After the best part of a fortnight on the road with Jeff Stelling, Gary Haines reflects on his stand out moments from the epic March for Men – including an emotional father-son pint at the end.
"To a job well done!" It’s 9pm in the Crow's Nest in Newcastle, and I’m clinking pint glasses with Jeff Stelling. It's all rather surreal.
Two and a half hours ago, and a few hundred yards down the road, the Sky Sports television legend had crossed the finish line at St James' Park, bringing to a conclusion his epic 400-mile, 15-day March for Men.
Right now we're exultant, exhausted and emotional. But most of all, there's a massive sense of pride in what we achieved as we reflect on the previous fortnight.
Here are just a handful of my personal highlights…
Picture the scene: you're sitting on the bus, heading uphill away from Burnley at 8.30am on your regular commute to work, when it suddenly grinds to a halt between stops. The conductor then hops off to take a selfie with a walking television presenter, before popping back on to get a donation from the driver. All the while, the traffic behind starts to build...
The look on the passengers’ faces was priceless; those of the perplexed drivers queuing behind were a little less charitable.
The Highway Code clearly needs to consider such events: the same thing happened just outside Bristol on Day 2, as a mad-keen motorcyclist defied the rules of the roads and stopped abruptly to make a drive-by pledge, after speeding around the area to try and make contact.
We met some amazing fundraisers with incredible stories. But few can rival the creativity of Chris Thompson, who has taken to branding his sheep to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK.
The keen walker, who named one of his new herd 'Jeff', joined us for the walk from Wigan Athletic to Manchester United.
On the subject of animals, we also met Felix the station cat at Huddersfield at the end of Day 11. Initially asleep in the vestibule inside the station, we managed to purr-suade her out with a handful of Dreamies (yes, really) in order for a quick snap with Jeff.
The station's Senior Pest Controller, with 100k Facebook followers and a successful book under her belt, was far from happy, however – and showed it. Although the Huddersfield Examiner’s ATTACK headline might have been a touch dramatic.
When Barry Lucas [picture below, left] put a Manchester United pen on sale via eBay, it's fair to say he didn't expect to ink in a new friendship.
The lucky recipient, Paul Gunstone, haggled him into offering free postage to Queensland, Australia – the first time Barry had ever offered an international service.
From then on, the duo kept in touch. And when Barry found out about his mate's prostate cancer diagnosis, he decided to walk to Manchester City in honour of him. The duo are set to meet for the first time Down Under later this year. Forget Man United, this is a perfect example of Men United.
We met Andrew Webb on a road crossing on the outskirts of Sandbach on Day 5. He had strolled down to join us for a short stretch so his grandson could get a snap with Jeff. As we walked up towards our designated stopping point, Andrew's motivations became a bit clearer. The following day, he would be walking with us from Chester to Everton to honour his brother Richard – four years to the day after he passed away from prostate cancer.
Andrew was at Barry's side when he died, and every year since he releases a yellow balloon in his memory. He shared his moment with us on the banks of a canal heading towards the Wirrall. But the balloon caught a gust of wind and sailed straight into a tree! It could have been an awkward moment; instead Andrew broke into a smile. "What did I really expect," he grinned, as all became still once more.
During last year's March through Marske, Ken Bashford was feeling terrible. He'd heard rumblings of Jeff Stelling visiting town but felt too fragile to get involved. Then he changed his mind. I got a picture of Jeff and Ken together and walked with them to the finish line half a mile down the road.
We've kept in touch ever since and it was fantastic to meet Ken once again at Middlesbrough, midway through the penultimate day. "Gary, my old friend," he boomed before giving me a hug. Ken's incurable cancer has spread to his ribs, the pain meaning he couldn't join the March as expected. But he managed to walk 100 yards with Jeff, who greeted him like an old friend. It was an amazing moment.
As Jeff soaked up the accolades on the final day, a few yards to his right an emotional sub-plot was unfolding between two massive Newcastle United fans.
Almost before he'd crossed the finish line, Cameron Dale was sinking a pint offered to him by a man he refers to as his hero – his proud father.
It was a pre-arranged act having completing his marathon trek on behalf of his old man, who was recovering from treatment for aggressive prostate cancer. Many toasts have been made around this iconic venue, especially given the Magpies' dramatic title win in May, but this was as emotional and personal as it gets.
In Cameron's own words: "I'm always there for him and he's always there for me – and that's the way it always will be."
I’ll drink to that.