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An ultramarathon, with a purpose
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Morgan Murri is worried.

Though he’s not particularly concerned with competing in the “world’s toughest footrace” next week, he is deeply troubled by recent trends involving today’s youth. The fact that young people show little interest in the out-of-doors disturbs him. Too, he finds their unprecedented consumption of fast food dangerous and disquieting. Certainly, he fears what the future might hold for our children ... and the natural environment that will ultimately depend on them.

As a Pagosa Springs resident, Murri is many things. To be sure, he’s a loving husband and father, but he’s also an endurance runner in every sense of the word. Even as running is his passion, it has also become the instrument of his avowed purpose. That is why, come Monday, he’ll challenge himself and 88 other runners in the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley.

While attempting to cover 135 miles in under 60 hours, Murri and fellow competitors will do so in the dead of summer, in one of the hottest places on earth. With temperatures hovering around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be the 32nd running of the race, an event recognized globally as “the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.”

Why, might one ask, would athletes subject themselves to such extreme and potentially perilous circumstances for the sake of winning a single competition?

With 89 fierce competitors overall, there may be that many explanations. But, in Murri’s case, he hopes to raise money for GECKO, a non-profit he and his wife, Nancy, created last year, which represents Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors.

GECKO is a Colorado 501(c)(3) born out of the Murris’ desire to raise youth awareness of the outdoors. Through donations and subsidized events, the organization secures funding to pay for scholarships that allow children to experience nature through the nation’s leading outdoor education providers.

In his book, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv suggests today’s children are so “wired” into television, computers and video games, that they’ve almost completely severed bonds with the outdoor world. According to statistics, fewer than 25 percent of today’s youth engage in outdoor activities more than twice a week.

Meanwhile, one-third of U.S. children aged 4 to 19 consume fast food every day, resulting in approximately six extra pounds per year, per child. In fact, fast food consumption among children has increased fivefold since 1970.

In light of these trends, Murri is worried that tomorrow’s leaders may not concern themselves enough with nature, to make sound decisions that will protect the environment for future generations. As noted wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman observed, “ ... if you don’t love them (animals, plants and all natural phenomena), then you’re not going to care a hoot about protecting them or voting for issues that would protect them.”

“The profound positive impact the outdoors has played in our lives is an opportunity many kids are missing today,” Murri, 44, said recently. “I pit myself against these incredible challenges to show kids that if you believe in yourself, anything is possible.”

Hence, GECKO is currently seeking sponsors to support its efforts, and intends to broaden awareness of childhood obesity, “nature-deficit disorder” and various nature-based programs. All sponsorship contributions cover the costs of sending children to weeklong outdoor adventures and leadership programs.

And, as Murri leads by example in Death Valley, funds from this year’s Badwater race will pay for children attending the Wild Pagosa Outdoor Program. For just $135 — or a dollar a mile — a child can connect with nature for an entire week, while developing an appreciation for the natural world. Murri hopes to raise $13,500 during the event, or enough to sponsor 100 kids.

While nature-deficit disorder is not a formal medical diagnosis, Louv considers it adequate language to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly among children in their formative years. It was Louv’s book that inspired the Murris and their creation of GECKO.

With hope of achieving local, regional and national environmental influence, Murri said GECKO has tied itself to three primary groups. Wild Pagosa is apparently the preferred local program, while Leadville’s High Mountain Institute offers a broader parochial setting. The National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo. is a longstanding authority in teaching technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics through remote wilderness expeditions.

Though Morgan Murri is an accomplished endurance runner with some impressive victories to his credit, his most pressing calling is to get kids off the couch, away from video games and into the outdoors.

Anyone with children interested in obtaining scholarships toward outstanding outdoor programs, or those wanting to sponsor GECKO programs or events, should visit www.joingecko.org. You can also e-mail Morgan Murri at morgan@joingecko.org, or call him at (303) 475-6053.

chuck@pagosasun.com