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The funny thing about Canadians is that we’re not very good at standing in the limelight.  While our neighbours to the South take their star turns for such staggering feats as winning a game show, it is a uniquely Canadian attribute that some of our greater contributors tend to go completely unredeemed.

For that reason I have long been puzzled by, and wanted to meet, Doug Alward.  Who the heck is that, you might say?  Precisely.  We don’t know Doug very well at all, but it is his sacrifice that without a shadow of a doubt furthered athletic endeavour in this country on an unimaginable scale.

Terry Fox in Ontario, 1980

Terry Fox in Ontario, 1980

After all… we do, however, know and revere his good friend Terry Fox.

But here’s the thing not a lot of people know:  Without Doug, Terry could not have made his courageous run.

Last November the Vancouver Sun asked who should light the Olympic Flame at the 2010 Opening Ceremony in Vancouver.  There has been a movement afoot to nominate Betty Fox, Terry’s mother.  I think there’s a good intention here and I *really* like the idea of a nod to Terry Fox, who became even in his short life a beacon of inspiration to the world, and who is not infrequently referred to as one of the Ten Greatest Canadians.  Betty’s a wonderful woman and her connection to Terry is obvious, but she shuns the limelight, and at her tender age and conditioning would not particularly enjoy the opportunity of running a few kilometres into a crowded stadium, mounting some stairs, and lighting a giant flame.  It’s symbolic and well-intended, but probably impractical.

The infamous van, restored in 2007

The infamous van, restored in 2007

In April 1980 there was only one person standing beside Terry Fox in St. John’s, Nfld as he dipped his toe in the Atlantic to begin the Marathon of Hope.

That person was Doug Alward.  An otherwise rational person by all accounts, Doug had been convinced by his best friend’s passion and dedication not only to help him train for the unprecedented task of running the world’s longest continuous highway, but to go with him.  For months Doug waited for his friend in a sweat-soaked, disgusting-smelling van at the side of the road.  As Terry approached Alward would greet him, provide any refreshments or anything he needed, and check on Fox’s health and emotional state.  Then, as Terry ran ahead, he would leapfrog the runner and drive ahead exactly one mile, stopping to repeat the process.

It had to be the most maddeningly slow drive across this country ever attempted.  He did this while their friends were off on their post-graduation trips to Europe, working at lucrative summer jobs, or preparing for University.  For much of the four-and-a-half months of the Marathon of Hope, Doug did this alone.  Still, Alward asked nothing of his friend but that he keep on running and stay healthy.

He asked nothing of us, either.  Except, perhaps, a donation to fight Cancer.

Doug Alward neither sought nor did he receive any of the limelight showered upon Terry during this heroic endeavour, yet he was there every step of the way.  It is a testament to his strength of character that he did not fall victim to the cult of personality that grew around his friend within a few weeks of beginning the run; he evidenced no jealousy of Fox’s growing fame or of the adulation of fans, politicians, and celebrities; he simply focused on his job within the team as coach, trainer, medical technician, cook, agent, manager, head of security, and fixer.

Can you imagine the entourage that would accompany such an endeavour today?  In 1980, for much of that journey it was only Doug.

Doug Alward in 2006

Doug Alward in 2006

Perhaps 2010 is the time for us to honour his selfless contribution, just months short of the 30th anniversary of Doug’s greatest drive.  We should nominate Alward to light the flame.  Clearly it is a way for VANOC to remind the world of our local hero Terry Fox, and the fight to cure cancer that he prodded forward; but it is also a way to shine a light on the thousands of unsung heroes — coaches, trainers, sponsors, skate sharpeners, family, and friends — who truly power our athletes to the peak of their performance, as Terry surely was when he embarked on his run.

On a practical level, Doug Alward is once again a prolific runner, participating of course in the Terry Fox Runs but also in Sun Runs and other events.  He’s an active member of the Phoenix Running Club in Coquitlam.

I think it says something about Doug that I can’t seem to find a picture of him anywhere (finally did)… but perhaps now it’s time for him to enjoy a moment in the sun, for all he did for Terry… and all he did for us.

If you think this is a good idea, I’ve created a Facebook Group to advance the cause.  Join, willya?  And tell your friends.