A hardy team of Northern Ireland medical professionals have returned exhausted but exhilarated from an epic 10-day charity cycle across the Alps.
The team of 18, which included eight consultants, pushed themselves to the limit to cover a mammoth 712km over one of the world's tallest – and longest – mountain ranges to raise tens of thousands of pounds for four local charities.
Known as The Raid Alpine, the classic cycling challenge took the team from Geneva to the Cote d'Azur through the Southern Alps to Nice on a punishing route over 31 mountain passes which involved climbing a colossal 17,485m – the equivalent of scaling Everest twice.
A challenge not for the faint hearted, the team said they had to draw on all of their mental and physical strength to complete, spurred on by the opportunity to boost the coffers of their favourite charities.
Included in the hardy team was local consultant surgeon Mark Taylor who confessed that just a few months ago he couldn't cycle any distance without throwing up.
Also on the team was Richard Lloyd a specialist registrar in orthopaedics in Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry who undertook the endurance challenge in aid of the Erin Thompson Memorial Trust.
Little Erin Thompson from Gilnahirk was just two-and-a-half years old when she died tragically last summer in an accident while on holiday with her family in Cork.
Another member of the team was Dr Gary Dorman, a consultant obstetrician in Antrim Area Hospital and 3fivetwo Healthcare.
Gary took on the challenge to raise funds for Rosstulla Special School in Newtownabbey where his son James is a pupil.
All three consultants were this week back at work nursing aching muscles while treating their patients in hospital.
They each took time out to share their once in a lifetime experience and explain why they did it.
Gary: 'I realised we don't have hills in Northern Ireland
Dr Gary Dorman, consultant obstetrician in Antrim Area Hospital and 3fivetwo Healthcare, completed the challenge on behalf of Rosstulla Special School in Newtownabbey where his son James is a pupil. Gary (49) lives in Ballyclare and is married to Alison (40), a GP, and they have three children Rory (14), James (13) and Beth (8). He says:
Mountain biking is a hobby and the challenge of Raid Alpine was laid down by my colleagues Kieran Rafferty and Mark Taylor when they said a mountain biker couldn't do it.
"I would be reasonably fit but I did put in a lot of training – about 1,000 miles – before it, mostly in the Glens of Antrim.
"Since coming home I realise we don't actually have hills in Northern Ireland.
"The thing about mountain biking is that it is usually short, sharp climbs, not like the Alps.
"It was tough but very fulfiling. By the time we got to day five and had a fair amount covered, for most people lethargy started to set in and it became as mentally tough as it was physically.
"There was not any one of us who couldn't have done it but you really needed to push yourself to keep going.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's something that unless you have done it then it is very hard to explain what it is like. The scenery was absolutely stunning and you saw places you would never get to see in a car. Spiritually it was very uplifting. There was a real sense of achievement in getting over those hills and great camaraderie.
"I wanted to make sure any money I raise stayed in Northern Ireland and so while I do operations on people with cancer, I thought that the cancer charities do get a lot of support.
"Our son James started Rosstulla Special School last year and when there are cuts it is usually special needs which are hit first. I just wanted to be able to go into the school and give them a cheque and uplift the school.
"Also James joined an athletics group which he really enjoys. The group trains young children with special needs at the Valley Leisure Centre so I decided to give two-thirds of what I raise to the school and the rest to the athletics group.
"James was finally diagnosed with global learning difficulty. He went to a mainstream primary school but we knew he wouldn't have coped with a secondary or grammar school.
"Rosstulla has a holistic approach and we felt he would be safe and well looked after there and in his first year he has blossomed and we are now hoping he will do his GCSEs.
"At the moment I have raised around £4,000. People have been very generous."
Mark: 'At times you were thinking that this is insane!'
Mark Taylor, a consultant hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgeon at Kingsbridge Private Hospital and the Mater Hospital in Belfast, was so unfit in January that he struggled to throw a ball around with his kids. Mark (41) lives in Doagh with his wife Jenny (42), a GP, and their two children, Matthew (13) and Hannah (9). He says:
At the start of the year I was overweight and unfit. My blood pressure and cholesterol were high and I was about three stone heavier than I should have been, weighing around 17st 10lb.
"I couldn't play ball in the back garden with my children without becoming breathless and realised for the sake of my health I needed to do something about it. I dusted off my old bike in the garage and started to cycle.
"Initially I was puffing, panting and occasionally vomiting. It was hard going and realised I needed a challenge.
"I heard about The Raid Alpine and even though it seemed impossible, the chance to do something for charity – especially Bowel Cancer UK – encouraged me to sign up.
"There was also a serious element of stubbornness as a mate had said to me early on 'you know you won't do it' and that was like a red rag to me.
"As a liver surgeon, I operate on many people with bowel cancer that has spread to the liver.
"Bowel cancer is Northern Ireland's second biggest cancer killer. Over 1,100 people are diagnosed with the disease every year and over 400 people die from it.
"It is very treatable if caught early. Major advances in surgery have helped to improve survival in patients with cancer spread to the liver. However, we need to continue to research, educate and develop new strategies in the management of bowel cancer.
"I got the assurance from the charity's chief executive that any money I raised would go back into Northern Ireland to do that.
"I've donated to charity but never actually done anything for charity and that for me was also was a major part of doing the challenge. From the moment I made the decision to do it I became obsessed with it.
"I started to cycle at every opportunity I could get and built it up gradually. I cycled two days a week to work at the Mater Hospital which is 12 miles there and 12 miles home again and at the weekends I would head out for longer runs of up to 70 miles in the end. My wife said she became a cycle widow.
"In the early weeks the short cycle from Doagh up to the Windmills outside Burnside, which is a well known hill, was impossible and I could only do it by stopping three times before I got to the top.
"I lost my first stone in four-to-six weeks and in total dropped my weight by two stone 10lb.
"I would love to say the challenge was a walk in the park but it wasn't. At times during the cycle you had to dig really deep just to keep going and there were times when you were thinking 'this is insane'.
"I'm sure during it I didn't look anything like your typical cyclist and it was just sheer determination that got me through.
"We covered the entire French Alps with 17,300 metres of climbing which is the equivalent of climbing Everest twice. It still does feel a bit surreal.
"My wife helped me to keep a blog at Word Press and the response of the people of Northern Ireland has been amazing; so far I have raised £5,800 for Bowel Cancer UK with more coming in on my just giving page which is just brilliant."
Richard: 'We had to push each other to get up the hills'
Richard Lloyd (33) from Belfast is a specialist registrar in orthopaedics in Altnagelvin Hospital who took up the challenge in aid of the Erin Thompson Memorial Trust. Little Erin was just two when she died last year in a tragic accident while on holiday with her family in Cork and the fund was set up by her parents to raise money for a playground in her memory near their home in Gilnahirk. He says:
I've been into cycling for the last couple of years and I suppose you could say I am fairly fit. I cycle with the Phoenix Cycling Club in Belfast every weekend, covering between 50 and 100 miles.
"It was a colleague Kieran Rafferty in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast who organised Raid Alpine and when he called me about it I thought it would be a good chance to raise money for the Erin Thompson Memorial Fund. I've been good friends with Erin's dad Alan since school.
"What happened to Erin was horrific and her parents, Alan and Sonya, have been so stoical throughout it. I really don't know how they have coped. They are pretty amazing people.
"They both spoke about her at her funeral and I don't know how they were able to do that. She was a real wee character even though she was only two-and-a-half.
"Alan and Sonya have done some great work in raising the funds for the playground.
"They need about £50,000 in total and I'm hoping people will donate to my effort which I think so far has raised around £2,000.
"I loved every minute of Raid Alpine. It was great, but hard work at times and we did have to push each other to get up the hills.
"It was the highest run in Europe and covered a lot of routes which the Tour de France takes in and you can see the graffiti on the roads encouraging everyone to get up the hills.
"For me just being able to ride all the hills made famous by the Tour de France was very special.
"To get up the Bonnette which is the highest road in Europe was for me a real sense of achievement.
"It wasn't the toughest though. The Co du Pre was definitely the hardest day for me.
"Being doctors – and we also had a dentist and solicitor – we were very competitive and raced each other up some of the hills. I got jerseys made up before I went in yellow, green and King of the Mountain style like they do in the Tour de France and we had a competition each day.
"I made some fantastic memories but for me it was always about one very special little girl – Erin Thompson."