My husband and I are “training” for two spring races, a 10K in Toronto on Mother’s Day and the Ottawa Half Marathon at the end of May. Both are family events for us. In the case of the Toronto 10K we have a record 8 family members running; the two of us, two sons, two daughters-in-law, my brother and my nephew are all joining us in the festivities, along with 25,000 others. I’m guessing that among our family group there will be some competitive aspirations in play, whether they’re stated or silent. As for me, my goal is to do better than the Turbaned Tornado did in Hong Kong recently when he completed the 10K as part of their Marathon Weekend in 1:32:28. I should be able to do so, but, after all, he is 101 years old. If I can’t beat a 101 year old, I should probably think of taking up a different sport!
There are many inspirational stories about runners and running. Heartwarming stories appear in Runner’s World magazine and other publications every month. Running has this inexplicable capacity to motivate their adherents to stretch themselves. It’s remarkably empowering. Several people serve as inspiration for me in running, but the following three are at the top of the list, not because of their running ability per se but how they used running as a vehicle for a greater purpose.
1. Terry Fox
Terry Fox has been my hero ever since he began his ill-fated cross-country Marathon of Hope in 1980. For anyone who may not know about Terry Fox, and certainly that wouldn’t include any Canadian, his is a story worth hearing. He was an athletic young student in British Columbia whose path in life was dealt a severe blow when he developed cancer at the knee and ended up having to have his leg amputated. He was 18. After a lengthy course of chemotherapy and being told that he had a 50% chance of survival, Terry responded by coming up with a plan that couldn’t possibly have been taken seriously by anyone: he would run a marathon a day, on his artificial leg, running from coast to coast across Canada. In the process, he would raise money for cancer research. He set his goal at raising $1 per Canadian, or $24M at the time. His Marathon of Hope started in April 1980 when he dipped his artifical leg in the Atlantic Ocean at St. John’s Newfoundland.
It was a tough slog for quite a while, with start-up challenges and poor weather aside from trying to run a marathon a day on an artificial leg. But slowly – very slowly – Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope started to pick up steam. More and more people heard about it, more and more people came out to cheer him on, and more and more people donated to the cause. It’s a long and impactful story, but on September 1, 1980, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, having run 5,373 kilometres (3,339 miles) in 143 days, Terry’s cancer returned and he was forced to stop. At this point, he had raised nearly $2M. Of course, this was just the beginning. The imagination of the country had been completely captivated by Terry’s strength of character and determination. Major donations and telethons followed, and one year after his Marathon of Hope had begun, in April 1981, over $23M had been collected. Terry Fox lost his battle with cancer shortly after that in June 1981.
That was 31 years ago, but Terry Fox’s legacy lives on. He has remained one of Canada’s most beloved and respected national heroes, with a statue of him gracing a place of honour in our national capital, Ottawa. Annual Terry Fox Runs are held every mid-September in towns and cities throughout Canada and around the world, raising millions of dollars for cancer research each year. Tens of thousands of us would not miss running in the Terry Fox Run, which is a non-competitive family-oriented event that includes running, walking, and cycling, both 5K and 10K. Terry Fox is considered to be one of our greatest Canadians in the truest sense of the term. He was a young man who ran, who had a grand vision, who didn’t give up, and who, through his determination, inspired a nation.
2. Fauja Singh (Turbaned Tornado)
I had never heard of Fauja Singh until 2011, when he became the first centenarian (100 years plus) to complete a marathon, which happened at the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. My brother was running in that race and passed Mr. Singh and his entourage without realizing his story. He read about it in the papers afterwards, along with the rest of us. Mr. Singh, nicknamed the Turbaned Tornado, has been in the papers again recently when, after completing the 10K race in Hong Kong last week, he announced that he was “retiring” from running, just before his 102nd birthday.
Fauja Singh is an uneducated, Indian-born, Punjabi-speaking former farmer whose life changed dramatically after the death of his wife and the traumatic death soon afterwards of his son with whom he farmed. Life as he knew it was over and at the age of 82 he immigrated to the U.K. to live with another son. It was there, at that tender age, that he was introduced to running through the Sikh community. At the age of 89 he ran his first marathon, the famed London Marathon. His personal best came in 2003 when he completed the Toronto Marathon in 5:40, at age 91. To put that in context, I ran my first marathon at age 65 and my personal best is 5:46:59! One upsetting aspect of Mr. Singh’s running career is that the Guinness Book of World Record’s would not accept him as the oldest person to complete a marathon (at age 100 in the 2011 Toronto Marathon) because he does not have an official birth certificate. This is despite the fact that he carries a British passport with his birth date and the Indian government has documented that they did not have birth certificates in 1901. It doesn’t seem fair.
His message to us all: life begins (again) at 82.
3. Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer is the woman who braved the wrath of the famously crusty race director of the Boston Marathon, registering for that race as K.V. Switzer back in 1967, knowing that women were not allowed to race at that time. She just wanted to run. Her participation in that race was threatened by the race director, Jock Semple, who took the misguided action of physically manhandling her on the course and making fraught comments, all of which was picked up by the media and broadcast widely. Five years later, women were officially included in major races as well as local races. It’s hard to believe, but the common perception on the part of males who were in charge of everything then seemed to be that women were too frail to run very far and, besides, no young male would want to run in the same race with women. Who would want to see a woman sweating? Happily, those ancient-of-days myths came tumbling down rapidly, thanks to people like Kathrine Switzer and other early runners – and their male supporters – who pushed the boundaries. As for Switzer, in 1974 she won the NYC Marathon in 3:07. Wow. She continued to advocate for women in sports throughout her career. And as for Jock Semple and others like him, eventually they fade into oblivion. Thank you for stepping up, Kathrine.
Three people whose stories transcend running, stories that inspire.
Who inspires you?