Terry Fox dipped his artificial leg into the ocean at St. John’s, Newfoundland on April 12, 1980, just before setting out to run across Canada, to raise money for cancer research. During those early days of his Marathon of Hope, as he covered the equivalent of a marathon a day, very few people knew of the 21-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C. But through the spring and summer of 1980, Fox captivated the nation with his display of will and strength. And nearly four decades later, his legacy continues to inspire people around the world.
In what would be the final stretch of his journey, Fox’s daily progress through the northern Ontario landscape was a moving picture of humility, dedication and unrelenting courage. This is the story of those hot summer days, in the words of those who were there to witness Fox blaze a trail that inspired millions to follow.
This post is part of The Canada Project, a representative survey of Canadians from across the country. Click here to find out more.
BILL VIGARS, director of publicity and fundraising for the Ontario division of the Canadian Cancer Society That first morning [when I met Fox], he got out and started running — and it blew my mind. Within two or three hours of being in his presence there was no doubt in my mind that this kid was going to do this. He was determined. He had the physical ability and the drive to do it.
DARRELL FOX, Terry’s younger brother We all realized he had an incredible will prior to the actual Marathon of Hope. What people may not realize is that Terry ran over 3,000 miles — 5,000 kilometres — preparing. So, he experienced everything in training: the shin splints, the blisters, the ongoing challenges with his stump bleeding. He learned to persevere and put the pain aside. What he thought of was those that he had left behind in the cancer ward who couldn’t shut off the pain if they wanted, whereas he could. When he started in St. John’s, we already knew that there was nothing in his power that would stop him.
JOHN SIMPSON, filmmaker who travelled with Fox during the Marathon of Hope I asked Terry, what was the motivation to do what he was doing. I thought maybe it had something to do with a spiritual thing. But he was motivated by emotion. He was in the hospital with little kids, and he saw a lot of them dying — and that was a big motivator for him.
FOX Terry was your typical Canadian growing up in a small town when he was diagnosed with cancer, but was really awakened to the disease while going through chemotherapy and witnessing the suffering of others. Prior to being diagnosed, he’d never heard the word. So to experience it and to see the suffering of others had a tremendous impact. During the Marathon of Hope, whenever he had a chance to share his story, he would say that he was almost glad that he was diagnosed with the disease, because before he had cancer he considered himself a very selfish individual. He only thought about himself, about doing well in school, pursuing his athletic endeavours — basketball and soccer. He did those things solely to satisfy his own personal goals and desires, but cancer awakened him to want to reach out and help other people.
VIGARS I saw how people reacted to him that very first day. We’re on the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick, which is a two-lane highway. The concession roads are each one to two miles apart. And at the end of each concession road there’d be a handful of people, no more than 10. I saw him speak that night, and I saw how people reacted to him. Every word he ever said was directly from the heart. There were no speech writers. Nobody told him what he had to say. And people were riveted. I knew that if he got into a populated area and people could see him and hear him firsthand, it would take off. I knew that from Day 1.
Seven weeks later, after running through the Maritimes and Quebec, Fox arrived in Ontario. His efforts were starting to generate national attention. In Ottawa, he met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and kicked the opening ball at a Rough Riders game before continuing on to Toronto, where he was greeted by thousands at the Scarborough Convention Centre.
FOX Terry was a creature of habit. He didn’t like to stop running. He was focused. When he woke up in the morning at 4:30 a.m. every day and we did the short drive to where he would start the run, that’s when he prepared for the day ahead. So, any change in schedule didn’t work for Terry. And he wanted it to be seen for what it was: an incredible athletic achievement. So, when he was forced to take a day off to prepare for all the events in Ottawa, he was not a happy camper [laughs]. He did not like the idea of sitting around. We went to the Canadian Open, and we were both Jack Nicklaus fans so we were able to watch the Golden Bear play golf. But if he had his way he would be out there running. He loved the schedule. But Ottawa was a huge day because there were people everywhere. He didn’t want the attention for him, he wanted it for the cause, and Ottawa was a first step of many that showed people were catching on to the Marathon of Hope.
GLEMENA BETTENCOURT, Marathon of Hope volunteer and fundraiser I remember waiting for hours in the scorching heat on Lake Shore Blvd. in Mississauga, Ont. Then all of a sudden over the crest of the road you could see his curly hair bobbing up and down. He kept getting closer and closer until he got to me and I’m looking right at him — my hero. I had been going around with this fishbowl, collecting money for him every day since he started his run. And now here he was. Just seeing him wasn’t enough. I pulled out of the crowd, which was hundreds of people, and started running so I could see him for as long as I could.
Lucky for me, he was hungry and went into this restaurant. I’m waiting outside the restaurant and Bill [Vigars] and Darrell [Fox] come out and ask for volunteers to run behind Terry and collect donations. I leapt right out of my shoes saying “pick me!” and they did. They gave me a cardboard box (which I still have) and asked me to collect money from people on the side of the road for about three miles. I ended up running from Mississauga to Oakville — 10 miles or more — in blue jeans and bad footwear. That was a long run for me, and I was a runner. Honestly, for a week after I was extremely exhausted. Everything was burning and aching. I was like, “How does this guy do this?”
LESLIE SCRIVENER, Toronto Star reporter and author of Terry Fox: His Story It was heart-stopping to see him run. You became completely immobilized. You could only see him and thousands of miles of highway that lay ahead. Once he stopped running, he was this cheerful, happy, normal young man. So, there was this drive that was coiled up inside of him, pushing him further. There was that physical intensity too. A marathon — 26 miles — every day. It’s crazy.
Past the flash of cameras and wild cheers that followed him through Canada’s largest city, Fox headed along the highway stretching towards Manitoba. The media attention seemed to exhaust him even more than the grueling pace of his commitment. “I just want to go home,” he’d told Vigars as the stress started to mount. But Fox was determined to get back to British Columbia one mile at a time.
He celebrated his 22nd birthday on July 28 with 2,000 people who’d gathered at the Gravenhurst Civic Centre, and received a new artificial leg from Marathon of Hope organizer Ron Calhoun. From Gravenhurst, he set out north towards Sudbury.
VIGARS There was a marked difference after Bala [just north of Gravenhurst] as we started up Highway 69. The traffic was there but the crowds weren’t there, because the towns were so far apart. There was always a reception every night. The whole town would be there, but that was only 3,000 people. It became calmer as we headed further north.
MARY HARDISTY, Ontario Provincial Police officer I was working the midnight shift out of Parry Sound Detachment in July of 1980. I was assigned to meet Terry Fox at 5 a.m. at the Lake Joseph Motel on Highway 69 not far from Mactier. I arrived and met Terry as he descended the outside stairway from the second floor of the motel. We spoke briefly and in the complete darkness, he began his Marathon of Hope for the day, heading north. There wasn’t a soul in sight — just the van Terry rested in ahead of him and me behind in the black-and-white cruiser.
SIMPSON If he stopped somewhere at the end of the day, it had to be marked. He wouldn’t start beyond it. That’s where he’d start off again. He was a straight shooter.
MIKE SULLIVAN, OPP officer I met him at about 5 a.m. in a little town called Estaire, and I remember he wasn’t very friendly [laughs]. He didn’t have much to say to me at all. I talked to his brother and his buddy [Doug Alward, Fox’s best friend and driver], and I asked, “Is there something wrong with him, or does he not talk to police?” And they explained that there was a band playing at the motel bar the night before that kept him awake. On top of that, they had just realized the odometer on the van was broken and they missed the halfway point. That was something they were going to celebrate, and Terry was really bummed out about missing it.
FOX That was not a happy day. He had been preparing for it, because it was all about short-term goals for Terry. If he thought about getting to Stanley Park and finishing the marathon, that was too far out there. It was running to that next hill or that telephone pole, that’s how he visualized and told himself he’d be seeing home. That mental barrier of being over halfway was a big day for him and he was really looking forward to that one in the days and weeks that led up to it. To find out there was a problem with the van and how it was tracking mileage was really devastating for him, initially. But he quickly put that aside and focused on what lay ahead.
SULLIVAN On the second day, when Terry stopped to have breakfast, I asked to sit down and eat with him. I couldn’t believe what he ate. He had a milkshake, pancakes, it just kept coming to the table. We sat there shooting the breeze for a while, and then I said, “I’ve got to ask: When you’re running, what do you think about?” He said, “I only think about the next mile.” That focus and determination still amazes me.
Despite the confusion because of the broken odometer, Fox had reached his halfway point — 4,430 kilometres — on August 4, just before reaching Sudbury.
VIGARS Every day was like a moving picture. You’re driving down the highway at four miles per hour. In Sudbury, we were coming down the hill, just before the bypass, and this man — he would probably be in his seventies, with a peg leg — he’s standing on his porch, and as Terry’s running by he’s yelling “You go get ’em, Terry! You go get ’em, Terry!” That’s burned in my memory. It meant so much. Terry kept going. He never stopped.
SULLIVAN When I was behind him escorting, I noticed that every person who honked, he would give a little wave with his right hand in between his hops. He acknowledged everybody.
VIGARS In Espanola [a town north of Sudbury] we were at dinner. Terry went to the bathroom, came out and said, “You’re not going to believe what happened to me.
“I was standing at the urinal, and this big American came up to me, and said, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ And I told him what happened and what I was doing, and the guy was kind of embarrassed. He paused for a moment, and then he said, ‘Well, at least you’ve still got your pecker!’” Terry was in stiches. To him it was one of the funniest stories.
On August 12, Fox arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. As he passed through town a spring snapped in his artificial leg. The information was announced on the radio. A local welder heard the news and made a quick road call to repair the spring.
Just like that, with the help of a stranger, Fox was back on his way. But one of his toughest tests laid just ahead. The Montreal River Hill — a three-kilometre incline just before Wawa, Ont. — was expected to be one of the most difficult climbs Fox would face in Ontario. His supporters even had a shirt made up for him that read “Montreal River Here I Come” on the front and “I’ve Got You Beat” on the back.
AL JORDAN, OPP officer I had the privilege to personally escort him during the last bit of the way to Wawa, the toughest stretch of his entire run. I was never so impressed with a young man as I was with Terry Fox. He was humble and so dedicated to his task. It was so very warm that day, and Terry was sweating profusely as I watched him with his hop-along gait, reaching down to a valve on his prosthesis and releasing water build-up. He never missed a beat, waving to passing motorists, who donated monies to his entourage.
VIGARS It was so peaceful up there. There were no distractions. There were no detours. It was, I’m running home… I’m running home. We got to the Montreal River Hill and everybody had told us how bad it was. And he ran up it like it was nothing. He gets to the top and says “Is that it?” We slapped hands. I said, “Yeah, it’s downhill from here — we’re on our way home.” Foolishly, I had forgotten about the Rocky Mountains. I asked him if he was going to rest? He said, “No, I’m going to go another mile.”
FOX He had mentally prepared for something that would be so difficult, but it wasn’t as bad as he visualized. He was pretty pumped when he got to the top. I can still see that big smile on his face when he reached the summit.
SIMPSON We heard him coughing while he was on Montreal River Hill.
JORDAN When we arrived in Wawa — the 4,901-kilometre mark — he was greeted by hundreds of citizens. My son was there with all the school children of Wawa who were given the afternoon off.
SCRIVENER I think [Canadians were drawn to Fox] because he was one of us. He came from an average family in the west. He had summer jobs as a kid, he was expected to work for everything he had. He had these really good strong values. He was one of us, and yet he did something so extraordinary. The physical act of running. The deep love in his heart for others. That idealism that he could make a contribution; that he could improve other lives. The humanitarian, the athlete, the idealist.
FOX He connected with people everywhere. But if I were to define Terry’s personality, he was probably an introvert. A lot of his mentors and role models were surprised that Terry was actually out there and speaking and engaging with people. He was quite a shy individual, but he overcame that because of the cause and the desire to share his story.
As Fox pushed onward, showing remarkable stamina and inspiring will, the thought that he might be getting sick was far from people’s minds. But as he neared a town fittingly named Marathon, pushing towards Thunder Bay, there were signs his health was deteriorating.
FOX He was having problems with an ankle and potential tendonitis. He wasn’t too pleased with having to take time off to get that treated, but he had incredible recovery powers. You’d think with that sort of an injury he should be resting for a few days or potentially a couple weeks, but Terry somehow was able to recoup his strength quickly. He also had this incredible, uncanny ability to run through injuries. And that’s what he did.
RON CALHOUN, national coordinator for the Marathon of Hope I got a call from Doug Alward who said that Terry wanted to see a doctor. Up until this point, he had refused to see doctors — he didn’t want to be told he couldn’t do it. So, I knew it was pretty serious when Doug called. He said his leg was really bothering him and that it was hard for him to run.
I located a specialist back in Sault Ste. Marie who would look at him. He said, “Ron, I’m going west, not east.” I said, “You’ve gotta go. You have to get this help.” He refused. We had a consultation between the police and the pilots and Bill Vigars and myself, and we decided we’d all tell him that none of us will help him if he didn’t go back and help himself. So now we had this polite standoff: the will of a cluster of people against his, and he finally agreed to go.
We went back to the airport and flew, through a bad storm, to Sault Ste. Marie. At the hospital, Terry asked me to go in to see the specialist with him. The doctor examined his foot and determined he had splint fractures in his ankle. He recommended Terry be off his foot for several days to allow it to heal. The doctor also suggested Terry get a chest x-ray while he was there. Terry said, “The problem is with my foot, not my chest.” He refused to do it.
When we exited, the doctor asked to speak to me privately. He closed the door and said, “If it is what I think it is, it is too heinous to mention.” He knew there was a problem in Terry’s lungs and he knew it was bad. And he wanted to go on record with one person that he thought it was not good. I didn’t convey that to Terry.
VIGARS In addition to the physical thing he was going through, there was this weight that he carried with him. It always amazed me how he was able to do it. People would take their pain, or their involvement with cancer with a family member, and put it on his shoulders. The mother coming up and saying, “You’re running for my son.” Where is he? “He died last week.”
And Terry’s carrying the conversation. I’m standing next to him and I broke down. I walked past the policeman and said, “I’m sorry, I have to leave, I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” And I was just bawling in my car. I drove down the road and got some popsicles and calmed down. That happened every day, something like that. He was able to give people hope. He was their dream — that he was going to get even with cancer.
After a couple days of rest, Fox was flown back to Marathon, where he continued his journey from the exact spot he’d left off. He arrived in Terrace Bay on Aug. 27. A young boy, 10-year-old Greg Scott, who Fox had met earlier on his journey had been flown in to see him. Scott had also lost a leg to bone cancer. The cancer had also then spread to Scott’s lungs. It was a moving day for Fox. He wrote in his journal: “Greg rode his bike behind me for about six miles and it has to be the most inspirational moment I have had!”
FOX That put everything in perspective, for Terry to meet Greg. Terry was Greg’s hero. And Terry thought he might be a little tough because he made it through cancer, yet here was Greg who was so much younger who had found his way through the disease. That really was the motivation as to why Terry was running across the country. That day he said, “I had the most inspirational day of my life today.” Terry was very moved to have the opportunity to meet those younger than him that he felt were much stronger and tougher than he was.
VIGARS Northern Ontario became much more peaceful; the evenings were relaxed. It was beautiful. The weather was cool. We took advantage of the lakes. We’d go swimming. During the day on Jackfish Lake, near Terrace Bay, he was with the kids [and Scott] in the water. [There’s video of Terry getting out of the water] and he uses his leg as a crutch to walk back to the camper to get changed. When he gets up, he turns around and smiles and that’s where the video stops. What you don’t see is when he drops his pants and moons the entire beach.
SIMPSON He wasn’t a sophisticated guy. He was a kid, really.
VIGARS [Later] we got some fireworks. It was a rock beach, and I put the fireworks in the rocks. I lit all these Roman candles, and they fell over. It was a campground, and they were laying on their sides, and they were shooting at these people in their tents and motor homes. Terry was yelling, “Bill, do something!”
SIMPSON [Scott] was there for the day and a bit the next day. Somebody had him brought out by airplane. He died not long after. It was a big, strong, emotional thing.
The next day, August 28, when Fox stopped just down the road from Terrace Bay, in Gravel River, he learned about a newspaper column that had been written claiming he’d driven through part of Quebec. Fox was furious.
VIGARS A hack writer for some weekly newspaper in B.C. wrote that Terry drove across Quebec. They got that story in little Gravel River. Terry reads this article and it was the maddest I ever saw him. “This is bullshit. Why are they doing this to me?” I got this guy on the payphone and we’re standing in a little vestibule. And Terry, between yelling, he’s sobbing. “Why have you done this? You’ve ruined my run. You’ve ruined my run.” He was totally inconsolable. He slammed the phone down. He came out and we were standing in the parking lot and he was just crying.
SIMPSON He’d get touchy sometimes.
Fox read every word written about him and spoke with Scrivener regularly. In her book, Terry Fox: His Story, Scrivener wrote about Fox’s reaction to the disparaging article.
“I read that story when I was fully exhausted and had given everything I had that day in running; then to see that, it just degraded me and I cried … I punched the wall … It just burned me, tore through me,” Fox told Scrivener. “To me it was so important to be as honest as I could, to always tell the truth, and not even miss a foot.”
Despite his frustration — and deteriorating health — Fox pressed on.
DOUG RYAN, OPP officer The only stretch of highway in Ontario more challenging than this area [between Gravel River and Nipigon on Provincial Highway 17] would have been the long hills before Wawa. When he began to run that morning, I was instantly overcome with emotion. I was watching this young man making history and I was privileged to be trusted with his safety — privileged to have just met a champion the world was watching, a young man who was pouring his heart and soul into the whole world’s fight against cancer. I was moved to tears when I thought about the effort he was putting out to continue his laboured, off-balance stride.
It wasn’t long until traffic began to pull over. Westbound vehicles would pull out to pass us, go several hundred yards up the highway then pull over. Everyone would get out to cheer Terry on and make a donation. Eastbound vehicles would also stop and wait for Terry’s approach. The enthusiasm and donations were non-stop.
Mid-morning Terry stopped for a break and went down to the water’s edge. He wanted to be by himself. It was apparent to me that he was in tremendous pain. He was clearly favouring his right side and the expression on his face was that of a man enduring serious pain. I recall he had a bit of a dry cough when he was talking to his brother — like the cough of an asthmatic. I didn’t think he would make it up Kama Hill, which was about half way to Nipigon. Again, I was moved to tears as he slowed to a walk to try and make it to the top of the biggest hill in our area. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could push themselves this hard, day after day. It took me a week to recover from one marathon. He was doing one marathon each day, against all odds. I was hoping he would stop, for his own sake.
FOX Terry became really obsessed with mileage and distance and wanted to know not only how far he’d run to that point, but how many more miles he had still left to go. It was almost a daily and hourly fascination. He was really determined to get home and yet we were over 2,000 miles away. That should’ve been a sign that things weren’t quite right. He became a little bit more irritable. In hindsight, I guess we should have realized that Terry wasn’t well.
On Sept. 1, Fox starting running about 30 kilometres out of Thunder Bay. He felt good, running in a light drizzle. People clapped and cheered him on. But about eight kilometres into his run he started coughing. He got into the van and laid down. He felt pain in his neck and chest. He wanted to keep running. He went five more kilometres, but the pain worsened. His breath was short. “I was running with this pain in my chest and I began to think, you know there’s something wrong,” he later told Scrivener. “This may be my last mile.”
When he finished that mile, Fox got into the van again. He asked to see a doctor. X-Rays revealed that Fox had a collapsed lung. The doctor wasn’t sure if it was infection or cancer. But, Fox later said, he knew it. “I felt shock — incredible, unbelievable shock,” he told Scrivener. “How could this happen? Everything was going so great, and now, all of a sudden, it’s over, the run’s over… Now I’m going home.”
FOX We never anticipated it was going to end that way. It was unbelievable when we found out. He had two tumours, one the size of a lemon and one the size of a golf ball, in his lungs, and he’d been running with those tumors for weeks. It defies logic how he was able to keep going.
VIGARS I arrived the same time as Betty and Rolly [Fox’s parents, who were flown into Thunder Bay from British Columbia]; we went into the hospital together. They called Betty and Rolly into the room. Doug and Darrell and I were outside. They broke the news to mom and dad, and then they called us in.
FOX He was initially upset over being diagnosed again, but quickly realized he needed to accept it again and take it as another challenge. One of the first things he said was: “If there’s any way that I can get out there and finish the Marathon of Hope, I will.” And he fought. He fought hard and long to try and overcome cancer a second time.
VIGARS He hated hospital food. He said, “Can I go across the street for a clubhouse sandwich?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, he gets dressed and he comes downstairs. We’re walking across the street to the car and Terry collapses. I catch him on one side and his dad catches him on the other. The nurses come rushing out with a stretcher. They put him on the stretcher and rush him back into the hospital.
[Later] we were down in the hospital basement. When it was time for him to go to the airport [to be flown home], he refused to go up in the stretcher. So, he walked up the stairs himself and then got on the stretcher. We rolled him out and that’s when he did that interview on the stretcher.
“Originally I had primary cancer in my knee, three-and-half years ago,” Fox said in that interview, holding back tears. “The cancer has spread, and now I have cancer in my lungs. We’ve got to go home and try and do some more treatment. All I can say is if there is any way I can get out there again and finish it, I will.”
FOX I don’t have the words to articulate what Terry accomplished in 1980. I don’t know how he got up every day to run a marathon. I witnessed it, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to find the answers to how he accomplished what he did. I think Terry’s words came close to describing the achievement when he said: “I want to try the impossible to show that it can be done.” And in my mind, that’s exactly what Terry did.
VIGARS We were driving to the airport in Thunder Bay in an ambulance and needless to say [the Fox family] was just shattered. And his dad was angry. He was saying, “This is so wrong. This is so unfair.” And Terry was laying on the stretcher and said, “No dad, you’re wrong. I’m just like everybody else. I’m no different than anybody else. The cancer comes back, I’m the same.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Maybe now, people will realize why I’m doing it.”
Five months and 5,373 kilometres after Terry Fox dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean, the entire country knew about his courageous journey. He was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year and became the youngest person named to the Order of Canada. By February 1, 1981 his goal of raising $1 for cancer research for every Canadian was surpassed, when the Marathon of Hope Fund reached $24.17 million.
Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981.
To this day, millions of people annually participate in the Terry Fox Run in countries around the world. As of 2016, more than $715 million had been raised for cancer research in Fox’s name.
FOX He knew in December of 1980 that he would not survive cancer. But he also knew that there would be an annual run in his name. He was involved in setting up a lot of the values and policies that we adhere to 37 years later. He had a say and he had a knowledge of what might be happening down the road, but he would have never predicted we’d be here today and have raised $750 million for cancer research. He’d be so proud and thankful for that.
Special thanks to the Terry Fox Foundation, Leslie Scrivener, OPP communications officer Jim Butticci, and everyone interviewed for this story.
With files from Kristina Rutherford.
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