This Sunday, September 18th, the annual Terry Fox Run will take place in cities across Canada and across the globe. Although most of our Canadian readers likely don’t need a reminder of who Terry Fox was, we thought we’d give a basic introduction to this remarkable human being and his legacy for our comrades abroad. We’d also like to say some words about some important aspects of that legacy that are typically overlooked in the mainstream media’s coverage of the Terry Fox fun.
Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox was born into a working class family – his father was a railway switchman – in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1958. At a young age his family moved to British Columbia, first to Surrey before settling in Port Coquitlam. He demonstrated a passion and talent for athletics from a young age, playing soccer (football), rugby and baseball before finding his greatest love in basketball. Although he was only 5’8 (178 cm) he made up for it with determination and hustle, earning himself a place on the basketball team of Simon Fraser University, where he studied kinesiology with the goal of one day becoming a physical education teacher.
In March 1977 Terry Fox was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of malignant bone cancer. He and his family were given the devastating news that his leg required amputation, he would have to undergo chemotherapy treatment, and that he had a 50 percent chance of survival. Despite these calamities, Fox demonstrated a remarkable perseverance and positivity that amazed people around him. With the help of an artificial leg he was walking three weeks after his amputation, and soon took up wheelchair basketball while still undergoing chemotherapy. He eventually qualified for Vancouver’s wheelchair basketball team with whom he won three national titles.
Inspired by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon, Fox became determined to run a marathon himself and began a fourteen-month training program in preparation. However, his plan developed beyond more than just a personal athletic feat. Deeply moved by the numerous fellow cancer patients he watched die during his hospital stays, and angry at how little money was being spent on cancer research at the time, he privately dreamed up a plan to run the entire length of Canada in order to raise cancer awareness. Hopefully we don’t need to remind the reader that Canada is the world’s second largest country after Russia, 9,306 kilometres coast to coast.
Running with one artificial leg presented a major physical challenge from the outset. Fox was forced to run with an unusual hopping step on his good leg in order to give the springs in his artificial leg the opportunity to reset they required. The pressure on both his good leg and his stump caused intense pain, including blisters and bone bruises, although he found he reached a pain threshold around twenty minutes after the starting point of a run.
The Marathon of Hope, as it would be called, began on April 12, 1980, when Fox dipped his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the beginning stages he faced many obstacles, beyond the obvious physical ones. He was met with heavy winds, rain and a snow storm in the first days of his run. At first few Canadians recognized him or understood what he was doing. In Quebec drivers repeatedly forced him off the road (so much for Canadian politeness, eh?) and his problems were compounded by the fact that he didn’t speak French. His frustrations and his obsessive determination caused friction with his close friend and main accomplice, Doug Alward, who followed Fox in a van and organized his meals.
By the time he reached Montreal, however, thing began to look up. Media attention and financial support began to gain traction, and the cause was bolstered by a local businesswoman who pledged two dollars for every mile Fox ran, and challenged the rest of the private sector to do the same. When Fox crossed into the province of Ontario in late June – now over two months into his journey – he was greeted by a brass band and thousands of cheering supporters. The provincial police force decided to give him an official escort through the province. As larger and larger crowds came out to cheer and run alongside him through the towns and cities of Ontario, so did prominent figures and professional athletes. In Ottawa he met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; in Toronto he was joined by Hockey Hall of Famer – and one of Fox’s personal idols – Bobby Orr, who presented him with a cheque for $25,000. Despite the formidable heat of that summer, Fox continued to run 42km a day.
On September 1st, outside Thunder Bay in northern Ontario, Fox was forced into a hospital after intense coughing fits and chest pains. The next day, Fox held a press conference where, fighting back tears, he announced that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. This brought a premature end to his run after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres. In the following months, despite multiple chemotherapy treatments, Fox’s cancer continued to spread. Hospitalized in New Westminster, British Columbia, Fox fell into a coma and died in the early morning hours of June 28, 1981.
Above: Terry Fox’s 5,373 kilometre run.
Today, the Terry Fox Run is an annual, non-competitive run (distances range from three to fifteen kilometres) to honour Terry Fox and to raise money for cancer research. While there are over 760 run sites across Canada, most Canadians are unaware of how many Terry Fox Runs occur in other countries around the world. While it has become a truly international phenomenon, it is Cuba that deserves special mention. Cuba hosted its first Terry Fox Run in 1998, and in recent years the level of participation has been truly amazing: well over 4000 runs across the island involving over 2 million participants. Why Cuba? The answer is simple: Cubans heard about Terry Fox and he won their hearts. Cuba’s embracing of the Terry Fox Run is a beautiful symbol of solidarity and the spirit of internationalism, and a reminder of how shameful it was that Canada’s Harper government (2006-2015) decided to join the United States government in its unjust policy of excluding and isolating the country. With the Conservatives suffering a devastating and well-deserved defeat in the last federal election, we look forward to the normalization of relations between Canada and Cuba, and to a day when more Canadians run the Terry Fox Run in Cuba, and more Cubans run the Terry Fox Run in Canada.