All sorts of thoughts and emotions have been running through my head today. If things had turned out differently over the past three months, I would have been in Belfast right now, I would (hopefully) have visited Zakky Brennan and his family today, I would definitely have met up with the Knox family and I would have been looking forward with equal measures of trepidation and excitement about setting off from the Royal Belfast Children’s Hospital about now, bound for the night boat to Cairnryan.
That was the plan.
But instead I spent the day in London, doing stuff that on the outside has nothing whatsoever to do with LCFN, but which in reality has everything to do with what might happen in the future. I can’t really say too much more about that just now but the possibility exists, if the right people can be brought together in partnership, to make a significant difference in dealing with neuroblastoma.
So back to the plan that never was…
The idea was to arrive in Cairnryan just before 2am, let the wagons roll off the boat and clear the ferry terminal first, then set off to cycle 110 miles to Stirling. I planned it that way so as to cycle the most dangerous section of the A77 between Cairnryan and Turnberry in the dark of the dead of night, lit up light a Christmas tree with next to nothing trafficwise on the road. From Turnberry, the plan was to take the coast road, including a practical gravity experiment on the Electric Brae, before heading up through Ayr and Prestwick around dawn. Longtime LCFN supporters Angela and Gordon even offered to set up an alfresco pit stop on the A77 bike lane at Fenwick if the weather was good.
With a mid afternoon Friday finish in the bag, the plan was then to pile in another ton of miles on the Saturday, up and over Drumochter, and all the way to Newtonmore. That would have left a ceremonial 50 on the Sunday to Forres, and an end to LCFN in its original form. 25,000 miles done and dusted.
So, what went wrong?
- In early February, I crashed on black ice whilst trying to maintain the 45 miles a day schedule that would have set up Belfast to Forres. Despite cycling another 1500 miles with a badly injured thumb, I’ve been unable to ride for any great distance in one go. It’s just too painful.
- In March I lost my job and with it the means to keep on doing those big miles that would have kept LCFN on schedule for Belfast, pain or no pain. All along, I’d kept going in the hope that the pain would eventually recede enough to allow me to ride for 12 hours at a time. But it didn’t. Redundancy was the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced me to rethink my strategy.
So I’ve arrived at the day when I should have been starting the final journey, but I’m 900 miles short of where I wanted to be: time for a new plan…
But before I do that, I want to turn the clock back and look at how the things that happened on this weekend two years ago shaped everything that’s happened since.
Every year from 2003, I’d been involved with the Caley Thistle Highland March, a long distance charity walking event between the club’s last two league games of the season. But walking 200 miles in as little as six days takes a huge commitment in terms of training and preparation, and in the spring of 2014, I didn’t have the time to do that: I was already fully committed to LCFN. So in the Portman Bar in Kilmarnock before a January away game at Killie, the idea was tossed around about me cycling the HM route and dedicating those miles to LCFN. It was an idea that became a plan when the post-split fixtures came out and the SPL boffins gave us Motherwell to Inverness: the only snag was that the Motherwell game was on a Wednesday night. But that wasn’t an issue as I have previous in that regard. In 2006 I walked the 140 miles from Inverness to Dunfermline, solo, in 48 hours, having left Caley Stadium at 10pm after the final whistle of what was also a Wednesday night penultimate fixture that season.
The Motherwell game was on May 7th and that’s relevant. My mate Dunco, he of God knows how many Highland Marches, joined me on that epic bike ride, and we even had the privilege of ambushing the walkers by turning up in Pitlochry at 8:30am when they thought we were wild camping at Stirling overnight. We did stop at Stirling, briefly at 1am, but that was to disappear some corned beef doortsteps. On that trip, we were carrying everything we needed and the bikes weighed a ton.
So let’s roll that story forward a few hours. We’d agreed to cycle at our own pace once we had the HM support vehicle behind us, and by early afternoon, I was through Kingussie and on the back road past Ruthven Barracks to Loch Insh and onward to Aviemore. It was a mile or so before Loch Insh that the marchers had learned of Tommy Burns’s passing during the latter stages of HM6 in 2008 and has remained a poignant marker in the history of the march. We were invited to form a guard of honour for the arrival of the teams on the park, and to be part of the official club tribute to Tommy Burns. The guard of honour at Inverness has remained a fixture ever since.
The Thursday ride finished at Carrbridge, leaving the remaining miles to be knocked off on either the Friday of the Saturday depending on how we felt. We had the bunkhouse booked for two nights and we were now well ahead of the marchers. But getting an O2 signal in Carrbridge is extremely difficult so with tiredness and beer to contend with on the Thursday night, there was little incentive to play catch up on Social Media: that had to wait until Friday morning.
Then news was heartbreaking. My twitter feed, as intermittent as it was, was chock full of tributes to Oscar Knox. Unbeknown to me, while I was riding the Tommy Burns leg the previous day, wee Oscar had passed away. I was devastated. I didn’t go out on the road at all that day. Instead I spent the time trying to get enough of a signal to allow me to play catch up. Wee Oscar had been an inspiration to me when I started LCFN.
Dunco and I duly knocked off the remaining miles on the Saturday morning and on the Sunday, although the guard of honour was officially for the arrival of the teams, my mind was almost three hundred miles away as wee Oscar’s funeral procession began across the water. My mind was totally zoned in on the wee man.
After the game, I went back home to Stewarton and carried on cycling, except that now, with massive miles having been banked for the first time, I just carried on doing them. Highland Bike 1, as it became known, had broken the mould of the traditional LCFN mileage plan and whereas 150 and 160 a week had previously been thought of as maxing out, that particular bar was raised post HB1 to 200 and above. The LCFN cat was very much out of the mileage bag.
The story then rolled on, accompanied by those big miles, to December and an invitation from the NCCA to take part in Cycling Santas. Enter Mouldy: People had told me about Mouldy, but I’d never actually met the big man. I knew he was a neuroblastoma fundraiser of no mean repute, having been a player in Team Oscar back in 2012. Mouldy had been working in the US in the lead up to Cycling Santas so we didn’t get a chance to speak until five days before my first leg from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The big man had just jetted in, picked up his bike and headed off down to London to do the whole shebang.
That Sunday leg, from the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh to Yorkhill in Glasgow, was followed by a quick pit stop at the Curlers Rest pub on Byres Road. Pivotal moment number two in LCFN folklore was about to unfold. There was a wee girl sat on a corner table, engrossed on an iPad and pinching bits of food off her folks’ plates. Despite her obvious unwellness, she was as cute as a wee button. I didn’t know it at the time, and it was fully another two months before the penny finally dropped about the significance of this chance meeting, but this wee cherub was Eileidh Paterson. Eileidh had lived in Yorkhill for the past three months and this was her going back home to Forres for Christmas.
But Mouldy and I weren’t done with Cycling Santas because we bolted a Belfast leg on, on the Monday, drove down to Stranraer on the Sunday night then got the early morning boat over to Belfast. That remains one of my all time favourite days of LCFN because not only did we meet Stephen and Leona, Oscar’s parents, but we also got to meet Oscar’s consultant at the Sick Children’s Hospital: and he’s a keen cyclist.
In the spring of 2015, when I became fully aware of Eileidh’s unfolding story, the Highland Marchers, plus Mouldy and a couple of our mates, devoted our fundraising to Eileidh’s Appeal to get her to the USA and a place on the clinical trial to prevent her neuroblastoma from returning. On top of everything that LCFN has raised to date, the combined HM/HB effort raised over four grand in a few weeks. It remains a landmark moment in the LCFN journey.
When the cyclists left Forres on the Saturday morning of Highland Bike 2, Eileidh was there (despite having only left hospital in Aberdeen the night before). When the marchers and bikers formed the guard of honour at Inverness five hours later, Eileidh was there. And the cyclists arrived at Celtic Park on the Monday, she was there too. And with a wintry precipitation in the air in the east end of Glasgow, that’s where she gained the name Princess Puddles: by jumping in them.
But the biggest irony of all was still to unfold. We all knew that Eileidh had been dangerously ill, but what I didn’t know was that Eileidh’s stage 4 neuroblastoma had been diagnosed the day after Wee Oscar passed away. The journey that began because of Oscar Knox had somehow morphed itself into a journey of moral support for Princess Puddles. And that’s where it remains as I approach the final 1200 miles of the 25,000.
From Oscar 2 Eileidh.