Not a Hero, He’s One of Us
Prince George, B.C. – Canadians from one side of the country to the other will participate in the 37th annual Terry Fox Run on Sunday to raise money for cancer research. And on of the people who accompanied Terry on a portion of his 1980 Marathon of Hope is sharing his recollections of the smiling, one-legged kid from Port Coquitlam whose outlook and actions bore deeply and entrenched themselves within the fabric of Canada.
First, in Prince George registration for the run begins at 9 am tomorrow at the Terry Fox statue in Community Foundation Park at 7th and Dominion. Following opening ceremonies participants make their way to Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park to walk, run, ride or roller blade around the 5 km course, which is open from 10 am to noon.
Back in 1980 Bill Vigars had just taken a post with the Canadian Cancer Society “and my boss said there’s a kid running across Canada on one leg, go see what you can do for him. Terry had just set out from St. John’s, Newfoundland and I watched his progress and it wasn’t going well, I think mainly because of the population. Running across Newfoundland, once you leave St. John’s there’s nothing.”
“He gets to Port Aux Basques, raises $10,000 in a town of 10,000 people which gave him the idea of “a buck for every Canadian” (which became a slogan of the Marathon of Hope). He got of the ferry from Newfoundland and I know he was bummed out. There was a little stretch between him and Doug, his best friend who was the driver. If you’ve ever seen the support van there’s two guys living, sleeping, cooking, everything in this very confined space, 24/7 and needless to say they started getting on each other’s nerves and the reception they were getting was mixed.”
Vigars was responsible for the marathon’s swing through Ontario so in advance of its arrival he made phone contact with Terry to see what he wanted to do. “He says I want to meet Bobby Orr, Darryl Sittler, go to the CN Tower, a Blue Jays’ game and I want to meet Trudeau (Pierre, that is).” “When we spoke the next day I said “Sittler’s on, Blue Jays are on, CN Tower is on, Bobby Orr isn’t going to be there but he’s going to find us someplace along the route, and I can’t find Trudeau.” What I was trying to do was give him some hope.”
“I flew out to New Brunswick and spent five days with him to find out who is this guy, is he for real, is he going to do it, who is crazy enough to run across Canada on one leg? The first morning I met him, at 4 o’clock in the morning out on the road in the dark, within 15 minutes I knew he would really do it. And then when I heard him talk, there were no speech writers for Terry Fox, when he spoke it was literally from the heart. It was his show, his journey.”
“I realized that when we were getting into populated areas this had the potential of really taking off.” Bill spent three weeks speaking with people in every little town between Toronto and Ottawa. “All I had was a couple of Polaroid photos and I said there’s a kid running across Canada with one leg, when he comes to your town would you put on a reception? And they would say, well, if he makes it this far we will. I said, trust me, he’ll make it.”
But things were not going well for Terry and Doug in Quebec. “They had run out of money, had no money for gas, were eating canned beans and bread, were all sick with the flu. By this time (Terry’s brother) Daryl has joined them. So this gentleman puts them up in a hotel, gave them some money, filled up the gas tank.”
“By this time Quebec had backed out (of supporting the run) based only on one man’s decision, so you can’t blame the people of Quebec. Even in Ontario, up until the very last moment there were large segments of the province who were going, we don’t have the manpower to do this (support) and I told them we don’t need volunteers, it will just happen. And it was supported when he came across the border.”
Terry’s Marathon of Hope began in St. John’s on April 12th, 1980 and continued until he was forced to stop 12 kilometres east of Thunder Bay on September 1st that year. His cancer had spread to his lungs. His marathon had run 143 days and covered 5,373 kilometres. Terry died in Vancouver on June 18th, 1981. He was 22.
What gave Terry Fox the guts and motivation to do what he did? Bill Vigars figures it was two things. “One was the experience he had going to treatment in Vancouver when he was first diagnosed (with bone cancer in his right leg at age 18). The put him in Sick Kids’ Hospital. He kept watching the kids die, and that changed him completely.”
“Psychologically, how can you possibly run a marathon a day on one leg? He did it one telephone pole at a time. He said I can’t possibly run a marathon a day but I can run to that telephone pole, and when I get to that pole I can run to the next one. And that’s why he had Doug mark every mile with the van, because he ran one mile, but he did it 26 times in a day.”
“He was truly motivated, unselfishly, by his feeling that people shouldn’t have to suffer the way he saw people suffering.”
Bill says that by the time Terry got to Thunder Bay “he felt people had put him up on a pedestal, sort of like a hero, like he was Superman, which he was very, very uncomfortable with. We were in the ambulance with his mom and dad on the way to the airport (to fly home to Vancouver) and dad, Rolly, was very upset and said “this is so unfair”. And Terry goes, “no it isn’t dad, I’m no different from anybody else. People get cancer and cancer comes back, I’m not special, I’m not different. Maybe now people can realize why I was doing it.”
“And he realized that because of the exposure people were now going to watch him go through chemo, radiation and, although he never said it, probably pass away. And that was the measure of the man.”
“When we were on that stretch from Sault Ste Marie toward the end of the run, when he got sick on that Sunday, all of us were in shock. We never saw it coming. He had developed a cough but we though it was a cold. When we found out the cancer had returned we were just dumbfounded.”
“He was an amazing person. Three years ago I was in China and I saw 10,000 kids in Terry Fox T-shirts running for him. In Cuba, 3 million people run every March in the Terry Fox run. I think Canadians can be so proud, especially the young people, of the example he set in so many different ways: determination, unselfishness, giving with your best shot and leaving everything out there on the court.”
“He was just a normal kid like your own, wasn’t great in school but worked and worked until he could do it, wasn’t great in basketball, he just worked and worked and worked until he could do it. For him to set that example for the rest of our country, nobody’s ever done it and I don’t think it will be done again.”
“Everybody sees that stress on his face, and the pain that he goes through, but at the end of the day he’s a funny, fun-loving guy. I had a couple of beers with Terry and he’d say I’d have more than two beers but if I have more than two I can’t get up and run in the morning.”
For Bill Vigars, who now lives in White Rock, this will be his 37th Terry Fox Run, this time in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He has taken part in every run, from China to Cuba, the U.S. and all across Canada.
Vigars says in an emotionally halting voice, “you know Prince George plays a big role in his story, because that’s where he went out and ran his very first marathon and everybody stood around and waited for him to finish.”
“And he’s still running. People are still, thirty-seven years later, I think a little bit of Terry is in every Canadian now.”