Terry Fox’s escort

Terry Fox

I recently met a 10-year-old boy who was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia about three years ago. He’s now cancer-free and a normal kid, but to look in his eyes, he has the wisdom of a weathered soul.

He’s been through more pain than most of us would endure in a lifetime. And he lives with the reality that an illness linked to his life-saving bone-marrow transplant could attack his organs at any time.

“They’re just bumps in the road,” he said to me with the sweetest smile, as I interviewed him and his parents for a Telegraph-Journal story appearing Monday.

So here we are, 33 years after Terry Fox embarked on a cross-Canada journey to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

He made the journey so children don’t have to suffer, and, like the boy I met Saturday, so that they have a chance at life.

As runners, and as Canadians, I believe it’s so important to remember Fox’s legacy through the annual Terry Fox Run, which is Sunday, and do what we can to help.

I may not have been born when Fox ran his Marathon of Hope, but I know someone who was a part of his remarkable journey. Doug Ryan is my best friend’s father, a retired police detective, and he has been kind enough to allow me to share his memories with you.

Alicia and her dad, Doug Ryan
My friend Alicia and her dad, Doug Ryan

“Before I joined the OPP in 1978, I had done a lot of long distance running.  I knew the effort, stamina, strength and pain involved in pushing myself to the limit. In August, 1980, I was directed to escort Terry Fox from Gravel River as he made his way westbound through our area. Gravel River is about 45 km east of Nipigon on Highway 17. The only stretch of highway in Ontario more challenging than this area would have been the long hills before Wawa.

“Terry and his support team were ready to go when I got there, about 8:30 a.m. After a brief introduction and instructions from his brother, the escort began. Their camper truck was out front, then Terry, then me, about five car lengths behind, in a black and white Ford with the emergency lights activated.

“When he began to run I was overcome with emotion in less than a minute. The true gravity of the introduction, only moments earlier, became very apparent.  I was watching this young man making history and I was privileged to be trusted with his safety. Privileged to have just met a champion the world was watching. Privileged to have just met a young man who was pouring his heart and soul into the whole world’s fight against cancer. 

“Within minutes I was moved to tears when I thought about the effort he was putting out to continue his laboured, off-balanced stride. It made me realize that I had hardly pushed myself at all in my own running. It wasn’t long until traffic began to pull over. Westbound vehicles would pull out to pass us, go several hundred yards up the highway then pull over. Everyone would get out to cheer Terry on and make a donation. Eastbound vehicles would also stop and wait for Terry’s approach. The enthusiasm and donations were non-stop hour after painful hour.  Many of those cheering and clapping were also moved to tears at the same time. Cancer has reached every family in one way or another and Terry’s efforts stirred up those emotions in all of us. As a young boy, I listened to my grandmother slowly die of cancer in the next room. It felt like Terry was putting himself through all this, just for her.  

“By mid morning Terry stopped for a break and went down to the water’s edge. He wanted to be by himself. It was very apparent to me that he was in tremendous pain. He was clearly favouring his stump side and the expression on his face was that of a man enduring serious pain. I recall he had a bit of a dry cough when he was talking to his brother.  Like the cough of an asthmatic. I didn’t think he would make it up Kama Hill, which was about halfway to Nipigon. Again, I was moved to tears, as he slowed to a walk to try and make it to the top of the biggest hill in our area. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could push themselves this hard, day after day. It took me a week to recover from one marathon. He was doing one marathon each day, against all odds. I was hoping he would stop, for his own sake.  

“Terry Fox. The most determined, most influential, most important and the most inspirational person I have ever met. It was the most memorable day of my career.”

(Remarkably, Fox made it about 120 km past Nipigon, close to Thunder Bay, before the cancer spread to his lungs and he was forced to end the run. He died nine months later.)

A national adventure

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Sydney Helland in Saint John at the conclusion of her cross-Canada bike trip on Aug. 28, 2013.

There she was, with her tanned, muscular legs and little bicycle packed with everything she needed for more than two months on two wheels.

Sydney Helland, my 27-year-old friend from Toronto, had ended her journey and was waiting for me at one of the most historic places in Saint John: Fort La Tour.

As I rounded the corner on Harbour Passage and spotted her, I started jogging her way, still in my office attire, hair frizzing in the humid Saint John fog.

“You made it!” I called and we met and hugged, shed a couple tears, and hugged some more.

Sydney had made it, alright. Six thousand kilometres from sea to shining sea. She was ready to dip her wheel in the Bay of Fundy, and I was honoured to be her witness.

I’ve known Sydney for close to 10 years after meeting at the Cord, the student newspaper at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. She is an avid photographer and creative-type, and after shedding 65 pounds in recent months, she was ready to take on a new challenge.

She decided to ride across the country and write a book about it: The Gonzo Guide to Biking Across Canada, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. She hopes it is out by Christmas time of next year.

I know she’ll have no shortage of stories to share. Mark and I had the joy of hearing just a few of them over dinner during her night in Saint John.

The sheer magnitude of her journey – both mental and physical – is so inspiring. I can’t even imagine the strength and endurance it would take to cycle through the Rockies, battling a near-constant incline. She survived on simple meals of flat breads and peanut butter, yogurt (when it was cold enough to keep) and the odd donut for extra calories.

“It was hard to leave that carlorie-counting mode to being in a position where you have to eat as much as you can, to the point where your face hurts from chewing,” she said with a laugh.

She travelled an average of 100 to 150 km a day, usually cruising at speeds of 20 km an hour.

Sydney met new people on the trip, including a few who joined her for various legs of the journey. She got lost once (near Nackawic, N.B.), she learned to “stealth camp,” she weathered conditions of heat and rain, and she learned to be alone – and like the person she saw in the mirror.

“I don’t think it did change me, but it allowed me to accept that. It allowed me to accept the person that I am,” she told us over dinner. Our mouths gaped at her wisdom.

And for Sydney, the feeling of accomplishment – although sweet – was not as important as what she left behind, she said. You learn to live without and let go, whether it’s a pillow or old memories that are better left alone.

People have often asked her what her favourite part of Canada was, and while she loved seeing the “sheer majestic beauty” of Lake Superior in northern Ontario, it was more than that, she said.

“It’s been with me the whole way. I’ve met some of the most beautiful people I would have never met otherwise,” she said. “That was my favourite part of Canada. It wasn’t a singular place. It was all the people across the whole country that define what Canada is.”

Sydney dips her wheel in the Saint John Harbour
Sydney dips her wheel in the Saint John Harbour

Read and see more about her adventure here.