Terry Fox: The Story of a Real-Life Superhero

Photo via Terryfox.org

What does a true superhero look like? We obviously have visions of comic book superheroes that we’ve seen depicted on printed pages and in the movies. Then, we have superstar athletes that seem to be able to do things that defy reality. Comic book superheroes are obviously not real and many of the athletes we love turn out to be very flawed human beings.

But what if there was a genuine superhero that had an impact still felt to this day? If you’re Canadian, I don’t have to say anything more than the name Terry Fox. But if you’re from another country–and have never heard of him before–this is a look at a real-life superhero who, in 1980, would run across Canada on one leg to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

One of my most distinct, and early memories, is actually seeing Terry Fox live in person. As part of his Marathon of Hope run, he would stop in various cities along the route. I was only about 4 at the time, but the moment is still burned in my memory. On July 17th, 1980, he stopped in our downtown and spoke at our Victoria Park band shell. I remember my sister still being in a stroller and mainly I remember the thousands and thousands of people in attendance.

I have a faint image of him speaking behind a podium. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember it being extremely significant. This movement left an indelible mark on me, and I think of all the other kids who must have felt the same way. But it was more than kids; Terry Fox motivated and inspired people of all ages with a physical feat that didn’t even seem conceivable. But how did we get to that moment over forty years ago?

The Early Days of Terry Fox

Terrance Stanley Fox was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on July 28th, 1958. This was just three years before another famous Fox from Canada’s west coast was born: Michael J. Fox. When he was eight years old, the Fox family moved to Surrey, British Columbia. Two years later, they settled in Port Coquitlam. 

As a young kid, Fox was fiercely competitive. He hated to lose more than anything. He seemed like one of those kids who hated to lose more than he loved to win and would keep going at any activity until he succeeded in it. Fox was involved in many sports but had a fondness for basketball. But because of his shorter height, he wasn’t the ideal choice for the high school team. The basketball coach encouraged him to try cross-country running. 

Fox wanted to do whatever it took to play basketball, and if running cross-country would impress the coach, he would do it. But his fierce determination to succeed pushed him in his running and basketball pursuits and in grade 12, he was his school’s athlete of the year. 

When it came time for University, Fox’s mother encouraged him to go to Simon Fraser University in B.C. His goal was to become a phys ed teacher. By this point, Fox was 5’10 and made the Junior varsity basketball team. 

But in 1976, an accident happened that changed the course of his life. While driving home, Fox crashed into the back of a pickup truck and seriously hurt his right knee. Being the ultra-competitor he was, Fox ignored the injury and just tried to make it through the rest of the basketball season. But the pain had become worse. He would just ignore it as he was used to pushing through adversity. On a good day, basketball takes a pretty rough toll on the knees, and maybe it was just a combination of that, the running, and the accident that was making the pain so bad.

The Diagnosis 

But eventually, the pain became too much, and he went to the hospital. This is when they diagnosed him with osteosarcoma. This is a cancerous tumor found in the bones and tends to be very aggressive. And it often starts near the knees. In Fox’s mind, he thought that the accident and damage to his knee was what weakened it and left him vulnerable. But there was no connection to this. 

The news got worse: the leg would have to be amputated. The night before his surgery, Fox read an article about Dick Traum, who was the first amputee to complete the New York Marathon. We’ll come back to this in a bit… Fox would also need to start chemotherapy right away. Even with these precautions, he still had a 50% chance of living. Pretty terrible odds, but there had been a lot of progress in the medical advancements. This was now 1977 and just two years prior, the same treatment approach would have only given him a 15% chance. 

This struck a chord in Terry Fox; this news was obviously traumatic, but he was pretty astounded at how much the survival rates had improved in such a short time. A 50/50 chance doesn’t sound great, but it was a hell of a lot better than a 15% chance of living. 

Remember how I mentioned Terry Fox’s determination and not wanting to give in? Less than three weeks after having his leg amputated, Fox was already up and walking with the use of an artificial leg. A combination of great physical fitness and hyper-determination was helping with his lightning-fast recovery. But doctors also noted another factor instrumental to it: his uniquely positive outlook.

The perseverance he had since he was a little kid was helping him in this dire situation. Instead of letting it completely derail him, he approached his recovery as something that needed to be accomplished. He had never backed down from anything, and this recovery would be no different.

Never Give Up

But that didn’t mean it would be easy. He still had to go through 16 months of chemotherapy. And through all of this, Terry Fox stayed upbeat and positive. And, somehow, he managed to stay active. While still undergoing chemotherapy, Fox tied out for the national wheelchair basketball team–and made it. Not only did he make the team, but he won three national titles, and was named an all-star by the North American Wheelchair Basketball Association. This team would include another Canadian hero by the name of Rick Hansen. 

Fox considered himself extremely lucky to not only be alive but to be active and almost thriving. Being in the cancer ward showed him how serious his situation was, and many people did not make it out. He would not waste this opportunity. Fox wanted to do something about all the pain he saw, and this is when he remembered that article he read.

Terry Fox wanted to do something similar and intended to run a marathon. But this was just a guise: he had something much grander in mind. Fox undertook a 14-month training program teaching himself how to run on one leg. With the use of the artificial leg, Fox learned how to do a run/hop method to generate a consistent running rhythm. His years of cross-country running and basketball had helped with his endurance. Now, he made himself adapt to his new physical situation.

However, running like this was very painful. This style of running would cause bone bruises and blisters. Fox’s leg had been amputated about 6 inches above his knee, so the artificial leg needed to be incredibly strong and stable. But this also made the leg very stiff and uncomfortable. This wasn’t short and flat 100-meter races he would run, but extremely long distances, involving hills, descents, and uneven terrain. But despite the pain, he just pushed through it. 

The prosthetic leg he used back then was light years away from the technology and advancements that exist today. In this entire story, it’s often overlooked how Terry Fox changed the game when it came to advancements in prosthetics. The leg Fox used also required much more energy to run with compared to what is available today. The leg he used was designed to be used for simple walking on flat ground.

Again, you just have to watch the videos of him running to see the hop/skip style he adapted and to see how exhausting it looked. Fox said that after about 20 minutes of running, he discovered ‌he could cross the pain threshold and then settle into a consistent rhythm. I’ve been an athlete and runner for a lot of my life and can attest to this pain threshold, but I can’t even begin to imagine what his situation was like. The amount of punishment Terry Fox’s body took was astonishing.

Just a graphic warning here, but during the Marathon of Hope, he would often have blood running down his prosthetic leg. 

His first challenge was when he competed in a 17-mile race where he finished last, but only ten minutes behind the second last competitor. People could not believe what they were watching. A man was running on one leg. 

But training for a full marathon was the last thing on his mind. Despite his optimism and admiration for the advancements in medicine, it astonished Fox at how little money was being devoted to cancer research. He intended to change all that with the most ambitious quest you could ever think of: he would run across Canada. 

Now, I don’t know how good your geography is, but Canada is kind of a big country. It’s the second largest country on earth and makes up over 6% of the world’s landmass. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans border the country. It stretches nearly 9,000 km or 5,500 miles. The country is 3.8 million square miles. Canada is f*cking big is what I’m trying to say. 

Terry Fox was going to run across it on one leg to increase cancer awareness and raise money. 

The Marathon of Hope Begins

Terry Fox finally told his family what his ultimate plan was. His goal was to run from the east coast to the west and raise one million dollars. His mother asked him why he couldn’t just run across British Columbia and Fox said “not only people in BC get cancer.”

But this quest would take planning–and money. He wrote to the Canadian Cancer Society, who were skeptical but helped to support him. Other companies would chip in to supply cars, camper vans, and shoes. But he turned down any endorsement that would allow other people to profit from what he was doing. This was about raising money for research. 

On April 12th, 1980, despite the warnings of several doctors, Terry Fox would head out to the most eastern part of Canada. You might want to open a map to get an idea of how the Marathon of Hope route was planned out, and I’ll point some things out as we go. He started near St. John’s Newfoundland, where he dipped his right leg into the ocean. He also filled up two water bottles, intending to pour one of them into the Pacific Ocean.

On that first day, he ran 26 miles, aka, an entire marathon. And this was the plan: to run a marathon every day. If you’re from the east coast of Canada, you know the weather can be a tad unpredictable in April, and Fox had crazy weather on the very first day, including a snowstorm. 

The very first day started with little fanfare, and honestly–not much awareness. This is 1980 and there obviously weren’t many ways to get the word out at first. You couldn’t upload a YouTube video or tweet out the start of the marathon. There weren’t any Instagram stories to share the progress. Success and awareness would have to grow organically and gradually. And I hate to say this, but there may have been a lot of skepticism about his plan. People saw a man running on one leg and it appeared to be quite a struggle.

How could he even complete a marathon, let alone run across Canada? But, fortunately, Terry Fox didn’t share their views. He had a vision and a goal to accomplish. His sights were set forward. And herein lies the true nature of Terry Fox: he didn’t see himself as having a disability. What he was experiencing was nothing more than a challenge. In his mind, it was just like every other challenge he had ever faced. And it was a challenge he could conquer. It was also an opportunity. An opportunity to reach and connect with people. Ultimately, this was something he could do to help people. And keep in mind: he was only 21 years old. 

The fact he could adopt this mindset shows what a truly unique gift he was to the world. Terry Fox wasn’t just a remarkable Canadian, this was one of the most remarkable human beings who has ever lived.

The Marathon of Hope is Underway

Each day, Fox and his crew would get up around 4:30 am where he’d immediately do a 12-mile run. This would be followed by a stop and a meal either at a restaurant or something the crew would put together. He would eat as much as he could to fuel himself and then go back to bed to then get up at noon and continue running for another 14 to 16 miles.

And he wasn’t skipping even an inch. In the documentary “A Dream as Big As Our Country”, they explain how they would put down a bag of gravel at the precise spot he stopped running each time and each day. Then, when he picked up the running the next morning, he would step out of the van onto the plastic bag in that exact spot to continue the marathon. 

And they weren’t staying in luxury accommodations. Most of the time, Terry Fox would just wrap himself in a sleeping bag and sleep in the back of a van. But he preferred to do much of his running early in the dark and cold mornings, and most of his running was done alone. This limited the amount of support and onlookers, at first. Because of this lack of exposure and publicity, donations and raising money did not amount to much. 

But things would soon pick up.

Two weeks into the run, Fox and the crew were questioning what they had gotten themselves into. But word was slowly spreading. As they reached the edge of Newfoundland, 10,000 people would come out to show their support. They also raised $10,000–one dollar per person, and this gave him an idea. As they headed to Nova Scotia, Fox shifted his goal from raising a million dollars and thought a better target was one dollar for every person in the country; or around 24 million dollars.

Fox and his support team also had to take matters into their own hands for publicity. They would call local radio stations to create more awareness. Can you imagine how much easier this would have been today? Not only would there be multiple social media teams and campaigns, but brand managers, publicists, and promoters. 

They had now been on the road for a month, and even though awareness had grown, it was nowhere near where it needed to be. And financially, they were still way behind. The point of this whole thing was to raise money for cancer research. Fox would now use his nights to start doing radio interviews over the phone. 

Things Start to Pick Up

Even though he would be exhausted each night, the radio interviews started to help. News reports began to spread, and TV stations started to track where he was each day. Now, more and more communities wanted him to stop by so he could spread his message and so they could show support.

When they got to Quebec, things got a bit tougher. For safety reasons, there were some restrictions on where he could run. The language barrier also made it harder to promote what they were doing. Not a lot of money and awareness was generated, and since La Belle Province is such a giant province, they had to spend a lot of time crossing it.

But they were soon about to head into Ontario. 

Now, this is where you may have to get out your map of Canada and look up Terry Fox’s route as I point out where he was heading. As he left Quebec, the logical direction to head across Canada was to continue to head straight west, avoiding the great lakes and most of southern Ontario. But they dipped all the way down into Southern Ontario starting in Ottawa and then along Lake Ontario toward Toronto. This could not be more out of the way but was crucial as about 40% of the population of Canada lives in Southern Ontario. 

Image via CanadianGeographic.ca

And this really was out of the way. The stretch from Toronto and southward is so far south that there are at least a dozen US states that are actually farther north. Southwestern Ontario is so far south that it connects to Detroit and the lower part of Michigan. But even if this wasn’t geographically the smartest route–it was the most critical to the success of the Marathon of Hope. And the more I look back on this incredibly massive route, the more mind-boggling it is.

Take just the province of Ontario, for example. I live near the bottom of Southwestern Ontario and I can drive north for 24 straight hours and still be in the same province–with a quarter of it still to go. Ontario is four times larger than the UK. It’s larger than France and Spain–combined. It’s the same size as Texas and Montana–also combined. Canada is F*cking huge is what I’m trying to say. 

Despite this, he would run down the side of Lake Ontario, through Toronto, down south along Lake Erie, then cut across West–where he stopped in my city on July 17th–then start heading north along Lake Huron, around Georgian Bay, then continue NorthWest around the gigantic Lake Superior: the largest freshwater lake on Earth. By the way; Lake Superior is larger than the entire UK. It’s the same size as Austria. You could fit Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in it. Lake Superior is so big that the sun sets more than 35 minutes later on the western shore than at its southeastern edge. Canada is F*cking huge is what I’m trying to say. 

By this point, awareness–and crowds–had become huge. By the time he got to Ottawa, Terry Fox was a major event and besides thousands of people, a ton of press had arrived. This is the point where people were lining the route everywhere he ran. Everyone who saw him was seeing something that would stick with them forever. And the money started to pour in. A good problem was that Fox was asked to appear and speak at dozens of events. He was already exhausted from the running and the heat, but would continue to make appearances. Despite being physically and mentally exhausted, he continued through southern Ontario.

In Toronto, it felt like the entire city had come out to see him–including pro hockey players Like Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr who were dying to meet him. These were heroes of Terry Fox, but Fox was soon becoming a hero to them and everyone else. This stop alone raided $100,000 or around $350,000 when converted for today. As he headed north, he would spend his 22nd birthday running toward Lake Superior. 

Things Take a Turn For the Worse

As they continued the stretch up Lake Superior, things became more difficult. Terry Fox was understandably exhausted, but something just didn’t seem right. Finally, he asked to see a doctor; something he would usually avoid whenever possible. 

On September 1st, 1980, just outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Terry Fox was diagnosed with a collapsed lung. At this point, he had run 3,339 miles or 5,373 km. He had been running for 142 days and had only taken one day off. The Marathon of Hope was over. But things were unfortunately much worse. He now had cancer in his lungs. 

Fox had been running under these conditions along with the collapsed lung, pain throughout his chest, and severe difficulty breathing. He had to head home to Vancouver to start some more treatment. He saw it as a setback and hoped to get back on the road. While in the hospital, a nationwide telethon happened which more than doubled the money he had raised. And then the funds hit $24 million dollars. He had hit his goal of raising a dollar for every person in the country.

Over the next ten months, Fox continued to fight and had already cemented his status as a national icon. He was even awarded the prestigious Order of Canada–the youngest ever to receive it. But he was only able to fight for so long. 

Terry Fox would pass away on June 28th, 1981, exactly one month before his 23rd birthday.

So, if it hasn’t sunk in yet, let me just point out the logistics of what Terry Fox physically accomplished, and how far he actually ran–so you may want to look at your maps again. One of the furthest east-to-west distances in Canada, as the crow flies, is Cape Spear, Newfoundland, to the Yukon/Alaska border, which is 5,514 km or 3,426 miles. Terry Fox ran 5,373 km or 3,339 miles. With a difference of only 141 km or 87 miles: He had essentially run across the entire length of Canada.

Terry Fox ran the distance from New York to Los Angeles and would have continued from LA to up near the Oregon border. If he started in Mumbai, it would have taken him to Bangkok. The distance he ran was as long as Europe. His run would have taken him right across Australia with another 900 km still to go. This trip would have covered half of Africa. If you’re looking on Google maps, you have to zoom out as far as you can go–revealing the entire Earth–to be able to see all of Africa at once. Terry Fox had run almost 1/7th of the way around the planet. On one leg. And honestly, because he was such a warrior, it’s hard to tell how long he may have been running with the cancer in his lungs. 

But like any true hero, his legacy would only continue to grow long after his death. His work and memory live on through the Terry Fox Foundation. In Canada, just the name Terry Fox has grown into something even bigger than the individual. Today, he has buildings, roads, and parks all across the country named after him. Younger kids may not know exactly who he is, but they’ve probably been in a Terry Fox park or seen a statue of him. And they would also know the Terry Fox Run. This is an annual, non-competitive fundraiser and is held every September. The Terry Fox Run has now spread around the world to raise money for cancer research. 21 different countries now have their own Terry Fox Run and you may have even been in one. 

The run started in 1981 and has raised over $750 million dollars. My whole family has taken part in this and distances range from 5 to 15 km. There are even shorter ones for schools and younger kids. The idea is to promote participation instead of competition. The Terry Fox Run continues to have no corporate advertisers or sponsors in the same way Fox rejected all the big corporations who would have made money off of sponsoring his original run. This was one of his wishes that continues to be honored to this day. 

Wrapping it Up

Sometimes, I hate the idea of time passing as fast as it has. I can’t believe that in a blink of an eye, I’m now in my forties. But at the same time, I’m thankful that I’m old enough that I can remember someone like Terry Fox–and actually got to see him. I’m thankful to have lived and experienced this moment that not only had a profound impact on me, but filled me and the entire country with inspiration. The image of him running is the definition of iconic. Just attempting to do what he did is remarkable, let alone how far he got under the circumstances. 

And I think the proof of his legacy is how important he remains today. He’s arguably even more important, 40-plus years after his death as his impact continues to be felt. It’s hard to do justice to the life and legacy of Terry Fox in a brief podcast. His life warrants hours and hours of discussion, but I hope you’ve got a good overview of this incredible human being. And, in a complete coincidence, this episode is being put together on what would have been Terry Fox’s 64th birthday. 

When I say Terry Fox is part of the backbone of Canada, I think that’s even understating it. He’s part of the fabric of this country and he’s more than a hero; he’s a folk hero. Terry Fox is a real-life superhero. The physical feat he endured genuinely makes him superhuman. That’s the way I saw him when I was a little kid and continue to do so. I remember doing a school project on Terry Fox, as millions of other Canadian kids have done, too, and it’s been kind of emotional putting this together and remembering the impact he had on all of us. But that’s what makes for a superhero: they not only inspire the masses but impact us on a personal level. 

Terry Fox has often been considered Canada’s greatest hero, and if this is the first time you’re hearing about this, I hope he becomes a hero to you, too. 

Check out the Terry Fox Foundation if you want to learn more and see how you can donate.