Paul Swainson is tackling England’s longest lake and highest mountain after his cousin’s son Felix was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Laura Drysdale reports.
It started off as a gruelling challenge designed to push him to his limits as he marked his 40th birthday.
But as Paul Swainson finalised plans to take in both the longest lake and highest mountain in England in under 15 hours, a family brain tumour diagnosis brought new meaning to the endurance adventure.
Now Paul, along with his brother Mark and friend Phill Wright, will tackle the feat they have dubbed Peaks, Pedals, Paddles in aid of The Brain Tumour Charity later this month, canoeing Lake Windermere and then cycling 42km to Scafell Pike and scaling the mountain.
An unusual celebration
“I turned 40 last month and I wanted to do something a bit more unique than just having a party,” says Paul, of Sandal, Wakefield.
“I thought I’d do a fitness event because my background is in fitness training but I didn’t want to do something that lots of other people have done like a marathon or London to Paris bike ride. To my knowledge, not many people have done this before.
“I always planned to do it for a charity. I thought I’d raise money for a good cause but didn’t really have anything specific in mind.
“Then at the same time we decided what we would do, my cousin’s little boy was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Once we had got over the shock of it all, that was the obvious cause.”
In July last year, Felix Durnion then aged just 17 months, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive tumour.
His parents Sam and Frank took the tot to see a GP after they noticed he had come home from nursery one day with his head tilted to one side.
Initially it was not thought to be serious but, when his symptoms did not improve, Felix was sent to A&E and a CT scan revealed a mass in his brain - an Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumour.
Within two weeks, he underwent ten-hour brain surgery in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, Paul’s hometown.
It was followed by extensive chemotherapy and nine weeks of proton beam therapy over in the US and the family were given news the treatment had been successful in March this year.
“He had a make or break scan. If they found any signs of the tumour still there, then the outcome would have been extremely bad,” says Paul.
“He was actually given a one in three chance of survival anyway so we weren’t expecting it to be good news.
"But on that day we got a message from my cousin to say it was all clear and he’s fine. Fortunately he has been in that one in three category that has managed to make it.
“He’s not out of the woods completely - he still needs to have regular scans but every one he does, and that is clear, is a big step forward and a better chance that he’s going to make a full recovery.”
Felix, now two, and his parents hope to travel to Cumbria to support the team as they take on the challenge on Sunday, July 28.
It will be the first time that Mark, who lives in the Lake District and Phill, of Aberford, Leeds, will have met.
“We’ve never actually all met up as a three so that’s going to be interesting,” Paul says. “I’m feeling positive and looking forward to it.
“I think we’ve put the work and preparation in training-wise so we’re feeling confident.”
“Felix has been on my mind all the way through the training sessions,” he adds.
“When I’m sweating and my legs are aching, I just imagine him stood there saying ‘tell me how hard this is again’.
“It is quite motivating to know that no matter how hard and challenging this is going to be, it’s nowhere near what he has been through.”
The trio’s campaign has attracted backing from some big names, with Jaguar Landrover pledging support by lending them a van to transport around their equipment and Red Bull sending drinks to get them through the challenge.
Retired athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, with whom Paul is acquainted through his fitness work, has also given her backing.
In a post on Instagram earlier this year, she urged people to support the Peaks, Pedals, Paddles challenge.
Holding up a photograph of Felix, she said: “This boy is a smashing little kid who has got the all clear and we want to support more young people like him.”
The men have already raised more than £2,500 and have set themselves a target of £2,807, inspired by the date of the challenge.
They also want to raise awareness of The Brain Tumour Charity and the HeadSmart campaign, which highlights the common signs and symptoms of brain tumours in children and teenagers.
These include persistent or recurrent vomiting, abnormal head positions, fits or seizures and balance, coordination or walking problems.
“The original idea was to do something for my 40th birthday," Paul says. “But it’s actually got to a point where we’ve forgotten about all of that and now, it’s all become about raising money and awareness for the charity.
“Perhaps more importantly, and what Sam and Frank are really keen for, is to raise awareness of brain tumour symptoms.
“They’re really keen for people to be aware of the signs and symptoms Felix had so that other people can get treatment quickly.
“A quick diagnosis is quite crucial for a good outcome and that’s probably one of the reasons why Felix did eventually get a good outcome.”
The Brain Tumour Charity funds pioneering research to increase survival rates and improve treatment options.
Geraldine Pipping, director of fundraising, said: “Scaling the lakes and heights of England will be no mean feat but the determination of Paul, Mark and Phill is inspirational.
“We receive no government funding and rely 100 per cent on voluntary donations and gifts in wills. It’s only through the efforts of our fantastic supporters such as them and Felix and his family that we can bring hope to the thousands of people who are diagnosed with a brain tumour each year.”
To donate to the team, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/peakspedalspaddles