Today has seen only 3.5 miles walked climbing just 559 feet, but a new friendship strengthened with an affirmation of what must be done to Beat the Beast while taking a trip down memory lane.

The last couple of days had been difficult cognitively. At times I wasn’t so sure whether or not I was on the point of a seizure that never came or just struggling to function. Weakish legs, stuttering over words, dropping things, banging into things, difficulty in playing basic organ tunes already learned, a wishy washy feeling of just not quite being with it. Feeling a little way out or far out from my body drifting in the ether, and at times so bad that I felt as if I was having to concentrate really hard to stay connected to the tether that I could use to pull myself back to my body and tie myself together. This morning, as I travelled down to the Flotterstone Inn on the edge of the Pentland Hills to start the walk I was again feeling wishy washy. Weak and uncertain about myself. I was walking with John and Caroline who I had only briefly met in the funeral at Kincraig in July but wanted to join me for a walk on the challenge. John is a gifted pianist, and lecturer in Computer Science at Edinburgh University and Caroline a software engineer and programmer at the Agricultural College in Edinburgh. These were two people that were academically streets ahead of me and with whom I really wasn’t sure what I could find to talk about, especially as I struggled to keep myself tied together. But as we met my fears and concerns were proven to be completely unfounded.

Hill Walk in the Pentlands with John and Caroline at Castlelaw Entrance
Hill Walk in the Pentlands with John and Caroline at Castlelaw Hill Fort Entrance

On linking up, the conversation started slowly as I fought to remember how the social norms of conversation worked. My ability to find the words that I was looking for was weak, but as I found the right questions to ask, and the ability to smile and respond to their responses, so my brain started to fire up. The conversation flowed and we found many shared interests such as a love of music, a fascination with bats and their role in God’s glorious creation, a love of walking and a shared faith.

We set out on the walk. The 3.5 miles of Flotterstone and the Hill Fort. I wanted to come back here because I had spent so many happy days in the Army training in and around the Castlelaw HiIl Fort and, as the saying went in the Army: ‘If it ain’t raining then it ain’t training’, so it started to rain. In fact rain quite convincingly. Waterproofs on and we were away.

Soon enough, we reached the point at which we could take a detour up onto the Castlelaw Hill Fort which was home to an Iron Age community for several centuries and with an earth house which could have been used as either a hiding place, a ritual structure or a storage space. But for me it gave a wonderful vista over the old firing ranges on which I had spent many days as a young soldier in training, then a young Platoon Commander Instructor, then a Company Commander, as my career kept bringing me home to Glencorse Barracks in the foothills of the Pentlands. John and Caroline agreed to come and join me on my detour up to the hill fort and as we did I was also able to recount a very memorable moment in which I got to know the Castlelaw Hill Fort intimately. I was a young soldier in training in 1993 and we deployed to the ranges. The mist hung heavy over the ranges, but we ran around as directed and put the red warning flags up on the hill tops around us; we prepared the butts for target presentation, marking and indication; we were issued ammunition which we loaded into our magazines, and prepared our rifles for firing by giving them a very light oil to try and prevent stoppages. But still the mist hung heavy over the ranges. So rather than waste time as we waited for the mist to clear so that we could shoot safely, we revised the principles of shooting:

  1. The weapon must point naturally at the target without any undue physical effort.
  2. The position and hold must be firm enough to support the weapon.
  3. Sight alignment, ie aiming, must be correct.
  4. The shot must be released and followed through without any disturbance to the position.
    We revised how to compensate for wind and how much lead we must give and at what distances in order to hit the target.

Then we were reminded of the various aides that we could use in the field for judging distance:

  1. The Unit of measure.
  2. The appearance method.
  3. My favourite and most accurate method – the squad average.

Then we were reminded about how things were seen:

  1. Shape
  2. Shine
  3. Shadow
  4. Smoke
  5. Silhouette
  6. Sudden Movement

(Extraordinary. I managed to remember all of these principles after 23 years. My memory is most definitely improving. Wonderful. I just need to work on my ability to think and act. Cognitive and motor function)

Hill Walk in the Pentlands - The Castlelaw Hill Fort Entrance
Hill Walk in the Pentlands – The Castlelaw Hill Fort Entrance

Yet still the mist hung heavy over the ranges so we revised movement in the field, which of course included the leopard crawl, and by now as we sat in the shade of the mist ready to start the range practices we started to get cold. What better than a little physical training and what better than to practice the leopard crawl with one’s rifle. So the next thing we heard was the following instruction, ‘Right men, on the top of that hill in the mist’, as he pointed to the Castlelaw Hill Fort, ‘is an enemy position. Without being seen in this mist you are to leopard crawl up that hill to gather critical information on the enemy. Time is limited before the next clearance patrol is due so no time for dawdling. Fall into single file to crawl up to the left of the mine tape and once the information is secured you are to combat roll, protecting your rifle as you roll down to the right of the minetape and back to the bottom.’

We were cold. This sounded like hard work, but fun, and would warm us up, so off we went. It was extremely hard work getting up that hill fort in a leopard crawl only to find at the top big Cpl McBean (Beano) of the Highlanders posing as the enemy and enquiring as to the nature of our favourite football team. He was a Rangers supporter and a man of substantial character with a booming voice. So as I crawled through the mist it was clear what was required of me and being possessed of a very English accent complete with plum, much to the amusement of my wonderful training team, I clearly had to play to the audience. As I crawled up the left side, a large number of bodies were combat rolling back down the right side. Only to be told to GET BACK UP THAT HILL!! If I wanted a rest I had to declare an allegiance to the Rangers football club. His favourite club. That just wouldn’t be cricket and I didn’t even follow football, so instead, as I broke through the mist to draw near to Beano, I put on my best smile and through heavy breathing answered his simple interrogation. ‘What football team do you support?’ ‘Brighton and Hove Albion Corporal!’ I replied. I had never seen them play, but I had a great Aunt who lived in Brighton, so I thought why not! As I rolled down the hill and joined the snake crawling back up, I picked my next team. My cousin supported Aston Villa. That had to be my next team. Each time I went back up the hill, there were less rolling back down the hill and less joining the snake up the hill. Beano was doing a sterling job of recruiting Ranger’s supporters as more and more of my Platoon were sat on the hill behind him. Then it was my other cousins team Arsenal. Then as I ran out of puff on my fourth ascent of this hill, the mist had cleared and the Platoon Commander was calling us down to the range hut for a kit check and safety brief. Cpl McBean looked me in the eye as I stood up with relief. ‘Football team Douglas?’ I thought hard, thought quickly, it had to be anything but Rangers. I wasn’t going to be beaten. And then I remembered that I lived in Wimbledon as a child. ‘Wimbledon Corporal!’ came my cheeky reply. For that I received a gentle tap on the back of the helmet and a smile.

Now we were all cold standing on the top of Castlelaw Hill Fort as I finished my little trip down memory lane with a happy smile. So we turned about and retraced our steps to join the path towards Glencorse Reservoir and then the road back to the start. As we did I checked the map to confirm the direction that we should be heading in, yet as I looked at the map the detail was just a blur. I couldn’t pick anything out. I panicked and made a snap decision. I have spent many many happy days up here so knew what way we could go. So in my panic, with my brain functioning so slowly, I made a poor decision and took us in the wrong direction hitting a locked gate blocking our way along the track that ran across the back of the ranges to where we wanted to go but across military land so with a stark warning not to cross. That was so foolish and as I quietly cursed myself for being so thick, John took us on the right path back towards the main track to get us back to the Flotterstone. As we walked I thought. I thought that I had recovered from this morning’s slow start but clearly hadn’t completely recovered, and over the last few days or even weeks there seemed to be an increasing number of small but noticeable incidents in which my brain just didn’t seem to be functioning as it should have been. It was a short walk in pouring rain back to the Flotterstone but thoroughly enjoyable in the company of such gentle but listening and caring people as I started to review my strategy.

John within The Castlelaw Hill Fort
John within The Castlelaw Hill Fort

We all had packed lunches but the very idea of trying to eat them in some flimsy shelter from the pouring rain was not appealing. Instead we went to the Flotterstone Inn for a late lunch.

Over lunch we talked and as we did I explained in more detail how I was trying to Beat the Beast. I thought that I had just about got my immune system back up to strength now with good physical exercise and a good heathy and balanced diet, but I felt a little that I had been starting to lose the battle to Beat the Beast by training the healthy left side of the brain to take on the cognitive and motor function from the right side, and thus isolating the brain tumour in the diseased right side that was trying to switch me off. I had recently read how the Brain’s Blood Brain Barrier was preventing the body’s own immune system from attacking brain tumours, and when coupled with the stark news that they couldn’t kill, cure or shrink my brain tumour, it reminded me that my main effort should perhaps be trying to isolate the diseased right temporal lobe and instead train the healthy left side to take on the cognitive and motor function from the right. Because by successfully achieving that and isolating the diseased right, I have in effect made sure that it cannot switch me off. I will have beaten the beast. This realisation, that I have had before, but now reinforced by concerning moments of poor cognitive and motor co-ordination, means that I must truly review my strategy for beating the beast. I have said before that golf appears to me to be the perfect sport to try and force the brain to function and communicate to the body, to force the brain and body to think and act together, and I have been offered some wonderful and very generous sponsorship by the Brucefields Family Golf Centre in terms of free practice sessions and 4 free lessons from Gregor, their most generous professional. So I must take them up on their offer. I had never played golf before I started this challenge so I have lots to learn. I am convinced and have said it before that golf, coupled with learning to play the pipe organ, coupled with Physical Training, coupled with eating as healthily as possible could truly assist me to Beat the Beast. I have been given some time by the brilliant Oncology Team in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh so I must use that time to the maximum effect. When I last said this I got frightened and lured into chasing some more miles in the hills as I thought that to do otherwise would see me loose sponsors and therefore reduce my ability to try and improve the lives and life chances of so many more people through that sponsorship. But right now, after difficult days in which I have at times struggled cognitively, and at other times tried to reassure my own children, I have to be bold and realise that I must have faith that you will all stay with me and that you are sponsoring me to take on activity designed to Beat the Beast 5 days a week, four weeks a month, 12 months a year for as long as ever I can. But frankly if I don’t retrain the brain I suspect that that end time might come a lot earlier than I would want. So I have to focus on the main effort and stop my chase for miles. Instead look for signs of success in retraining the brain. In organ tunes learned and perfected, and in the many indicators I could use to track any improvement in my ability to play golf. I must stop chasing miles and instead chase a successful isolation of the brain tumour in the diseased right temporal lobe, while maintaining a good physical health and eating well. But rather than talk about it I need to get on and do it. I have made some promises to join friends for walks elsewhere and will need a break every so often to let the brain and body heal and strengthen any strides made, so there will be the occasional hill or mountain climbed and bike ride undertaken, but otherwise brain-training in the form of organ training and golf training, coupled with body conditioning to keep the immune system strong in the form of Physical Training and healthy eating, will become the main thrust of my challenge to Beat the Beast.

I will of course keep you posted as the affirmed training need takes shape.

Yours aye