When You're Thrown Off Course...


Terry FoxIn 1975, Terry Fox, was awarded Athlete of the Year his senior year in his British Columbia, Canada high school.   A few months after graduation, he discovered he had a malignant tumor. His leg was amputated four days later.

The night before his operation, he read a magazine article about an amputee who ran in the New York marathon. That night, Terry dreamed about running across Canada.

During his follow-up treatment, Terry saw suffering as he’d never seen it before. He later wrote these words in a letter to the Canadian Cancer Society requesting their support:

As I went through the sixteen months of the physically and emotionally draining ordeal of chemotherapy, I was rudely awakened by the feelings that surrounded and coursed through the cancer clinic. There were faces with the brave smiles, and the ones who had given up smiling. There were feelings of hopeful denial, and the feelings of despair. . . . Somewhere the hurting must stop . . . and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause.

He left the cancer clinic with a vision to run across Canada to raise $1 million to fight cancer. There was a second purpose to his marathon—to demonstrate that there are no limits to what an amputee could do and to change people’s attitudes toward people with disabilities.

At first, Terry kept his vision a secret. He ran in the dark so no one could see him. When he felt confident that he could gain their support, he shared his vision with his family and close friends. Terry trained for fifteen grueling months, until he could run twenty-three miles a day. The only day he took off from training was Christmas, and only then because his mother had asked him to.

On April 12, 1980, he dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to begin his run.

Terry FoxTerry became a national hero. He was greeted with cheers as he entered each town. People wept as he ran by with his fists clenched, eyes focused on the road ahead, and his awkward double-step and hop sounding down the highway. He didn’t try cover his artificial leg. He wanted people to see it was part of who he was.

He’d start before dawn every day, running in shorts and a T-shirt printed with a map of Canada. He didn’t hide his disability. His artificial leg was fully visible. Children were curious about his artificial leg. How did it work? What happens when it breaks? He encouraged them to ask questions and always stopped to answer them.

The donations poured in.

Terry ran 3,339 miles from Newfoundland, through six provinces. He was two-thirds of the way home.

Terry had run close to a marathon a day for 144 days straight. But on September 1, 1980, Terry had to stop. He was sick.

His cancer had recurred and had spread to his lungs. He flew home for treatment. And with his family beside him, Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981—one month short of his twenty-third birthday.

Did Terry achieve his vision?

He did not complete his Marathon of Hope. But his vision wasn’t to run across Canada. That was his planto achieve his vision. Hisvision was to raise $1 million dollars for cancer research and to increase awareness about disabilities. In fact, he raised $23.4 million and people everywhere saw him as an athlete and a hero, not a person with a disability.

Terry’s vision didn’t end.

The Terry Fox Run continues as a yearly event and has raised millions of dollars. This September will mark the 31st anniversary of the Terry Fox Run.

Terry-Fox-Run-250x113Terry wasn’t planning on a recurrence of his cancer. It threw him off course, and his plans had to change. But his vision didn’t.

We can all learn a lesson from Terry. You might say, “That’s inspiring and remarkable, but I’m not a “Terry Fox.” That may be true.  But when unforeseen events throw you off course, you have this choice: reconnect with the essence of what’s important,  refocus on your vision, set new goals and continue your journey.


*This story is excerpted fromFull Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision in Your Work and in Your Life by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Lyn Stoner. If you’re from Canada most likely you know the story of Terry Fox. If you would like to know more about Terry and his Marathon of Hope, check out this short ESPN video with actual footage of Terry.


17 comments to When You’re Thrown Off Course…

  • Great Story Jesse ! Inspirational. Thanks. bg

  • Jesse, I was not familiar with Terry’s story and found it inspiring. I call what happened to him being the unexpected leader. He was a guy, just like any other, who achieved greatness because of being thrown off course.

    An unexpected leader’s story is inspiring because he discovered his focus through circumstance and was not simply placed into a leadership position. He had no previous goal to raise money for cancer, but look what one man was able to accomplish in such a short life.

    Thanks for a great thought-provoking post. Miriam

    • Hi Miriam, That’s an interesting thought that the opportunity for greatness was thrust upon Terry. Who would have thought that the tragedy of losing a leg, and eventually his life, would also be the catalyst for greatness. Another lesson! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Micah Yost

    This post is great, but I think it is considerably more applicable given the economic times we are in. It seems a lot of organizations are getting thrown off course a bit. Important to measure ultimate success against the vision, and not the plan. Thanks for sharing.


  • Hi Jesse ~ Being a Canadian, Terry’s story is a familiar one to me and one that really does make the fine distinction between plans and visions.
    When he first started his marathon, Terry’s mother, Betty, did not want him to run. She worried, not about his ability to complete it, but about some of the dangers of running on the open road. After Terry died, Betty became a champion for his vision and his legacy. She worked to promote and fund cancer research until her recent death, a remarkable woman.
    Thank you for telling this story. It is one that continually inspires and illustrates that visions can live well beyond those who first dream them.
    Here is more about Betty Fox, should anyone be interested. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Fox

    • Wonderful, Gwyn. Thanks for sharing more about Terry and about his mother Betty. I have found that most Canadians are familiar with Terry’s story and am surprised it is not better known around the world. There is so much more than I could capture in a short blog post. I hope others will be inspired to learn more about Terry and the legacy he has left. I appreciate your sharing the link.

  • Jesse – this is so inspiring, from the heart, and moving. For me, Terry’s story is enlivening because it illustrates how one person’s deepest, crushing challenge can be completely transformed — from a personal tragedy to a vehicle through which millions of others are helped, supported and uplifted. It’s so clear that each of our lives is precious and powerful, if we can only find the courage and strength to hold onto the essence of the vision long enough. Thank you for sharing.

    • Beautifully said, Kathy. Each of our lives is precious and powerful, whether we realize it or not. Finding the courage and strength to find and hold onto the essence of our vision is the journey we each must make. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.

  • Jesse,

    This is such a beautiful example of dealing with the natural tension between vision and reality. I so appreciate your gift of vision and your ability to share meaningful examples!

  • I had never heard this story before. Thanks for the share.

    Mindset is everything. We hear it all the time. It sounds so simple yet we over look the possibilities of what could be if we just changed our thoughts.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Great Story…inspiring and thought provoking :)

    Gurmeet Singh Pawar

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