Cole Choken
Credit: Cole Choken

He dreamed he had to run. So he did—from Mexico to Calgary

On New Year’s Day, 2010, 24-year-old Cole Choken stood just beyond the U.S. border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and started jogging north. He didn’t stop for almost a year, snaking 8,200 kilometres along the eastern seaboard and onward into Canada to cross from Montreal to Calgary. He was largely ignored by the media, but that didn’t bother Choken. He just kept on running.

Choken was an unlikely athlete. Four years earlier, he weighed 340 pounds. That year, though, he had a vision. “I was sleeping and had a dream of this old guy running past me. He told me to get up and start jogging with him. So I got up and started jogging, and that completely changed my life,” he says.

By August 2006 he was ready for his first big run, an 84-kilometre route between Grand Beach and Winnipeg that took 38 hours. His next challenge was a two-day run to the Lake Manitoba First Nation reserve of Dog Creek, where many of his relatives live. When he said he wanted to run for a cause, his mother suggested diabetes, a disease that had taken a toll on both their family and their wider community. So, in 2007, he jogged the 1,300 kilometres of Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Winnipeg, raising $6,000. But Choken continued to have dreams. With the help of a Lake Manitoba elder, he decided to run from Mexico to Canada, this time for cancer.

He raised money working extra shifts at a restaurant and collecting donations. His support team would consist mainly of his mother or a friend, towing a second-hand trailer. The inside was festooned with posters of Terry Fox, while the outside sported a simple sign reading “Cole Choken’s run for cancer—a marathon a day.”

The most attention Choken received in the U.S. was the unwanted kind: Police routinely stopped to tell him to get off the highway. He averaged 30 kilometres per day, with a few unplanned stops—in Texas, for example, he walked in on an armed robbery at a gas station. “The guy had a gun and said, ‘Get down.’ So I did,” Choken says. But the hardest part, he adds, was when strangers would see his trailer and tell him their stories: “I lost my mother to cancer,” or “I’m in chemo now.”

Choken finished his run in Calgary last December, after enduring through minus-30 temperatures. He remained largely unknown, having raised just over $10,000 for cancer research. But media attention is far from the most important measure of an accomplishment. “His run wasn’t covered much,” says Canadian ultra-runner Ray Zahab, who met with Choken in Ottawa. “He did it on a shoestring, and he raised awareness and money for cancer—he’s an amazing role model for First Nations youth, and for youth in general.”

Choken says he battled depression after his epic expedition. Today, though, he’s thinking about getting back on the road, this time running west to B.C., then south to finally close the circle back in Nuevo Laredo. Here’s hoping that the next time Cole Choken runs, the rest of us keep up.

This profile is part of our Top 30 under 30 feature.