Missing Terry – a journey into our heroic imagination

Missing Terry – a journey into our heroic imagination
Terry Fox (Frame grab from a documentary film)

This month in Johannesburg and in dozens of cities around the world, one of countless annual charity runs will be held. In most countries other than Canada, few people besides the participants themselves are likely to know the background to this particular event. Fewer still that the young man it honours is more revered in his home country than Nelson Mandela is here, if we imagine reverence could ever be measured. The comparison with Mandela is not meant to be glib. Terry Fox is an urgent reminder that moral courage is not the provenance of the powerful and famous. It resides in us all. And it is needed now more than ever.

We understood because there is a bit of Terry Fox in all of us’

In 1980 two paths were meant to cross somewhere in the vast expanse of Canada.

Our family set out that summer from the west, all seven us, crammed into a motor-home we had borrowed from relatives. In front of us, nine provinces, or about 6,000km, depending where on Canada’s Atlantic coast we would decide to turn around and drive back home.

A few months earlier, a young man with curly hair and a lucent smile struck out from the east. He dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and then, unimaginably, set out to run more than 8,400km across Canada, crushing out one marathon every day, hoping to raise $1-million for cancer research.

By the time we started our trip in July, the young man had gone from unknown amputee to national sensation. The daily progress of what he called The Marathon of Hope was now tracked by millions of Canadians, us included.

Far in the distance on an endless road, running with an unusual hop-skip gait towards us, was Terry Fox.


No obvious sign of greatness revealed itself during the childhood of the second son of Rolland and Betty Fox. Nor during his teenage years. Though Terry may have had greatness on his mind. From an early age he showed himself to be fiercely competitive. He was not “gifted”, in the way some children can electrify a sports field or classroom. In high school Terry started well back of the pack. Through uncommon determination and hard work, he would finish school alongside those students at the front.

Terry went to the university closest to his home in a suburb of Vancouver. He surpassed the expectations of friends and family by being selected for its junior varsity – or ‘B’ – team in his favourite sport, basketball. He surprised no one by choosing to study kinesiology, the mechanics of body movements. Terry loved sports, his tenacity always taking him further than his talent would suggest. Perhaps he would have become a teacher and coach at a high school, excelled in that life, even achieved greatness. The kind that is quiet and localised.

One morning near the end of his first year of university Terry tried to get out of bed but couldn’t. Tests revealed that he had bone cancer – osteosarcoma – in his right leg; it would be amputated 15cm above the knee in four days. Doctors told him his chances of survival were about 50/50. An article about an amputee who ran the New York City Marathon, which Terry was given the night before his operation, seeded his dream of one day running a marathon more than two-hundred times that distance – across Canada, east to west.

During the fifteen months he would train by himself in preparation for his run, Terry was haunted by what he had seen in hospital during his chemotherapy and more than year-long recovery. Two thirds of his fellow patients would die. Spirits broken, new friends wasted away; children who stopped smiling.

Somewhere, the hurting must stop,” he wrote in a wrenching letter to the Canadian Cancer Society asking for sponsorship for his run. They declined, initially. No doctor believed an amputee could complete such a journey, let alone raise $1-million. Terry’s persistence eventually paid off and the Society lent support. Adidas donated running shoes, Ford a camper van and $1,000 in coupons were given for petrol and groceries.


The last icy blasts of a Canadian winter swirled around St John’s Harbour on the morning of 12 April 1980 as Terry dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean in the presence of the city’s mayor, a few reporters and his best friend, Doug Alward, who would drive the van, cook meals and collect donations as the two of them inched westward. Terry devised a schedule which remained more or less consistent throughout his run: on the road by 04h30, his favourite time of the day to run, complete more than half of a conventional marathon (24km) before eating and resting, then run again in the afternoon for about 18km. He would average a little less than 9 minutes per kilometre.

The first few weeks were grim. After the leg-dip, reporters moved on to other stories. Most people had no idea who this curly-haired curiosity on the road was or what he was doing. Terry and Doug would use pay phones to call local radio stations to drum up publicity. Despite snow and gale-force winds, Terry would only wear shorts so people could see his artificial leg. Low spirits and fatigue frequently got the better of him. He would encounter well-intentioned drivers who would stop and try to pick him up. Others would honk aggressively, even force him off the road.

Before long, things changed. Terry laboured his way into the nation’s consciousness as no person had done before, nor anyone since. More and more people started gathering en route, standing at the roadside or intersections, in rural areas and cities. Some ran or cycled alongside him. Hundreds of corporations pledged funds for each kilometre Terry ran. His running schedule was now interspersed with daily speaking engagements: schools, town halls, the press. National radio established a regular slot for ‘Terry Fox updates’. Terry adjusted his goal: instead of $1-million, he now wanted to raise one dollar for every Canadian, amounting then to $24-million.


We had a vague plan to intercept Terry somewhere in the province of Ontario, where from the west Canada breaks free of the 49th parallel and cuts a valley into the United States deeper than anyone seems to notice. The almost-nightly television clips of Terry’s run suggested that, once we had pulled over at some unremarkable spot that he was about to pass, he would be in our sights for only a few moments, possibly long enough to pick-up the distinct sound his hop-skip gait made on asphalt. We would donate a few dollars and cheer him on as he ran past.

For some long-forgotten reason we missed Terry. We may have veered off his route in a rush to visit places further east. Quebec City or Prince Edward Island, perhaps. I can’t remember.

My father said that we’d have another chance to see Terry run in a few months’ time, back home, after our trip. That’s what I tell myself now. Terry would then be in his final, steady lurch to his marathon’s end. We would pile into our station wagon – the relatives’ motor-home since returned – and drive five hours from our house in the interior to watch him dip his leg, this time, into the Pacific Ocean, as if he had conquered Everest or landed on the moon.

By the time Terry Fox neared the city of Thunder Bay on 1 September 1980, a dull end-of-summer day, he had run further than the distance between Seattle and Miami. He had been on the road for 143 days and was nearly two-thirds through his run. Under two weeks of running away was the border separating the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, the symbolic crossing into Western Canada, the start of his long home stretch. He would not reach it. Precisely 5,373km into his run, Terry stopped.


Normally we try to avoid pain. To run long distances is to accept it as unavoidable. Sometimes the pain is welcome, a hint that limits are about to be extended and new goals can be set. More often, pain is feared because it can overwhelm you. The most common fear is the supply of oxygen for energy production; will I have enough to keep going? It is often said that the toughest part of a marathon occurs between the 32nd and 38th kilometre, when the physical demands on the body can suddenly create a mental barrier – a wall – that cannot be overcome. Successful runners adopt techniques and mental strategies to cope with exertional pain – so-called ‘good pain’ – and break through the wall. Runners experiencing ‘bad pain’, the kind that can lead to injury, are always advised to stop.

Terry experienced bad pain every day. In the diary he kept Terry privately despaired at people’s incessant questions about his health and the toll the run must have been taking on his body. “People thought I was going through hell. Maybe I was partly …the pain was there,” he conceded, “but the pain didn’t matter”. He kept running through dizzy spells and seeing double, the constant shin splints, the cysts that would develop on his stump and the bone bruises he suffered on his left foot, long shorn of toenails. Occasionally blood would be spotted running down his artificial leg.

That leg. Modern prosthetics comprise materials and responsive technology able to withstand any strain an elite athlete can place on them. Terry’s steel and fibreglass leg was of its time: built for walking. It was not designed to absorb the impact of running, nor was his prosthetic foot, made of wood and rubber. Only one other above-the-knee amputee in the world was then known to be running more than one mile a day. Terry’s leg would need constant repairs and snapped in half at least once during training as his daily runs gradually lengthened.

Eventually his leg, attached to his stump by suction and a series of belts, would be adapted with a steel joint that functioned like a hinge and a strong elastic strap was added to help extend the leg forward. This made his “swing through” – the part of a running motion when an amputee would use their hip muscles (an able-bodied person would use their quadriceps) to propel the leg forward to full extension before weight could be applied, enabling them to arch over the straightened leg – quicker than a regular prosthetic but still slow. The result was Terry’s “hop-and-skip” gait – hopping on his good leg while his artificial one swung through. It was hard on his body and painful to watch. One advantage was that the leg was relatively easy to repair. At one point it was fixed with parts from the rear suspension of a 1978 Chevy Malibu.

Terry coped with fear and aches in the same way most endurance athletes do, by breaking up distance into manageable pieces. The next kilometre, a crest of a hill. If that doesn’t work, focus on something outside the body. Terry thought a lot about his time in hospital, how his run could give hope to cancer sufferers, help them find their courage. It was also a repayment of a debt, the promise he made to himself:

Should I live, I would rise up… and prove myself worthy of life.”

Inasmuch as his tolerance for pain was hard to fathom, his readiness to live in the public eye so fully was only slightly less remarkable. Shy by nature, an introvert, Terry trained in solitude. He envisaged running vast stretches of his marathon alone, with only his best friend trailing some way behind in the van. He could not have predicted the ceaseless attention. That, and the adulation, might have sapped his sense of purpose, of self. Instead he seemed inspirited, a picture of grace, able to carry a weight that became heavier by the day. Like the parents at the roadside clutching remembrances of a son or daughter lost, willing Terry on as if he were their own.

It is part of the sad poetry which followed that pain of a different kind began to trouble him near the small town of Marathon. It was there that Terry was convinced to stop and seek medical attention for what, to his relief, turned out to be a treatable case of splint fractures in his ankle. The doctor examining him suspected there was something else, a deeper reason for the coughing and the discomfort in his chest. He could not bring himself to tell Terry.

As he pushed on towards Thunder Bay, Terry recorded nothing in his diary to suggest he knew. Maybe he blocked out the possibility, in the way he evaded medical check-ups after his treatment and throughout the nearly five months he had been running across Canada, fearing what all sufferers fear. He had run for more than thirty-kilometres that day. The highway was lined with people shouting “Don’t give up, you can make it!” They could not have known then why he stopped. But Terry seemed to know it was over instantly. For how many days, weeks or months he had run with tumours growing inside him, one now the size of a golf ball in his right lung, the second in his left lung, the size of a lemon, already too large and close to his heart to be surgically removed, was anyone’s guess.


Little is known about the psychology of heroism. Empirical research is scant; studies mostly comprise interviews with brave men and women reminiscing about deeds which occurred decades earlier, usually during times of war. We all have a romantic sense of what the heroic entails. Personal sacrifice and selflessness, overcoming great odds, perhaps above all courage, whether moral or physical. But mythic conceptions of the hero are in retreat. What holds our attention in the digital era is a feckless impostor: fame.

The key to heroism,” argues renowned Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.”

At their best, high office and public service were once thought of in such terms. Not so much any more. Often our heroes toil uncelebrated and unreported in disadvantaged communities. Zimbardo borrowed from philosopher Hannah Arendt in popularising “the banality of heroism” – the idea that heroism is not an attribute of the select few but part of our nature as human beings. We can all choose to be heroes just as we can decide to be evil.

We get shaped by our circumstances — by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth,” Zimbardo asserts, “so each of us may possess the capacity to do terrible things. But we also possess an inner hero; if stirred to action, that inner hero is capable of performing tremendous goodness for others.”

Perhaps that helps explain why Terry Fox’s legacy endures: he helps us imagine ourselves as heroes. In books and films much has been made of the ordinariness of his suburban upbringing; its simple values and uncomplicated approach to life. Every day he reminded the press: he was a regular guy. That was, of course, only partly true. Few have ever committed, if not sacrificed, their lives as he did. He would accept no personal profit from his run, nor allow any sponsors to impose conditions or promote their products. He embraced celebrity to draw attention to cancer victims and people with disabilities yet rejected all its trappings.

That was Terry.

A similar feat today would not interest people in the same way the Marathon of Hope did. What sense of wonder could be sustained through tweets on the half-hour by Doug and live images beamed from Terry’s head cam, complemented by footage from drones overhead? Charity runs are also not what they used to be. The concept was still fresh when Terry embarked on his run. Today it is a global industry. In 2010, a total of 319 permits for charity walkathons and marathons were issued in just one city, Chicago. It is not unusual for more than half of the funds raised at such events to be spent on overheads and staff. Often participants know little or nothing about the cause they are supporting. Rarely, I would guess, has that been true of the annual runs held in Terry’s name for the past 37 years.


For someone who grew accustomed to being thronged by strangers and media every day, it must have been odd for Terry to return to his old life, surrounded by family and friends, after doctors found that malignant cells in his knee had metastasised and spread to both lungs. Over the next weeks and months he would accept the various awards bestowed on him without hubris. One rising star on his old university basketball team recalled that Terry once asked him for his autograph. By then Terry had been named the country’s athlete of the year and was a hero to millions, himself included. He could not oblige.

Terry lived to see his goal of raising one dollar for every Canadian realised. A prominent hotelier who had galvanized corporate support for The Marathon of Hope promised him that an annual run would be held to continue the fight against cancer that he started. We know Terry found consolation in these achievements. One wonders what he would have thought about the nearly $800-million raised to date in his name around the world. Or the huge advances in treatment for osteosarcoma, partly attributable to these monies, which have increased survival rates dramatically and enable most sufferers to keep their limbs. Terry would have thought himself lucky to leave this world at the precise time of day he enjoyed running the most. He would have been proud to see the flag flying at half-mast, an honour hitherto given only to statesmen. Of the schools and parks, the stadia and mountains, I imagine he would have thought it all too much.

Veneration of Terry Fox is still, overwhelmingly, a Canadian thing. It might stay that way. His run is like a shared photo album of a country that can, at its best, seem exuberantly young. Of course, Terry avoided what so often derails the idealised hero: growing old. A lot can go wrong in your twenties, and thirties. I suspect that eventually he would have rebelled against the attention, perhaps not very agreeably. The passage of time typically affords a clearer, often more jaundiced picture of heroes; their failings and imperfections come into sharper focus. For most Canadians, Terry is liminal: split between ordinariness and the perfection most of us can’t help but see in him.


Our family trip across Canada is tenderly anchored in my memory. Only once would we all be together in that way, on such a long journey. We know each other and our country better for it. If only we had seen Terry.

Countless images of his run are readily accessible today online but few, if any, that capture his final months are public. We know from interviews with his family that there were times at home when he too stopped smiling. By Christmas of 1980 Terry knew that he had run his last kilometre. Even then, he betrayed only selflessness. He conceded to feeling low because, despite raising so much money, he did not have enough of his own in his bank account to buy a Christmas gift for his mother. His older brother would lend him a few dollars to buy her a pink waste-paper basket, with a top-cushion made of vinyl, for her bathroom. It was Terry’s last gift to her. She kept it until her death.

Ladislav Antonik was the medical director of the hospital in Vancouver where Terry received his cancer treatment. In a brief, unbearable statement to the press early on the morning Terry died, the 28thJune 1981, one month before his twenty-third birthday, Dr Antonik tried in his own way to explain why Terry meant so much to so many people: “We understood because there is a bit of Terry Fox in all of us.” DM

Dr Terence McNamee lives in Johannesburg and is a Global Fellow of the Washington DC-based Wilson Center. The Run for Hope in honour of Terry Fox takes place in Johannesburg on 9 September. All proceeds go to CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa. View the website at


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