After a few years off, barefoot runner Joseph Michael Kai-Tsu Liu Roqueni is getting set to resume his Run2theEnd project.
This time, he has a strong mental-health message with him.
Liu is plotting a trek up north, set to happen this summer. However, preparations haven’t been easy as he suffered a significant snowboarding injury three years ago that left him with chronic spinal pain.
It took Liu, who moved to Canmore, Alta. in 2019 after struggling to find housing in Whistler, nearly a year to recover from his injury, but he is back up and running.
“When it comes to training, everything is on track,” he told Pique. “I have a training plan that I put together in December. It’s a gradual, conservative plan of increasing mileage for me to be able to run 30 kilometres in a day, five days in a row.”
Most recently, Liu was up to 20 kms and heading out three times per week.
“I started from scratch,” he said. “I wasn’t able to even walk. I spent my first few months in bed. Because I had such a nasty fracture—the bone pretty much shattered in four pieces on my femur—it took longer [to heal] than the average fracture for femurs.”
While Liu’s chronic pain is mostly in check, flareups can sideline him for days at a time.
However, he has a laundry list of tactics to use to head off the pain, and others to use if he does indeed have a recurrence.
“It takes a few days. There are a bunch of tools, such as medication,” he said. “Basically, your injury is healed. Your body is OK, but your system is still sending signals to your brain, so the pain actually happens only in your brain.
“You have to do things that you enjoy and that you like, so you have to create these new connections to make your body and your brain stay away from those connections that make your pain trigger.”
Liu is currently staring down a journey of roughly 1,600 kms, though he will have to do it at a much slower pace than he previously did.
During the first leg of his project in 2013 and 2014, which took him from Montreal to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, Liu ran up to 55 kms in a day. The leg was supposed to end at Ushuaia, Argentina, but Liu said financial considerations forced a stoppage, noting it is difficult to land sponsors for initiatives spanning multiple years.
“Breaking the project into smaller legs is a lot more manageable,” he said.
Liu’s journey will start in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories before wending southwest through Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Tombstone Territorial Park, Dawson City and Whitehorse before finishing at Teslin, just north of the British Columbia border.
“It’s a trial and error. It’s something new. I’m bushwhacking, something that I’ve never done,” he said.
While the tentative plan is to start on Aug. 1, there are some practical considerations to take care of: First and foremost, setting up plans with relevant authorities to ensure the project is being done properly from a COVID-19 perspective. Liu said other planning is on tap as well.
“We don’t want to just go and do something that we shouldn’t,” he said. “It all depends on how restrictions are going to be due to COVID.
“I still have to figure out how I’m going to go through any mountains. I have to check temperatures. I have to check how much snow we’re going to get, and wind. There are so many things to consider.”
In terms of support, Liu—who previously pushed supplies in a baby carriage—hopes to have an RV to support the effort, much of which will take place on dirt roads.
“There’s not a lot of infrastructure up there, so we have to have all our supplies with us. What we’re trying to do is ideally have an RV so we can sleep there and shower there and charge all our stuff,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, we’ll have a rooftop tent and just camp on the side of the road.”
Also coming along are Liu’s life partner, Iris, and two filmmakers and former Coast Mountain Photography colleagues in Anna Dziczkaniece and Helen Burt.
MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY
After dealing with emotional challenges due to the injury, Liu is running in support of men’s mental health awareness, though he has not yet aligned with a specific organization.
The son of a Chinese father and a Mexican mother, Liu said he was raised with two vastly different perspectives regarding handling challenges.
“On my father’s side, his way of thinking and his cultural behaviour is you have to make it on your own. If you ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness, which is completely opposite of what my Latin American or Mexican side is,” he said. “In that culture, if you run into trouble, the first thing you do is ask for help.
“For me, there was always a conflict and an issue in my life.”
Throw in the North American tendency to bottle up problems, and Liu admitted struggling with his mind going to dark places when dealing with the uncertainty in the accident’s aftermath.
“It can be devastating,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to be able to walk. You don’t know how long it’s going to take to heal. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to do all the activities that you’re used to.”
All the while, he said, he’s in pain and the doctors don’t have a timeline or clear path forward because each patient is different.
“Just to be mentally prepared: is it days? Is it months? Is it years? Is it going to go away?” he recalled. “Just knowing that, it puts you in the mindset for you to move forward.
“It makes you vulnerable. It feels awkward. It feels weird. But I think having the support of other people … it helps a lot,” he added.
Liu has started a Kickstarter to support the initiative.