Colin Harris dips his toe into the Esquimalt Lagoon Tuesday afternoon

Marathon man

RRU student finishes cross Canada run linked to encouraging youth to embrace nature

RRU student finishes cross Canada run linked to encouraging youth to embrace nature

Not long after dipping his toe into the Esquimalt Lagoon, Colin Harris was racing a rambunctious gang of Sangster elementary kids up the hill, toward Hatley Castle.

Despite running 7,600 kilometers over the past year, Harris didn’t hesitate to tack on a few more strides. The 36-year-old ultra-ultra marathoner from Ontario stepped off the ferry at Swartz Bay Tuesday morning and ran to Royal Roads University, the last marathon distance he’ll complete for a while.

Harris launched his Canadian odyssey in the spirit of Terry Fox. The lanky redhead dipped his toe in the Atlantic Ocean off St. John’s, N.L., on Jan. 17 and ran west, one marathon at a time.

“When I started nine months ago, it was overwhelming. You can’t think about the Pacific Ocean, you just had to take one day at a time,” he said. “It’s been a long nine months. I’m happy I’ve made it.”

His mission was to spread the idea of encouraging youth to put down the smart phone and get into the great outdoors. Under the banner of the Take Me Outside Challenge, he hit 75 schools and spoke to some 20,000 kids along the way.

“It’s about all the time students spend in front of screens, playing video games, watching TV and surfing the net,” he said, citing a statistic that estimates teens spend 53 hours per week in front of screens. “We need to find a balance between the time we spend with technology and the time we spend outside.”

Of the 280 days on the road, Harris spent 180 days running marathon distances, sometimes with a support crew, sometimes alone. For five weeks in northern Ontario, he would park his RV, run 40-plus kilometres, then hitchhike back and drive to the next waypoint.

“The goods days are where I ran a marathon and was picked up in 10 minutes,” he smiled. “The bad days where I ran a marathon and had to wait for three hours for a ride.”

Coinciding with Harris’s arrival at RRU, the Sooke School District officially announced the launch of it’s nature kindergarten pilot project, where a K class based at Sangster elementary will spend part of their day learning and playing outside on the RRU grounds.

“Colin’s message about getting kids outside and active is exactly what we want to incorporate into our classrooms across the school district,” said SD 62 superintendent Jim Cambridge, who ran with Harris on the final stretch through the RRU campus.

Harris caught the cross-Canada marathon bug in Grade 7 after running with an 1988 Winter Olympic Games torch bearer. “Terry Fox was also a huge inspiration for me, part of my personal dream to run across the country,” he said.

He spent his working life witnessing the benefits of connecting youth with nature as director of outdoor education at a YMCA in Ontario and for Outward Bound Canada. These days he’s trying to finish his thesis in the RRU masters of environmental education and communication. His professor Rick Kool was waiting at the Lagoon finish line.

“It’s a hell of a way of putting off writing his masters thesis. It’s a tremendous achievement,” said Kool, an associate professor in the RRU school of environment and sustainability. “Actually running nearly 8,000 km and speaking at nearly 80 schools, he was living the commitment of being outside.”

Kool said there is a growing body of research backing Harris’s message that spending time outdoors can be physically and mentally beneficial to children and adults.

“There is lots of research about the benefit of spending even a small amount of time in nature every day. Even looking out a window at nature helps,” Kool said. “Colin was out there for nine months telling people how important it is to get outside, that it’s good for students.

“People definitely need to step away from screens and worrying about their email.”

Check out Harris’s website at Take Me Outside.

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