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I was granted the gift of a healthy body at birth but by the early 1980s, as I slouched into my 30s, I had allowed myself to become a physical train wreck.
My lifestyle at the time – odd working hours and lots of free time – lent itself to long bouts of self-indulgence. I was a heavy smoker, an epic drinker and an avowed layabout.
With the wisdom and certitude that youth claims so easily, I had determined that after I turned 35 my body would begin a gradual but inexorable process of deterioration, which would end in utter decrepitude around the age of 50. If such a slide was in fact beyond my control, I had decided, I would settle back and enjoy the ride.
Of course, I knew who Terry Fox was; every Canadian did. He had raised a ton of money for cancer research by attempting to run across Canada after losing his right leg to osteosarcoma. During his Marathon of Hope in the summer of 1980 he had run 42 kilometres – the distance of a full marathon – every single day. As every Canadian also knows, he could not ultimately outrun his disease, which caught up with him near Thunder Bay, Ont., in September, 1980, ending his quest and then his life.
Some years after Fox died, I happened to see a news clip of him running down the highway, with his recognizable hop-skip gait as he bounced back and forth from his artificial leg to his good one. What touched me as I watched him – this young man with so much stacked against him – was how completely calm and focused he looked, despite the traffic rushing by and the crowds pressing on all sides.
However uncertain his future was, he had taken control of what he could by setting a seemingly impossible goal and then taking the steps – literally one at a time – to accomplish that goal. Looking back, I realize that this image formed much of the template for how I would try to live my life over the next three decades.
If Terry Fox, by the singular strength of his spirit, could push his broken body every day to the ends of endurance, any healthy person, I decided, should be able to accomplish anything.
Thirty years ago this fall, in possession of two good legs and a basically sound body, I decided to see what was possible. Although I had not run a step since childhood, I wondered if I might try to finish the 10-kilometre distance of the September, 1985, Terry Fox Run. I started my training by running around the block, celebrating the end of the workout with a cigarette. Every part of my body violently protested against the intrusive new regimen. The first time I ran non-stop for 15 minutes, I coughed violently for hours afterward and my legs were so stiff I couldn’t walk down stairs for two days. But I kept up the training and somehow completed the event.
That fall, I hacked and wheezed my way through two more 10K races. I found that I enjoyed the newfound sensation of pushing myself to test my limits. I’d never had the slightest love or aptitude for team sports, so I embraced the solitude offered by distance running. More important to me, my new fitness habit gave me the motivation I needed to leave behind my smoking addiction forever.
Running became a focus. If I was out of town I would research routes and trails and run beside the Rideau Canal, the Bow River or the North Saskatchewan River. In Victoria, I ran through the harbour and out of town along the seashore. I never got fast, but I stayed strong.
I became a setter of goals, some of them, like Terry’s, seemingly impossible. Immediately after my first Terry Fox Run, my wife gave me a book called How to Run Your First Marathon. Two years later, I had actually run my first marathon.
In 1994, looking to broaden my scope, I tried a triathlon, adding swimming and biking to running. The year I turned 50 (that prophesied age of decrepitude!), I completed my first Ironman. As of today, I have attempted more of these long-distance events than I can count, and so have my wife and my children.
Terry’s motivation was different from mine; he wanted to raise money and awareness for cancer research, whereas I wanted to validate my stewardship of my own body. I’m not sure that he intended to reach people like me when he began his journey, but his example inspired me to start down a road of my own toward a lifelong passion for endurance athletics.
A few years ago, my participation in a cycling endurance race across the American Southwest gave me the opportunity to raise money on behalf of Canadians fighting multiple myeloma.
For 30 years, his passion to move forward toward the finish line has been my companion, my slave driver, my sparring partner, my confessor and absolver, my judge and my therapist. I continue to set near-impossible goals for the sheer joy of challenging myself.
I started running because of Terry Fox and, like him, I do not mean to give up until the last step is taken.
Christopher Cameron lives in Toronto.