As Jon Nabbs runs across Canada alone, dressed in a Superman costume and pushing a baby buggy, he pictures his mum and dad running alongside him.
Especially his mother, Silver Ferns shooting legend Margaret Forsyth, who encouraged his love of running as a 12-year-old. Every morning before school, they would dash out a 7km run together on the rural roads of Kaipaki in the Waikato.
Nabbs lost his mum, also a highly respected netball coach and Hamilton city councillor, to bowel cancer in May 2021. Just 16 months earlier, his dad, prominent lawyer and club rugby coach Brian Nabbs, had died from skin cancer.
They’re behind the reason he’s attempting to complete this 8000km odyssey from St John’s on Canada’s east coast to Vancouver on the west – raising money for child cancer research as he goes.
And even though Forsyth, a 1987 netball world champion, introduced Nabbs to his athletic pursuits, he’s not convinced she would have approved of this colossal adventure. To begin with, anyway.
“Sometimes I visualise Mum and Dad running alongside me, and I think about what they’d say about what I was doing,” Nabbs, 32, says.
“I feel like Mum wouldn’t have been that supportive initially. There would have been a big old battle royale between us, around the safety of doing it. And I would have put my foot down and gone off and done it anyway.
“But once she saw the hospital visits with kids, and the uplifting effect this adventure is having on people, then she would have been freaking proud.”
Nabbs is now around 200 days into his quest to cross “the largest peaceful country on Earth”. He’s onto his fourth pair of running shoes, has his fifth case of tendonitis and has so far pounded over 4800km of the Trans-Canada Highway.
He’s run through the full gamut of North American weather – from 40-degree Celsius heatwave in southern Ontario, to minus-degree wind and snow as he reaches the Canadian prairies on the verge of winter.
“Snow slows me down, so I’m getting chains for my shoes. My running threshold will be minus 25 – I won’t try and be a hero,” says Nabbs, who’s expecting the mercury to plunge to minus 40 in the next couple of months.
In his state-of-the-art pushchair he calls ‘Shania’ (as in Twain), Nabbs stores his camping essentials – a one-person tent, a cooker, food and a new sleeping bag that’s still cosy in minus 30 degrees.
He’s only had one real mishap with the buggy – when a black bear burgled it on a stormy night in the Ontario township of Wawa.
“It’s one of the more isolated towns on the Trans-Canada Highway, on this really barren stretch of Lake Superior,” says Nabbs. He’d been keeping bear-safe camping practices for his five months on the road, and had only seen one bear cub, in Nova Scotia.
“I was the most tired I’d felt in my life, after seven days running on the trot. These lovely folk welcomed me in and by the time I finished dinner, I took myself off to bed – and left the pram outside.
“We had a proper Lake Superior storm overnight. And the bear came in, tipped the pram upside down and tore into the back of it. He dragged everything onto the grass – including my laptop and the hard drive which had a couple of hundred gigabytes of videos and photos from the trip. All the food was eaten, and he even sunk his teeth into my bug repellent.”
Nabbs took two rest days there to restock and repair – drying out the laptop, which he managed to salvage.
“The Wawa community [population 2700] were lovely,” he says. “Multiple times a day, members of the community knocked on the door with care packages. They more than replaced the things the bear took.”
Inspired by a national hero
Nabbs was a distance runner through school. “It was the one sport Mum was pretty insistent her three sons did,” he says. “All track and field events develop and encourage a bunch of very different skills.” He later became a competitive rower for Waikato but running stuck with him.
Last year, Nabbs ran the length of New Zealand, the 3000km of Te Araroa Trail, in memory of his parents.
“It was the most beautiful experience of my life. It was magic,” he says. “People quite astutely ask me whether it’s part of my grieving. Canada not so much, but Te Araroa, definitely.
“I was always brought to tears on that journey, thinking about Mum and Dad. It was like my own walkabout – I didn’t take devices, didn’t stay in touch with family.
“But if I just did the same thing on rinse and repeat, I suspected it would be quite empty. So I decided if I wanted to do another adventure challenge, I had to go big or go home.”
So why Canada? Well, no other Kiwi has run across the country on their own, and only seven other runners have conquered it solo.
Nabbs was inspired by Canadian Terry Fox, who after losing a leg through bone cancer, embarked on a run across the nation in 1980, raising funds and awareness for cancer research. Fox was forced to stop after 143 days when the cancer spread to his lungs, and he died the following year aged 22.
The Terry Fox Foundation continues to raise money – so far over $800 million – for research into curing cancer. Research that’s helped advances in treatment “that gave more options – and increased quality of life – to Mum and Dad during their own battles against cancer,” Nabbs says.
“I think Canada is wise to hold up Terry Fox as their greatest national hero. I knew if I picked this country, their society would have empathy and understanding of what I’m trying to do.”
So far, Canadians have been welcoming and generous. Some donate to the cause (money raised will be divided between child cancer foundations in New Zealand and Canada), and others buy Nabbs a pizza or a hotel room, or put him up in their homes for the night.
Then there are those perplexed as to why a man dressed as Superman is running on the highway berm with a pushchair.
Making his way along the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Nabbs came to a small town and stopped at a café. “I talked to the staff there about what I was doing and they loved it. Some of them thought I had a kid in the pram and thought I was Father of the Year,” he says.
“Then a guy came in who’d been in the hardware store talking with a bunch of retirees, when they saw me run past. These old guys said, ‘I cannot believe how irresponsible that guy is – running along a busy highway with a kid. He’s the worst dad in the world’. So I got both ends of the spectrum at once.”
He’s been visiting children’s hospitals decked out in his red cape, and talking in schools.
This ultramarathon isn’t just about raising money, he says, it’s about raising spirits.
“Raising money is all well and good, but I’d be lying if I said that was my primary motive. I want it to affect people, open up something inside them and show them another way life can be lived. That you can have these big adventures.”
How he got happy
By the time he reaches Vancouver, Nabbs will have run the equivalent of 176 marathons. The furthest he’s run in a day so far is 65km.
At around the 4700km mark, he insists he’s not tired. “The body is physically, but it’s been that way since the very first kilometre,” he laughs. “But the internal drive and energy is still there.”
There are days he feels frustrated or dejected: “Like, I should be 100kms down the road by now and I’m still sitting here nursing a sore ligament.”
He’s not surprised he has five ongoing cases of tendonitis, it’s par for the course. He has a Kiwi physio on speed dial – his best mate and old rowing buddy, Andrew Annear, who’s been a physio with High Performance Sport New Zealand and now works out of Paris. Before he started, Nabbs did some troubleshooting with Annear on the overuse injuries he would likely encounter running 8000km.
Nabbs, who has degrees in commerce and science from the University of Canterbury, has the tools to cope with the mental well-being side of this journey. Suffering from depression in his early 20s, exacerbated by the Christchurch earthquakes, Nabbs discovered exercise – especially trail running – helped him feel good.
He wrote a book with his rowing friend and former world champion, Eve Macfarlane, called ‘How We Got Happy’ – the stories of 20 young Kiwis who beat depression. His story is one of them.
After running a high-welfare pig farm in the Kaimai Ranges, Nabbs moved to Europe. He was living in Austria before heading to Canada to start his run in Newfoundland.
Although he once deleted all his social media accounts because they affected his headspace, Nabbs is now using them for good. When he’s able to get decent coverage, he does a daily live stream on YouTube and TikTok as he runs.
It’s helped him, too, to get new shoes. His first pair of Topo Athletic Phantoms, he nicknamed Black Beauties, took him 2800km (a rough rule of thumb is a decent pair of running shoes should last 1000km).
“I always fall in love with my gear and I don’t want to part with it,” Nabbs laughs. “But some of my supporters on social media got talking, pooled some money and bought the Blues Brothers [another pair of Phantoms, but blue]. One of them met me on the roadside in Quebec with them.”
A blue and gold pair followed – named Tony and Jeff, after his favourite Otago Highlanders players, Tony Brown and Jeff Wilson. And he’s now wearing Terry and Ed – named after two national heroes, Terry Fox and Sir Ed Hillary.
Topo Athletic have now offered him new shoes every three weeks. The old shoes have been left behind in different provinces to be auctioned for Nabbs’ charities.
But there are things Nabbs is unwilling to part with on this pilgrimage. Inside the buggy is a dry bag with treasures gifted to him along the way. There’s a Dragon Ball Z picture drawn by a boy with cancer at a hospital Nabbs visited.
And a precious bald eagle feather, presented to him by the Ojibwe First Nations people at Chippewa Falls, the official halfway mark of the Trans-Canada Highway.
“Indigenous Canada has always fascinated me, and ever since Nova Scotia it’s been great, learning a bit of the language as I go,” Nabbs says. “A retired indigenous history professor joined me on the journey, riding his bike with me for a week, and teaching me Ojibwe. He rode ahead to Chippewa Falls, and let the local people know a smelly Kiwi man was running towards them. They greeted me and I was jubilant – it was a fantastic moment.”
An eagle feather – a symbol of honour, strength and courage to many First Nations in Canada – is a very sacred gift.
“I know I’m looking at something here which is freaking insane,” Nabbs says as he carefully unwraps the feather.
“I’m aware of how cool all of this is. But I feel like I’m on a mission every day: ‘Execute, mitigate the injuries, mitigate the weather, get the job done’. I haven’t allowed myself to really feel the joy of what’s going on.
“So I’m going to get to the Pacific Ocean and just be like, ‘What has just happened for these last nine months?’”
But he’ll know his mum would have approved.
- Donations to Jon Nabbs’ fundraiser for the Child Cancer Foundation in NZ can be made here.