Lonely run to the finish

Mike Savage trudges along a barren, and snowy, stretch of Canadian highway in his Boxrun trek for...

Mike Savage trudges along a barren, and snowy, stretch of Canadian highway in his Boxrun trek for cancer.

Steve Buffery, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 10:46 PM ET

Mike Strange is one of the few athletes I’ve covered over the years who I can say became a good friend.

He was the captain of Canada’s Olympic boxing team numerous times and one of the best amateur fighters this country has produced, winning two Commonwealth Games gold medals.

As a person, let’s just say Mike’s a bit of a scamp, a guy who loves to have a good time and pull a fast one (on whomever) whenever he can.

To me, before and during an Olympics, he was a quote machine, always offering up something clever and witty, sometimes even informative.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, I asked Mike what boxing teams had impressed him so far.

“Definitely you have to look at Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan...,” he said, before pausing. “Basically anything with ‘stan’ in it.”

A month before those Games, the Canadian boxing team took part in a high altitude training camp in the B.C. mountains. At one point, the guys went on a hike and became hopelessly lost. They had one cell phone that barely worked, but Mike’s first thought was to call his pal at the Toronto Sun (hey, nobody said boxers were the sharpest knives in the drawer).

“Hey, buddy,” he said. “Call the hotel and see if you can get a helicopter to pick us up. I feel like I’m in the movie Alive. I’m going to have to start eating (heavyweight) Mark Simmons soon.”

Any night spent at Mike’s Niagara Falls pub — The Highland Tap — was always good for the soul but pretty hard on the old life expectancy.

But there’s another side of Mike that I got to know over the years, away from boxing ring and team shindigs. A guy who passionately cares about people.

A couple of years ago, Mike’s good friend Bob Lavelle passed away from cancer. Lavelle was not only a mentor, but a guy who did what he could to raise funds for Canadian amateur athletes. After he passed, Mike organized the Heater’s Heroes Run for Children in honour of Lavelle. The Niagara Falls event was designed to allow children to run one mile with their favourite celebrity. It raised $25,000. One of the kids was Kelsey Hill, a young Ridgeway, Ont., girl who suffered from a brain tumor. They became friends. Kelsey had to endure three brain surgeries, 36 radiation treatments to her brain and spine, six months of chemotherapy and numerous other painful treatments.

“I thought to myself, is there any way I can do more to help this girl? And I thought, has anyone run from where Terry Fox stopped to where he was supposed to go?” he said. “I know some people have run the entire distance, but nobody has run from where he stopped. I thought it would be a good idea.”

Like most Canadians of a certain age, Terry Fox was one of Strange’s heroes. Fox’s Marathon of Hope in 1980 — from the Atlantic coast to just outside of Thunder Bay, when the cancer, which originally claimed his right leg, returned and spread to his lungs — was one of the defining events in Canadian history. Fox ran a marathon a day for 143 days, on one leg, before being forced to stop. Since then, over $500 million has been raised worldwide to fight cancer in Fox’s name.

Mike was determined to pick up where Terry Fox left off. So, on Nov. 1, he began training with the intention of starting his run on April 12, the same day Fox began his just outside of St. John’s in Newfoundland.

“Shortly after that, I went on Facebook and Kelsey’s mom (posted): ‘My little angel’s passed away.’ I was devastated,” Mike said. “She just had her 13th birthday. That just added fuel to the fire that I wanted to do this run.”

On April 12, Boxrun began (www.boxrun.ca or Boxrun on Facebook), and Mike is determined to finish Fox’s journey this summer in Victoria, B.C. Each day Mike is dedicating his run to an individual or family who have been touched by cancer, including another young friend who is battling the disease, Matteo Mancini, an 11-year Thorold, Ont., boy who lost his left leg to the same form of cancer as Fox. Mancini and his family joined Mike in northwestern Ontario when he started in his run and plan to fly up and visit their hero from time to time this spring.

By the end of his trek, Mike hopes to have raised a lot more money to fight the disease and to create awareness of Terry Fox to a younger generation of Canadians who may not know the story as well as us older folks. On Friday, Mike delivered that very message to a group of kids at a school in Ste. Anne, Man.

“There should be a national holiday in his name,” Mike said. “We know in the U.S., there is a Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which is great. We should have a Terry Fox Day. I can’t think of a better hero in Canada’s history than him.”

Like Fox’s run in 1980, Mike’s is slowly gaining momentum. As he makes his way from Ontario into Manitoba and beyond, more and more Canadians are hearing about his run and slowly the donations and messages of encouragement are flowing in. On Saturday, Mike received a note from his Niagara Falls homeboy Jay Triano, the former Raptors head coach.

Needless to say, it’s been a tough go so far. Mike’s a former elite athlete, but he’s also 41 years old and distance running was never his thing.

“The first couple of days I pulled both hamstrings,” he said with a laugh. “I was really wondering if I could do it. I really was. But it’s been getting good. The weather’s getting better and obviously Manitoba is a lot flatter.”

He’s travelling in a donated RV with some volunteers, including his friend Tim Geddes. When asked to spell Geddes’ last name — with Geddes standing right beside him — Mike said: “G as in Gordon, E as in Edward, D D as in Dumb Ass, E, S.” That’s Mike.

Mike’s goal is to average 40 kilometres a day, and when it’s all said and done, just make a difference.

“People ask me what my goal is. And I say: ‘I don’t know. How much will it cost to cure cancer?” he said.


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