Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth is high on running.
His is a story that has gained wide press coverage and will be the subject of a book.
Being an elite ultra runner is his antidote to a longtime addiction to crack cocaine.
Born in Inuvik, NWT, Firth left the North and ended up on the mean streets of East Vancouver.
“I chose to go on the streets. I started experimenting with crack in 1994,” he says, pointing out he was a carpenter but became unemployable because of his growing lust for the drug. “I was on the streets for 20 years vigorously doing crack; I was a thief, an opportunist, I stole, manipulated situations and did whatever I could. I bartered, traded, did work for the gangs, was always on the get… like a hyena in the desert.”
A cross-country skier in his youth, Firth’s twin aunts Sharon and Shirley Firth were recently inducted into the Canadian Cross Country Hall of Fame.
Firth slept in cubby holes, churches, provincial jail (always a good place to sleep from January to April) and his running career began in back alleys, running from police or someone he had cheated on the street.
“I ran because it was easy like clicking on a switch – running interference or running amok,” he says with an engaging grin.
He started recovery in 1997 at the Salvation Army’s Miracle Valley facility in Abbotsford, but admits to many relapses.
Firth left the street life in 2012 and started running after Benjy Chu, founding member of Vancouver’s Run For Change for low-income Downtown Eastsiders, encouraged him to go the distance.
He began competitive running and was recruited by the Falcons, a group he describes as the strongest running club in Canada.
Firth told Chu he wanted to return to the Arctic and began completing progressively longer training runs.
But they came to an end when he was sideswiped by a semi-trailer in Hope, which left him with a shattered elbow and injuries to his chin and legs, including a large gash on the sole of his foot.
It took four months of healing before Firth was ready to run and in 2013, he headed north and did a 750-kilometre Health and Wellness run from Fort Smith to Yellowknife in 10 days.
A guest of the NWT government, Firth had 30 speaking engagements at schools.
“It was my first kick at public speaking and I found out that is where I belong,” he says. “You need an audience to tell your story and I found it, it’s part of my destiny.”
Firth stayed in the North for a few months, running to several communities on the ice road telling his story in schools, including Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, a 190-km run in 40 hours in minus 50 C.”
In April 2014, Firth responded to a plea from a cousin by completing a 1,200-km run from Inuvik to Whitehorse in 25 days.
“She was upset about the Peel Watershed where they were vein mining and everyone was nervous about losing the water and the fish,” he says. “I just wanted to comfort her, to give her hope.
A mixture of Gwich’in and Denai Firth got Gwich’in support, collected 5,000 protest letters and arrived to a big celebration in Whitehorse where he met Premier Darrell Pasloski.
After a two-month rest, Firth ran from Vancouver to Whitehorse to bring further attention to the Peel Watershed, ending his 3,200 journey just short of the city because of a snowstorm.
“I was 78 days with no support vehicles, just a debit card and a 15-pound knapsack,” he says. “I met all kinds of supportive people who gave me free accommodation and free meals because I was running for water.
In June, the now a committed environmental activist, began his longest run to protest the number of boil-water advisories. Sponsored by the Council of Canadians, Firth ran 4,800 kilometres to Ottawa.
Dubbed Caribou Legs by one of his cousins, Firth will keep running, but next year his focus will be on Canada’s missing and murdered women.
Firth has won may fans, including recent Shuswap resident Sonia Dubinsky, an author and retired social worker, who specialized in addictions and spent 20 years in the Western Arctic.
Dubinsky learned of Firth on Facebook and told him she’d like to write his story because of its human interest and because she thinks it will help others conquer their own addictions.