Why Beefy's still a miracle walker… Sportsmail salutes the master of the long march
21:39 GMT, 22 April 2012
'Go on Beefy,’ bellow a group of builders enjoying a quick cuppa. ‘Keep going Sir Ian!’ shouts a man in chef’s whites standing outside a pub, thrusting a 20 note into a collection bucket as Sir Ian Botham pounds past.
Botham nods and waves out a hand in acknowledgement but certainly doesn’t break his stride; that deceptively quick, machine-like march that has propelled him through 14 charity walks and raised more than 13million for research into blood cancer since 1985.
Head down, knees angled slightly inward and massive calf muscles bulging with every relatively short, relentless step, the 56-year-old completed the 13.6 miles of our walk around Cambridge in less than three hours.
A big stride forward: Sir Ian (centre) walks with Sportsmail's Laura Williamson (right), Paul Newman (fourth right), and Daley Thompson (second left) in Friday's penultimate leg of his 10-day, 150-mile walk around Britain
Friday saw the penultimate leg of his 150-mile, 10-day trek around the country — known as Beefy’s Great British Walk — but even double Olympic champion Daley Thompson was left trailing in his wake at times. Maybe it was the ‘jungle juice’, the unmarked bottles of orange liquid that Sir Ian swigged now and again — and Thompson spat out after mistaking it for a well-known fizzy drink — that kept him going.
There were a fair few well-deserved glasses of wine at the end, of course, but Sir Ian’s real motivation is much rawer than that, inspired by a chance hobble through the children’s ward at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset, in 1977.
He said: ‘I had broken my foot against the Australians. I saw four boys playing a board game and I said to the doctor, “What are these guys here for, doc Who are they visiting” And he said: “No, they’ve got leukaemia — and they’re very ill.” I thought: “Well, they’re not obviously ill.”
‘But as I went in for my treatment over the next six weeks, all four of them died. Over that six-week period. That was my first awareness of leukaemia.’
Leading the way: Botham and Thompson share a joke
Question time: Williamson find out why Beefy is so determined to walk for charity
Just as he could never bear to lose on the cricket field, or as a Question of Sport captain, Sir Ian wants to beat this indiscriminate, dangerous disease. There is a real depth of feeling in the tone he uses to talk about it: so much so that you feel he doesn’t just want to beat blood cancer, he wants to grind it into a pulp.
Sir Ian said: ‘When we started the walks, kids with the most common form of leukaemia had about a 20 per cent chance of survival. It’s now 93 per cent. That keeps us going. Nowadays we get so many situations where people say, “I joined in your walk 25 years ago and now I’ve fully recovered. I had been in a wheelchair, but here’s my family — meet them.”
‘We get lots of stories like that, a lot more happy-ending stories than we did before. So you can see it’s working, which is great.’
But Botham, also the president of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, still wants to do more, particularly with the forms of blood cancer that affect adults. He has been in contact with Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with acute leukaemia last month, and believes the Bulgarian will be back on the football field ‘very soon’.
Sir Ian said: ‘He’s one of the fittest blokes on the planet and it just shows you — it’s totally indiscriminate. It can hit anyone at any time, but he’s got all the attributes to fight it. He’s physically fit, strong-minded, the club captain, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back playing football very soon.
‘We’re doing well with children but we’ve still got problems with other forms of leukaemia in adults. Because it’s a form of cancer, who knows what doors the research will open for other forms It’s an exciting period for us. We’re making in-roads, big in-roads.’
Most people, us mere mortals, had to break into an occasional jog to keep pace with the former England cricket all-rounder, but Botham never strayed more than a couple of metres behind the support truck in which his two-year-old grandson Kieran contentedly watched a DVD.
Kieran’s mother Becky was born during Sir Ian’s first charity walk in 1985. Some 27 years on from that 34-day, 1,000-mile mission from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Botham’s wife Cathy walks alongside the support vehicle and his eldest daughter Sarah directs the traffic, allowing the Beefy procession to pass by safely.
Marching on ahead: Botham leads the way with military precision
Everything is organised with military precision, with Sir Ian leading from the front. He does not look as if he’s particularly enjoying it, but stomps on regardless.
A bride is hauled in for a quick snap before she dashes off to her wedding. Unsuspecting drivers are badgered for loose change and give generously. It feels wonderfully British, following this 6ft 2in beast of a man through Cambridge in aid of such a good cause, and it’s an infectiously friendly, inspiring and supportive environment. People tell you their own stories of fighting the disease with such fierce honesty that you cannot help but feel moved.
Karl Parr and his family walk in support of youngest daughter Charlotte, six, who has beaten a rare form of blood cancer after a bone marrow transplant. Karl had pulled a calf muscle 10 days earlier and was hobbling badly by the end, but there was no way he was going to give up.
‘Every time I feel a bit of pain, I just think of Charlotte,’ he said.
Suddenly the motivation behind Botham’s 27-year mission becomes very clear indeed.
Around 30,000 people are diagnosed with blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma in the UK every year. Sir Ian Botham has raised more than 13m for research by completing 14 charity walks since 1985. To donate to Beefy’s Great British Walk go to: www.justgiving.com/beefywalk2012