Eighteen years ago, david harris of Mississauga made a promise to himself after losing his son Cameron to commit suicide.
Cameron died while Harris, 62, was training for his first Mississauga Marathon in 2005. He found that running gave him a measure of peace to help him cope with his grief, and he made it his goal to fight youth mental illness and raise awareness of others’ suffering. On April 30, he will complete his 19th consecutive Mississauga Marathon–one for each year of his Cameron’s life.
On Feb. 14, 2005, Harris’s life was changed forever when Cameron took his own life from him at 19. “There was a lot of fallout from his death,” says Harris. “People grieve in different ways, but running saved my life.”
“People weren’t talking about mental health in 2005,” says Harris. “The sad reality was, people did not want to hear what I had to say.”
In 2006, Harris founded a youth-run program called CameronHelps (Team Unbreakable), which demonstrates that physical activity, such as running, can help alleviate depression and help with mental health in young people. Team Unbreakable has grown to involve two race events, the Mississauga Half and the Team Unbreakable Father’s Day 5K run, hosted every third Sunday in June.
Harris also began volunteer coaching with Dan McGann of Credit Valley Hospital and its Run Group Therapy Program, which provides teens with a unique approach to coping with depression. He coached with the program for 14 years, working with kids, teaching them how to run, and getting them to up to 5K. “The transformation of these kids was magical,” says Harris. “It meant the world to me.”
The 62-year-old fell into running before Cameron’s death. “In 2003, I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw,” he says. “I went to Chapters and found a book called body for life which had a 90-day program that could change your life.”
Harris says he followed the book religiously: “I felt brand new in three months. I was physically and mentally stronger, and I fell in love with running.”
Nineteen consecutive Mississauga Marathons haven’t been easy for Harris, though. In 2012, he was mugged the week before the race and ran the marathon with a torn meniscus, resulting from the attack. And in 2020 and 2021, he had to complete both Mississauga races virtually. “Every year, my motivation is Cameron and to finish that damn race,” says Harris. ” I know this year’s race will be filled with mixed emotions, but it’s incredible the journey is coming to an end.”
Harris, now a father of three boys, says not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about Cameron. “The feelings of grief–I still have them,” he says. “I tell myself it’s OK to cry. I always had to fight that, but now I embrace my emotions.”
This year’s race is now branded as the Mississauga Half and changed to a half-marathon format, dropping the marathon. Harris said the Mississauga Half team has been supportive, allowing him to start earlier than the other runners and run the course twice.
Harris aims to raise $1 million for Jack.org, an organization his friend, Eric Windeller, started, whose son also died by suicide. His campaign is backed by a sponsor, TC Energy, which will match all donations to Harris’s campaign. You can check out his donation page here.