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Three men take on huge challenge to fund new scanner for cancer unit at Belfast children's hospital

Imagine running 32 marathons over 32 consecutive days across 32 counties. That's just what three Belfast men are doing, so determined are they to raise funds to buy a new ultrasound scanner for the children's cancer unit at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. Leona O'Neill hears their amazing story.

Three Belfast runners are set to embark on a gruelling feat of endurance - 32 marathons over 32 consecutive days across the 32 counties of Ireland - to raise money for a charity that is close to all their hearts.

Noel McNally, Paul Tyrrell and Niall Farquharson will begin their mammoth task on Thursday at Manfreight's Headquarters in Portadown, Co Armagh.

From there, they will trace their way across each county to raise money for the Children's Cancer Unit Charity, which supports the work of the Children's Cancer and Haematology Unit at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children - the only facility of its kind for children with cancer in Northern Ireland.

Two other runners, Brendan McNally and Damien Grant, will join them in 20 of the marathons.

Paul (45), a duty manager at the Royal Victoria Hospital, says they have been training over the winter and summer months for their epic adventure. The west Belfast father-of-two has been running 100 miles a week for the last two months ready for the 832 mile trip.

"It's well over 800 miles we'll be running," he said. "I've never done anything like this before. I have run the London and Belfast Marathon three times, and also one in Newry. I came third in an ultra marathon at Tullymore Forest in November last year, which is basically a marathon and a half.

"What we are doing in August will be a little different. We won't be running to get times, we'll just be getting the distance done and then relaxing. We might even have a break for a cup of coffee in the middle. We will try to be sensible and save our energy. You're talking four hours of running a day to get the 26 miles done. There will be no pressure.

"We will be running Park Run courses in the 32 counties, on a different one every day. We are hoping that people will come out and run a part of them with us and lend some moral support. We are entering two official marathons along the way also, the Longford and Dingle Marathons and there's a Dambusters half marathon - we're going to run that twice."

Paul, Noel and Niall are all members of the Beechmount Harriers running club from Belfast. Paul says it was Noel who first dreamt up the idea for an epic charity run and his friends fell in behind him without a second thought.

"It was my good friend Noel's idea in the first place," he said. "He just randomly sent me a text in May of last year saying that he had a crazy idea and asked if I'd be up for running around 32 counties, doing 32 marathons in 32 days for the Children's Cancer Unit Charity.

"I think he knew I was mad enough to consider it. And that was it. Then it just moved from there.

"We have been training away all through the winter. The weather was rubbish, but we were out in the ice and snow with layers of clothes on, just running somewhere. I was running laps around Musgrave Park Hospital because it was well gritted and you wouldn't break your neck, when the roads and pavements were all bad with ice.

"People think you feel wrecked after running a marathon, but you don't. You actually feel great. I suppose in a way your body just gets used to it. You might be a bit sore the next day and have to go down the stairs backwards, but it's all good. After some marathons we take a week off to recover. After the London one this year we were back at it after a day's rest. But with this task in August we will just keep going.

"We've been running 100 miles a week for eight or nine weeks now in preparation for this. I run 16 miles a day, running for two hours at a time. The other guys have been doing the same. You can't really be prepared to run a marathon every day for 32 days, you just need to be as fit as you can.

"When I first started running 16 miles a day, the first week or two I was really feeling it. But after a week or two the body settles down. I have been watching videos on YouTube of people running hundreds of marathons in a row. Apparently after a week your body becomes accustomed to it and it actually becomes easy. As long as you are getting good nutrition and pacing yourself, it won't put the body under too much pressure. But we don't know how we will do until we are doing it."

Paul says there are dozens of people behind the trio cheering them on and supporting them.

"We have so many people supporting us," he said. "We are indebted to Manfreight, who have kindly sponsored us, affording us the luxury of being able to sleep every night in a B&B, instead of in the minibus. Circle K (formally Topaz) is helping us with fuel costs and Q Radio is our broadcast media partner and encouraging the public to either come to support us, join in the Park Runs - even if it's only for a mile - and help us in our quest to raise as much money as possible for such a worthy charity.

"There's a squad coming down from the Beechmount Harriers who will join us and we have some amazing project managers co-ordinating the whole thing. People have been phenomenal."

Paul says the three felt compelled to raise money for a charity that touches so many families across Northern Ireland.

"All three of us runners have healthy kids and we don't take this for granted, so we want to give something back to families less fortunate than ourselves," he said.

"The work that the Children's Cancer Unit Charity does is amazing. They do a lot about positive distractions, working with their families and making their experience nice. They do trips away and bring fun people into the ward. They take away the scary stuff. And unfortunately if it doesn't work out for children, their family need help and support after, so they are there for them. Working at the hospital, it was a natural fit for me.

"I have been working at The Royal Victoria Hospital for 24 years, so we decided to raise money for their Children's Cancer Unit. I am using all my annual holiday leave, but it'll all be worth it, especially if we can raise our target of £100,000."

"It will be really rewarding if we hit our target. We want to buy a piece of equipment for the ward, a portable ultrasound scanner, so that the children can be scanned in their rooms and the scanner can be brought to them if they are unwell."

Jacqueline Wilkinson from the The Children's Cancer Unit Charity said that the scanner which the men are raising money for will be an enormous benefit to the unit and its patients.

"We are really excited and equally nervous about this colossal challenge that the CCU32 team are about to embark upon," she said. "Without their efforts and their support, we could not continue to assist the medical team and staff at the Children's Cancer Unit, and help create a more welcoming and comfortable environment for their young patients. The ultrasound scanner that they are raising funds for is a vital piece of equipment that is greatly needed at the unit, so we are incredibly grateful for their plans to reach such an ambitious target. The Children's Cancer Unit Charity wishes the team the best of luck and we will be cheering them on the whole way."

Paul adds that people from across Northern Ireland and the Republic can play their part in what will be an historic charity drive.

"We would love for people to come and run with us," he says.

"You can look us up on CCU32 on Facebook and on our webpage CCU32.com, see where we are and come and run with us for a while for a great cause. We would love for local sporting people to join us also in each of the counties.

"We are going to finish on September 2 at Mary Peters Track, where there will be a fun day and big celebrations - hopefully because we have reached our target. I'd say we might wake up the next day with a sore head, a bit of the holiday blues after all we have done, but I'd imagine we will all be out running again the day after."

The first marathon kicks off on Thursday at 10am at Manfreight headquarters in Portadown, followed by the Armagh City Park Run. Day 2 is the Tyrone marathon, and Day 3 is the Derry City Park Run. You can donate and track the CCU runners' progress on their website on www.ccu32.com. See more about the Children's Cancer Unit Charity at childrenscancerunit.com

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