de­stroyed. “Why me?” Firth kept ask­ing Chu, in tears. “Brad, for the last 20 years, you were do­ing such harm­ful things,” Chu told him. “Hurt­ing peo­ple, steal­ing, run­ning away. Maybe this ac­ci­dent is part of the pay­back.” To­day, this is what Firth be­lieves. “I had to pay back my karma,” he says. The way he sees it, the Creator spared his run­ning. He took that to mean he should use it for good. Firth f lew back up north, run­ning for hours a day in -40 C. Then he ran 740 kilo­me­tres from Hay River to Yellowknife. A lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion hired him to talk to stu­dents about his run­ning and so­bri­ety.

In 2014, Firth ran 1,200 kilo­me­tres from Inu­vik to White­horse as a show of sup­port to First Na­tions who were locked in a le­gal bat­tle with the Yukon gov­ern­ment over con­ser­va­tion of the Peel River water­shed. In 2015, the Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans spon­sored Firth to run from Van­cou­ver to Ot­tawa to ad­vo­cate for pro­tec­tion of the coun­try’s lakes and rivers. Near the end of that run, Firth heard that his sis­ter had died in the Yukon. Upon read­ing the coro­ner’s re­port, he be­lieved she was the vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, be­cause she had a black eye and bruis­ing on her head. Her cause of death, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, was bleed­ing in the brain; she’d had sev­eral falls in the days lead­ing up to her death as a re­sult of pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion that made her drowsy. (In De­cem­ber, the part­ner of Firth’s sis­ter sued him for li­bel over com­ments he made to me­dia out­lets about his sis­ter’s death.) Last spring, Firth de­cided he’d de­vote his long­est run yet to miss­ing and mur­dered indige­nous women. Ac­cord­ing to an rcmp re­port, 1,181 indige­nous women went miss­ing or were killed na­tion-wide be­tween 1980 and 2012. The gov­ern­ment an­nounced an in­quiry into the is­sue in late 2015.

When Firth ran east from Van­cou­ver last year, he wore war paint, a buf­falo-bone breast­plate and an ea­gle feather in his hair. “I wanted to rein­vent my­self,” he says. “Be a peace­ful war­rior.” He thought his ap­pear­ance might help to con­front the dis­com­fort Cana­di­ans have with indige­nous peo­ple. “It was all about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and try­ing to build a bridge,” he says. He talked to peo­ple in Tim Hor­tons about colo­nial­ism and vi­o­lence against women. He spoke at uni­ver­si­ties and com­mu­nity events. Not ev­ery­one he met was re­cep­tive. “A lot of peo­ple came up to me and spit at my feet, called me deroga­tory names, threw wa­ter bot­tles at me from their ve­hi­cles,” he says. In Al­berta, the rcmp stopped him af­ter they re­ceived a re­port that some­one was run­ning on the side of the high­way, wear­ing makeup and car­ry­ing a gun. Firth was hold­ing a sa­cred drum. “Some­times it was dis­ap­point­ing,” he says. “It’s hard not to let it bother you.”

In the morn­ings, Firth would pray in the four di­rec­tions, stretch and smudge his feet with sweet­grass and sage. He didn’t carry much: a three-litre pack filled with wa­ter, some goji berries, peanut but­ter, chia seeds, raw gar­lic, a head­lamp. The run was lonely at times, he ad­mits. He’d call fam­ily mem­bers or friends for pep talks. He’d think about the fam­i­lies who lost moth­ers, sis­ters and daugh­ters. That strength­ened his re­solve. He says he never doubted that he’d fin­ish it. “I don’t think like that at all. I guess it’s a pos­i­tive self-talk thing. No mat­ter how bad things get, I’m al­ways op­ti­mistic … I grew up in a home where there was a lot of cham­pi­ons and a lot of ath­letes. It was just bred into me to not give up and not quit.”

Firth didn’t end up mak­ing it to Port Al­berni the next day. He’d run about 60 kilo­me­tres when night be­gan to fall. In typ­i­cal Cari­bou Legs fash­ion, he ended up stay­ing at the house of some­one who’d been following his jour­ney on Facebook. When Firth isn’t on the road, he lives alone in Van­cou­ver. He hasn’t had a drink in 15 years, he says, and he’s been clean of hard drugs since 2012, when he brief ly re­lapsed. He doesn’t have a re­la­tion­ship with his son. “I’ve tried to re­pair the dam­age and clear the wreck­age of my past,” he says. “I just came to a con­clu­sion to ac­cept where he’s at and where I’m at.” Firth makes money through pub­lic speak­ing and, on his Facebook page, he raff les off soap­stone carv­ings made by his cousin. He has no spon­sor­ships or cor­po­rate sup­port. “I don’t need the mas­sage ther­apy, I don’t need the cube vans,” he says.

His next adren­a­line hit will be a 200-kilome­tre run across frozen Great Slave Lake. A sup­port team will fol­low him on snow­mo­biles, and he in­tends to wear a parka and muk­luks made of cari­bou. “I don’t know what to ex­pect,” he says. “What hap­pens when a bliz­zard hits? If we have to hunker down and build an igloo or a snow fort to get out of the wind, that’s what we’ll do.” The ex­cite­ment in his voice is au­di­ble. “I like to see my­self in those kinds of con­di­tions. I thrive on it.” The one thing he knows for sure? “Point me in the right di­rec­tion, and I’m gonna run.” Rhi­an­non Rus­sell has lived (and run) in Toronto, Saint John, N.B., Mon­treal, and White­horse. Now she works as a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Hamil­ton, Ont., and runs the trails in Dun­das Val­ley.

“I’ve slept in some re­ally weird and awk­ward places,” Firth says, rhyming cul­vert, in a bro­k­endown mini­van, un­der tarps at con­struc­tion sites, in an out­house in Mount Revel­stoke Na­tional Park, in a large garbage bin in North­ern On­tario.

LEFT Brad Firth runs the 2012 Ed­mon­ton Marathon, fin­ish­ing 41st in 3:20:14

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