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The Globe & Mail

An Emotional, Wrenching Run
- Gayle Macdonald

By the time Terry Fox, his van, and growing entourage arrived just outside of Thunder Bay at summer's end in 1980, he had two tumours in his lungs -- each the size of a tennis ball.

The pain, as he pushed his cancer-riddled body for 143 days over 5,373 kilometres of Canada's rugged heartland, must have been excruciating. But friends and family said he rarely complained. He was so determined to finish his Marathon of Hope.

Unfortunately, sheer will was no longer cutting it.

On Sept. 1, Fox's Trans-Canada journey was sidelined by the disease doctors had diagnosed three years earlier. Until that point, the native of Port Coquitlam, B.C., was convinced he'd outmuscle and outwit the cancer. Almost 10 months later, on June 28, 1981, Fox died.

But the determined young man left behind a legacy of hope that has spawned Terry Fox Runs in 60 countries, so far raising more than $360-million for cancer research.

This Sunday at 7 p.m. -- a week before the 25th Terry Fox Run to raise money for cancer research -- CTV will air Terry, a movie produced by Toronto's Shaftesbury Films that tries to retrace Fox's spiritual and physical quest. It's director, Emmy winner Don McBrearty, says the experience of trying to chronicle Fox's journey left him humbled.

McBrearty, who shot the $4-million TV movie over 21 days this summer, says he and his crew quickly learned Fox's odyssey was often a nightmare: freezing cold, then blistering heat; lonely and treacherous -- but in the end, it was also intensely gratifying because it proved a single person can do so much, one small step at a time.

"It's the toughest project, emotionally, that I've ever worked on," McBrearty says. "We filmed in intense heat and we were exhausted just trying to retrace his steps. And we didn't run the daily marathon that Terry did. He started most mornings at 5 and went to bed by 8 o'clock. But as events progressed and he got into Ontario, when he became more popular, he had to go to receptions, sometimes two or three in a night.

"None of us can figure out how he did it, running 26 miles every day. It's hard to fathom."

This particular day, McBrearty has assembled his cast and crew in Hamilton, which is standing in for Thunder Bay. Fox, played convincingly by Shawn Ashmore, has just shot the scene where the 22-year-old runner -- with father Rolly, mother Betty, brother Darrell, best friend Doug Alward and publicist Bill Vigars by his side -- tells a crowd of well-wishers and media that his cancer has returned. Among the crew, there's nary a dry eye.

Ashmore, from Richmond, B.C., is also struggling to maintain his composure. "It's a pretty tough story to tell emotionally," says the 26-year-old actor, whose right leg is digitally removed in the film. "But there hasn't been a scene I haven't been able to handle. The roughest part is the physicality, learning the skip-hop to make it real, and remembering and knowing the movement. There are only two scenes in the whole movie when Terry has both his legs. And I'm sitting in a hospital bed for both of them."

For months, Ashmore, perhaps best known to film buffs as Iceman in the X-Men movies, worked with high-school teacher Grant Darby, who lost his leg at the age of 12 to the same cancer that felled Fox. "I wanted to make sure I was in shape," Ashmore says. "The run is such a distinctive movement -- and there are so many images Canadians have seen of Terry -- that I wanted to make sure that it was done correctly.

"This is the most important project I'll ever do," he adds. "Not only as a Canadian, but just as a story in itself."

To prepare for his role, Ashmore read Terry's journals, which started out detailed in the early days of his run, but petered out to a few lines in the final stretch of the Marathon of Hope.

"I obviously was aware of who Terry Fox was, but I wanted to get inside," says Ashmore, who also has two independent films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, 3 Needles and The Quiet. Christina Jennings, executive producer of the movie, says the film tries to portray what it was like for Fox, Alward (Ryan McDonald) and brother Darrell (Noah Reid) as they travelled across the country.

When the road trip kicked off on April 12, 1980, the runner was largely ignored. The first month, Jennings says, was incredibly difficult, as Fox grappled public indifference, snow, heavy winds and freezing rain. Skeptics bet he'd never make it past New Brunswick. In Quebec, a transport trailer almost took Fox out. It wasn't until the athlete reached Ontario that the crowds started to appreciate the unlikely hero, who has since become a symbol of hope around the world.

Jennings says one of the most wrenching scenes for her was a re-enactment that occurs at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, when Fox is told his right leg will be amputated six inches above the knee.

"He's in the children's ward, and in a way it's that time that inspired him to do this run," Jennings says. "He thought he was going to survive. But there were children dying all around him, and it made him angry because very little seemed to be done about it."

For the hospital scenes, Jennings went to Sick Kids administrators and asked if any children going through chemotherapy would be interested in being in the movie. More than a dozen signed up, and she says the parents have told her the experience was a "remarkable boost" for these kids.

Like the others, Jennings says, after 20 years in the film and TV business, this is the toughest assignment she's taken on. "I feel this responsibility not only to the Fox family who were unhappy with the first movie made," she says, referring to 1983 HBO film The Terry Fox Story, which often showed Fox in fits of pique and temper.

"But I also feel a responsibility to Canada. Not to be too grand about it, but he's a hero who was also an average guy, who got angry about something and decided to do something, with no corporate help."

Besides Terry, several documentaries will also air in the coming week to commemorate the run's 25th anniversary, including CTV's Running on a Dream: The Legacy of Terry Fox (tonight), CBC's 25 Years of Hope: The Legacy of Terry Fox (Sept. 16), and CHUM's Terry Fox Remembered (on various channels through next week).

"Our film is about Terry," Jennings says, "but more important, it's about the human spirit. Terry's message to kids was, 'Anything's possible. Look at me. They told me I couldn't be an athlete any more and I'm running on one leg.'

"His message was remarkable in its simplicity: 'Don't give up. Don't give up fighting cancer. Dream to be whatever you want to be.'"

The Globe & Mail