Terry Fox: 40 years of the Marathon of Hope | Sept. 1, 1980

It’s hard not to associate certain cities with certain things. Mention Buffalo, and chicken wings spring to mind. With Calgary, it’s the Stampede. And with Las Vegas, well, it’s those larger than life casinos, of course.

But when it comes to Thunder Bay, Ontario, all I can ever think about when I visit this city is… Terry Fox. Terry wasn’t born here, nor did he live here. He was just passing through, really. Yet, it was in Thunder Bay where Terry’s Marathon of Hope came to an abrupt and abbreviated end 40 years ago on September 1, 1980.

Time flies. And four decades ago, so did Terry — despite losing a leg to cancer. Nevertheless, Terry averaged a marathon per day — yes, 26 miles on a daily basis — a brutal pace even for a healthy world-class athlete.

Terry started his odyssey in St. John’s, Nfld., and intended to finish it in Victoria, B.C. 

I was actually lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Terry Fox when he was alive, and I am so thankful for it. I was on a golf course north of Toronto on a hot summer day and suddenly golfing etiquette went out the window thanks to excited whispers that soon gave way to yells and cheers.

What the hell, I thought, as I saw other golfers run to the fence separating the golf course from the highway. And that’s when I finally saw what was causing the commotion, a sight that remains iconic to this day:

Terry Fox, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Marathon of Hope” and a stylized Canadian flag along with a pair of grey shorts, running in front of a police cruiser with that unique gait of his.

I joined the mob as we made a beeline to the volunteers holding plastic buckets where we could stuff our cash.  It was old school fundraising; back before there was an internet and e-transfers and GoFundMe.

Terry Fox was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and raised in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He was an active teenager involved in several sports. But when he turned 18, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. That led to his right leg being amputated 15 centimetres above the knee.

According to the Terry Fox Foundation, while in hospital, Terry was so overcome by the suffering of other cancer patients, — many of them children — that he decided he’d run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

So it was that Terry started his Marathon of Hope in St. John’s on April 12, 1980 with very little fanfare. But momentum began to build with each passing day. Soon, an entire nation was cheering him on. Canadians opened their wallets and their hearts for this courageous lad.

Alas, on Day 143, on September 1, 1980, after covering more than 5,300 kilometres, Terry was forced to stop just outside Thunder Bay. Terry’s body had once again cruelly conspired against him.

This time, cancer was appearing in his lungs.

I still remember watching on TV that impromptu press conference Terry gave on the side of a road laying on an ambulance gurney. I remember how much trouble he had holding back the tears.

But make no mistake: this had nothing to do with Terry feeling sorry for himself. No, we all knew that Terry was unraveling because he felt he had let a country down given that he had so many more miles to go before he could sleep. And a nation wept with him.

While Terry vowed to get healthy and resume the Marathon of Hope, cancer would prevent him from keeping that promise. Terry Fox passed away the following year on June 28, 1981 at the age of 22.