I haven’t done this run since middle school when we were forced to run it annually every September. But now that I’m older and I’m still running, it has a different meaning for me.
Every decent Canadian knows the story of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope. In 1977 Terry Fox was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and had his right leg amputated. He was 19 years old.
After having gone through the medical system Fox was both moved by the despair of those suffering from cancer, and frustrated at the lack of awareness and money going into cancer research. He once said, “I’m sure we would have found a cure for cancer 20 years ago if we had really tried.”
The night before his cancer surgery, Fox read an article about Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York Marathon. That’s when he knew that he wanted to run.
Fox wasn’t always a runner. His true passion was basketball. In fact, the only reason he even began running in junior high was because his physical education teacher and basketball coach suggested that, due to his height, he might be better suited for long distance running instead of basketball. Fox joined the cross-country team because he wanted to please his coach, but he never gave up on basketball. By the time he finished high school, he had a starting position on the basketball team and he won his high school’s athlete of the year award.
After his leg amputation, Fox continued to play basketball in a wheelchair and went on to win three national titles. He was also named an all-star by the North American Wheelchair Basketball Association in 1980.
Fox was not someone who liked to hear the word no, particularly if it insinuated his athletic limitations. He believed in himself wholeheartedly.
Fox ran his first marathon in British Columbia in 1979. He came in last place. After that run he revealed his plans for embarking on what he called the Marathon of Hope, as a means to raise money for cancer research. His goal was to run across Canada and raise $1 for each of Canada’s 24 million people.
His mother was the first to discourage him. She remembers him saying, “I thought you’d be one of the first persons to believe in me.” She later came to support his cause, and was one of the eight people to carry the Olympic Flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The run that Fox set out for himself was brutal. He refused to take a day off and was running a marathon distance every single day with a leg prosthesis that forced him to limp and hop along slowly. He suffered blisters, shin splints, inflamed knees, tendonitis, cysts on his stump, and dizzy spells, to name a few challenges. He refused regular medical checkups and suggestions that he was risking his future health.
Fox never made it across Canada. He was forced to stop when his cancer spread to his lungs and he could no longer breathe. He had hopes of recovering and finishing his run, but he passed away June 28, 1981 at age 22. He had run for 143 days and covered 5, 373 kilometers (3,339 miles).
Fox is a Canadian icon. Our greatest hero. After he passed away, Pierre Elliot Trudeau said of him:
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.
The Toronto Star was the first newspaper to regularly cover Terry Fox’s run across Canada by assigning a reporter named Leslie Scrivener to follow him. This is something Scrivener wrote in April of 2010:
It was so early that June morning. There was no hint of a sunrise when Terry Fox stepped on to Highway 17 in eastern Ontario. No one in the van with him had said a word. It was a time of waiting, of preparing. A long day, a marathon of running lay ahead. The moon bathed the fields in a silvery light. Alone, without the crowds who would later wait on the highway, he moved smoothly and contentedly through the dark. It was a good day, one of the rare ones.
The image from that morning endures, 30 years on. It’s imprinted, somewhere, part of who I am.
In the three decades that have passed Canada too carries the imprint of the graceful young man with the awkward amputee’s gait. He became a part of us, part of our bedrock. He is in our geography, in awards that honor outstanding young Canadians, as a role model for athletes.
Not all of us have a grand, life changing purpose for running. But running changes you. And as Fox discovered – it makes you brave.