“It’s got to keep going without me”
September 1, 1980 – It was a dull day in Northern Ontario when Terry Fox ran his last miles.
He had started out strong that morning and felt confident. The road was lined with people shouting, “Don’t give up, you can make it!” words that spurred him and lifted his spirits. But after 18 miles he started coughing and felt a pain in his chest.
Terry knew how to cope with pain. He’d run through it as he always had before; he’d simply keep going until the pain went away.
For 3,339 miles, from St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada’s eastern most city on the shore of the Atlantic, he’d run through six provinces and now was two-thirds of the way home. He’d run close to a marathon a day, for 143 days. No mean achievement for an able-bodied runner, an extraordinary feat for an amputee.
Terry’s left leg was strong and muscular. His right was a mere stump fitted with an artificial limb made of fibreglass and steel. He’d lost the leg to cancer when he was 18.
He was 22 now; curly haired, good-looking, sunburned. He was strong, wilful and stubborn. His run, the Marathon of Hope, as he called it, a quixotic adventure across Canada that defied logic and common sense, was his way of repaying a debt.
Terry believed that he had won his fight against cancer, and he wanted to raise money, $1 million perhaps, to fight the disease. There was a second, possibly more important purpose to his marathon; a man is not less because he has lost a leg, indeed, he may be more. Certainly, he showed there were no limits to what an amputee could do.
He changed people’s attitude towards the disabled, and he showed that while cancer had claimed his leg, his spirit was unbreakable. His Marathon of Hope had started as an improbable dream – two friends, one to drive the van, one to run, a ribbon of highway, and the sturdy belief that they could perform a miracle.
He ran through ice storms and summer heat, against bitter winds of such velocity he couldn’t move, through fishing villages and Canada’s biggest cities. Though he shunned the notion himself, people were calling him a hero. He still saw himself as simple little Terry Fox, from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, average in everything but determination.
But here, 18 miles from Thunder Bay, at the head of Lake Superior, the coughing had stopped, but the dull, blunt pain had not. Neither running nor resting could make it go away. He saw the people lined up the hill ahead of him. The Ontario Provincial Police cruiser was behind him, red lights flashing in the drizzle, and cheers still surrounded him: “You can make it all the way!”
Terry could not ignore what people said to him. He listened. “I started to think about those comments. I thought this might be my last mile.” He ran until there were no more people, and then he climbed wearily into the van and asked his friend and driver Doug Alward to drive him to a hospital.
When Terry won a place on the junior varsity basketball team at Simon Fraser University in 1976, many were surprised. He was not a gifted player. Others were more talented, though few could match him for determination, toughness, and hard work.
It had always been that way. When he was in Grade 8, Terry was rated 19 on a team of 19 players and was on the court for only one minute that first season. That didn’t deter him. Two years later he was a starting player. By the time he graduated from high school, he and his friend Doug were named athletes of the year.
Aches are common in an athlete’s life, but at the end of his first year of university, there was a new, alarming pain in his knee. One morning he woke to find he couldn’t stand. A week later, he learned this was no cartilage problem, as he had thought. He had a malignant tumor; his leg would be amputated in four days. His doctors told him bluntly, because of recent advances in research his chances of survival were 50 to 70 per cent. If he’d become sick two years earlier, his chances would have been 15 per cent.
The night before his operation, his high school basketball coach, Terri Fleming, brought him a running magazine which featured an article about an amputee, Dick Traum, who had run in the New York City Marathon. And though his future was never more precarious, Terry dreamed that night about running across Canada. “I’m competitive,” Terry said. “I’m a dreamer. I like challenges. I don’t give up. When I decided to do it, I knew I was going to go all out. There was no in-between.”
The 16 months of follow-up treatment marked Terry irreversibly. He saw suffering as he’d never seen it before. He heard doctors telling youngsters in the nearby beds that they had a 15 per cent chance of living. He heard screams of pain. He saw strong, young bodies wasted by disease. He never forgot what he’d seen and when he left the cancer clinic for the last time, he left with a burden of responsibility. He was among the lucky one-third of patients who survived.
“I could not leave knowing these faces and feelings would still exist even though I would be set free from mine,” he wrote in a letter asking for sponsorship for his run. “Somewhere, the hurting must stop… and I was determined to take myself to the limit for those causes.