Harry McMurtry‘s legs ached and his brow dripped with sweat as he walked through small towns and sprawling farms in upstate New York and Ontario, Canada, under the sweltering sun for almost two months.
“All I kept thinking was, ‘Just keep moving,’ ” McMurtry tells PEOPLE. “I couldn t quit.”
Starting May 7, the Toronto native set out to complete 500 Miles for Parkinson’s, a daunting, 45-day walk from New York City, where he lives with his wife of three years, Deborah Bradley, to his hometown in Canada to raise money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease.
Walking up to 15 miles a day was made even more arduous because McMurtry, 54, suffers from advanced Parkinson’s.
“It’s harder for me to walk than the average bear,” says the good-natured McMurtry, a former lawyer who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s in 2009. “My muscles don t work like other people’s. It took all the strength I could summon to finish the walk each day, but I wouldn t quit. Too many people were counting on us.”
On June 20, McMurtry, who walked with Sue Thompson, 50, a high school guidance counselor from Toronto, and Ross Sugar, 56, a doctor from Baltimore, who also suffer from Parkinson’s, and the volunteers, family and friends who accompanied them, completed his journey, raising more than $500,000 along the way.
“It was a trip of hope and courage, giving people hope for a better future and courage to live well with Parkinson’s,” says McMurtry, who celebrated his successful trek at a huge fundraising gala in Toronto on June 22 and a surprise party in New York City on June 26.
“I would be lying if I didn t say that this took every ounce of energy and strength I had to do this,” says McMurtry, who had to be taken to the hospital when he fell during the challenging walk.
“By the end, my body was ready to shut down,” he says. “But I wanted to help people with Parkinson’s, so I never gave up.”
We Got More Than We Gave
The best part of the walk, says McMurtry, was all the people he met as he wound his way through New York State to Toronto, which is captured in touching and inspiring videos on the 500 Miles for Parkinson Facebook page.
The people they met shared personal stories about their journeys with Parkinson’s or about relatives who have the degenerative disease. “We touched people more than I ever expected,” he says.
As people along the route learned of the walk, adults and children alike came out to clap and cheer for Thompson, Sugar and McMurtry, who laughed, joked and stopped to hug well-wishers during his trek.
“We pulled so much hope and inspiration from the people we spoke to,” says Thompson. “We were blessed to hear their stories. We fed off their energy, to be honest. We got more than we gave.”
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As they were nearing Port Hope, Ontario, a woman in a pick-up truck pulled alongside one of the walk’s support vehicles “and emptied her purse of all her money – about $200 worth of Canadian and American money – and came over to see us with tears in her eyes,” he says. “She was so happy with what we were doing and so grateful. She gave us big tearful hugs. Her father had Parkinson’s. It was just so wonderful. We met many people like that along the way.”
One female trucker “heard about us on the news and rolled up and gave us some money and a bag of carrots,” he says. “It was her lunch and it was all she had but she wanted us to have it. She just wanted to acknowledge what we were doing. It was so sweet.”
Three days before McMurtry reached Toronto, a school bus filled with his friends from high school showed up to root him on. “What a great surprise it was when my old friends came out to greet me,” he says.
In the last days of the walk, the law firm where McMurtry once worked shut down for the day so that his colleagues could join him. His brothers, Jim and Mike McMurtry, proudly carried the “500 Miles for Parkinson’s” banner in the last days of the walk.
McMurtry got the biggest welcome when he arrived in Toronto, complete with a police escort, and was met by hundreds of well-wishers and dignitaries, including his father, former Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and former premier Bill Davis.
Raising his walking sticks triumphantly, McMurtry led 300 other walkers to the final stop at Ontario’s Legislative Building in Toronto.
“It was spectacular,” he says. “We did it.”
Thompson, whose three children, 20, 12 and 10, joined her at various points along the way, said “without hesitation” that her youngest daughter, Amanda’s, favorite part of the walk “was Harry McMurtry. He is so approachable, warm, and genuine.
“She was his official hugger,” she says. “She had to give him at least twenty hugs a day.”
McMurtry’s upbeat attitude helped keep the trio going, she says. “We buoyed each other’s spirits,” she said. “When Harry got down, we lifted him up and he did the same for us.”
McMurtry is thrilled that he helped raise $500,000 Parkinson’s – and would like to raise more funds for research. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of so many,” he says.
He is also proud that he accomplished his goals, even though the bar was high.
“Everybody needs to test their perceived limitations and when they do they may surprise themselves,” he says.
“By finishing this walk, I won my most recent battle with Parkinson’s. I wanted to show other people with Parkinson’s that this disease doesn t define us. We can all still lead rewarding, fulfilling lives.”
To donate, please visit 500 Miles for Parkinson’s.