‘Ottawa’ ‘You Have Cancer’: Three Words that Got Jim Willett Running, and Three More That Keep Him Out There
Three small but devastating words sent Jim Willett off on a journey across deserts and plains, through mountains and forests, to some of the most stunning, and at times inhospitable, places on five continents.
“You,” his doctor told him, “have cancer.”
The stark diagnosis was delivered in January 2010, just months after Willett, then a 36-year-old fitness instructor in Newmarket, Ont., had run his first half-marathon in Markham. Now, six years later, Willett is running his first full marathon.
Well, two, actually. On May 8, he completed the marathon as part of Fredericton’s Race Weekend. On May 29, he plans on legging out the full 42-km monty here in Ottawa.
Yet as remarkable an accomplishment as that is, it pales alongside what he’s doing in the intervening three weeks, something that sets him miles — and miles and miles and miles — apart from your garden-variety marathon men and women: he’s running from Fredericton to Ottawa, a distance of about 1,200 km, the equivalent of slightly more than 28 full marathons.
Additionally, with the help of his one-man support crew of bicyclist/photographer Charles MacMurchy, he’s documenting the stories of the people and places he encounters along the way.
“I’ve heard some amazing, inspiring stories in my travels,” he says, “but we have this big playground here that I want to explore. You pass by people on the street every day and you have no clue what that person has gone through or what experiences that person has had, or what tidbit of wisdom they have.
“I was running on Route 102 (last week) when an amazing guy, a teacher from Fredericton High School, stopped to give us Timbits and chat. He pointed out that Route 102 is the old Trans-Canada Highway, and that I was running on the same route Terry Fox did. I hadn’t even considered that. What a humbling and amazing feeling that was. I thought about it a lot that day.
“We like to be inspired,” he said. “We like to feel connected. This is my way of connecting, not only races and runners, but people from all walks of life and their stories.”
He’s asking people he meets about their ideas of adventure, the biggest ones they’ve had and what they learned from them, or what their dream adventure is.
The filmwork aside, ultramarathons — the name given to anything longer than a traditional 42-km marathon — are hardly new to Willett. In 2011, nine months after recovering from various operations and ensuing chemotherapy, he completed the Gobi March, a weeklong 250-km trek across the Gobi Desert, in June, when temperatures reach 50 C.
He’s also run across the Atacama Desert in South America; Africa’s Kalahari Desert; a 230-km race along the Kokopelli Trail in Colorado and Utah; and a similar run in Iceland. He ran around Lake Simcoe, about 200 km, as part of the MEC Homewaters project to raise money for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance. In fall 2014, he completed the 900-km Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest and longest footpath, in a record-setting 10-and-a-half days.
But why, you ask? It’s a question he says he asks himself a thousand times every kilometre.
It wasn’t long after hearing his doctor’s three-word pronouncement confirming his colon cancer that other words, ones spoken earlier and often in Willett’s life, came to mind. These words formed the comments that figured prominently on his school report cards when he was a youngster: “Jimmy has all the potential in the world, but he needs to apply himself.”
After the cancer diagnosis, he says, “I got to the point where I thought, ‘Man, I should probably start applying myself.’ ”
He admits the idea of beginning with an ultramarathon was ambitious, but facing his own mortality gave him a sense of urgency.
“It profoundly changed my life,” he says. “Not just the running part, but the people I met from different parts of the world. It was eye-opening.”
On the second-last day of the Gobi March, known as the Long Day for its 80-km leg, he buried his chemo port, through which his anti-cancer drugs were administered, in the sand.
“For me it was the closing of a chapter.”
Willett has typically avoided traditional marathons because, as an avid outdoorsman, he’s not greatly attracted to large crowds or pavement. That said, he enjoyed running the Fredericton marathon.
“It was a fun atmosphere and the energy was electric,” he says. “And it’s a relatively small race. I can only imagine what Ottawa will feel like.”
He’s not concerned, however, with completion times or standings — the sort of personal besting that motivates many marathon runners.
“I was running in Africa and I crested over this little ridge, and there were six giraffes there,” he recalls. “I literally almost ran into them. I just stood there for about 15 minutes while a few other runners passed me. It probably cost me four or five spots from where I finished, but I really didn’t care.
“It’s never been about the results; it’s about the experiences along the way.”
Which accounts for another three-word phrase he came up with, one that further motivates him and counters the “Why am I doing this?” that he asks himself a thousand times a kilometre: “Take another step.”