Ex-Ulster player Bell walks length of Ireland barefoot in 22 days
A former Ulster Rugby player has battled through searing heat, a dog bite and being chased by bulls while walking the length of Ireland barefoot in just 22 days.
Ex-scrum half and European Cup winner Stephen Bell (42) completed the incredible achievement two days ago.
He said: "It's the hardest thing I've ever done."
After retiring from rugby due to injury, Stephen became a fitness instructor - laying down the foundations to complete the roughly 621-mile challenge from Castletownbere in Co Cork to his home village of Ballintoy in Co Antrim.
His love for the outdoors spurred him on as he ventured along the Ireland Way. "I love this land. I love where I'm from and wanted to see it up close.
"People don't have enough adventures in life, particularly here on our home soil," he said.
Stephen set off from the south coast of Ireland on June 30 and crossed rugged terrain, roasting hot tarmac and sun-beaten fields during one of the hottest summers on record.
To date, his heroic effort has raised £3,800 for Northern Ireland Forest School Association.
The charity focuses on getting children to discover nature from a young age during education which the charity says can be beneficial to their overall well-being.
Stephen added: "There's a calming effect with nature, particularly for kids who struggle in closed environments.
"There's a disconnection in the modern world with the technology involved.
"Technology is brilliant and it can bring great things to our lives, but for a lot of kids that's well out of balance."
On his expedition, the only technology Stephen used was his mobile phone and social media app Instagram. Using the account name "wildfoot", the adventurer documented his travels with jaw-dropping images posted regularly to his 6,230 followers.
He even had a few real-life followers with his family and partner Aga, who he runs WildFoot coaching company with, bringing him clean clothes. "I've always been the black sheep of the family," he said. "They've been really supportive. A lot of people thought I was mad and that it was going to be impossible, but I suppose that was a big motivation for me."
Stephen said he diverted from the route a number of times and had to dig deep to find the strength to continue.
"The heat was very tough. I actually left footprints on the road from Castletownbere to Tipperary. Carrying enough food and water was one of the biggest challenges because if you carry so much, you're going to impact the feet with the weight.
"If you carry too little, you can become dehydrated."
As for encountering some unfriendly welcomes: "I even got chased by bulls and was bitten by a Doberman." Stephen recalled one day when food supplies were low.
"I was coming through a village and the shops were closed, but I knew in the next one that there was a chippy and it was going to close at 9pm," he said.
"I had to run nine kilometres in under an hour with my rucksack, having already completed 27 or 28km that day. It was the best chippy I've ever had." And as if this wasn't enough of a challenge, Stephen said that it's in his sights to complete a barefoot marathon.
"I'm going to be wearing shoes for a while. "I might have a couple of stress fractures but after that, because the feet are really tough, I'd like to tick the box with a barefoot marathon.
"We'll see," he added.