How A Walk Became A Cancer Crusade

As I saw the back of another bottle of Newcastle Brown in the Market Bar on Hogmanay 2002, there was no way in which I could have imagined that just over 12 years later, my life, and those of a bunch of people I’d not even met, would change forever. This is the story of how my passion for pulling extreme endurance stunts every once in a while morphed into a crusade to change the way kids with a rare form of cancer get treated in this country.

This is the story of how The Highland March became LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma.

This is my story…

Take a computer programmer. No, take two programmers because the Canary and I were binary boys. Take a railwayman. Take a nightshift worker from a hotel chain. Take a care worker: and take an engineering apprentice. Take a bunch of guys who shared a passion for doing something that had perhaps never done before: walking 160 miles to a football match.

A wee historical aside here: thousands of folk did the Kilt Walk from Hampden to Loch Lomond a couple of weeks ago. Even my wife Jane and her pals did this one. The Kilt Walk is a child of the Tartan March and the Tartan March, from the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo to Hampden Park in 2009, was the creation of Chumba who happens to be a Highland March legend. That makes the Kilt Walk the grandchild of The Highland March. Just saying…

So imagine doing SEVEN Kilt Walks back to back, throw in some rough terrain, some mountains, some bad weather, some blisters, some camping mixed with communal bunking and you have the basic recipe for this legendary event.

The Highland March is about to celebrate its 13th birthday at Celtic Park.

The Highland March is a football event that grew into something altogether more important. The Highland March is about a bunch of guys with a collective conscience wanting to show the world that supporting your team is worth more than handing over your season ticket money and parking your motor in the corporate car park every fortnight. The Highland March is about guys coming from Skye, from Coventry, from Norwich, from Glasgow, from London, from Manchester and even from Inverness to walk in unison for one cause: Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s last league game of the season.

That first Highland March was to the last ever game at the old Brockville Stadium. Yogi was the player manager and his Falkirk team had steamrollered the First Division, remaining unbeaten going into the last game of the season. Charlie Christie saw to it that Yogi’s record remained unintact in a 3-2 win but the reception that the home fans gave the Marchers that day sowed the seed for everything that has happened since. Those Falkirk Bairns ensured that there wouldn’t just be one Highland March to celebrate the 50th birthday of a token visiting supporter: they ensured that the March would become an integral part of the sub culture at Caley Thistle. “This is the Highland March: this is what we do”.

So the HM, as it’s affectionately known, has seen those same Inverness supporters, and a few extras that we picked up along the way, walking to or from Falkirk (twice), Clyde, Dundee, Dunfermline, St Mirren (twice), Kilmarnock, Ayr, Hamilton, Ross County (via Skye) and Motherwell.

In the early days, the Marchers teamed up with the MFR Charity Trust and the benefit of having the local radio station onboard helped immensely with getting the message out there. Live broadcasts from the tops of mountains at 8am? No problem. We even had the beer with us. Whereas in Glasgow it was a case of “have you seen the Real Radio Renegade”, in the Highlands it was more a case of “have you seen the lesser spotted Highland Marcher”. They were heady days. The guys then took the charity message first to the International Children’s Trust then to the kids’ ward at Raigmore Hospital before fundraising weariness took it’s inevitable toll and the team realised that there are only so many times that you can flog the same horse. So the March carried on, purely for fun, and the love of the football team.

I am not a young man. The HM was meant to be a one off and I lay the blame for its subsequent evolution fairly and squarely at the hands of the Bairns and Caley Canary, for it was his golden jubilee the following year and he fancied doing it all over again. And we’ve never stopped doing it…

When I’d done ten, which included walking from Inverness to Dunfermline in 48 hours over the mountain tops, and Inverness to Fort William in one go in order to start the West Highland Way the next day, I called it a day activewise. My feet had seen enough blisters to last me a lifetime and there are only so many toenails a guy can lose in the course of a week. The East End Park jolly cost me five in three days.

I drove the support bus to Skye and back on HM11 and can quite honestly say that I didn’t miss the walking one little bit. I got my fix by parking up ten miles ahead of the Marchers and bagging a Munro or two. As long as the flag was flying proud on the ceremonial tree stump by the time they arrived, what I got up in the meantime was between me and the wilderness.

Long before the fixture computer spat out Motherwell-Inverness followed by Inverness-St Johnstone this time last year, it was known that the Motherwell game was scheduled for the Wednesday night. It was the third time in 12 HM’s that we’d been given 65 hours to leg it from one game to next and still make kick off. And whilst I made it to Dunfermline, we collectively failed to make it to Hamilton on HM9 and had to skip a few miles in the middle to make the game. Aged 61 and only three miles nearer home, it was clear that I wasn’t going to take on this challenge with any great optimism. And in any case, I’d already hung up my trainers to ride my bike.

Cue the Celtic connection and a whole load more very special people.

I need to say at this point that if David Murray and his cohorts hadn’t embraced the borrowed pound for nigh on ten years, none of this would likely have happened. The next chapter of how The Highland March morphed into LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma is all wrapped up in Rangers Tax Case.

I like a good drama and I like a good conspiracy theory. Put the two together and RTC was like Emmerdale meets The Sting with a bit of Morse and Cracker thrown in for good measure. And it was on 24×7. There were some seriously good characters on RTC, far too many to name on here, but there was one in particular, BRTH, who I’d started following on Twitter, who had an additional agenda: neuroblastoma. I knew nothing of this disease, but I’d heard of Vanessa Riddle. I think everyone in Central Scotland had heard of Vanessa. The Celtic support certainly had. And after Vanessa there was wee Oscar and perhaps the greatest mobilisation of charitable giving there has ever been in the history of football in this country. And following on from Oscar there was Mackenzie Furniss.

The timing may have been coincidental, I know it was perfect, but one thing’s for sure: something like LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma was always just one ridiculous idea away from becoming a reality. And this one did.

Two years ago, when I got my bus pass, I bought a folding bike. The idea was that I’d leave the car at home, ride to Fenwick, stick the bike on the bus, get off in Shawlands then cycle the last bit to work. In the evening, I did the same trip in reverse. Well, that idea lasted about four months. By the time we got into the summer months, I’d given up on the return bus journey and reverted to the long way home. RTC had itself become TSFM and kids were still getting ill with neuroblastoma.

One particular day, and I think I only did it because I’d ridden home every other day that week, I struggled on into the teeth of a gale over the Fenwick Muir. But I got home. The very next day, an item appeared on my Twitter feed saying that wee Oscar had relapsed and his cancer had returned, except this time it was worse. Now at this point, I want to relate the story to two students at Queens University in Belfast who graduated within weeks of that inaugural March to Falkirk. Leona was still three years away from becoming a Knox back then but history will show that the crossing of the paths of wee Oscar Knox and the LifeCycle Man was the Rubicon moment in the Highland March becoming my personal neuroblastoma crusade.

The idea of the Highland Bike first reared its head in the pub before Inverness played at Rugby Park in January 2014. As I wasn’t planning to walk it, someone suggested I do it on two wheels as I was already three thousand miles into LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. I was still at the swithering stage some two weeks before the event when Dunco, himself a veteran of about seven or eight HM’s, suggested doing it with me. Sorted. No backing out now…

We set off from Fir Park at 10:15pm in pissing rain and got a right good soaking en route to Stirling where we stopped for the first round of corned beef doorsteps. Then it got cold as we continued on north through Dunblane, Braco, Muthill and Crieff before the first glimmering signs of dawn appeared. By heck it was cold. We’d told the Marchers that we’d be wild camping over a couple of nights, with the express intention of getting ahead of them on the road before laying the mother of all ambushes in Glen Tromie. As it turned out, they spotted us as the HM support wagon rolled into Pitlochry on the Thursday morning to start their day: we were on the bacon butties from across the road.

The focal point of the remainder of that day lies in a stretch of the road just before the Loch Insh water sports centre near Aviemore. That was the spot on HM6 where Dogsbody relayed to us that Tommy Burns had passed away. The guard of honour that we formed for the teams at the end of that March, and the minute’s applause that we did on the pitch for Tommy remains for me the most poignant moment of any Highland March to date. After Dunco and I reached Carrbridge after 165 miles on the road, it was with a very heavy heart that I learnt that wee Oscar had gained his angel wings. And it happened while I was riding on that same stretch of road near Loch Insh.

From that moment on, I guess it was always going to be that Inverness would be playing Celtic on the last day of the season and that for the first time, wee Oscar’s club were going to play host to The Highland March and The Highland Bike. And one week on from the anniversary of his passing, it’s only fitting that some of the guys who were instrumental in the fundraising efforts back in 2012, before I even knew what was going on, will be with me on the road in celebration of the wee man’s short life.

My objective from this point forward is pretty straightforward: I still have over 11,000 miles to ride to achieve my goal of 25,000 miles to help kids with neuroblastoma. By the time I’m done, it will have taken over three years of getting up before 5am to ride 40 miles a day on top of a full time job. I’ve met some amazing people along the way and I continue to be inspired by new people that I meet every day. This isn’t just a journey, this isn’t just a crusade; this is a personal statement that no matter how difficult something appears to be, no matter how dark the tunnel, there’s always a wee chink of light shining at the other end. It’s just that sometimes you can’t see it yet.

And that’s how the Inverness Caley Thistle Highland March became LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma.

This Highland Bike isn’t just an Inverness Caley Thistle Highland Bike: this is an Inverness and Celtic Highland Bike.

For Oscar Knox.

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