When the Olympic torch relay came through Winnipeg en route to the 1988 Calgary games, 13 year old Colin Harris was in the crowd. Holding a small replica torch in his hand, Colin remembers running with the torch bearer, leaving his friends behind, running to the city limits until the torch and the runner got into a van and drove away. I don’t know what possessed me to run that far on that particular day,” writes Colin on his blog, “but… that was the beginning of my dream to run across this country.”

Since that day, Colin has completed more than 30 half, full and ultra-marathons. He also developed a passion for the outdoors and became an environmental education specialist, using nature as a classroom to facilitate learning, personal growth and physical activity in kids.

Now, under the banner of his non-profit, Take Me Outside, Colin is combining his passion for running and the outdoors into a monumental project: a nine month, 7,500 kilometre run across Canada. With this bold endeavour Colin aims to fulfil his personal running dream while urging kids to unplug, get outside and live healthy active lives.

Today, the average Canadian child is spending 50 hours per week in front of screens. According to the Canadian Medical Association, one quarter of Canadian children between the ages of 6-11 are currently overweight or obese, and many more are experiencing disturbing increases in diabetes, ADHD, depression and declining school performance. Yet studies are showing that physical outdoor activity and contact with nature can alleviate these health problems.

Alarmed by these dire statistics and motivated to coax Canadian youth off the couch, Colin laced up his runners in St. John’s Newfoundland on January 17, 2011. Then, facing into the biting wind, he stared down the first few metres of asphalt between St. John’s and Vancouver and started running. Later that day when he arrived at Holy Family Elementary school, the students were ready for him.

Stuck to the walls were hand coloured pictures of running shoes with Take Me Outside written on them. Hanging nearby, large posters created with colourful markers all carried the same message in big bold letters: Bonne Chance Colin! All this artwork, and a song too, were created in Colin’s honour. Reflecting on Facebook about that day, an elated Colin used the word “overwhelming.”

Since that day Colin has met with hundreds of students in four provinces. A letter he received from one sixth grade student reads: “I think what you are doing is amazing. It’s inspiring so many people and children to go outside and explore… I think of you as a hero.”

Buoyed up by the kids he meets, he is now more than 2000 km west of St. John’s. Wisely building up his mileage slowly to avoid injury and chronic exhaustion, resting often and eating whole foods, Colin ran his first marathon distance of the project on day 26. By day 83, he had run the staggering equivalent of six marathons in the previous week, including one day off.

Still, there have been setbacks. Early on, Colin was plagued by IT band problems and pulled muscles, forcing him to take extra days off. Habitually running on the left shoulder of the road with its leftward slope, his dad and support crew advised him to switch to the right shoulder, with its opposite slope, to balance his gait. “My IT band… loosened up in minutes,”he recalls.

Tall, with a strong build and red hair, Colin could be an imposing man if not for his wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly demeanour. Earnest, self-effacing and somewhat uncomfortable in the limelight, it is tempting to compare him to Terry Fox — our country’s most beloved runner-hero. But while the comparison comes easily, Colin’s humility quickly shows through. “No one will duplicate what \[Terry] did for thiscountry, \[but] I think we can all try to emulate what he did, and the spirit with which he did it.”

Colin’s approach to addressing the critical health issues affecting today’s children is an elegant merging of old fashioned grassroots action (running up to the doors of schools, talking to students and taking them outside to run around) and modern social media tactics — using a blog, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to reach those he cannot meet physically. Just shy of his one-third distance mark, he has generated a substantial following, in part because of his hopeful message, but mostly because he is an extraordinary runner.

Most people know this about running: it ain’t easy. Yet, our bodies were built to move on foot. Running is high-speed primal locomotion. It makes our hearts pump, lungs ache and muscles burn. Anybody who has ever run any distance knows this is true. Even amongst the armchair athletes of the world, running evokes a visceral response. That may be why it is proving to be a powerful way to deliver Colin’s important message.

Out on the Trans-Canada Highway, Colin’s purpose and humble nature are clear. “This run across the country is my small way of joining the army of thousands who care about the wellbeing of future generations,” he says. “This is my way of trying to change the world… a world that would be a little bit healthier and a little bit happier if we just got outside a little bit more.”

A glittering spec on the map, Colin Harris is slowly moving west, energizing every school he visits, inspiring kids to get outside and be healthy. He is leading by example, boldly fulfilling his personal dreams while kindly reaching out to improve the lives of Canadian children.

Original article courtesy of iRun Magazine.

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