For whatever reason, none of which appeared clear at the time, relatively obscure endurance events happened at key moments in my life. While they didn’t exactly fall on decade boundaries, each was close enough to create a precedent, and that probably played a significant part in what eventually transpired in the summer of 2013.
In 1971, at the tender age of 19, a year after leaving school, I wrote to the headmaster at Bishop Vesey Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield and asked whether I could borrow the school running track for a morning. I had no plans to take it anywhere, rather that I wanted to run around it quite a lot of times in support of Oxfam. I’d done the annual 25 mile Oxfam walk round the boundary of the town the previous year and quite fancied running it in ’71, just to be different, but they knocked me back on insurance grounds. That refusal led directly to the Vesey gig and the solo fundraiser round and round the grass track.
That was meant to be it, a one off, and in any case when I suffered a bad ankle injury running in the snow when I was 23, I hung up my running shoes on the advice of an orthopaedic surgeon and set out to forge a career playing backgammon instead. That retirement lasted just five years and by 1982, I had itchy feet again. Running shoe technology had moved on as the marathon boom took hold, and I fancied another shot at this long distance running game. I spent much of 1982 convincing myself that I could indeed give it a go without incurring any significant long-term damage and in 1983, my 30th year, I just went for it.
Running marathons quickly became the warmup act. There was an annual event in Cumbernauld, where I lived at the time, called the Marathon Walk. It had evolved as a 24 hour event during the period that I’d been side lined and in that summer of ’83, I found the perfect excuse to put my body on the line. My marriage was in the process of breaking up and I needed something to distract me from the ongoing pain of enforced separation. I decided on the Wednesday prior that I was going to enter the event starting in just seventy two hours’ time: it proved to be a watershed moment.
There were no rules to dictate that you had actually had to walk: it was merely easier to walk for 24 hours than to run it. But run it I did, well until the 71 mile mark when something went pop in the back of my knee. It was so long ago that I can’t remember which one it was, but it’ll be documented in my training diary which is in the loft somewhere. On its own, the injury wasn’t significant, albeit that the offending knee was kind of locked at about 120 degrees, its movement either way restricted by swelling. I managed another 31 miles in that state, not so much a walk or a run as a pained hobble. But it got the job done: 102 miles in 22 hours ensured enough of a lead that I couldn’t be overtaken in the two hours that were left: only at that point did I walk off the course.
That was my introduction to blocking pain in the pursuit of performance in sport.
I went on to win further Marathon Walk crowns in ’84 and ’85 before illness robbed me of a fourth in ’86: I was leading that one too, but I’d been full of the cold before the off and I felt quite disorientated around two in the morning so I called it a day before I keeled over. That was one of the few times in my life that my head has actually got the better of my body. With the run broken, so was my spirit, but I did come back for one final attempt in 1989, just six months after being hospitalised with septicaemia. I won that one too.
There was no real pattern to these events at that time: that didn’t come about until 1994 when, at the age of 41, I found myself attracted to what amounted to quite a ridiculous challenge. By then, I was working for Weir Pumps in Glasgow, and they had a sister operation at the former Mather and Platt site in Manchester. Weirs had taken over M&P in the 80’s and were in the process of integrating operations across the two sites. I’d been working on a project to share engineering intellectual property so I’d been down to Manchester a couple of times, and being an Englander living in Scotland, I knew the distance like the back of my hand.
“I wonder if I could run from the Manchester factory to the Glasgow factory in a working week?” I thought to myself.
“It must be around 240 miles all in” I mused.
“Five days, that’s just under fifty miles a day.”
The challenge intrigued me; no, I’d go further than that, it gnawed away at me. I started running backwards and forwards to work by way of integrating the training into my non-working life. But my achilles tendons were having none of it. Ten years of ultra distance had taken their toll and I couldn’t manage the massive workload without significant downtime. I was past it.
So that was what prompted me to switch codes.
“If I can’t run it in a week, I wonder if I could cycle it in a day?” I thought.
I did have a mountain bike, acquired in ‘92, but prior to that I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a teenager: a mere 25 years away from the wheels. And I’ve never, ever owned a road bike. There were some guys on the shop floor at work who (I knew) were into the cycling game so I made some enquiries.
“Do you think it’s possible to ride 240 miles in a day as a one off?”
The answer came back “possibly, but only with a hell of a lot of training.”
“That’ll do me” I thought, and I committed myself to giving it a go.
That commitment merely served as a carrot to the rest of the guys, and in the event, six of us set off from Mather’s factory at 4:30am on June 9th 1994 to take on the biggest single day challenge any of us had ever encountered, before or since.
Now, it’s important to stress at this point that I’m very much a loner when it comes to endurance sport. 99.99% of all of the training I’ve ever done, in any sport, has been on my own. Training has always fitted around the rest of my life, whether that be getting changed in the toilets after work then running five miles to the train with my stuff in a bum bag; or working flexi-hours in order to take two hours for lunch so I could go hill running in the mud (and we had no showers in those days either).
By way of serious preparation, I bought a road bike, a replica Flying Scot, and a top of the range Cateye turbo trainer. The turbo will feature again in this tale once the focus turns to Australia.
I was a single parent back then and getting out on the road at weekends was a complete no-no: but that’s when the other guys were training, which merely underlined the solo thing. So, I parked the turbo in the living room, making sure that the back wheel was behind the door, then mounted the Scot on the trainer. Hour after hour after hour I worked out on that machine, but it served as a means to an end: I arrived in Manchester in the best condition, leg strength wise, that I’d ever been in. It felt strange in a way because the company gave us two days off, additional holidays if you like, and the HR director, or Personnel Manager as he was known back then, appointed himself as our road manager. Old Fred was a good bloke, so much so that he got the senior management team wagering over their executive free lunch in the bosses’ canteen whether we’d pull this thing off. The consensus view was in the negative.
All was well until we were coming away from a scheduled pit stop near Carnforth, north of Lancaster. With eighty odd miles in the bag, the weather fine and everyone in even finer fettle, we were well on schedule. Then I let my concentration waver and touched the back wheel of old Charlie Duffy’s bike.
I went down.
I think that was the first time I’d fallen off a bike since I was a kid. It hurt, in fact it hurt like hell. There was something up with my arm. The problem was, this whole Manchester to Glasgow thing had been my idea and there was no way I was going back into work on Monday morning having fallen off my bike and chucked it. So, I slapped a tubigrip bandage on my arm, doubled it back down, and got back on the bike.
“Houston, we have a problem: I can’t grip the handlebars with that hand, it’s way too sore…”
I said to the other guys “I don’t want to hold you back but I’m struggling here. I’m going to have to ride one handed.”
So, I did: 160 miles or thereabouts, which included being first up the climb of Shap Summit, although I was back at the tail end of the peleton by the time we got down the other side. I made it to Glasgow, as indeed did five of the six guys, then took myself off to A&E the next morning. An X-ray confirmed a cracked elbow.
“Ah, that explains a few things…”
Not to worry, job done and another endurance gig scratched on the bedpost of life.
That was it in terms of anything substantial until my biological clock ticked down towards fifty. However, there was one famous incident worthy of mention in the summer of ’95 when Jane and I were still courting. She was in Inverness and I was in East Kilbride. One of us would travel one weekend and the other one would travel the next weekend, and it stayed that way until Jane relocated down to Glasgow the following year. Anyway, on this particular Friday night, I chucked the Flying Scot in the back of the motor and thought nothing of it until I arrived outside Jane’s house.
“What have you brought that for?” she asked, putting me immediately on both the back foot and the naughty step.
“I thought I might cycle round Loch Ness while I’m here” I replied.
“I thought you’d come to see me” came the instant retort.
By now thinking on my feet through necessity rather than desire.
I came back with “I thought that if I went out at 5am, I’d get the A82 side done safely”.
For the uninitiated, Loch Ness is a 67 mile circuit (107km) with a giant three mile climb at the far end of the Loch just past the halfway point. I did go out at 5am the next morning, I did get the busy side of the Loch done in relative safety, and I didn’t let that bastard climb defeat me. And I was back in the house by half eight. That story has relevance with what comes later.
Cue Hogmanay 2002 and a few beers with my Inverness Caley Thistle mates in the Market Bar in Inverness. We were vying with Falkirk for top spot in the league going into that New Year. After three or four Newcastle Browns, I mentioned that I was going to be fifty in a couple of months’ time and I fancied celebrating it with something slightly different. A quick swatch at the fixture list revealed that Inverness were away to Falkirk on the last day of the season, in the last game ever to be played at the famous Brockville ground: a possible championship decider no less, and we were at home to St Johnstone the previous Saturday.
The Highland March was born.
It was billed as an eccentric celebration of my 50th, even to the extent that my party doubled up with the players’ end of season bash the night before we set off. How many folks can lay claim to have had the entire first team squad, and management team, at their birthday party?
That Highland March was an outstanding success, notwithstanding the fact that as novice long distance walkers, we made one or two mistakes along the way: but hey, to err is human; to repeat a mistake is sheer folly.
That Highland March was meant to be a one off but one of our guys was fifty the following year and he asked if we could do it all again.
So we did.
And we did it again the next year, and the one after that, and the one after that. In fact, we’d done ten in a row before my legs decided that they wanted to do something else in May.
2006, or HM4 to give it it’s proper name, was an interesting one.
The concept of the Highland March was that you walked from the end of the penultimate game to the start of the final game of the league season. Under normal circumstances, that meant Saturday to Saturday, but 2006 was a World Cup year so the league chucked a midweek fixture into the final week of the season in order to give the Scottish players more rest before a World Cup that they hadn’t even qualified for.
The fixtures read “Saturday: Livingston (a), Wednesday: Falkirk (h), Saturday: Dunfermline (a)”.
There were 145 miles and just 65 hours between the final whistle of the Falkirk game and kick off at East End Park, Dunfermline. I accepted the challenge. The other marchers had left town the morning after the Livvy game and were already halfway down the road by the time Falkirk came calling: but they drove back up the road in the meat wagon to see me off the premises. I had a mate driving support in his motor, and between us we took on the challenge of meeting the rest them for a beer on the Friday night. It took less than forty eight hours and some seriously messed up feet to seal the deal.
Straight on the back of that adventure, I thought it would be a good idea to walk the West Highland Way.
I knew the route (ish…), although I’d never actually done any of it so it acquired a kind of bucket list mystique. To be honest, I should have run it in the 80’s but never even gave it a thought. Ninety five miles from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow, to Fort William, 99% of it off road. I set aside a weekend at the start of August to give it a go: Jane suggested going camping in Glencoe so she was able to collect me at the top end.
When I say “walk the West Highland Way”, I mean exactly that, as in start, walk, finish: end to end in one go, carrying everything I’d need. PS: water is heavy!!!
I left Milngavie at 6:30am on the Saturday morning. The first part’s dead easy and I’d rattled off Conic Hill by lunchtime. Then the long drag to Inversnaid set in and the heavens opened. Despite wearing Hedgehogs, my feet got soaked and by the time I grabbed alternative liquid refreshment at the Hotel, I had blisters. Bummer!
Then it was that interminable stretch past Rob Roy’s cave where you have to keep climbing up and over slippery rocks and stuff. I got to the pub at Beinglas Farm campsite around eight and treated myself to a wee Guinness. It was just starting to get dark.
Heading on north again by torchlight, there’s a bit where the path runs right alongside the River Falloch: not long before the track goes through a wee narrow bridge under the A82, there’s a fork in the path. I got there at about 11pm and remember getting being disorientated trying to identify the correct path: the one to the right is not the right one: that just takes you down to the water’s edge…
Having made a pit stop to fix my feet at the Inversnaid Hotel, I made a second stop at Tyndrum High Level station around 2am. By now, about 60 miles in, I was really quite sore. The next eight miles, to the Bridge Of Orchy Hotel, follows a good wide track and by the time I got to the train station on the opposite side of the road, dawn was upon me.
So were the midges!
Loch Tulla sits a couple of miles to the north, and even at 5am, the wee beasties were as Sid Vicious as anything. Time to stick the mesh hood on, but even then I could feel them smashing into my skull in a desperate attempt to get a feed. Rannoch Moor came and went, its cobbles multiplying every bit of pain I was feeling from my feet. Blisters and General Wade’s military road are not good bedfellows.
At the back of eight, I called in at the Kinghouse Hotel at the head of Glencoe. Jane drove up from the campsite with the kids, and it was an opportunity to swap some of my heavy stuff with a lighter load for the next leg up the Devils’ Staircase and down into Kinlochleven. That descent was excruciating. By now I’d been on the road for about 28 hours and there was no way of walking down that hill that wasn’t really, really painful. I think there are about five or six hairpins before you reach the bottom. The kids were trying to run after me, bearing bacon butties, but I was fearful of stopping lest I couldn’t get going again. Jane said I was going like a man possessed.
With hindsight, maybe I was.
If you know the West Highland Way, you’ll know that the climb out of Kinlochleven to the north is every bit as arduous as the descent coming down from the Glencoe side. I have a masochistic way of dealing with situations like that: focus on someone way in the distance and commit to reeling them in before you get to a defined point. It helps because it takes your mind off the pain and the tiredness. I used to do something similar coming to the end of hill races and cross country races.
It’s fourteen miles or so from Kinlochleven to the waypoint at the end of the West Highland Way, and even though (only) a mile or so is road once you come down off the hill, that final stretch on tarmac seemed to go on forever.
But I did it. I walked the West Highland Way in one go. It would have been nice to have done it in under thirty hours, as that had been my initial objective, but I know what a mess my feet were in, so just to have completed it with three short pit stops was actually okay. Thirty one hours end to end was good going, and to have maintained over three miles an hour through all of that time was very satisfying. Having done it, just like Ride2Cure, there’s no point in ever going back and trying to better it because it just can’t be done. Box ticked, move on.
When I turned sixty, I got my bus pass. That’s what happens in Scotland: and with your bus pass you can travel about the place for nothing. My goal back then was merely to leave the motor at home and go backwards and forwards to work for free. That’s about twenty miles each way (32km) including a thousand feet of climbing, but that wasn’t relevant at that moment in time. What was relevant however, was that the bus stop was about five miles away from my house, and it was at the top of the climb.
Jane asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I asked for a folding bike. But I didn’t want any old folding bike: I didn’t want one with silly little wheels. I think they look stupid, even if they are quite practical in terms of space allocation versus speed. Nope, I wanted a proper bike, so a proper full-size mountain bike I got, complete with road tyres and a dirty great big bracket in the middle of the frame. Folded, it looks like a compressed wheelchair.
The early days with the folding bike were very simple: I rode to either Galston Road end on the old A77, or more often than not down into Fenwick Village where there was a bus shelter and hence cover against inclement weather (of which there tends to be rather a lot in west central Scotland). Galston Road end is a desolate place up on the Fenwick Muir, the scene of many a fatal accident in the days before they built the motorway and reverted the A77 to old road status. There’s no actual bus stop there: you just flag down the driver of the number 4 and he pulls over.
That first day in Fenwick, I could tell that the driver was quite unsure what to do. But a quick gaze into his bus (it was 6:30am remember) revealed no one onboard, and as I was planning to get off before he got really busy, we agreed to seal the deal on a regular basis. I parked the bike in one of the two disabled slots in order to keep it out of the punters’ way on the way into work, and on the way home, I cycled a wee bit further, almost to the top of the climb, in order to let the Newton Mearns townies alight before I piled on. It was a routine that worked well for about six months.
In the meantime, I’d gone back to that ‘let’s do something ridiculous’ routine that had characterised each of the preceding decades, and a thought crossed my mind about the Whitelee Windfarm that sat adjacent to the bus route across the Muir. There are 215 turbines on that vast site, and at the time it was the largest onshore windfarm in Europe. When they built it, they left the big wide dirt tracks that they used to get the lorries to each of the turbines, and in their infinite wisdom, Scottish Power, who own the site, opened it up as a public open space.
I didn’t need asking twice.
The challenge was to ride round that entire site in a day.
I went up to the Visitor Centre, spoke to the Whitelee Rangers and verified that to the best of their knowledge, no one had ever done it before, and most certainly not in a single day.
I approached Scottish Power and (a) got a high definition pdf copy of the layout of the site, with every turbine numbered and every track laid out to scale (b) got permission to have a support vehicle onsite for a day, on the strict understanding that it didn’t deviate from the main Spine Road that stretches ten miles from one side of the site to the other. The funniest part of that was when my support man, who was a highly competent hill walker, had to do a practical course in how to drive his van on a dirt track.
The optimum route was calculated on a Friday night, sponsored
by a fridge full of beer. The objective was simply to visit every turbine by
the shortest possible distance, and hence in the shortest possible time. I set
out from the visitor centre in the rain at 6:30am on the weekend of the summer
solstice. Some of the tracks were a skoosh and I got up some real speed; others
were a complete boneshaker and there were a couple of remote spots where the
bike had to be lifted over locked gates in order to follow the prescribed
The route itself was documented in Excel, printed off then laminated to protect against the rain. I then mounted the sheets on a paint roller that I’d duct taped onto the handlebar stem. By whacking a big dod of blutack on each side of the roller, I could stop it spinning of its own accord, resulting in navigation becoming a single instruction as I came away from each turbine. A slight tweak of the laminated sheets against the blutack every ten minutes meant that effectively I had satnav on a stick.
Whitelee took me 13 hours: 101 miles of adventuring with 9000ft of climbing over the course of the day.
My sister in law took some friends up to the Visitor Centre a couple of years back and they do a wee bus tour around a small part of the site. In the commentary on that tour, they included the story of the bloke who became the first person to cycle the whole site in June 2013. Auntie Ann, as she’s affectionately known round these parts, enlightened them that “that was my brother in law!”
That was meant to be it for my 60th, but as the weather improved over the course of the summer, so did my fitness, and I began parking the bus pass on a regular basis for the journey home from work, and it was on one of those rides on a beautiful, albeit windy day, that I thought “I could be putting these miles to a good cause”.
Around that time, there were three children whose names kept appearing on my Twitter feed because their families each needed to raise gazillions of pounds in next to no time in order to secure potentially lifesaving treatment abroad that wasn’t available on the NHS in the UK.
The disease was neuroblastoma.
LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma had been conceived.
To me, that predicament seemed so desperately unfair: having your child in hospital with a life-threatening illness was one thing, but having to simultaneously raise hundreds of thousands of pounds against the clock seemed just plain wrong.
All fired up, I put the word out on social media “see if I were to commit to doing this bike ride to and from work all year round, do you think people would sponsor me at a penny a mile?”
The message came back loud and clear: “there’s only one way you’re going to find out….”
LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma was born.
That was in August 2013 and the adventure started in earnest on Monday 19th.