x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In step with Terry

Feature Abu Dhabi's Terry Fox Run helps fund cancer research. Find out about the reluctant celebrity who inspired the world with his Marathon of Hope.

Fox shakes hands with well-wishers in Toronto's main city square during his Marathon of Hope.
Fox shakes hands with well-wishers in Toronto's main city square during his Marathon of Hope.

This week, Abu Dhabi hosts its 14th Terry Fox Run to help fund cancer research. Leslie Scrivener shares her memories of a life on the road with the reluctant celebrity who inspired the world with his Marathon of Hope. There are moments in life embedded in memory - the first kiss from the man you'll eventually marry, the surge of love when the doctor holds up your firstborn child. I have another memory as deep and abiding as those - the first time I saw Terry Fox running across Canada. This is what I saw: a handsome, compact, curly haired young man of 20 with slashes of sunburn on his cheeks. He wore plain grey shorts and a white T-shirt. His left leg was tanned and muscular; the right was mechanical, a primitive steel shaft with a flexible foot and a fibreglass bucket.

He was on a dual carriageway, a lone and lonely-looking figure running - you could see the sense of purpose on his face - beside a forest of poplar trees. It was a shocking sight because in a moment you understood what he was up against. Canada is a vast country. Its motto, A Mari usque ad Mare, tells us that it stretches from sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, a distance of 5,300 miles. And Terry Fox, university athlete, cancer survivor, amputee, was going to run the distance, day after plodding day, in what he called his Marathon of Hope. He had overcome bone cancer, survived the ordeals of chemotherapy and felt he had a debt to pay. He would raise a dollar from every Canadian - that meant about 23 million Canadian dollars (Dh69.2m) - for cancer research and along the way, he would tell his story.

As a young reporter for The Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, I'd been talking to Terry on the telephone for some months before we met. I wrote about his journey - the drivers who tried to run him off the road, the shy schoolgirls who brought him sweets, his incredible stamina and his audacious dream. And here he was on the road beside me. I honked the horn of the rented car I was driving and flapped my left hand uselessly at him. He didn't waver - he didn't look or break his stride. His left hand shot up for a moment and then he was back in his bubble of concentration running towards the next telephone pole, the next mile marker. He kept on running.

He always said that's what he liked best. That summer of 1980, he ran his heart out, usually a marathon, 26 miles, a day. He had started in April, in the harbour of St John's, Newfoundland, in the east and planned to end on the wild shores of the Pacific, in Canada's most westerly province, which was also his home. He swept the country up with him, step by step. One family I know imposed order at the dinner table by having each child take turns reporting on Terry's progress that day. Television crews followed him, newspapers and radios commented on his journey.

Still, there was cynicism. One editor at our paper told me, "It isn't news as long as he's running. It will only be news when he stops." That would come later. One morning I watched as he walked sleepily out of the Poplar Motel where he'd spent the night. It was 4.30am and still dark. He climbed in the back of the motor home with the big sign that said Marathon of Hope and wrapped himself in a blue sleeping bag. The mornings were full of dread and anticipation. Though his childhood friend Doug Alward and his young brother Darrell were in the motor home as his partners on this cross-country trek, no one spoke. We drove past grain silos that gleamed in the peaceful moonlight; cows moved uneasily behind farm fences; the road was empty. It was perfect.

Doug pulled the van over by the pile of rocks they had left the day before to mark the place Terry stopped running. They were scrupulous in this. He uncurled himself from the back and moved to the front of the van, paused at the roadside and started to run. The day had begun. Through the day, he would break for his wretched breakfast of beans and sugar cereal, nap in the van parked beside a corn field and run some more. In towns, crowds would gather to watch him run; there was a festive air. His brother ran beside the van collecting donations in a plastic bucket. The mayor would greet him and have a photo taken. Sometimes Terry bristled at these meetings, torn between the need to give speeches and getting the miles behind him: Canadian winters are ferocious, cold to the bone and long; the Rocky Mountains and windswept prairie lay between him and journey's end.

He came to be known as a hero, a tribute he disputed. He saw himself more as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, seeing new and unknown places, and having unimaginable encounters. "I loved it," he said later. "I enjoyed myself so much and that was what other people couldn't realise. They thought I was going through a nightmare all day long. Maybe I was, partly, but still I was doing what I wanted, a dream was coming true, and that, above everything else, made it worthwhile."

He was still very much a boy and modest, though he was becoming the most famous person in Canada. He was still surprised when cafe owners gave him meals - an enormous steak, French fries, a strawberry parfait, a couple of Cokes - without charge. Sometimes he was silly. For his 21st birthday, his friends gave him a toilet seat, which he hung around his neck as a joke. As he ran closer to Toronto, Canada's biggest city and industrial and financial centre, people would wait for hours on the side of the road to urge him on, cheering, often with tears - it was always emotional. "Magnificent, man," an onlooker on a motorcycle called to him on Danforth Avenue, one of Toronto's commercial streets. "He makes you believe in the human race again," a woman in Toronto's main city square said.

He saw how his daily struggles, his deep well of courage and his moving story of staring down cancer affected those he met. His empathy deepened and the weight of his journey seemed to take its toll. It hurt him, he said, when people asked for his autograph and he didn't have time to sit and talk with them. He wasn't interested in celebrity. "Don't focus on me," he told the crowds who waited on his every word, "focus on the Marathon of Hope". And if something should happen, he said prophetically, the Marathon should continue without him.

He could be hard too. After an interview, I wished him luck on his "walk". His eyes turned and he said, with edge, "I'm running." He was indeed. Sometimes the stump of his amputated leg in the fibreglass bucket rubbed raw and he bled onto his shorts. Understandably Canadians were upset at his suffering, but he brushed it off. He was angry when people suggested he should stop or at least see a doctor. "There's not a doctor in the world who's had an amputee who's doing anything on an artificial limb like I am. I appreciate their concern for me; I don't care what a doctor tells me. I'm going to keep running."

And so he did. In northern Ontario, the less populated part of the province, crowds began to thin and the evenings grew cold. Terry felt an alarming pressure in his chest and had a dry, persistent cough. There was another problem; he had cancelled scheduled medical check-ups throughout the run. On September 1, 1980 he ran 13 miles in the morning and felt good, he said. A local radio station had been broadcasting his arrival so by afternoon the road was crowded with people waiting to see him. "I was about 18 miles out of Thunder Bay. I started running and still felt pretty good. I think it was starting to drizzle rain a little bit. People were clapping me, cheering me all the way. It was a super help.

"When I finished my fifth mile (of the afternoon) I started coughing. I went into the van and I was lying down. I was coughing really hard, and then I felt a pain in my neck that spread into my chest. Finally I got myself to quit coughing but the pain didn't leave. I didn't know what to do so I went out and ran because it was the only thing to do." He ran until there were no more people waiting for him on the road, and then called for a doctor. He had run 3,339 miles in 143 days and crossed two-thirds of Canada.

At the hospital he had an X-ray. The doctor asked him when he had cancer. "Then I knew it. I felt shock, incredible, unbelievable shock. How could this happen? Everything was going so great and now, all of a sudden, it's over. The run's over." He was right. As the prime minister Pierre Trudeau put it, his old enemy had returned. His father, Rolly, who had taken a plane across the country with his mother, Betty, said it was unfair that Terry was struck by cancer again. "Very unfair." His mother could only cry.

"I don't feel this is unfair," Terry replied. "That's the thing about cancer. I'm not the only one. It happens all the time, to other people. I'm not special. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It'll inspire more people." How could he have known that? Terry died before dawn on June 28 1981, and Canada was plunged into mourning. "It's as if I lost my little brother," a Toronto woman said.

Bob McGill, a teacher and basketball coach who inspired Terry when he was in junior school, gave the eulogy. "You'd want us to keep the battle on. Terry, we will not let you down." Today, people in 50 countries take part in annual Terry Fox Runs - Abu Dhabi's 14th run takes place on the Corniche February 20. Last year's run, in which 10,000 took part, raised $213,000 (Dh614,300) for cancer research. Since 1980, the runs have raised $400 million (Dh1.2billion) worldwide.

One of the most remarkable international runs is in Cuba, where the word "cancer" was taboo, so much so that when loved ones succumbed to the disease, families wrote obliquely in death notices that they died "after a long and sad illness". "No one would say the word cancer, and that was part of the problem," according to Dr Rolando Camacho of Cuba's National Oncology Group. Through the annual run in Cuba, where more than 2.5 million participate, Terry Fox has helped transform thinking - that one can live fully with cancer.

"You almost don't have to call people to come and join the run," says Camacho. "It's something you do because your heart is involved." There has been progress in cancer research. A young person with osteogenic carcinoma, the kind of cancer Terry had, now has a 70 per cent chance of survival, compared to 30 per cent when he was diagnosed, and would be likely to keep his leg. Survival rates for childhood leukemias are about 80 per cent, compared to 30 per cent 25 years ago.

Which is one of the reasons I join the run in Toronto every September. I don't actually run any more, but walk, glad to see the happy faces, the racial diversity and the enduring commitment to Terry: many who participate were not even born in 1980. Last year, only my youngest child, David, joined me on the run. We walked in a park near our house and joked about the local politicians at the run, which was held before a federal election.

Walking with this lanky, dark-haired, dark-eyed child of mine was especially meaningful. He had been born 17 years earlier after I'd gone on the 1991 Terry Fox Run. Heavy and tired, I had joined my husband, our older children, my sisters and their husbands, and thought I'd walk a symbolic mile in Terry's memory. But it was a hot, beautiful day, the skies were clear, the mood was buoyant, and because it was for Terry, I walked and kept on walking.

Registration for Abu Dhabi's Terry Fox Run on February 20 is at 8.00am in the Sheraton Hotel car park (the run starts at 10.00am). For more information, go to www.terryfoxrun.org