Caribou Legs: Destined to Run
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