A Father’s Chance for Change

Gordon Wright

Only the parent of a teenager knows the abject terror, the slow-motion train wreck, brought about by their daughter’s turn down life’s darkly wrong path.  For a father, it is every fear realized, and if your 16-year-old daughter was at risk; if she was partying to the point where real trouble loomed; if her grades were plummeting; if her very safety was threatened, how far would you go to save her?

Would you not only save her, but start a charity that helped saved other at-risk kids?  Would you also, in passing, put an entire mountain town on your back and drive it to economic success?

That is, somehow, what Morgan Murri has done.  His daughter is now a 22-year-old paramedic, a wilderness EMT and a soon-to-be applicant to medical school.  But six years ago, she was a teenager at the edge of destruction, and Murri did the only thing he knew could help her: he sent her into the wild.

Murri is a divorced dad who grew up in the backcountry who had always shared that love with his two kids, and at a crisis point five years ago, he knew that if he could get his daughter into a course run by the National Outdoor Leadership (NOLS), she would have a chance at finding a healthier life path.

After a month in Alaska with NOLS, Murri’s daughter returned a changed young woman.  She decided to leave move in with her father in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and finish her senior year of high school there.  Her grades improved.

Then, she had a chance in January of her senior year to go on another NOLS retreat: this time a dead-of-winter backcountry snowboarding trip of two weeks.  She returned frostbitten, and even more resolute.

“She got back from that second trip absolutely determined to go on a nine-month trip to Patagonia,” said Murri, who somehow scrounged up enough money that, combined with his daughter’s intense bout of work and savings, allowed the trip to happen as soon as she graduated from high school.

With his daughter safely in the arms of NOLS and maturing daily, Murri was free to do what he does best, and what he does best is compete in endurance events.  He’s done the Leadville 100 four times.  That’s the trail run Leadville 100, but he’s also done the Leadville 100 bike race, too…four times.  Badwater?  Done that.  Marathon des Sables?  Done that and got the tee-shirt.  Not surprisingly, he’s doing well at the GORE-TEX TransRockies Run™.  Murri and his partner, David Wilcox, are comfortably sitting in third-place in the Men’s 80+ division.

But it was at the Marathon des Sable in 2009 where Murri fell apart.  The notoriously difficult desert stage race found Murri questioning his own passion for hard-case races.

“I was suffering, and I didn’t know why I was doing it,” said Murri. “But I returned to the one thing that really meant something, which was my daughter’s incredible transformation.  I figured that if I could do for other kids what NOLS had done for my daughter, than all of this would have meaning.”

The desert has a way of inspiring these kinds of thoughts, but after finishing the race, he didn’t put his epiphany aside.  Instead, he set about helping others.

He was serving on the Pagosa Springs Town Tourism Committee, and about the time he returned home, some of the city fathers asked him to help develop running races to boost the area’s coffers.

That he did – on one condition: that the proceeds go to a foundation he would establish, GECKO (Get Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors).  As GECKO has grown, so has the town of Pagosa Springs, a dot of 1600 souls wedged at the southern border of New Mexico in the County of Archuleta County.  In fact, it is the only incorporated town of all of Archuleta County.

There is much to recommend Pagosa Springs – it’s like the Flagstaff of Colorado – but surrounded as it is by Southern Ute Indian reservations and the San Juan National Forest, it is more of a retirement community and second-home destination than anything else.  Until Morgan Murri started doing his thing.

The area now hosts seven trail races, chili festivals and, soon, a series of mountain bike races.  Similar to what has happened in Leadville, the area is becoming an outdoor enthusiast’s playground, and the Pagosa Peaks Trail Races are now part of the Trail Runner Trophy Series.

In 2009, Morgan and his races send one child on scholarship to NOLS.  In 2010, the proceeds sent one child to NOLS and three to Leadville’s High Mountain Institute.  In 2011, they have sent five to NOLS courses.  Next year, Murri anticipates that at least ten and as many as 15 kids will take NOLS courses throughout the world.

“It seems crazy, but we’re actually developing more scholarship funding than we’ve had interest from kids,” noted Murri.  His near-term goals are to develop more interest from families about the benefits of the life-changing possibilities of outdoor leadership, and to develop corporate sponsorship to add to the $25,000 he raised in 2011.

It may seem just a small effort.  But for the kids who are exposed to the responsibility, the life-changing personal development of NOLS, it is profound, and growing.

It all started from a father terrified at the thought of his dear daughter making bad choices.  GECKO works, and GECKO stems from something that every outdoor endurance athlete possesses: wilderness provides endless knowledge and opportunity, and the chance to profoundly change their perspectives.

All it takes is someone, someone like Morgan Murri, to make it happen.

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