In 2005, Brato Bhabok crossed the finish line at the Terry Fox Run with tears in his eyes.
It’s not that it was the first time he accomplished the feat. In fact, he has run the race every year previously, dating all the way back to the first Terry Fox Run in Toronto in 1981.
But this time was different.
A year earlier, Bhabok’s wife of 28 years, Helen, died of colon cancer. That same year he ran the event in her name, with a portrait of her face on his t-shirt.
“At the finish line they asked me why I was crying,” he recalls. “They asked me ‘Are you OK, are you sick?’ I said no I’m not sick … I just have something on my mind.”
Out of sight, but certainly not out of mind, it’s obvious Helen still lives on in 73-year-old Bhabok’s heart. You can see it in the way he admires her tranquil paintings hanging idly on the wall, or in how he smiles warmly to himself as he remembers their first meeting.
Most tellingly, a black and white picture of their wedding day sits prominently in the centre of the living room.
Standing next to a picture of his late wife in his small one bedroom apartment at the Dorothy Klein Seniors Residence on Roselawn Avenue, Bhabok explains what has given him the strength and motivation to complete the Terry Fox Run every year for 31 years.
“A big part is the charity,” he said. “If I give a couple hundred dollars every year, I’m very happy … All the money goes toward something people need, something important.”
At the 30-year mark, the senior runner received a congratulatory letter signed by Terry Fox’s mother, Betty. It was dated March 23, only a few months before Betty died.
“When I saw the 30 years, I thought, ‘I’ve been doing this for 30 years?’ ” he said with disbelief. “My dream, if God gives me good health, is to make 40 years.”
A total of 40 years completing the event would be impressive indeed, but 31 years is a feat in itself, said the Ontario Terry Fox Foundation’s provincial director, Martha McClew.
“It’s incredibly rare,” she said. “It’s extraordinary to be that committed to an organization, for that length of time.”
Bhabok was motivated to complete the 10-kilometre run far before his wife died of cancer. While that gave him the extra push to continue running, it was Terry Fox who originally inspired him.
“I feel he’s a Canadian hero,” he said. “He opened people’s eyes and showed if you want to do something, then do it.”
Bhabok is not one to let his age, health or circumstances hold him back. In his 73 years, he has lived an extraordinarily life. Bhabok has traveled to 27 countries, speaks four languages and was formerly an avid mountaineer. He once saved a woman’s life in the Lower Himalayas, at an altitude of more than 5,000 metres.
“She slipped, she was holding onto my hand for her life,” he said. “I grabbed the rope, talked to her, and slowly she found a place to come up … It was a good experience.”
In appreciation of his efforts, the Himalayan Association of Mountain Climbing awarded him with a scholarship and free mountain training.
You could say Bhabok has lofty goals — he eventually hoped to climb Mount Everest.
Instead, he fulfilled another dream. In the ’70s, he moved overseas from his native India, first to Germany and then to Canada.
He met Helen at the Montreal Summer Olympics in 1976. She was a two-time Canadian kayaking champion. They soon bonded over their love of athletics — Bhabok enjoys soccer and cricket in addition to running — and married in 1977.
Bhabok remembers their marriage fondly. Though they did not have kids, Helen had three children from a previous marriage. They traveled extensively. Helen painted and Bhabok took up photography.
But their union was cut short when Helen was diagnosed with colon cancer. The doctor told Bhabok she had approximately three to five years to live. Following unsuccessful chemotherapy, she died three years later in 2004.
Bhabok was devastated.
“It’s like losing a part of your life, your best friend,” he said. “That’s why I moved out of the old building, I couldn’t go inside anymore … It was too sad.”
It took courage, but he knew he wanted to run again, even though his wife would not be there to cheer him on at the finish line. He still thinks of her every time he dons his shoes, shorts and the t-shirt dedicated to her.
Bhabok is unsure how much money he’s raised over the years, but estimates it’s in the thousands. He hopes his story will inspire others to run or donate money toward finding a cure for this deadly disease.
“Canadians should open their eyes and help each other,” he said. “This may not solve cancer, but it helps.”