The relentless Terry Fox

Maclean’s archives: Terry Fox is now an icon. Back in 1980, he was just a kid trying to save the world from cancer

(CP photo)

(CP photo)

A feature from our archives — written by Ken MacQueen in April 2005.

It was 5 a.m., just west of Sudbury, and Terry Fox was having his first fight of the day. I’d yet to meet the guy, except for a friendly nod as he left his motel room for the Marathon of Hope van to take up his run where he’d stopped the day before. Terry’s pal Doug Alward, unsung hero of the run, warned me the night before not to talk to Fox first thing in the morning. Couldn’t agree more. No one has ever told me anything of value at 5 a.m.

The dispute stemmed from a combination of dark, fog and a skittish member of the Ontario Provincial Police. The officer had pulled escort duty and, understandably, he did not wish the increasingly famous Terry Fox to be winged by a semi-trailer on his watch. The discussion at the side of the Trans-Canada Highway did not go well. It was Aug. 6, 1980. Fox had taken about two days off since the run started in St. John’s, Nfld., on April 12. This cop was only the latest in a line of well-meaning meddlers — stretching back to Fox’s mom, Betty, in Port Coquitlam, B.C. — who’d told him at various times, for various reasons, he should not be running. They were right, of course. And they were wrong, too. In any event, they might as well have told him not to breathe. A second cruiser was called, and the procession headed west. “Bathed,” as I wrote for my employer, the Ottawa Citizen, “in the angry glow of flashing red lights.”

Fox, aged 22, had been a minor blip on the nation’s radar until he entered Ontario, until he stormed Ottawa(meeting Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who knew nothing of the run), and, especially, until the Canadian Cancer Society pulled out the stops for his triumphal entry into Toronto and through southern Ontario. From a fundraising perspective, it was a master stroke. Fox won national media attention and public acclaim. Finally, the money rolled in. He nailed his initial goal of $1 million for cancer research, but by then he’d upped the ante to a preposterous $24 million — $1 for every Canadian. It was to be raised on his terms: corporate support was accepted; corporate exploitation was not. There were no logos on his clothes. He was even uncomfortable with the trademark three stripes on his running shoes. Southern Ontario added huge strain and hundreds of extra miles to his run. Betty suspects it destroyed his health. When I met him, he’d finally shaken loose, running west above the Great Lakes, headed home.

The media orgy had infused the Marathon of Hope in a golden glow, as though Fox was being borne cross-country on the shoulders of adoring Canadians. Not true. By northern Ontario, the run had reverted to form: mile after mile through brutal heat, ground out in Fox’s awkward, painful cadence. Look at the new dollar coin minted in his honour: that’s how it was — scrub pine, rock and road. Two hops, a swing of his artificial leg. Pounding the stump of his right thigh, over and over and over. “I think of one day at a time — it would be impossible to take it all at once,” he explained. Past this sign, that tree, this knot of school kids. “I set a thousand goals today,” he said one afternoon.

I was the only reporter with him for my three days on the run, save for those from local radio and whistle-stop weeklies who’d attend his early evening rallies. Sometimes I’d ride in the camper with Bill Vigars, the rainmaker from the cancer society, or Fox’s brother Darrell, just 18, who was witty and wise beyond his years. They’d field questions from the public, and troll collection buckets past the open windows of passing vehicles. Other times I’d ride with Alward in the run’s Ford van, which smelled of sweat, rotting socks, and the remnants of restaurant doggy bags. Alward — serious and thoughtful, with a stubborn streak as defining as his friend’s — drove a mile, parked until Fox chugged by, then drove another.

I’d flown into Sudbury on a Tuesday. All was not well. Fox discovered the day before they’d actually passed the halfway mark on Sunday — 4,265 km, they’d figured — but hadn’t realized it because of an odometer error. He felt robbed of the lift of hitting the homeward stretch. It was the low point of the trip, he said, still smarting days later. Mileage had become all-consuming to Fox, to the puzzlement of his crew. The first day I was with them, he and Alward argued over how the day’s progress was calculated. Hurt and angry, the two friends rode back to the motel in separate vans. Such outbursts, I came to realize, were as transient and cleansing as Ontario thunderstorms. That evening they were together, happy and loose, at an arena rally in Espanola.

Fox was, as Alward fondly described him, “relentless.” On the hills, in the worst of the heat, and on the long empty stretches, he seemed to retreat inside himself. I look back at pictures I took then, and his eyes tell me nothing. I was just three years older than him and had, in fact, spent much of the previous year on the road, living in a van. That was all we had in common. My trip was a self-indulgent tour of Europe: traipsing through galleries and cathedrals, flopping on beaches, devouring books, idling with instant friends over carafes of cheap wine. Here was a guy, younger than me, busting his hump, trying to save the world from cancer.

I asked him, in every way I could think of, why he was doing this. His answers were always direct, but maddeningly unadorned by personal feelings or philosophy. He’d talk about the real heroes of this run, the people left behind in cancer wards. I’d ask about the physical toll of the run and he’d say it was nothing compared to those cancer wards. I asked about the increasing demands of his new celebrity, which he seemed to carry like a physical burden. “The only pressure that is really on me,” he said, “is pressure I put on myself.” But why, I wondered then and now. Why are you doing this to yourself?

“It was a stupid thing to want to do,” says Betty Fox, looking back 25 years at her son’s Marathon of Hope. “Really stupid.” She’s beside her husband, Rolly, in the living room of their home in Chilliwack, in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. The Foxes recently downsized and moved to this tidy and quiet adult-only community. There is no pretense to Betty Fox. It’s a mobile home, she says, in a trailer park. Between them on the couch is a cloth cozy holding a box of Kleenex. Some topics never get easier.

Terry would be 46 today. Perhaps he’d be married, like his brothers Fred and Darrell and his sister, Judith. Perhaps his children would join the portraits of the nine grandchildren the Foxes proudly display on a living room wall. Instead, he is forever young, running westward into the wind. Many of the mementoes of the journey are in storage now, but the Foxes keep Terry’s diary of the run at home. They also keep a glass gallon jug he filled at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and had hoped to dump in the Pacific. Half the water has evaporated and the cap is rusting.

Fox was 18 when he was diagnosed in March 1977 with a malignant tumour in his right knee. Doctors amputated much of the leg within days. “We were told he had a 20 to 50 per cent chance of survival,” Betty recalls. Some 2 1/2 years later, she was the first in the family he told of his plan to run across the country to raise funds to improve what he correctly concluded was the dismal state of Canadian cancer research. No, she said, reacting as a mother who’d come too close to losing her son. The two always had an open relationship, but he left that day angry and disappointed. Tempers cooled. They talked it out. “He said, ‘I thought you’d be one of the first persons to believe in me,'” Betty recalls with a sad smile. “And I wasn’t. I was the first person who let him down.”

The Foxes had every reason to worry: Terry’s health, highway traffic, vast distances, all to be handled by two 21-year-old guys in a van who had never been away from home. “No matter what you said,” Rolly says today, “you weren’t going to stop him.” By Nova Scotia, some of their fears proved right. Fox and Alward were barely speaking, drained by fatigue, poor returns and the enormity of the task. Betty and Rolly arrived to make peace. They decided the boys needed a buffer — someone fun, energetic, with a sweet nature. They needed Darrell Fox, then 17. “I think there was a concern,” he says now with a grin, “that if someone else didn’t join the entourage there might be a murder.”

Darrell started work at the Terry Fox Foundation 15 years ago, having finally come to terms with his brother’s death and his powerful legacy. Today, at 42, he is the national director of an organization that has raised a staggering $360 million worldwide for cancer research. The national office, recently moved to Chilliwack from Toronto, has just two employees.(There are about 22 others in provincial offices.)The carpet is frayed. Posters of the annual Terry Fox runs since his death in 1981 lean against the walls, waiting for someone with time to hang them.

Darrell missed his Grade 12 graduation, leaving school a month early to hook up with the run in New Brunswick. Betty, who’d wanted nothing to do with this crazy idea in the first place, had now given two sons to the road. “I cried and cried,” she says. “My 17-year-old kid is hugging me and saying, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll look after him.’ ” Twenty-five years later, he still is.

Runner Terry Fox continues his Marathon of Hope run across Canada, Sept. 1980. (CP PHOTO/ files)

Terry Fox. (CP Photo/ files)

The run ended on Sept. 1, after 143 days and 5,373 km, outside Thunder Bay, with a diagnosis that the cancer had returned and spread. Did the guy I saw just weeks earlier — so drained and driven, so attuned to his body — already suspect something was wrong? Darrell, citing his brother’s growing impatience, thinks he did. “We were still 2,500 miles away,” he says. “He wanted to know to the foot how far we had gone. More importantly, how far he still had to go. When I look back at it, I kind of sense that maybe something within Terry was happening at the time that he was aware of, and was trying to block out.”

Betty, looking back, has reached some difficult conclusions. “It was supposed to happen,” she says. How else could someone with a prosthetic leg run the equivalent of a marathon a day, every day from spring through that crazy summer? How else could a young man, dead before his 23rd birthday, become a revered and enduring historical figure? How else can millions still be raised by the power of his name? “I believe he was supposed to get cancer. And do this run for cancer research,” she says, her hand straying to the Kleenex box. Then, in a quiet voice comes the hardest conclusion of all: “He wasn’t meant to . . . to live.”

I’ve often wondered why this country hasn’t produced more Terry Foxes. I don’t know, but maybe I figured it out, almost 24 years after I wrote his obituary on a dismal June day in 1981. It’s March 14 this year and I’m at the Simon Fraser University Theatre for the unveiling of the Terry Fox dollar, the first circulating coin, amazingly enough, to feature a Canadian. The Fox clan is here, dignitaries from the Royal Canadian Mint, and many of the people who, all those years ago, made the Marathon of Hope work. People who haven’t seen each other for decades are falling into each other’s arms.

I’m sitting with Doug Alward, who, in typical fashion, eschewed his rightful reserved seat at the front for the anonymity of the back row. Beside him is Fred Tinck, now a retired school principal, who was Terry and Doug’s high school running coach. Without Tinck, says Doug, Terry might never have become a runner. Without Alward, Darrell says, the Marathon of Hope would never have happened. Without Rick Hansen, who recruited Fox to his wheelchair basketball team just weeks after his amputation, would a still-ailing Fox have been fired by the same purpose?(Just as without Fox’s inspiration, Hansen might never have circled the globe in a wheelchair, raising, at last count, some $158 million for spinal cord research. What are the odds of two men colliding at a low point in their lives to such remarkable effect?)And, without Darrell, Betty and Rolly, few think the Fox legacy would burn as bright.

Why is Terry Fox a rarity? Because he was an exceptional guy with an uplifting story, and because — by inspiration, good luck or higher purpose — he was blessed with the proverbial village of support. Hansen calls his friend the instrument of a dream. “The vision behind it is so captivating it doesn’t always just depend on one individual.” Alward says, in all seriousness: “You know, he’s not dead, this is the strange thing. There’s a much higher purpose to his life than just physical life and death. It’s spiritual.”

The Foxes have rejected ideas, from blue jean companies to hamburger chains, that would have raised millions. Always, they ask, “What would Terry do?” And so they often say no, because the difficult thing is what Terry did. “The family,” says Vigars, the public relations man, “has kept it pure.”

Terry Fox was a relentless guy, blessed with a stubborn family and uncompromising friends, and that is the magic of this man. He ran into the wind, and they have followed. And maybe it’s true — as they all seem to believe in various ways — that he continues to blaze a trail as long and hard and true as the Trans-Canada Highway.

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The relentless Terry Fox

  1. “I’ve often wondered why this country hasn’t produced more Terry Foxes.” More to the point is why the country elevated this one man to sainthood, named a mountain after him, put him on the coinage and erected statues to him, when untold thousands of others have devoted their whole lives to others without a whisper of praise from the nation, let alone long adulatory columns resurrected decades after their death.

    • Terry Foxx was the first one to do what he did. For whatever reason, the idea of a guy running across Canada to raise money for a disease that stole his leg, and ultimately his life, was something that captured our imagination. And still does.

      We also idolized Steve Fonyo until he turned into a disgrace; ultimately he was stripped of his Order of Canada. Rick Hansen received similar accolades, and is still well-respected. But… Rick Hansen is very much alive. Some day when he dies, we’ll see streets and statues in his honour as well.

    • Have to agree somewhat. Terry ran as the last thing he could do, running to beat his disease. Now we’ve raised $5 million, there is no cure for any cancer but the same one there was then, and for thirty years prior to that: removing the offending part. There are no drugs that do any better than the old, but every time they haul one out it keeps the people out there running, sure that they are contributing to a cure for cancer, then the new drug proves as useless as the previous drugs.

      For one example, Herceptin which cost hundreds of thousands for one person to take and gave the one in a thousand cancer sufferer for whom it was developed a few weeks more life, at the most. But before people understood that, Herceptin pharma ran the race to the bank, and stockholders raked it in.

      Today I saw a run that had perhaps 1,000 people give or take a hundred. The runners ranged from the corporate sloggers who will put it on their resume/CV, to the family who lost someone. They are convinced the pharmaceutical industry is working for them, seemingly unaware that the pharma which creates the drugs and agricultural chemicals that cause cancer also make the ineffectual treatments. It’s a win/win for pharma.

      Meanwhile few are asking what they can do to PREVENT cancer, and the orgs that work on environmental awareness are begging for funds, ignored or ridiculed, by the same Albertans who, by and large, back the tar sands.

      The run course I saw today was dotted with water bottle tables, think 2 bottles per runner x however many ran for this across Canada. No thought at all about these carcinogenic plastic bottles. Later we heard and saw media stories with grateful people who are struggling with cancer, and who would have been provided by pharma marketing departments to the media interview. It’s all one huge scam.

      Cancer rates rise, and everyone benefits but the people with cancer and their loved ones.

      A classic case of the Emperor with no clothes.

    • @ SKOOKUM PETE…Maybe they named all that Stuff in name of Terry only because of the MONEY they have brought into their bank accounts on the back of a dead Canadian child.. Now don’t come in here and be little me and my attitude but do yourself a favour and go find the numbers of dollars the Cancer society and the Pharmecutical firms have made off of him and his journey hundreds of Millions only to squash all known cures that have been developed…Cheemo Therapy has an actuall rate of failure of 97% but they keep feeding patients Cheemo drugs and it is only a money grab…

  2. The Run To Live! My nephew, Scott Cannata, completed The Run To Live. Scott ran a marathon a day across Canada. He raised $50,000 for cancer. In answer to your musing, I’ve often wondered why this country hasn’t produced more Terry Foxes”…google Scott Cannata!