Eileidh’s Army

It’s coming to that time of year…

7th May 2014, Dunco et moi set out at 10:15pm to cycle from Fir Park, Motherwell to Inverness. An overnighter followed non-stop by an all dayer. Cold and wet: circumstances in which you set your stall out and persevere, or you buckle and give up when the going gets tough.

Remind you of anyone?

It was a Wednesday night, and even though the memory has dimmed a little over the intervening three years, I can still remember the important stuff about that journey: cycling through the ashes of Ravenscraig, leading Dunco through the backroads of Cumbernauld, my old runner’s playground from thirty years ago. A mega sarnie stop at Stirling services at 1am. Another at Braco an hour later. Cycling round the big A9 roundabout at Dunblane with not a car to be seen or heard. Freezing cold at Creiff as the dawn started to appear. Micro napping at 8am on the back road from Dunkeld to Pitlochry before my day brain properly kicked in. And so it went on.

It was the most symbolic bike ride of my life. For two reasons…

On that Thursday, just short of Aviemore at something like 150 miles into the ride, wee Oscar passed away. But because I was out of signal, I didn’t find out until the Friday morning. I was with the Caley Thistle Highland Marchers and I’d planned to ride that day but the news knocked me flat. While the guys were walking, I must have spent three hours on Twitter, sat outside the bunkhouse in Carrbridge, reading the tributes as they poured in. It was overwhelming. When I think back, I realise that that was the day I came to understand what Oscar Knox meant  to people all around the world.

And it was the day that Eileidh Paterson was diagnosed.

I’ll say that again: it was the day that wee Eileidh, our cheerleader, our Princess, our warrior in chief, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

I live 200 miles away. But on that fateful Friday, I was just over the hill from her home, not 25 miles fae Forres. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the day I was dealt the hand of Eileidh.

Now roll the story forward six months…

Mouldy, the effervescent Mouldy, who I’d heard all about but never actually met (primarily because he had been working in the States while I was LCFNing) phoned me up out of the blue (or should that be green) and asked me whether I’d do the back end of Cycling Santas with him for the NCCA (soon to become Solving Kids Cancer). I said yes. I’d cancelled my hotel booking in Stranraer and the boat to Belfast only that morning, but Mouldy is a very persistent and persuasive chap. Jane and I love him to bits. We just refer to him as the big man: a total heart of gold.

So Mouldy and I planned to head over to Belfast to tag an extra leg onto Cycling Santas so we could visit the Royal Belfast Hospital For Sick Childen where Oscar spent so much of his life. I will remember the Sick Children’s Hospital for the tightest, longest lasting hug of my life: with no words necessary.

But before that, on the Sunday, we cycled from the Sick Kids’ Hospital in Edinburgh, to Yorkhill Children’s Hospital in Glasgow. That was the day Chris Riddle, Vanessa’s dad, rode shotgun with me for the last 30 miles to make sure I got to the end. The weather was atrocious: driving sleet on a vicious headwind. It was also the day I realised that I needed a fast road bike, but that’s another story.

After Yorkhill, all the Santa riders headed for a pub on Byres Road in the west end of Glasgow. For Mouldy and I, it was a refuelling stop before the drive down the Stranraer. In the upstairs bar, sitting quietly, engrossed in an iPad, was a wee girl. Bald but beautiful, she was captivating in her own way, stealing chips of people’s plates (is that not the norm anyway?) and dancing around on her grandpa’s shoulders at every opportunity.

I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, that wee tot was Eileidh.

It wasn’t until about two months later, when I came across a post on social media, that I put two and two together… “Mouldy, I said, remember that lovely wee girl that we met in the pub on Byres Road? That’s wee Eileidh. She was diagnosed the day after Oscar died”.

The rest is history.

However some perspective is required here…

Mouldy was one of literally hunnerds of Celtic supporters who cycled from Celtic Park to Belfast to raise money for wee Oscar. I remember Mouldy telling me about a guy from Aberdeen who turned up at the start with a bike that was clearly not going to make it. “But I’ve got hunnerds riding on this in sponsorship” he said. So off he went: the bike packed up at Ayr but the money was good.

What those Celtic supporters did for wee Oscar was nothing short of amazing. Before a home game against Dundee, they raised thirty two grand in a bucket collection in just over an hour.

So in the spring of 2015, when I became aware that Gail needed to raise a hundred grand in no time at all to get Eileidh to America for specialist treatment, I went back to Mouldy…

“Mouldy” I said “remember that wee girl we met in the pub in Glasgow? She needs our help”.

So four of us: Mouldy, his mate Robert from the Team Oscar days, my mate Kev fae the running club in Cumbernauld thirty years ago and I went up to Forres and got on our bikes. Iain McGovern, Mr charity of Celtic FC, was the support driver in our motor converted into a support vehicle for three days.

Eileidh had been in hospital in Aberdeen for the whole of the previous week. But when we set off fae Forres…

Eileidh was there.

Our first stop was Inverness where Caley Thistle were hosting Dundee United and the club had generously provided a bucket collection for her.

Eileidh was there.

Over the course of the next two days, we rode the 190 miles down the road to Glasgow, destination Celtic Park, and in a hailstorm as we rode the last wee stretch up the Celtic Way…

Eileidh was there.

That was the day that cemented Eileidh and LCFN.

Through Mouldy, we managed to raise over four grand, and coupled with the fantastic contribution from people all over the north east of Scotland, Eileidh went to America.

She was cancer free for a year.

By the time 2016 came around, I was already homing in on my original target of 25,000 miles and I faced an important decision. “Do I just stop, like I said I would”?

What was so special about 25,000 miles anyway? In the time that I’ve been on the road, something like 375 children have been diagnosed with neuroblastoma in the UK. Half of them have died.

I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t walk away and leave it at that. My brain doesn’t work like that: show me a backs to the wall scenario and I’ll show you some fight.

Just like Eileidh.

In all likelihood, Eileidh is not going to survive. The odds have been stacked against her since she relapsed for the second time almost a year ago. But still she fights on. Those of us who watch and admire from afar know only too well where she gets the fighting spirit to fight this awful disease: from her mother.

Gail, I’m just a bloke on a bike who got lucky and managed to share a small part of your journey, but can I say that for the past two years, your daughter has been the inspiration behind LCFN. From wearing extra wristbands outside my winter jacket, with Eileidh’s Journey facing uppermost, to flogging wristbands on trains to anywhere, your wee Puddles is an inspiration, not just to me but to people all over the world.

There are something like 60 people with EJ wristbands in Australia: at least fifteen in Italy. There are bands in America, in the Netherlands, and shortly there will be one in New Zealand.

In her short life, Eileidh Paterson has inspired thousands…

This ain’t over. This is Eileidh we are talking about: Little Miss Stubborn. The cheerleader of warriors everywhere. Even a grimace masquerades as a smile.

Gail, you are not alone.

For we are all paid up members of Eileidh’s Army.