Biking and walking across Canada have become commonplace since Terry Fox made his courageous run in 1980.
But in January 1921, when a group of Haligonians set out on a 4,000-mile hike from Halifax to Vancouver, it was almost unimaginable.
Among the hikers was a woman, Jenny Dill, whose participation was unusual, given the era – her win, even more extraordinary.
Fascinated by history, and her interest piqued by a mention of the country’s own amazing race in Pierre Berton’s book, My Canada, playwright Shirley Jean Roll Tucker let the idea of creating a film documentary percolate for several years.
But she knew that having a written manuscript would greatly facilitate getting a film into production.
So, a couple of years ago, Tucker set aside her many other projects in order to lay out the amazing story.
Recently published by Heritage House, The Amazing Foot Race of 1921: Halifax to Vancouver in 134 Days, tells the story of the five people who took on a coast-to-coast challenge and walked across one of the largest countries on Earth.
Tucker faced two challenges of her own – pulling herself away from the world of theatre and finding sufficient information on the event.
“I had written seven plays and got serious about the book about a year ago,” she says, noting her publisher, Heritage House, assigned two editors. “They got serious with me and that kept me on track.”
Tucker had already done a lot of research and says, with a laugh, that it drove her nuts to find and get permission to use photos that appear in the book and keep it in the format of a book for her editors.
Tucker and her husband, Clyde, made a road trip across Canada to see what the racers had to put up with in terms of weather.
Many of the towns and stations are no longer there, a town perhaps mentioned as an exit sign on a highway, or a station that now operates as a casino.
Tucker says the race piqued her interest because it was about ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.
Participants ran primarily along CP rail lines, the only semi-paved roadway available. They were all on the road by Feb. 1, and roughly five months later, the race ended in Vancouver on June 15.
“For three months they battled intermittent snow, sleet, freezing rain and high winds as they made 20 to 35 miles a day over slippery ties and rails,” she writes in her introduction.
There was no triple-protection, thermal clothing for these racers and their struggle was enormous.
“By the time they got to the Prairies there were dust storms, mosquitoes, they really went through hell,” she says. “And people in B.C. were not as generous… so they travelled many distances without food or goodwill.”
With little or no money of their own, racers had to depend on the goodness of people along the way.
Their sole opportunity to make money was to sell 10 cent postcards of themselves.
Tucker says that in the beginning, nobody feared Jenny Dill, who was racing with her husband. But even though they weren’t first across the line in the staggered-start race, they won with the shortest running time of 134 days.
“It was a changing time for women,” she says. “In fall of the same year, Agnes McPhail was the first woman ever elected to Parliament.”
Tucker says she has seen enormous changes in her own lifetime, changes that needed to be recorded for current and future generations.
“I think the moral of the story is recount the stories,” she says, noting that some of the racers’ descendants had either no or only vague knowledge of the race. “It is sad to me that you can lose relatives so completely, or not know anything about them.”
Now immersed in her next project, Tucker is writing a story about Nadya Stalin, whose death due to appendicitis may not have been all that it seemed.
Tucker is a theatre director and playwright whose works include: Ratz and Alma—An Intrigue; Queen of the Shuswap; Your Loving, Kind and True, Jack Boy; The John L. Wilson Story; The Supper Waltz; and Sowing Seeds in Danny, a musical adaptation of Nellie McClung’s novel. The Amazing Foot Race of 1921 is her first book of non-fiction.
Tucker will be at Bookingham Palace at the Mall at Piccadilly Saturday, June 11 from noon to 3 p.m.