Long trek back to fitness leads Mark to epic charity challenge

Five years after breaking his back, Mark Dunstan is taking on one of the toughest charity walks. Laurie Whitwell reports.

Mark Dunstan had planned it to be a special Christmas outing with his nephews, teaching them how to sledge on the banks of a reservoir near his in-laws home.

But on that Boxing Day five years ago the former special police constable broke his back after hitting a stone hidden beneath the snow and tumbling down the slope.

"At first we thought I'd just bruised my coccyx," says Mark. "But then, walking my dog a few days later along the canal bank, my legs went from under me and I had to crawl home on my hands and knees."

The accident had seriously damaged his coccyx, his sacrococcygeal joint and two of the vertebrae in his lumbar spine. Months of agony and time off work followed for the then 35-year-old. He could barely walk and only in extreme pain could he manage the stairs in his Skipton home. "I'd no feeling down my left leg half the time."

For someone who used to play rugby and lead an active life the situation was near unbearable.

Over time, though, rigorous physiotherapy and targeted injections have allowed him to build up some strength and, incredibly, he is signed up to take part in next summer's Oxfam Trailtrekker, a 100km charity hike around the Yorkshire Dales.

Mark was a volunteer at the first two stagings of the fundraising walk, helping those taking part with drinks and encouragement, and had always hoped he might one day return to take on the challenging and majestic course himself.

"It was rewarding knowing that by cheering people in and out of the checkpoints you were actually giving them a big boost. That's what spurred me on to doing it this year."

Such a thought would have been dismissed out of hand in the period after the sledging accident, when Mark struggled to move even the smallest distances.

He was forced to take five months off work – "I had a good employer who kept my job open for me" – and was referred to physiotherapists at Airedale Hospital near Keighley. There he received facet joint injections directly into his spine as a form of anaesthetic and was instructed to do much physical work besides.

"I was willing to try anything to get rid of the pain," he says. "I did the hydrotherapy, I did the acupuncture, and then I concentrated on the muscle exercises because I love being outside too much to give in to something like that."

"You've got to grit your teeth and do it because if I'd have given into it I'd have been bed-bound. There's no doubt that if you give in to an injury like that everything seizes up."

While undergoing intensive physiotherapy, Mark, who volunteered as a special constable for West Yorkshire Police for nine years until he was 30, had a tumultuous time with work. He was forced to quit his job at water-conditioning manufacturers Calmag in Keighley soon after returning from the five-month lay-off.

"I lasted a week simply because my back couldn't cope with the stairs into the office. I found a job that was easier on me as it was all on the flat."

After a spell setting up a campaign for call-centre operators Ventura, he moved to the HR department of Airedale Hospital. But Christmas misfortune struck again when he was made redundant last winter. "Being in HR I could see it coming," he jokes.

At the start of this year he joined the digital department at British Gas in Leeds city centre – "I try to make sure I have a seat for the 40-minute train journey" – and it is with work colleagues there that he is tackling the Trailtrekker.

Mark, now 40, admits he still has bad days as well as good but says he could not have overcome his back injury to the extent he has without the support of wife Jo, 44, an A&E nurse.

Jo will be on hand to assist during next June's Trailtrekker and she was there to cheer on her husband during another fundraising endeavour three years ago – a charity cycle ride from Liverpool to Leeds. Mark set up the event himself to raise money for the Manorlands Hospice in the village of Oxenhope and ward three at Airedale, in memory of his grandmother who had died there earlier in the year.

"With cycling I can get my back into neutral positions," Mark says. "The ride let me understand my own stamina and that even through absolute pain and agony I can carry on.

"It was then that I thought 'I'm getting my fitness back' and my physio said that as I was managing to do that she'd give me the all clear to do the Trailtrekker this time coming, given sensible exercise and a slow build up."

Having grown up in Haworth, just south of Keighley, Mark regularly went "walking up and down hills all day long" and loves "being out there and doing things". He says he is "itching to get going" with the mammoth Dales hike, which takes walkers from Skipton, up the 391 steps of Malham Cove and 694m peak of Pen-y-Ghent, back through Deepdale and past Kettlewell.

"Malham Tarn is what I'm looking forward to, I just think the view there is magnificent."

After volunteering at a checkpoint in Buckden for the past two years, Mark knows how glorious the scene is at night-time. "Seeing them come down the valley with their night torches on is an awe-inspiring sight."

That bit of the walk will be Mark's personal Trailtrekker highlight and will remind him of his junior training with the Royal Navy, which he did straight from school at 16.

"Seeing the sun rise in front of me will be such a big motivational factor," he says. "It's just things like that which lift you when you're feeling down. The sun comes up and you see that magnificent scenery again."

Mark has been tasked with organising training for his seven Trailtrekker team-mates, six work colleagues and his brother James, and has also sorted out a four-person support team – "the best possible".

"It's all going to plan," Mark says. "Myself and my brother did a training walk from Bolton Abbey up to Barden Bridge in two hours, which as a hike is just over five and a half miles, in the snow and ice.

"For the actual day we'll have a nurse practitioner in our crew at all times and good team spirit will keep us going. There'll be 12 of us working together to do this, the idea being as many of us as possible make that finish line."

Mark says that just finishing the walk is the aim but reckons that by June 4, 2011 – the day Trailtrekker starts – he will have a time of 25 hours in mind. But he knows not to take anything for granted and that just starting the walk after all he's been through is a magnificent achievement.

"If I push training too far my back gets put out again and I don't want to miss out on the walk this time round."

Dales setting for 100km hike

Now in its third year the Oxfam Trailtrekker is one of Europe's most demanding, but rewarding, charity walks.

For 2011 two new finishing points have been included for people who feel the full 100km course is too far. Walkers can stop at 38.6km and receive a bronze award, while those ending after 64.9km get silver. At this summer's event a staggering 270,000 was raised by 537 hardy hikers and every penny was used by Oxfam to help change lives both in this country and abroad.

Mark would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to sign up. "You're giving up a few hours for so many people in the world." Register today via www.oxfam.org.uk/trailtrekker.