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(Eric Foss)
(Eric Foss)

An elite athlete's dash against disease Add to ...

Some people run for the endorphins. Some to get “me” time. Brian Culbert runs for his family.

“When my son Matt was born, he was given very little chance for survival,” Mr. Culbert said. “Just imagine your worst nightmare coming true and then somebody comes in and makes it better. The doctor and nurses went beyond the call of duty and decided this boy should live. Nobody gave up.”

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In 2001, Mr. Culbert stood outside the intensive care unit at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, sick with worry. A few hours earlier, his wife Denise had delivered the couple’s second child, Matthew. But the newborn had a serious skin disorder.

“It was an intense, emotional two weeks. I can’t put into words what we went through, but the medical team never gave up, even when we had our low moments,” he said. “When we walked out of the hospital that day with Matt in our arms, a voice inside me said I have to give something back.”

That moment inspired Mr. Culbert to become an elite multidisciplined athlete – with a mission. In conjunction with Sick Kids, Mr. Culbert, his family and a team of six volunteers, have raised more than $150,000 for SickKids International, a program that trains doctors and nurses from developing countries in Canada in advanced techniques and new medicines to take back to Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania.

In Tanzania the program will support the training of 500 community health leaders who will identify and treat child health problems including vaccines against preventable diseases, malaria and neonatal complications. In Ethiopia, doctors’ upgraded skills in surgery and pediatrics will help to curtail the alarming rate of child mortality and trauma.

So, while many middle-aged parents sit tucked behind morning newspapers, enjoying the calm refuge of the weekend, the 52-year-old investment adviser typically runs 17 kilometres before the sun is even up. He’s in the midst of training for an ultramarathon. The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc quickly relegates weekend warriors to the sidelines, especially after reading the qualification requirements. The applicant must complete a sanctioned 65-kilometre race with 3,500 metres of vertical rise – the equivalent of six CN Towers.

Taking place this summer in France, it’s a gruelling 165-km race that forces competitors to climb 9,500 metres over mountain tops. It is considered one of the world’s most prestigious and toughest ultra-marathon trail running races. Half of the competitors typically drop out before the end. Mr. Culbert is not likely to win and may not even finish, but this is the culmination of that promise he made himself.

“In this event, I win even before I start the race. I’m just happy to have made it into such an elite field,” he said.

When he’s not pounding the pavement, Mr. Culbert is working, monitoring the latest financial data from the day’s market activities for CIBC’s Wood Gundy. He is frustrated at the perception some people have of the financial community, in particular the kind of generalizations expressed in the recent Occupy movement.

“The general perception people have about our industry is not always good, but it really is so far from the truth. Many people are doing good things,” he said.

“I’m not running to prove how great investment bankers are. I’m simply trying to do something good for a cause I believe in.”

He has to train every day, rain or shine, balancing the long working hours of a financial executive against the performance objectives of an elite athlete. In a few weeks, Mr. Culbert will travel to Alberta to run and hike in high altitude conditions.

“I will do some glacier training with my coach, Dave Battison, similar to what our national-level skiers do in the off-season, to get my body ready for the altitude changes.”

In 2004, he paired up with Mr. Battison, a former professional triathlete and coach, who overhauled Mr. Culbert’s training program. At the time, Mr. Culbert an avid cyclist, had just competed in his first 24-hour solo race, but had struggled with injuries. Over the next five years, along with Mr. Battison, he entered numerous events, each time improving his ranking. In 2005, he placed first in his age group in the 24-hour Summer Solstice mountain bike race in Palgrave, Ont., and nabbed another first the following year.

In 2007, he and his coach qualified for the U.S. National Championships in Wisconsin. Mr. Culbert finished 13th in the pro category. His success in mountain biking raised thousands of dollars for the CIBC Miracle Fund and eventually connected him back to Sick Kids.

In the summer of 2009, he and Mr. Battison decided to run the Bruce Trail – close to 850 km on roads and paths extending from Niagara to Tobermory, with each man alternating running shifts. Friends and colleagues thought the idea was crazy, but Mr. Culbert thought it had good fundraising potential. The team at Sick Kids agreed. In the end, the duo came up just short of their goal, reaching the 667-km mark – but they did raise more than $127,000 for HealthyKids International.More importantly, it set in motion a training plan and fundraising initiative that will peak with this summer’s ultra-marathon race. “When I travel to Chamonix this summer, I’m bringing the family with me. Matt, Emily and my wife Denise will be supporting me.”

The Utra-Trail du Mont-Blanc has been called “the race of all the superlatives,” passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. Some 2,300 runners must complete the challenge in less than 46 hours. The top racers will finish in half that time. Mr. Culbert is more than aware of this, but remains philosophical about his motivation: “Coach Dave has a saying for all of the athletes he trains: ‘Forward motion cures all.’ ”

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