Terry Fox: One Man’s Marathon of Hope, and How it Inspires Us Today

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On June 28, 1981, a young man with a prosthetic leg passed away from cancer after running 3,339 miles across Canada. Over the course of his self proclaimed Marathon of Hope, he raised over $24 million dollars to donate to cancer research. His goal had been to inspire others through his trials, and to raise a dollar for every Canadian to donate to Cancer research.  While he did not complete his Marathon of Hope across Canada, he did succeed in both of his other goals. Who is this man you ask? This man was named Terry Fox, and his legacy is one of courage, determination, and heart.

Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada on July 28 1958, and was an enthusiastic athlete as a child playing soccer, rugby, baseball, basketball, and competing in long distance running. He had, what looked like, a promising life ahead of him until he developed Osteosarcoma at the age of 19. Osteosarcoma is a type of cancer that primarily starts near the knees, and then spreads to the rest of the body. The doctors told him that his leg had to be amputated in order to prevent the cancer from spreading and eventually taking his life. Terry was shaken. His whole life had been built on sports, and he wasn’t sure how to move forward. He truly was an athlete, and this was clearly manifested throughout his entire life. While he may not have been the strongest or the fastest of athletes, he was always willing to work the hardest and not quit until the job was done.

I interviewed Michael Felix, Head Coach of Track at Westlake High School about what makes a person truly an athlete and he said, “The most impressive athletes aren’t those who are the most naturally gifted. They are the kids who work hard, come to practice every day, and put in the work to get a new Personal Record. Because that record was just as hard for him to get, as the record set by the fastest kid.” Terry exemplified this work mentality, it had been with him from the beginning. He knew that there would be a way forward after the amputation, so he went into the operation with that same determination and zeal.  He would go, and he would work hard, and he would beat the cancer. No matter what.

The night before the operation was scheduled to take place, Terry read an article about another handicapped athlete named Dick Traum. Traum had lost his leg in a car accident when he was 24 years old. As an accomplished wrestler, he, too, was unwilling to let such an integral part of his life disappear without a fight. Traum took up distance running. He trained hard and completed the 1976 New York City Marathon in 7 hours and 24 mins. He became the first person to ever complete a marathon with a prosthetic limb.

Terry went into the operation the next day on March 9, 1977.  His leg was amputated at just below the hip, and Terry Fox’s world was changed forever.  He was told that to make sure the cancer did not spread, he would have to go through chemotherapy, and that his chances of survival were 50%. He learned that two years earlier, his chances of survival would have only been 15% according to the knowledge of Cancer at the time. Terry was amazed at how much his chances of survival had improved because of advances in medical technology, and he gained a newfound appreciation for cancer research and its ability to save lives.

After the operation, Terry Fox went through 16 months of Chemotherapy, and felt that he owed it to cancer research that he was alive. While he recovered, he was placed in the children’s ward, and Terry loved it.  Being around these children who were going through the same torment as he was was heartbreaking, but it was also very motivating. Even though they had every reason to be angry or sad, the children were still full of an inner brightness that lightened Terry’s troubled life immeasurably. He wanted to give back so others could have even better chances of beating cancer than he did. He was inspired by Dick Traum, and decided that he was going to train and run a marathon. His real goal, however, was to continue training, so he could run the length of Canada to bring awareness to Cancer research. For Terry Fox, running after the surgery was a daily combat against pain. Running with the prosthetic caused him to have a very distinctive hop-step gait. Wearing the prosthetic also caused him to chafe, bleed, develop bone bruises, and countless blisters. But he pushed through, completed his marathon, and began the journey that would be his last.  He began his run across Canada by dipping his prosthetic leg in the Atlantic Ocean, and he intended to end his run by placing the prosthetic in the Pacific Ocean in a symbolic “uniting of the world” in finding a cure for cancer.  He then proceeded to run a marathon (26.2 miles) every day no matter how much it hurt, or how bad he wanted to stop. He ran in every kind of weather imaginable, through pouring rain, through sleet and hail, across muddy roads, and through sweltering heat. I interviewed Assistant Coach David Bowers of Westlake High School who has participated in The Ulman Cancer Run, (A run across the length of the USA to raise money for cancer research) and I asked him how he kept going when he wanted so desperately to quit. He said, “You have to be running for something, otherwise you’ll never make it.  Whether it’s for that family that gave you a drink of water 6 miles back, or for your grandma who is battling cancer, or that random guy on the street who told you ‘Good job!’ You need something beyond yourself to get you through.” Terry understood that without a cause, he never would have made it. He didn’t run to seek fame or fortune. He ran so that others could live better lives. Terry once said, “I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definite answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.” His purpose in this venture was to raise $1 for every Canadian to donate to cancer research.   

Terry knew what he was running for, and that gave him strength. He ran every day, and never once stopped until just outside the town of Thunder Bay on the North-Western shore of Lake Ontario. His chest and neck had been hurting a lot throughout the day, and he had been coughing and choking for several miles. Finally he took a break at mile 18, he still tried to push through, and ran another three miles that day. Eventually, he was forced to stop and went to a doctor to see what was wrong. The result of his chest pains was the return of the cancer that had taken his leg. It had now spread to his lungs. Terry was once again devastated. How could this be? He had beaten the cancer, and was enduring a lifetime of pain so others could beat cancer, too. But now, just when things were going well, he had to be tested again. In an emotional interview after the diagnosis, Terry said, “If there’s any way I can go out there again and finish it, I will.” He returned home and continued to receive treatments, but nine months later, Terry Fox passed away surrounded by family. In the nine months before his death, Terry received numerous awards and recognition. To see such a tragic and unfulfilling end to this Marathon of Hope is somewhat depressing, while he did run 3,339 miles, he didn’t even make it halfway across Canada. Despite not reaching the other side, he did achieve his goal of raising $1 for every Canadian. Others were inspired by his cause and realized that they could not let Terry slip into the shadows of history. Soon after his death, the Terry Fox Foundation was organized, and now numerous Terry Fox runs are held internationally every year to continue raising money for Cancer research.  

Terry inspires us today to do the things we think cannot be done, he was a pioneer, and a beacon of hope. I have struggled and fought for my goals, and too often, I have failed. But Terry’s example reminds me to keep working and keep looking ahead, even when all seems hopeless. I set a goal to break 5 minutes in the mile last Track season, and I failed. I set a goal to break 17:30 in the 5K this past cross country season, and I failed. I set a goal to race in the NXR Cross Country meet in Arizona, and I failed. These failures have not made me want to quit or to give up running. Quite the opposite, they have made me stronger. I have pushed myself harder than ever before to try and reach them. I can now run hours without stopping to rest, I have run a marathon, I have improved my mile time by over a minute in just the past year, I have grown stronger and faster than I ever thought I could be. I don’t give up, because I don’t succeed. Instead, I set new goals, and I reach higher. That is why I am going to run across Utah this summer. I am going to do what Terry Fox did, and I am going to make a difference for the better. My goal is to raise at least $10,000 to donate to Cancer research. And this time, I won’t let my goal slip away out of reach. Each day I will run between 10 and 20 miles, and each day will be another step towards saving a life. Coach Felix said, “We all have trials, so often in our lives the world tells us that if you have trials, don’t bother changing. There are some things that can’t be beat. This is false.  Go out and work hard, do nice things, you can be greater.” I hope we are all willing to overcome our personal challenges. No matter how small they may seem, so that we, too, can be someone better, someone others can look up to. I hope that we can all choose to make a difference, even if it is a small one. Even if you are just kind to a stranger, or hold the door for the person behind you. We can all make the world a better place, but we can’t succeed if we don’t try.

“If I should survive, I will prove myself deserving of life.”

-Terry Fox