Terry Fox was a young man who succumbed to cancer at the age of 22, a month short of his 23rd birthday. He died in 1981, 37 years ago. So how can a young man, dead all these years, be such an enduring inspiration in his native land of Canada and beyond? Well, it is to the credit of his family, who run the Terry Fox Foundation, to have kept his story alive. But Terry Fox, the young man who in the midst of dealing with his own cancer struggles decided he’d help other young people fighting cancer by raising money for cancer research, is the one who lived the astounding story.
Terry was an athletic, fiercely competitive young man who grew up in British Columbia in western Canada. In 1977, at age 18, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, which resulted in the amputation of his right leg followed by 16 months of chemotherapy. But it wasn’t long after his amputation before he was walking on his artificial leg, playing golf and wheelchair basketball. This young man wasn’t one to think in terms of giving up or giving in. Also, around the time of his surgery, he read an article about Dick Traum, who just the year before had become the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon. This was just the kind of inspiration that resonated with him. During his long chemo treatments he conceived and developed a dream. A quest beyond what most people could conceive. He dreamed of running across Canada to raise money for cancer research. His own experience with cancer treatment, watching many children succumb to the disease, made him aware of the low level of support for cancer research at that time.
And so, after training to run with his unique gait of a hop-step on his good leg to accommodate the spring in his artificial leg, he trained for his first marathon. Keeping in mind that he managed this by realizing that he crossed a pain threshold after 20-30 minutes and so knew he could keep going (OMG), he revealed his full plan. He would run a marathon a day across Canada, starting in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the eastern most part of Canada, and ending at the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia. A marathon on one good leg and one artificial leg, every single day. He hoped to raise $1M, a goal that he subsequently raised to $10M.
Let’s recap. In 1979, a 21-year old young man, having experienced 16 months of chemotherapy and having to learn to live with an artificial leg, decided to run one marathon every single day across the country (4000 miles (6500 kms) as the crow flies and much further when you go by road). Personally, I cannot get my head around this. I’ve heard of 7 marathons in 7 days, done by people with two good legs, and I can’t even get my head around that. Most of us are advised to rest our bodies for a good two weeks after running one marathon.
Terry contacted the Canadian Cancer Society, he secured a few sponsors, and on April 12, 1980, his Marathon of Hope began when he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean at St. John’s. Most of you won’t know what the weather is like in Newfoundland in April. It’s like much of the year there: cold, wet, and blustery, with every likelihood of snow. All of the above were what welcomed Terry as he began his quest. I will leave the details of his Marathon of Hope to the Terry Fox Foundation website; it is long, dramatic, and inspirational. Slowly, his quest gained more public awareness and the dollars started flowing in. Terry made it as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario on the northern shores of Lake Superior before having to stop because the cancer had come back. It was in his lungs. He had run a marathon (26.2 miles/42.2 kms) every day for 143 days, covering 3,339 miles (5,373 kms) to raise money for cancer research. He had won the hearts and fired the imagination of all Canadians. He had to bring his Marathon of Hope to a close on Sept.1, 1980 because his body gave out. He died a national hero on June 28, 1981.
There is a second part to this remarkable story, and that is the continuing success of the annual Terry Fox Runs. Before Terry died, his Marathon of Hope had raised $23M for cancer research. Since the inception of the Terry Fox Foundation started by his parents and brother, and with the first Terry Fox Run in 1981, they have raised $750M around the world. $750M. With 82% of the money raised by the Foundation going directly to cancer research, one of the highest rates among NGOs and charitable foundations. Yes, Terry Fox Runs are held annually in hundreds of communities across Canada, as well as many organized runs in the U.S. and around the world. Terry Fox School Runs are held at schools across the country. Still, 37 years after his death. It is a remarkable story.
I’ve participated in the Terry Fox Run almost every year since it started in 1981. There is nothing that inspires me more. People come with their families and walk, run, bike, unicycle, and inline-skate whatever distance they want: 1K, 5K, or 10K. Volunteers help keep people entertained and – of course – accept their donations. This year’s Terry Fox Run was Sunday, September 16, the customary second Sunday after Labour Day. It was a special year for me insofar as both our sons’ families, in two different cities and in different ways, also participated. There is no better family tradition!