Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Racing for Remembrance

 This article appears in the September issue of Impact magazine. Photo: Terry Fox
By Peter McKenzie-Brown

When we lose someone, our humanity often takes the form of finding ways to help finish the unfinished work of those who are gone. Many of us participate in events to honour our heroes, to recognize the fallen, to protest the senseless waste of human life, to reflect on the loss of friends and family. Perhaps these efforts are an attempt by the living to follow the counsel of poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

There is often a connection between athletic achievement and our remembrance of the tragically lost and the senselessly killed. The connection between our memories and our athletic achievements is often a source of good. It is increasingly harnessed to raise funds for health-related causes – from diabetes and heart disease to leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma. First among these fund-raising causes, of course, is the scourge of cancer – a disease about half of us will experience in our lifetimes.

Our Heroes
The power of remembrance as an athletic motivator was expressed superbly by a young man who was possibly the greatest player in football history. The year was 1920. Here’s how Knute Rockne, the football coaching legend of Notre Dame, recorded the story.

George Gipp lay in his hospital bed dying at the age of 25. “I’ve got to go, Rock,” he said. “It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Eight years later, Rockne used this story to galvanize his team to an underdog victory over the undefeated West Point team at Yankee Stadium.

The story of the Gipper has resonated through the decades. So has the story of Terry Fox – a story which epitomizes important features of the influence of the dead on the living.

Thirty years ago, the handsome young man with the prosthetic leg ceremonially dipped his foot into the Atlantic Ocean before beginning a run across Canada to raise money for cancer. Running the marathon distance every day, he slowly captured the hearts of Canadians from coast to coast to coast. When he had to quit his race because the cancer had spread to his lungs, there was an immediate outpouring of grief, sorrow and donations to his cause around the world. Another legacy was the Terry Fox Run, which has helped the Terry Fox Foundation raise half a billion dollars for cancer research since Terry died on June 28th, 1981, age 22.

Why did the Terry Fox story have such a vast and global impact? Certainly the efforts of his family to keep his memory alive have been an important factor. But the core of the story is that a personable young man captured our hearts as he pursued an astonishing goal – to run across Canada at the rate of one marathon a day with the aid of an artificial limb – and was defeated by the most dreaded disease of our time: lung cancer. Who could resist giving money to such a memory, in the hope of eventually vanquishing the disease that brought down our youthful hero?

We run for remembrance to honour heroes like Terry Fox when it turns out they were battling impossible odds. Compare the Terry Fox story with that of Canadian paraplegic athlete Rick Hansen, who in 1985 set out on a 40,000-kilometre, 26-month circumnavigation of the world by wheelchair. With single-minded determination and great personal charm, he ultimately raised $26 million for spinal cord research. However, he successfully finished his mission. There are no memorial events to celebrate his extraordinary achievement.

The Fallen

Sometimes we run for remembrance to protest an outrage. Consider the appalling events of March 3, 2005. On that day four Mounties were hunted and killed by a deranged man with a long criminal record and an obsessive hatred of police. Unprecedented in Canadian history, his horrific act took place near Mayerthorpe, Alberta. Shockwaves and outrage circled the globe. The slaying of four constables – Anthony Gordon, Leo Johnston, Brock Myrol and Peter Schiemann – led to the creation of a local park dedicated to their memory and to an annual fund-raising marathon. In this way their families, friends and colleagues were able to honour those in protective roles killed in the line of duty.

On a much larger scale is Belgium’s In Flanders Fields Marathon. The race starts on the Flemish coast and finishes at the historic city of Ypres. Along the flat roads are the fields where many of the horrors of the First World War took place. According to race director Andr√© Mingneau, running this course “may help to keep people’s mind open against useless violence and terror. That’s why our English, American and Canadian friends talk about (this race) as a ‘peace marathon’ or ‘a marathon for peace’.”

This idea is not difficult to understand. Imagine yourself in a marathon head-space running through the land where the Battle of Passchendaele and other terrible struggles of that war took place. You can’t help contemplating the mud, death, futility and the wretched conditions of trench warfare. Yes, as you finish that race you value peace even though you may never have had direct experience of war.

Wasted Lives

In 1996, three gay triathletes founded the Pride and Remembrance Run, which became an annual 5k fundraising run and walk coinciding with Toronto’s Pride Week. The event is dedicated to gay pride and remembrance – especially remembrance of people in that community who had died of AIDS. More than other memorial events, the race combines no-holds-barred celebration by the gay community with personal achievement. In keeping with Toronto’s world-famous Pride celebrations, odd costumes are everywhere. One moment you may see a bevy of men running in bridal dresses. The next you may see the Queen of England parading down the street. Ahead of the pack are hard-core runners in standard running gear.

The event is a fund-raiser for gay and lesbian charities. Top fund-raising honours – more than $60,000 – go to a team formed by two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser and named in memory of champion ice dancer Robert McCall. McCall died of AIDS nearly 20 years ago.

The Pride and Remembrance Run is “a really remarkable expression of community spirit and dynamism and engagement” said race director Alan Belaiche. “The number of organizations that have gained not only financial resources but also profile in the community has been of inestimable value to people and to our community.... The feeling that comes from raising so much money for beneficiaries, it’s just unmatched for me.” The event is quirky and fun, yet it originated as a testament to those who had wasted into death from AIDS-related causes.

Quiet Losses

In the summer of 2009 a remarkable young woman named Janice Plewes – the mother of three young children and an extraordinary athlete – died in Penticton while she was on her bike doing a training ride to prepare for her fourth Ironman. The young driver behind the wheel of a car had failed to yield the right of way at a difficult intersection.

Janice’s tragic death touched hundreds in Calgary, where she grew up and lived with her family. To commemorate her life, the following year her family and friends gathered with their bicycles at the Highwood Pass on the eastern slope of the Rockies near Calgary. Highwood is the highest paved pass in Canada. Because of snow and other high-altitude weather conditions, it’s only open to automobile traffic during the summer months.

The date for the Janice Plewes memorial event was June 12th, on the last weekend of traffic-free riding. The message from her family said, “Please invite anyone you think would enjoy a day of cycling in the mountains in memory of a good friend.” The organizers described the occasion as the “first annual,” and the road was bright with bicycles and colourful riding gear when the day arrived.

And so it is that the quiet loss of loved ones inspires memorial events. In this case the participants commemorated the loss of a friend after the period of mourning had mostly passed. Sometimes, however, death can inspire athletic excellence before mourning even begins.

An extraordinary example of such inspiration occurred during the recent Winter Olympics, when figure skater Joannie Rochette’s mother died of a massive coronary just as she arrived in Vancouver to see her daughter compete in the women’s singles competition. Joannie chose to continue competing in her mother’s honour.

Hearts around the world swelled with compassion. Typical of the endless online and blogosphere tributes was this: “She is the true definition of the Olympic spirit. With grief in her heart she skated with bravery, star quality and with confidence in her ability... No matter what happens tomorrow night, Joannie is a star in her own right. Skate from the heart, Joannie. I am blessed to have watched you skate and will forever remember your courage. Best of luck tomorrow, stay strong and know that you are truly loved by so many Canadians!”

The world then watched in awe as she somehow transmuted her loss and her sorrow into bronze. In the Olympic short program, she recorded a new personal best of 71.36 – the third-highest score of the night. Two days later, she held on to her third place position after the long program and won the bronze medal. Because of her determination in the face of personal tragedy, she received the first Terry Fox Award for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Several months later, she became the honourary spokeswoman for a fund-raising campaign to support awareness about heart disease in women.

The Big One

No organization has more effectively used fitness events as fund-raisers than the ones fighting cancer. The Terry Fox Run was the first mega-run to raise money for cancer. Its amazing half-billion dollar fund-raising achievement took place without organizers asking for a minimum donation from participants. Give what you can, in remembrance of Terry.

Thirty years later, cancer is still the biggest motivator for fund-raising events, but the fund-raising system has dramatically changed. For example, the two-day Ride to Conquer Cancer was a wild success when it debuted in BC and Alberta last year. The cost of participation is to raise at least $2,500 for the cause, although some overachievers raised as much as $50,000.

On the coast, 1,700 participants took part in what the event’s website describes as “an epic cycling journey from Vancouver to Seattle” – a two-day, 282km effort. In Alberta, a similar number of participants rode a beautiful 180km course along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. In each province, the event raised approximately $6.9 million, with net proceeds going respectively to the BC Cancer Foundation and the Alberta Cancer Board. These superbly conceived and promoted events are managed by an American fund-raising firm named CauseForce.

A related CauseForce event is the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers – a two-day, 60km fund-raising walk, with events in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada. To participate, you need to raise a minimum of $2,000. Over the last five years these events enabled the Alberta Cancer Board to invest $21 million in cancer research, and the BC Cancer Foundation to invest $15 million.

A veteran of five of these walks is Rejeanne Taylor, a Calgary-based breast cancer survivor. The first four years she participated to celebrate the fact that she personally had dodged a bullet. This year, however, is different. “I will be remembering a good friend – Monika Brunk of Hamburg – who recently died,” she said. “I’ve had other friends who died of cancer, but she is the first to die of breast cancer. I will be walking for her.”

“During (Monika’s) last week and afterwards her husband Hans almost pleaded with me,” she recalls. “He said ‘Please, please don’t forget Monika’ in three separate emails. There is something about remembrance for those left behind that says ‘She’s real and she continues in some way’. By celebrating people even when they are gone, you somehow validate their existence.”
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