March 29, 2010

Cuba's Terry Fox Run


What a perfect day!

In a country that has a plethora of heroes and knows how to celebrate them, the biggest hero this weekend in Cuba was Terry Fox. Throngs of Cubans turned out in front of the Capitolio building in downtown Habana to await their syncronized start with every other province and city in the country for the stroke of 10 am on this Sabado, viente de Marzo 2010. This included current Cuban track stars Olympic champion hurdler Dayron Robaldes and world champion triple jumper Yargelis Savigne who were front and centre in recognition factor but played gracious hosts to Terry Fox's run on this day. As they gathered together, my family and I slipped in on the backstreet past Hemmingways famous hangout El Floridita to the grand avenue across from Salon Kid Chocolate (Cubas most famous pugulist), where we joined the Canadian contingent in Habana for a little national pride. Decked out in our finest Canadian gear complete with flags and tatoos we counted down to the start gun as we joined with a Cuban family which included Sophia, Cuba's biggest(smallest?)Terry Fox admirer. I met Sophia 3 years previously and she asked about Terry Fox being from CANADA and informed me through her mother that she loved Terry and participated in a run each year here in her city. I shared with her my own families respect for Terry and his legacy and our own annual participation in the run and fundraising.

Little did I know then that I would be back someday running with both Sophia and her Dad as well as my wife and three children. I also could never have imagined that on my first Cuban Terry Fox run that we would join the rest of the country in welcoming Terry's mother, father and sister to Habana. Terry's family were given a welcome beffiting the true hero that he is and it was humbling as a Canadian (where we tend to downplay our best efforts) to see the outpouring of affection for this family who lost so much and have continued to give so generously of themselves. They were celebrated in the Cuban media for the week proceding an event that we began to look forward to more and more as it crept closer.

However, now that we were only minutes away from the continuation of Terry's Marathon of Hope we could not believe the scale of the celebration in Cuba and how warmly the people here have embraced this truly Canadian boy who won the hearts of not just his countrymen but of many in other countries as well. With my entire family emblazoned with Maple Leaf's we were appoached time and again by Cubans thanking us for giving them Terry Fox and telling us how much they admired his courage. The word HERO was repeated over and over again as my kids talked about their Terry Fox runs at school as well a their own interest in Terry fed by books, TV and movies.

A cuban man brought his young family over to us and stated clearly for my family " Listen closely my English is bad. My family and I honor Mr. Terry Fox for his courage. We thank you for giving us such a hero of Canada." You can't get anymore pride in your nation and people than our family had this day, and to share this with the Fox family was incredible. After the Cuban family came several groups that wished to have pictures taken and talk to us to explain their reasons for participating. We met the Wings of Life group (Alas por la Vida) marching together with their ribbons as cancer survivors. The Habana chapter of the Terry Fox Club intoduced themselves and we took pics together, followed by a Mexican group of runners in for the event, the local Chinese association out for a run together, Curtis Peters with his wife and child who are fellow Reginians whom we just happened to rub elbows with at the starting line and a local group that I think was loosely translated as the Association of the Heart for Terry Fox. And then suddenly, without warning, the starter signaled us off and we were moving in a dense pack out from the front of the Capital building through the picturesque and historical streets of the city. As we trotted along we passed in front of the beautiful churchlike buildings of the main promenade and dived into the gritty downtown avenues of shops and malls most tourist never see. As we ran, the locals applauded generously and vigourously encouraged our efforts. Cheers of TERRY TERRY TERRY echoed back and forth from participants to spectators. The excitement was so palpable you could feel it begin to push you along as the streets narrowed around you and we were engulfed by the hanging laundry and TV antennae that are an integral part of the local city scape.

With three year old William in the kid backpack laughing and cheering, we took film and photos of the scene around us and when I finally looked up I realized that Julianna 12, Cyandra 8 and my wife Joanne (age unknown at time of press) had been sucked down the cobblestones ahead and disappeared into the heart of the city. This was no reason for panic, as in a city of 2 million we were bound to run into each other eventually, and sure enough as I now ran under Williams hard spurring I encountered my wife chatting and strolling elegantly down a tight commercial mall area with a couple who work at the Canadian Embassy. I tossed her the camera and ran off beside my new british friend, approximatley 65 years, who was keeping pace with me and chatting about my rugby jersey before we were seperated by a couple in fine dress and full three piece suit jogging together with a woman in complete white Santa Ria long dress and accessories, who I would surmise was previously unknown to them. They bounded along oblivious to their less than appropriate choice of footwear and I am still at loss to explain whether they were a planned entry with an eccletic selection of training gear or if they were merely swept in by the energy and emotion and became part of the swirling crowd of Cubans from babies to great-grannies.

At the one kilometre mark William had had enough of being the jockey and demanded the opportunity to run, and run he did. When I put him down he was off like a shot and as I struggled to throw the backpack onto my shoulders again he dissapeared around a corner. I heard the cheer building first and then as I neared the intersection, coming like a wall of water, William had turned right at a open area where a large selection of men drinking beer (10:13 am local time) dressed in INDUSTRIALIS (Habana's team in the baseball championship finals currently) blue t-shirts and caps let out a roar as the pint sized participant paraded past in full stroke, seemingly alone and bent on the finish line. As the supporters jumped into the street to high five the streaking boy he cantered to the far side and tucked his head to his chest, firing all cylinders in an attempt to leave his attendants behind. This drew boistrous laughter and a further cheer from his fans which strengthened his resolve to escape Forest Gump like in his gait and arm stroke as he raced up the uneven street ahead. I needed to make a burst with aging knees creaking as a hill unlike any in Saskatchewan (elevation 11 metres) soared ahead of us. William mercifully became entangled with the China Town contingent and slowed to rubber neck at bright silk outfits long enough for me to catch-up.

At this point we came upon his sisters, whose early energies had flagged somewhat. They were now gawking along happily after losing contact with Sophia who completed the uneven course of potholes and cobblestones in a pair of roller blades, without once tumbling on hills, slick corners or other participants socializing their way through a minefield of career ending ankle injuries. From here we could see the Malecon, Habanas seawall that runs nearly the length of the city and is ground for parade, picnic, paramours and apparently a year ago to KC and the Sunshine band, for a concert that may or may not have drawn close to a million people depending on translation and storyteller. With the sea air now blowing behind us we turned onto Prado a long strip from the sea back to the Capitolio with two or three lanes a side and a giant well tree'd plaza type boulevard down the middle. It is gorgeous and requires a full afternoon to saunter along, but a lifetime to enjoy properly. Now with a full stand of spectators to the left William chose to run again and was soon flying down the wide street as a woman running along beside us began to video his tight sprinters style. Her friend waited a moment into our conversation as we jogged before introducing the camera woman as Terry Fox's sister. We delightedly exchanged Canadian greetings and William accepted a high five and was off again intent on escaping his supporters as quickly as he could. "Dad" he said, "people are laughing to me." I responded "No people are liking to you." and on he ran. Each step taken was for him to escape the unwanted attentions but instead drew more as he passed each camera that focused on him.

For his first run of any length William set a personal best that will be hard to better. Long after I thought he had emptied his tank he finally slowed to a walk and then asked to jump back in the backpack. We were just less than one third to go and as I loaded him Cyandra caught up and begged a lift, as she claimed her recently stitched chin (swimming accident) was throbbing as she ran. So with one on the shoulders and one in the pack I lurched off down the course. I thought I was doing pretty well although I admit that an extra 90 pounds does not make for great running especially as I am used to carrying that extra around my midsection rather than my neck. As we reached the last few hundred metres my foggy glasses were threatening to slip off the end of my nose due to the cascade of sweat that was attempting to wash out my vision. My heart pounding in my ears was deafening and my legs were spongey on the uneven terrain. But even now, I was still too caught up in it all. I had to keep jogging onward with my load of laughter. Now the pointing and encouragement was for me as fellow dads shared pain and pride at my precious cargo. With William and Cyandra yelling RUN RUN RUN we swayed forward.

One hundred metres from home and I hear, through my labouring pants, someone say "Yeah Canada, Yeah for Canada" When I turned to my right to see who was cheering my gaze was met by two 50 plus fellows, one wearing a t-shirt with Terry Fox's face on it. "Are you from Canada too?" I gasped. The t-shirted mans amigo answered "Why of course..... this is Terry Fox's father". Unbelieveable!!!! I stop in my tracks (glad for the excuse) and share a quick handshake and greeting with Terry's dad. My wife appeared out of the crowd just in time to snap a few pictures which we will treasure always. A chance meeting on a summer afternoon in Havana.. Me...him.....his wife..... we couldn't be prouder to be Canadians on this spectacular Cuban day.

You could tell Mr. Fox was as excited and taken aback as everyone else who is experiencing this for the first time. To have a kid who is a hero in Canada is amazing, to have a kid who is a hero worldwide is unfathomable. To have a kid who is a hero in Cuba, a land of giant monuments and giant men behind those monuments is a testament to the human appeal of Terry Fox and his struggle. Everyone understands the courage that this man had and admires him for his acheivements. He is a great Canadian and naturally, came from a great Canadian family.

One hour after the last few participants had struggled in we stood across from the Capitolio, waiting in line to say Hi to one last special person on this incredible day. She stood chatting with the people (her people) who lined up to say a few quick words and to have her sign their t-shirts books or pictures of her son. Terry Fox's mother, standing in front of the Salon Kid Chocolate that was was draped in Canadian flags, Cuban flags, Terry Fox flags and banners as well as a 20 foot tall poster of a marathoner breaking the line. She smiled and chatted softly and when our turn came to say hello and to thank her for coming to Habana for the event she didn't hurry. She asked the kids where they were from and then joked with them that they came to Cuba to escape Saskatchewan snowbanks and then thanked us for participating. I may not come back to Habana for Rugby again or to Cuba for tourism but as a family we have promised that we are coming back to run in the Terry Fox Maraton de la Esperanza again as a family and as proud Canadians. You don't get many feelings like this in your life..... I would encourage everyone to make your trip to Cuba during March to include this date. As a Canadian or a as a fellow human being you won't have a better day then this one.

As we stood close for a few minutes afterwards, an American couple approached us to ask about the event and the story of Terry Fox. Joanne and the kids explained as much as they could and pointed out Terry's mom and dad and talked about their trip to the run in Cuba. Their last question was " Where is Terry? Is he here today?" Maybe we didn't have time to explain everything to this young American couple but I think the best answer to their final question was "Yes Terry was here today..... he was here in Habana"

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