CANMORE – Why?
Why, is one of the questions that globetrotter and barefoot runner Joseph Michael Kaitsu Liu fields regularly.
Why do you run barefoot?
Why do you want to run across the whole of North and South America?’
To those people, Liu says, why not?
For the 40-year-old athlete, it’s all about inspiring and motivating others to do what they believe is unthinkable.
“I want to inspire people to be better – to show others what is possible,” said Liu. “When I started brainstorming what I wanted to do – I saw people sailing and biking around the world, but I didn’t have anything so I said 'I’m just going to run.' ”
For Liu, Run2theEnd started in 2013, shortly after he graduated from Concordia University in Montreal. At the time, his goal was to run from Montreal to the "end of the world" in Ushuaia, Argentina.
“I wanted to do something bold, something really big and something that would allow me to travel," he said. "At the same time, I think on a deeper level it was a way to draw attention to myself.”
Liu was born in Ontario, but was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico in a large family. He is the third of 10 siblings. He recalls there being a constant battle for attention between himself and his siblings.
“I think most people want to have a positive type of attention on themselves," he said. "I was looking for something that would put my name out into the world and if people would hear or read about it they could say ‘Wow, that guy can do that. What can I do?’ ”
He was inspired by Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was the first person to ascend all 14 peaks over 8,000m. He also cited Terry Fox and Che Guevara as inspiration.
“There are so many icons in world history that give me motivation," he said. "If I can be another point in history where people can look back and draw inspiration from me, then that is what it’s all about.”
In Liu’s first attempt at the Run2theEnd he ran solo and barefoot for 4,654km in 15 months, reaching the southern border of Mexico, but had to cut the run short due to financial reasons. For this feat, Canadian Running Magazine awarded Liu the 2014 Male Runner of the Year.
He returned to Canada settling in Whistler with the hope to save up enough money to pick up where he left off in Mexico.
However, in March 2018, while working as a photographer, Liu caught an edge snowboarding and tumbled more than 40 metres off-piste, pin-balling off multiple trees. His femur shattered in four pieces, his helmet cracked causing a serious concussion and he suffered cervical and thoracic spinal injuries.
“It was a year of frustration. I was preparing to run again and then I suffered this life-changing injury. I did not know how long my recovery was going to be. I was confined to my bed for several months, which was actually great preparation for the pandemic,” said Liu jokingly.
In 2019, Liu had to relearn how to walk and regain the muscle he had lost in his left leg.
The injury also resulted in a serious mental health struggle for Liu, something he said he has had to navigate for most of his life following his mother’s death when he was just nine.
His father was Chinese, and he said in that culture growing up, if you were seen struggling, it was a sign of weakness.
“I’ve learned it’s OK to talk about things and it's OK to cry," he said. "I cry more now since my accident than ever before and there is nothing wrong with that.”
Liu said his mental health was a struggle growing up and that running was always a positive outlet.
He credits running with saving his life. It has been a constant and easily accessible coping mechanism throughout his adulthood.
“As long as I am doing something physical outdoors, I am happy," he said. "It’s just running is the easiest thing for me to do. I don’t need a paddleboard, kayak or bike. I just put on my running sandals and go.”
Following the injury, Liu relocated to the Bow Valley in late 2019 and now calls Canmore home.
Upon reflecting on the initial set of public health restrictions during the pandemic and knowing how important running has been in his life, Liu decided he wanted to finish his Run2theEnd.
Since December of last year, he started a rigorous training schedule for his upcoming 1,500km run from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. to the Yukon/B.C. border this July, which is a continuation and extension of his original Run2theEnd project.
“Since running keeps me alive, I want to finish what I’ve started. This is me. Life for me is a struggle and I have to convert that struggle in a positive way. I have to learn to enjoy the process," said Liu.
“When people see this project, they won’t see what it took to achieve it. I’m not just running 1,500 km across the Yukon – I’ve been working to get back to this project both physically and mentally for the past three years.”
The plan is to run an average of 30 kms a day for up to five to six days a week, with a day or two of rest between legs, which will take about 60 days.
Next year, Liu plans to run from the Yukon/B.C. border to Montana, passing through the Bow Valley. And over the following four years, he plans to complete the Run2theEnd, picking up in southern Mexico and completing the run through Central and South America.
Along this leg of the journey, Liu is running to raise awareness for men’s mental health because of what he has been through in his life and as a result of his accident. He added that everyone could use a little added mental health boost right now because of the pandemic.
To get his message out to a wider audience and open up the conversation regarding men’s mental health, his friends and filmmakers Anna Dziczkaniece and Helen Burt from Lot17, will document his journey across Canada’s north.
The filmmakers have started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for the project.
Liu is eager to share his message with like-minded people in the build-up to his run in July and is open to collaborating with anyone interested in spreading the word about men’s mental health
Visit Run2theEnd.com for more information.