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Wheel Magnolias

Paddy Harrower, a PE teacher at Wallace High School, Lisburn, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Easter Sunday, April 17th 2022 and had just 14 weeks to live from diagnosis to his death on July 24th. Presenting late, his symptoms included indigestion and pain in the upper abdomen.

Shortly before he passed away, he came up with the idea to challenge his wife Andrea (49) and sister-in-law Cathy Booth (48) to take on an epic endurance event #PedalThePeriphery that would see the sisters, cycle 480 miles clockwise around NI coming in under 48 hours on June 7th to 9th last summer.

Cathy had also lost one of her closest school friends to the disease, Natalie Wilison (40) who left behind three young children.

Paddy, a sports fanatic, and keen cyclist wanted ‘something good’ to come out of his terminal diagnosis of one of the worst cancers there is, and which claims the lives of approximately 280 people in Northern Ireland each year.

Little did he, Andrea, Cathy or NIPANC know at the time, the chain reaction of events to follow that turned a personal challenge into something much greater and in the process raising massive public awareness about pancreatic cancer and its symptoms in addition to raising over £100k for vital research.

This blog, Wheel Magnolias celebrates what these remarkable sisters have accomplished and continue to achieve in the face of profound loss and deep personal grief.

Their creation of #PedalThePeriphery 2024, now to become an annual team event, shows their determination to create a lasting legacy for Paddy and Natalie.

It also shows their desire to continue to make a real difference and do even more to take a stand against this devastating disease by raising funds and awareness to save lives.

Most of all it will look at the ripple effect of a dying man’s decision to turn something horrific into something positive; an endurance test of real and lasting value that will hopefully help to spare other families what Cathy and Andrea have been through.

Essentially, this is a story about cause and effect. How good can and does come out of the worst possible circumstances. It is also a reflection on our power to choose how we react when life throws the kitchen sink at us and then some.

Still shattered by the death of her husband Paddy, shortly before Christmas 2022, Andrea Harrower phoned her sister Cathy and told her she was ready to talk about taking on #PedalThePeriphery.

Cathy contacted Ivan McMinn MBE, the Chairperson of NIPANC who she had known in professional circles for about 15-years and who had also supported her when her friend Natalie had become ill.

A meeting over coffee was arranged on January 19th 2023 at 1pm at Lock Keepers Inn on the River Lagan in Belfast.

Primarily it was to talk about the fundraising idea and ask if NIPANC would share their #PedalThePeriphery Just Giving link on Facebook. That was their only expectation.

Later that evening, Ivan put a call to NIPANC’s Communications Consultant, Una Carlin, (that’s me), and told me about two dynamic powerhouse sisters, their crazy (his words, not mine) idea to cycle around the whole of NI to raise funds and awareness for NIPANC.

He told me how, in a throwaway comment to the sisters, he said it was a pity they didn’t have a purple support car to accompany them on their journey with Andrea replying, she had one. It was unroadworthy and in her garage with flat tyres.

She was referring to her 1974 purple Volkswagen Beetle. It’s the same age she is - a gift from her parents Barry and Elaine Thompson for surviving a near death illness when a teenager. It is the beloved car Paddy refused to let Andrea sell when the couple faced financial pressures telling her ‘one day Andrea, you will drive it again.’

Little did he know then, what we all know now, that the VW would be brought back to life and accompany the sisters on their epic endurance event; his own bike mounted on the rooftop to take the metaphorical journey around NI with them. That idea was Fraser’s one of Paddy and Andrea’s two sons who at the time was about to sell the bike but didn’t.

The Beetle has now become an iconic image of #PedalThePeriphery and indeed for NIPANC. It is currently back at Mid-Antrim Signs getting dressed for the next stage of this adventure and will play a key role in raising awareness. It will be front and centre of this coming campaign and trust me when I say, you won’t be able to miss it!

I spoke to Andrea and Cathy for the first time that same evening on Thursday January 19 and arranged to meet them at Urban Coffee in Castlewellan three days later. It was a Sunday and packed, of course, with cyclists.

Driving back to Belfast, having heard their stories, I knew it had all the elements needed to turn their journey into a huge fund and awareness-raising campaign. Two sisters, the NI biking equivalent of Serena and Venus Williams, two bikes, or arguably three, a clapped-out purple VW and a crazy plan to spend 48 hours cycling around the whole of NI.

With only five months to go, we got storytelling pretty quickly but none of us would have any idea, the scale, reach and impact #PedalThePeriphery would achieve. Or how it would win the hearts and minds of the press and public throughout NI and beyond.

To get the Beetle back on the road again, NIPANC Trustee, Lisa Strutt suggested we speak to her brother-in-law Mark Strutt who just happened to work for the RAC and was a Master Technician with accreditation through Volkswagen. His brother John, Lisa’s husband had died of pancreatic cancer three years before age 47.

In this short video Mark explains how and why he got involved.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. To resurrect a dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle was something else. Mark Strutt, assisted by his friend Pat Scott turned out to be the very best men for the job, putting call outs and using their contacts and friends in the trade to help out. A part was even sent from as far away as China.

This is when something very special happened. One family deeply impacted by pancreatic cancer and bereavement stepping up to support another. A growing community of people who didn’t know each other previously all playing their determined part to get the #IBLAMEPADDY Wagon back in action and they did it.

The following video shows Nathan Loughlin of NL Recovery Services braving a winter snowstorm to deliver the VW to be branded at Mid Antrim Signs with the #IBlamePaddy graphic at no cost. The kindness of people and their willingness to support the sisters before and during their endurance event was emotional and at times overwhelming.

On a sopping wet day in March 2023, we recorded a number of short films. It was raining so hard, we had to turn Mark’s mechanical workshop into a studio. Cathy and Andrea went first, then Paddy and Andrea’s two sons Fraser, now 20 and Alex, 16.

Two teenage boys, talking about the loss of their father to pancreatic cancer to courageously raise awareness about the symptoms and impact of the disease and the need for urgent referral, early diagnosis, and treatment. Followed by Mark Strutt on the loss of his brother John.

These were powerful contributions, critical to the campaign. The ties that bind us. This year Fraser joins #TeamNIPANC for #PedalThePeriphery 2024 with Alex taking his GCSE’s this year also hoping to ride part of the route.

As part of the #PedalThePeriphery media relations campaign we used St Patrick’s Day on March 17th to call on the public to play their part in supporting the endurance event by getting involved in a whole range of activities under a #IBlamePaddy to raise money for pancreatic cancer research.

Keen for something good to come out of the tragic circumstances, the sisters asked the public to back them by running their own #IBlamePaddy events. I ended up climbing Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh, a height of 666 meters and 450 steep steps with my health journalist friend Jacqui Thornton who flew in from England. We raised over £2,000.

Andrea explained: “#IBlamePaddy came about when people found out he was terminally ill. Friends and family felt they had no excuse but to join him in some of the things he was doing just a few weeks before he passed away. Activities such as cold-water swimming, cycling and kayaking.

“Paddy would be secretly pleased the hashtag can be used by anyone fundraising to blame him on literally anything they do, to raise money and awareness for this important cause. This year we will also be encouraging people to fundraise by blaming Paddy for the life-affirming activities they will get up to.”

“Paddy was a sports fanatic himself. He was always quietly in the background and would support my own physical challenges, whether sorting out the logistics or with mindset and words. But his quiet presence spoke volumes.

“He wouldn’t have relished all the attention on himself for #IBlamePaddy but he would relish people getting out there and challenging themselves, whatever challenge means to them, in his name. He lived for and died for the benefit of everyone but himself.”

Another key milestone in the run up to the #PedalThePeriphery event was NIPANC’s appearance at Social Media Savvy, an annual event usually held in the Titanic Hotel in Belfast. It attracts world class speakers to talk about the latest developments and trends.

Last year, the theme was Social Media for Good. I persuaded the conference organiser, Ashleigh Watson of Copper Square Communications to let me be a speaker. When it was my turn, I walked up to the podium, wearing my Lycra #PedalThePeriphery cycling top and leggings to the song Right Here, Right Now by Fat Boy Slim.

That was the first clue, this was not going to be an average case study of the charity’s #PedalThePeriphery campaign. Mid-way through the presentation, I stopped and asked the audience to take out their phones.

An unforgettable moment when Andrea and Cathy cycled into the room ‘Right Here, Right Now’ to George Ezra’s, Green Green Grass to take over. This was the song adopted by Paddy Harrower during his illness. It was later played at his funeral.

You could hear a pin drop when the sisters spoke of their love and their loss for Paddy and Natalie and they rightly received a standing ovation. We also had the branded purple Beetle parked outside. It wasn’t quite roadworthy yet, so it had to be delivered by tow truck.

Not a bad idea to make the #PedalThePeriphery campaign go live in a room full of social media experts. The story went out across multiple platforms.

That took place on June 2nd and began a countdown to the event which by this stage was generating huge press interest in print, radio and on social media across NI and beyond.

Momentum, excitement, and anticipation began building up to the day. The start line was outside the Ulster Bank on the Ormeau Road on the same day George Ezra was playing in the nearby Ormeau Park.

The weather was notable for being fantastic making Northern Ireland feel less like home and more like a resort. The sun shone favourably in the run up to and throughout the event apart from the “utterly brutal, horrid, hellish few hours due to strong headwinds since leaving Garrison in Fermanagh.”

Not a dry in the house, on the day mechanic, Mark Strutt met Andrea and handed over the keys to the now branded roadworthy VW purple Beetle. This was in Paddy’s own words, the ‘one day, Andrea when you will drive it again.’

Paddy Harrower, quietly in the background, never really feels too far away from this entire unfolding story.

He is the reason we sourced a specialised roof rack for the VW, so that Paddy’s bike could take the metaphorical route around NI, to complete the crazy plan he had conceived with his wife and sister-in-law.

The Beetle broke down once or twice but thanks again to Mark Strutt and his network of friends, it too made it across the finish line.

Words cannot describe the two days, June 7th to 9th. In a powerful interview, just before the start of the epic endurance event, an emotional Andrea said: “There has been a long run up to this, ten or eleven months. This has come together into something massive, something that’s going to make a huge difference to so many other people, so many other families.”

Cathy added: “We are up for this. We are ready for this. This is for everyone who has lost their lives to pancreatic cancer and the wider pancreatic cancer family and actually, the wider cancer family as well.”

This year’s team and legacy event will start at the iconic Titanic Belfast linking back to our November #TimeMatters campaign and the grass art clock, the largest ever created on the island of Ireland to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer and its symptoms.

It will finish once again at Wallace High School in Lisburn where Paddy Harrower taught sport. Full circle, 480 miles, clockwise in 48 hours. #TimeMatters.

Cathy and Andrea are determined to make this new annual, NIPANC legacy endurance event a brilliant experience for all who take part. They want to build on what’s gone before, and make it bigger, better. Unforgettable.

A supportive pancreatic cancer community is building throughout NI. Although everyone is welcome to enter a team, if you or your family have been affected by this devastating illness, we’d really love you to enter and come and join us.

Together, let’s see if we can make Paddy Harrower’s ripple effect expand out even further.

For more details of #PedalThePeriphery 2024 and to sign up 2024 click HERE

Follow the event on our Facebook Event Page HERE

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