Since the grassroots of the UHA development we've been extremely blessed with the friendships we've gained and continue to nurture. We had the opportunity to meet Brian Lafleur a few years back while working a trade show with Popeye's supplements and immediately hit it off. His positive insight and wisdom from life experience has been a major influence to the Unsung Hero brand. We asked him to share some of his story and recent endeavours in Buyeo, Chungnam Province, South Korea with his wife Julia.
Julia and I met in 2005 while studying Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. With a common passion for health and fitness we easily became great friends, which in no time whatsoever turned into the greatest relationship either of us could have imagined. Shortly after we started dating, Julia introduced me to the world of endurance sports. She was an avid runner, and while I was massively into fitness, running wasn’t exactly something I ever did for ‘fun’. Nevertheless I obliged in joining her on some runs around beautiful downtown Ottawa and after a couple weeks of a brand new type of soreness I had never before experienced, I actually started to enjoy it. So much so that I decided to do my honours thesis on ‘The Motivation of Ultra Endurance Athletes’. While I enjoyed running around our neighbourhood, I couldn’t quite understand why people would want to run a marathon, ultramarathon or even an Ironman Triathlon. As part of my research, I interviewed a number of local ultra-endurance athletes and heard their stories. I learned what motivated them to get started in ultra-endurance, to train day in and day out, to start an event that they know won’t be finished for many hours and to keep going when their body is screaming at them to stop. My conclusions were that these were highly motivated, ‘type A’ people who are driven to set lofty goals and do whatever it takes to achieve those goals. My interest in this sub-culture of ultra-endurance became somewhat of an obsession and within a couple years I had run my first 10k, then half marathon (21.1km), then full marathon (42.2k) as well as my first sprint triathlon (500m swim, 20km bike and 5km run) and right up to full Ironman distance triathlon (3.8km swim, 180km bike and full 42.2km marathon run) at Ironman Canada (Penticton BC) in 2008. What made this race even more meaningful was that I was able to raise over $6500 for the Canadian Diabetes association in the process. At the same time, Julia was doing running races of 5 and 10k as well as duathlons (run-bike-run) and keeping up with overall fitness.
Aside from health and fitness, we also share a passion for travel. We are fully aware that we only get one shot at life and want a life of experience rather than a life of things. In the fall of 2008 we decided that we’d move to Australia for a year. I applied for Teachers College in Wollongong, New South Wales (about an hour south of Sydney) and was accepted, and Julia went on a working holiday visa. That year affirmed that travelling the world was a necessity in our lives and that ‘settling down’ would have to wait. In Australia, Julia ran her first marathon and I did my second Ironman Triathlon. Upon returning to Canada in early 2010, we got ‘settled’ back in to life in Ottawa and we were back to work in no time (although not teaching) and back to dreaming of a new adventure. For Julia’s birthday that year I bought her an adventure travel book that featured variety of adventures from different countries over the globe. With no real special skills (kayaking, rock climbing, etc.) we settled on what was probably the craziest adventure in the entire book. We decided, with absolutely zero prior experience, that we would hike the 4,200km length of the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from the US-Mexican border in California, to the US-Canadian border in Washington. This was a 4.5 month commitment and we had about 6 months to prepare. We also decided that it’d make for a great honeymoon, and so we decided that we’d go against the grain one more time and have a tiny wedding (immediate family only) and a BIG honeymoon.
We had a very small outdoor wedding on Julia’s parent’s property in the Muskoka area in April of 2012, and two weeks later we hit the trail and started walking north from Mexico towards Canada. This was our life for 4 months. With only a single night in a tent prior to starting this journey, there was a GREAT deal of uncertainty and a heck of a lot of learning to do. The ‘first 700 miles (~1100km) is in the Southern California desert (Mojave) and it’s hot, dry, and there isn’t much drinking water to be found. You’re constantly filthy, hungry, tired and generally irritable. A far cry from a typical honeymoon, but it was our choice and not once did we wish we were on a beach in the Caribbean. Tending to each other’s blisters, chaffing, mild giardia, mental meltdowns and every other challenge that was placed in front of us, only helped to prove what a great team we are. Every single day of that honeymoon epitomized ‘Rise and Grind’. We’d typically get up around 5:00AM, sore from the day before, and break camp and start walking within 30 minutes. We had to beat the heat and get in as many miles in the morning as possible before the heat of the day set in. After 700 miles of dealing with the heat, the lack of water, the rattle snakes and spiders, we finally reached the Sierra Nevada mountains and were soon consistently up above 10,000 feet of elevation. Finally we were treated to cooler temperatures, clean, natural spring water and hardened bodies that could deal with what the long days of hiking had put us through. We continued hiking through California and into Oregon. By this time it was August and some injuries (tendonitis in Julia’s foot) had kept us off trail for a week and put us behind schedule. The injuries lingered and we decided, after hiking more than 3000km that it was time to go home. We felt we had accomplished what we set out to do – which was to have the most incredible adventure we could imagine - and with a lifetime’s worth of memories, maybe now we could settle down, buy a home and start a family.
Returning to Ottawa in September of 2012 and finding an apartment to settle back into felt so familiar. ‘Getting settled’ has become quite routine for us. I’ve been incredibly fortunate through all of these adventures that my employer in Ottawa (Popeye’s Supplements) has always taken me back. I had worked in the stores, as a manager and headed up our event and expo team, and this time I was promoted to be a member of the head office staff as ‘Head of Business Development and IT’. It was shortly after taking on this role that I was introduced to the Unsung Hero brand. After talking with them for the first time at a Starbucks in Ottawa, I fell in love with the brand. Its message and vision resonated with me immediately. The ‘Rise and Grind’, ‘No Quit All Hustle’ approach to life is something we’ve always aspired to and so I knew that these were the type of people I wanted to work with. I’ve only become more impressed with what these guys have grown this business into. Not only a retail clothing brand, but so much more. A brand whose vision includes serving the community and inspiring youth is one that I can certainly get behind. Since that day in 2012, it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with these guys for a number of joint projects (National expos, television commercials, charitable events, etc). Popeye’s Supplements has only benefitted from such a partnership.
In the fall of 2013, within a one week period, Julia and I moved into our new house (purchased in the Spring), signed up for a TESOL (Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages) course and ran 387km over 4 days in a relay style effort while raising $3700 for the Ottawa Mission. When we finally got ‘settled’ into our new home it felt great, but not quite right. The next year was absolutely incredible. We both continued to grow, learn and challenge ourselves in both our work and personal life. I raced three half Ironmans, as well as a number of other triathlons and running races, while Julia raced a number of 5k and 10k running races and placed at or near the top of her age / gender group each time out. Somewhere in the summer we decided that none of this was enough. We needed to see the world and we hadn’t yet done so. How do we see the world on our terms? The way we want to travel, not as tourists but as travelers? We took that TESOL course that we had signed up for nearly a year earlier and committed to moving to South Korea to teach English. But we were home owners. So, how would it work? The whole idea may have seemed way too complicated and daunting, but we had spent 4 months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as our honeymoon, so we knew that anything was possible. There’s always a way, and with a little ‘No Quit, All Hustle’ attitude, we knew we could get it all sorted out.
I write this from our apartment in Buyeo, Chungnam Province, South Korea. We’re living in rural South Korea, where absolutely nobody (aside from ~8 other English teachers) speaks English. We’ve been here in Korea for nearly 4 months. We can read and write the language and can get by with very poor (but improving) Korean and mediocre acting. This is truly a master class in adapting to a new culture. The daily challenges we face here were exactly what we were looking for. In four short months we’ve learned more about ourselves, each other, Korea, teaching and in life than we could have imagined. We’re driven to constantly challenge ourselves and are 100% committed to being lifelong learners. We’re not exactly sure when we’ll return to Canada and ‘settle down’ (again) but likely not in the next few years. This weekend we were registered to race in the Spartan Beast Race Korea (20km running with 25 obstacles). Unfortunately it was cancelled due to the current MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak we having going on here. What eases the pain is that we’re anxiously awaiting a delivery from Ottawa that’s due to arrive this week that includes the newest UHA T-Shirts!