Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Terry Fox Run

Terry Fox Run

Have I seriously never written about the Terry Fox Run in public before? Wow.

I'm not much of one for cultural celebrations. I tend to turn up my nose at Christmas, holidays with fireworks, Secretary's Day, birthdays, mixed-sex marriages, most of Halloween and any other celebration where people might have fun or otherwise enjoy themselves. I try to be tolerant of these events (or feign tolerance in any case) but there are only a handful of cultural rituals that speak to me on a personal level. Remembrance Day is one of these. The Terry Fox Run is another.

For those of you who have not been indoctrinated with Canadian mythology for the last 30 years, Terry Fox was a 18-year-old who got bone cancer in his right leg, which was subsequently amputated and replaced with a prothesis. Disregarding the sensible advice of his elders, the young cyborg decided to do something about this. He decided to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research, and started the run on April 12, 1980. The media picked up the story, and Fox's "Marathon of Hope" became a big deal. But as with all martyrdom tales, the story had a tragic ending. Fox learned that the cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. On September 1, 1980 he stopped running, and on June 28 1981 he died in hospital.

Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope inspired people all over the country to hold 10 kilometre fundraising runs in their communities. Terry Fox's untimely death supplied the mythology: he died without completing his run, so symbolically we help him achieve his dream by raising money each year for cancer research.

These days, there are lots of charity runs -- it seems that people are running for some cause or another every weekend throughout the fall. But the Terry Fox Run -- and its mythology -- still has a special place in the hearts of many Canadians. It is the only fundraising run in which I participate, and I participate almost wholly for the symbolic value.

In many ways it is hard not to be cynical about the run; in the 30 years since the first run, the Terry Fox Foundation has become a big funder of cancer research, and the foundation lays on the mythology pretty thick. As with any nonprofit panhandling, we get praised pretty heavily during the pre-game ceremonies. Terry Fox himself has been elevated to the status of Canadian Jesus; we worship his images and dote over his words. This worries me a lot, especially since many of the Run's participants were not even born when Terry Fox died. Instead of understanding Fox as an ordinary guy who got cancer and decided to do something about it, we have turned him into a cybernetic saint, a guy whose accomplishments cannot be matched by mere mortals -- a guy whom we pay homage to by running and raising money, but somebody whose accomplishments are distinctly above ours. In my eyes that is exactly the wrong message; the right message is that ordinary people can struggle against adversity, and even if they are defeated the struggle still can make a difference.

As the years go on I think we are losing this message. It seems that at my run site the majority of participants fall into two (potentially overlapping) categories: fit, toned gym bunnies in fancy running gear, and people who participate because they have personally been touched by cancer in some way. The latter group usually cycles or walks the route. There don't seem to be that many "ordinary" people who don't already run as a hobby taking on the 10km run challenge; as a fat guy in street clothes I stand out in all the wrong ways. I could cycle or walk the route too, but I don't, because as a regular cyclist/pedestrian those modes of completing the route would be too easy. For me the Terry Fox Run is about challenge, so despite (or maybe because) I am not a jogger I choose to run the route each year. This is stupid; my knees would be much happier if I trained a little bit or at least learned proper running technique. But I am still young enough that I can afford to make these dumb decisions.

My goal is simple: to finish the 10km without stopping. Despite my ridiculously inefficient walk-shuffle, this challenge is more mental than physical. Often I make it to the 5km mark, and then start the negative self-talk about how much further I have to go and how much my stomach hurts and boy wouldn't it be nice to take just one teensy-weensy break to catch my breath and there's no way I can keep running so why not just stop? And on and on and on goes the chatter in my brain until I give in and stop. Then I have to finish the route in bursts and starts, because once I stop it's hard to re-establish a steady pace.

I don't know whether it is because I am more fit or because I am stupider and think less than I used to, but for the past few years I have reached my goal. Despite having gotten two hours of sleep the night before and having hurt my knee biking to the event, I got through pretty much the entire run without the brainweasels starting their chatter. I looked pathetic and came in the last 10% of finishers during the event -- this year's route doubled back on itself, so maybe people quit at the 5km mark -- but the day was beautiful, I had a good sense of how much distance I had to run, and because the route doubled back I didn't feel alone until the last leg of the journey, so I revelled in the ridiculousness of my situation instead of being despondent about it.

I guess I should ask people for pledges, but I never do. I just write a cheque to the Terry Fox Foundation and leave it at that. Anyone who microwaves as much plastic as I do has good reason to fear cancer, so I have no problems at all giving some money towards cancer research every year.

Many years I feel out of place and wish I knew people to run with. One year I did run with a friend, and that was fun. But overall I don't think it would work out; I am too inefficient and slow.

Some years I spend a lot of the run thinking about Terry Fox and the symbolism of his run. I think about how his body must have hurt, how the cancer must have hurt, what it might be like to lose a leg to cancer, what it is going to be like when I get sick and die. I think about him running day after day. I imagine there were days that he resented doing the marathon. The cancer was growing in his body during the Marathon of Hope; he must have felt that too. In some ways I think he was a typical 20something idealist, doing stupid things in the name of ideology (see also: G20 protestors, soldiers at war, enterpreneurs at startups, and suicide bombers). If he wasn't stubborn and foolish the doctors might have caught Fox's second bout of cancer earlier.

I think about the martyrdom aspect of Terry Fox's story. So many of our folk heroes require a blood sacrifice. I think that if Terry Fox had lived the story would be just a footnote in Canadian history. Steve Fonyo also lost his leg to cancer; he reran the Marathon of Hope and completed it, and when people remember him now it is as much for his subsequent legal troubles as the run. Rick Hansen wheelchaired across the world. He's alive and well, and although people regard him as a hero he's not in the public consciousness to the degree Terry Fox is.

I started running in 1997, I think; I walked two and a half hours to the run site, did the run, and walked back. Since then I have done the run most years. In 2008 I missed the run because I discovered my bike tire blew out a few minutes before leaving for the run. In 2004 I was too despondent to run. But most years since 1997 I have done the run. Although I am less enamored of the mythology than I was back then, and although I dislike many aspects of nonprofit fundraising, I still find it a worthwhile experience, and I intend to continue doing the run until it no longer makes sense to do so.

In researching this article I read that Fox ran a regular marathon in 1979. He came in last place, and people around him cheered as he crossed the finish line. As the years pass I hope we keep that story in the mythology.