To be diagnosed as having a brain tumour must be devastating at any age, but at just 22 years of age, married for less than a year, and with your first child on the way, you could be forgiven for asking “why me?”.
But Lance Corporal Dan Mason is no ordinary guy, and he’s certainly no quitter, so when he was told in 2007 that he had an inoperable Glial Tumour he was determined to do something positive, and to help others by supporting the Smile4Rich Appeal.
Dan, a member of the Royal Logistic Corps, attached to 17 Port & Maritime Regiment stationed in Marchwood, set about devising a challenge that would stretch the fittest of soldiers, never mind one with his condition, and in persuading regimental colleagues to join him for what came to be known as 'The Longest Day Challenge'. This was to be no ordinary endurance test, and we have to admit that we were somewhat concerned when Dan revealed his plan. The challenge would involve kayaking across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, cycling a 62-mile route around the island, kayaking back across the Solent and then, as if that were not enough, running a 12-mile route through the New Forest back to the regiment's barracks in Marchwood.
As we soon discovered, Dan is a pretty determined young man, and pretty persuasive too! The regiment got behind the idea and a team of eight, including officers and other NCOs was assembled. Logistics being their specialty, a support team was also recruited - including safety boats and vehicles, sea kayaks and instructors, and even a mobile kitchen to provide sustenance en route.
After weeks of training, the team set a date in June 2008. Predictions varied as to how long it would take to complete the route, but the additional daylight hours afforded by the summer solstice seemed to make it a prudent choice. At dawn on 20th June, the team assembled on Lepe Beach. One of the team reported that a hernia had been making it difficult for him to sit in the kayak so, to our utter amazement, he decided to swim the 3.5 miles to Cowes. The others, together with the safety boats, set out on what was a relatively calm sea, and the crossing went without drama - even for the lone swimmer! A quick change of clothing, the eight mounted up for the long cycle west to the Needles and then follwing the southern coast of the island. A food stop - with plenty of pasta for energy - awaited them as they arrived in Ventnor - but the stop was short and the team 'cracked on' (a favourite saying of Dan's) toward Bembridge and then back along the norther coastline to Cowes.
By now the wind had got up, and the crossing back to Lepe beach was to prove much more challenging than the early morning calm had been. The effort was also starting to show, and several capsizes, including for Dan, meant the team were cold, wet and aching as they made it back to the mainland shore. Again, the support team were on hand with hot drinks, energy bars, towels and dry clothes, and it was not long before they set off for the last leg of the journey.
Back at Marchwood, a large group of families, friends and colleagues was gathering at the gatehouse, as word spread that the team were nearing the finish line. And the team ethic was maintained until the end, as all eight of the by now exhausted team came into view, running side by side. Cheers and popping corks greeted them as they completed the challenge - elated, relieved and we suspect very proud of their achievement. What's more, their 'longest day' had been completed in under 10.5 hours, an incredible achievement and one which was duly celebrated with several well-earned beers in the Sergeants' Mess! And to top the lot, the team raised almost £8,000 for the charity in the process, and Dan went on to be voted Fundraiser of the Year in recognition of his incredible determination not to let his brain tumour stand in the way of him achieving this personal challenge.
Footnote: We're delighted to report that treatment at the Wessex stabilised Dan's condition and he continued his Army career for several years. He has since undertaken several more challenges in support of Smile4Wessex, including the Jurassic Challenge Team Trophy, setting a record for the event. He now works in recruitment and lives in Plymouth with his wife and daughter. Dan has recently celebrated 10 years since his diagnosis and his latest scan shows the tumour remains stable. Here's to the next 10 years Dan :-)