Remembering Terry Fox

Terry Fox was a distance runner and basketball  player for his high school and at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He developed bone cancer in his right leg, which was amputated in 1977.

On April 12, 1980,  Terry Fox dipped his artificial limb (“it was a cobbling of leather and aluminum, like suspenders,” wrote the Toronto Star) into the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the eastern tip of Canada.

Then he turned west and started running.

St. John’s was the starting point in his attempt to run across Canada in the “Marathon of Hope,” an effort to raise cancer awareness, and to raise one dollar for each of Canada’s 24 million people.

Terry Fox during the Marathon of Hope

At the beginning, his attempt was largely unknown, though sponsors had provided a camper van, fuel, and running shoes. In the first few days, he was met met with gale force winds, heavy rain and a snowstorm. He was also met with a donation of over $10,000 from the 10,000 residents of Port aux Basques, Newfoundland.

It took him two months to cross the Maritime provinces (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick). In Quebec, drivers continually forced him off the road.

He was running a marathon a day. On one leg and a stump. And, because the spring on his artificial leg took a while to reset, he resorted to a hop-step on his own leg. Let me repeat: he ran a marathon a day.

By the time he reached Ontario he was becoming a celebrity. According to Wikipedia, “Fox crossed into Ontario at the town of Hawkesbury on the last Saturday in June. He was met by a brass band and thousands of residents who lined the streets to cheer him on, while the Ontario Provincial Police gave him an escort throughout the province.”

Ontario was a media circus, and he was the guest of honor everywhere he went. He met the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, and hockey players like Darryl Sittler (the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs), and Bobby Orr.

Except for a brief pause in Montreal at the request of the Canadian Cancer Society, Fox kept running. He ran through the heat of August. He ran despite shin splints and an inflamed knee, despite developing cysts on his stump and suffering dizzy spells.

On September 1, outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, he was forced to stop briefly after suffering an intense coughing fit and experiencing pains in his chest. Unsure of what else to do, he resumed running as the crowds along the highway shouted their encouragement.  A few miles later, experiencing a shortness of breath and still suffering the pain in his chest, he asked to be driven to the hospital.

The next day he held a tearful press conference announcing that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs.

He was forced to end his run after 143 days and 5,280 kilometres. He had raised $1.7 million.

A week after his run ended, a national television network ran a five-hour telethon that raised $10 million. Two provincial governments each donated $1 million. Donations continued through the winter, and by the following spring, over $23 million had been raised in Terry Fox’s name.

Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981.

The Government of Canada ordered flags across the country lowered to half mast, an unprecedented honour that was usually reserved for statesmen. Addressing the House of Commons, [Pierre] Trudeau stated that “It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death….We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

That fall was the first Terry Fox Run. Almost thirty years later, the Terry Fox Run is now the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research, and the Terry Fox Foundation has raised close to $500 million in his name for cancer research.

When I think of heroes, I look no farther than the man running at the side of the road, alone, in the twilight. Chasing a seemingly impossible dream. I think of Terry Fox.