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Former publicist offers readers a ‘brand-new side’ to Terry Fox in new memoir

This weekend, Terry Fox runs will be held in cities across Canada, including in Fox’s adopted hometown of Port Coquitlam, B.C. Now, a new book is offering a fresh perspective on the man who tried to run from coast to coast on one leg to raise money for cancer research.

“I hope [readers] see a brand-new side of Terry Fox,” said Bill Vigars, author of Terry & Me: The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.

Few people were closer to Fox at that time than Vigars, a self-described publicist, wagon master, and confidant.

Fox was just 18 when he lost more than half of his right leg to osteosarcoma in 1977. The night before his amputation, he read an article about Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon. That gave Fox the idea to run across Canada from east to west to raise money for cancer research. He began his Marathon of Hope on April 12, 1980, dipping his right leg into the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Vigars joined the tour on June 9, 1980, in Edmunston, New Brunswick. It’s hard to believe now, with so many schools, streets, and statues honouring Fox, but at that point, he was virtually unknown. Vigars recounts how the Canadian Cancer Society sent him to New Brunswick to find out if Fox was the real deal. It wouldn’t take long for Vigars to get his answer.

“I joined him at four o’clock in the morning, we were on the road by five o’clock,” he explained. “In the darkness, I watched him run and marveled at what he was doing.”

“I saw how he affected people just by running down the road,” he recalled. “There would be a small handful of people and they stood transfixed. There were tears in their eyes.”

Vigars says he was immediately struck by Fox’s sincerity and determination.

“He was driven by his experience in the children’s ward while being treated for cancer where he watched people, younger than him, fight the disease and sometimes lose,” he explained.

“People would often say, ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it hurts. It hurts a lot. But I can stop running anytime I want. But people in cancer wards can’t so I’m going to keep going.'”

Vigars remained with Fox from then on, present for every high and low, including the time Vancouver newspaper columnist Doug Collins accused Fox of driving through the Quebec portion of his tour.

“It affected the entire run,” Vigars remembered. “I never saw him so upset. He was meticulous in making sure that he ran every single step of the way.”

Then came that painful September day in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when Fox learned his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs, forcing him to end his cross-Canada tour after 143 days and go back home to B.C. for treatment.

“That was, probably, for me, the hardest, most devastating day of my life,” Vigars admitted. “It was probably the hardest part to write about. It was very, very emotional.”

With so many books and movies made about the Marathon of Hope, Vigars says there is one thing they tend to miss about Fox.

“His wonderful sense of humour,” he said.

One example was when Planter’s Peanuts proposed having their mascot run alongside Fox as he completed his tour.

“And they were going to give him a car if [he] let Mr. Peanut run with him that last mile into English Bay,” he said. “And I had to present that to him, and he smiled and tilted his head and said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea, Bill, as long as I can wear the Mr. Peanut outfit myself!”

Every year, on the second Sunday after Labour Day, people across Canada and around the world lace up their shoes and run in Fox’s honour. More than 40 years after it began in 1981, the Terry Fox Run remains the largest single-day fundraiser for cancer research in the world.

As Vigars promotes his memoir, he admits it feels like 1980 all over again, as he is once more getting the word out about Fox.

“His story is alive and strong, and I just want to keep it going,” Vigars said.

And keep it going he has, providing a warts-and-all look at his subject, careful not to descend into hero worship.

“He was very, very uncomfortable with [being called] a hero. He said, ‘I’m no different than you. If I ever get an ego, then my run means nothing.'”

Terry & Me: The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope is published by Sutherland House Books.

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