1 December, 2021

“When we first looked at the event, we didn’t really know how much organising it would involve – one of those ideas you have over a glass of something – and we got a bit carried away,”

Explains Stewart Johnson how players, parents, and family members of the Oswestry rugby club started their journey on a fundraising Ironman event. Completed in September, the ‘Ruck Over Cancer’ event raised more than £40,000. Equally divided between Breast Cancer UK and Prostate Cancer UK.

“We wanted to raise money and awareness of the diseases, as two women (mothers to children who play at the rugby club) were diagnosed with breast cancer. And the club president got a diagnosis of prostate cancer,” continues Stewart. “We had two teams for each charity, including cyclists, runners, and swimmers,”

Just riding a bike?

Riding in a ‘peloton’ (the main group of cyclists) is not easy, comments Stewart: “You ride close together, and it can be difficult to hear. Drag is reduced by slipstreaming the rider in front of you, which saves energy. But if you’re at the front and stop peddling without letting the others know, then there is a strong chance they’ll crash into you. So you have to use hand signals so people behind you don’t crash into you!”

He adds: “Picture this: We were mixing inexperienced rugby players – who didn’t know what Lycra was – with some cycling experts. What could go wrong?”

However, the team members jelled quickly and turned out to be quite like-minded. They were each connected to the rugby club in one form or another. The age range (from early twenties up to mid-sixties) could have been a challenge. But Stewart believes they were drawn together through a common interest in raising money for either prostate cancer or breast cancer.


“Going out training, the cyclists were mainly having a ball, ribbing one another or talking rubbish for a couple of hours. But occasionally the conversations were more reflective as riders shared how their lives had been touched by cancer,” says Stewart. “For instance, one guy lost his mother to breast cancer when he was just 16 years old. He shared how that loss affected him as a young man. Then there were people whose fathers, wives, relatives, or friends had been diagnosed with the disease and were going through treatment. When you’re out on a bike for hours on end, topics can be far-reaching.”

The teams trained together for almost six months. On the day they completed the course, they came together as a group on the last stretch to the club to be greeted by young club members who ran alongside them. And then by a crowd of people who cheered the teams through a balloon-festooned archway.

“Tears were rolling down cheeks,” comments Stewart, “It was just awesome.”

Tadpoles’ team spirit

“The swimmers were a different bunch,” says Stewart. “A mixture of portly props, front-row players, and some rather elegant ladies. The teams started swimming in the cold April waters of a local mere. Returning after an hour or so, not being able to feel their feet, faces, and hands, but loving the fact they were getting out and doing stuff. The swimming teams were managed by Clare Hann, who wanted to be involved in the event but couldn’t be due to injury.”

The team members nicknamed themselves the Tadpoles: “There was ‘Tiny Tad’ who is a 19-stone prop. ‘Torpedo Tad’ who is a young, and really fast, swimmer. ‘Tipsy Tad’ who used to turn up for training with a hangover,” laughs Stewart. Adding, there was one young woman who, on admitting she was terrified of fish in the lake, was immediately nicknamed ‘Terrified Tad’.

Stewart says that the swim-team spirit was great, “One guy decided to join the party and learned to swim, then realized that 2.4 miles is actually quite a long way. On the day, one swim team member who, back in the day, may have got picked for the Olympic team swam the entire distance in just over an hour and started encouraging the other swimmers. But then the team realized the guy who’d only learned to swim was a lap behind everybody else. So they all got back in the lake – having already done the 2.4 miles – and swam the final lap with him.”

Stewart adds: “That was so touching and emotional when you saw all these guys going back in the pond to do another lap, which was another thousand metres, just to see him home. He was desperate to get around in under two hours, and he did it in 1 hour, 56 minutes.”

Running into cash

The runners were scheduled to start off after the swimmers had finished. Stewart commented that everyone was pumped and ready to go after cheering on the swim teams.

He set up the teams with the fastest runner heading off first to encourage each other. Although, as he comments: “What I should have done was put the person in front who knew where he was going, rather than letting the guy who thought he knew where he was going take the first half off in the wrong direction. They added about a mile because of that wrong turn.”

Along with 18 marshals on the route, local people turned out to support the teams.

“People in the gardens were shouting and cheering us on,” says Stewart, “We’d sent flyers out the week before and hoped to maybe raise a little cash on the day from people we’d be passing. In fact, people were handing us fivers and 10-pound notes as we were running along. I had a bundle of 30 quid in my hand for about five miles. Until I got to our filling station!”

As the runners got back to the club, a group of boys from the Under-13s (the age group with the two mothers diagnosed with breast cancer) waited about half a mile away from the club. Then ran back with the runners.

“That was special and especially good for me because it involved my son,” adds Stewart. “And that’s the age group I coach as well. One of the other runners is Simon, whose wife Theresa was diagnosed with breast cancer. And his son, Jacob, was there too.”

Tears and laughter

The successful culmination of all the events was celebrated with a barbecue, a speech from the club’s president. And presentations to the managers and the people who organised it.

“The tears and laughter went on right through the day,” says Stewart. “A couple of men who’ve been involved in the club for years said they’d not experienced anything quite like it in all those years. It’s a day that we’ll all remember forever.”

Praise and achievement

Stewart comments on the organisation that went into the day: “There were 10 swimmers, water-safety teams and medical teams, a doctor, six-team managers, 10 runners, 18 marshals, 19 cyclists, three support vehicles with a first-aid kit, and a spare driver in each. Most of the rugby clubs in the county were mobilised to greet the cyclists at different stops.”

He adds that consultations with the county council. The fire service. The ambulance service. The local police. The park authorities and the media were all great. They focused on finding a way to make the event happen.

“Someone used an analogy that it’s a bit like the first visit to the moon when people talk about Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, but they never talk about the people behind it all. The guy who stayed back in the spaceship. The people back at ground control, organising it all,” Stewart comments. “The people supporting us were amazing, and the level of support was overwhelming and humbling, whether it was financial or involved people’s time. A sailing and kayak club helped us with the safety on the water. Photographers turned up on their own time to take some great pictures. Some cycling gurus helped us out with the education of the cyclists – not an easy job. We had loads of people help us!”

Why fundraise?

He suggests that if anyone is thinking of holding a similar event, then it’s important to talk to people about what you’re planning on doing. And the outcome you’re hoping to achieve: “I was initially criticised because I wanted to get £30,000 between the two challenges. And one guy said you’ll never get £30,000 – well, now we’re at £42,0000, and there’s more coming in.”

“Talk to as many people as you can involve your local community,” he says.  “A local pharmacy gave us foil blankets and all the first-aid equipment that we needed. A local supermarket gave us 50 bottles of water. Another one gave us 150 bread rolls for the barbecue. We were given 150 beef burgers by a local butchery firm. The barbecue itself raised £400 on the day. Everything was donated to us.”

He concludes that everybody involved felt a sense of achievement from the total raised for the two charities. The links between the rugby club and the rest of the community are so much stronger. As a result of the ‘Ruck over Cancer’ event.

Inspired by Oswestry Rugby Club’s challenge? Got your own idea? Do you have it in you to test your body and mind by taking on your own challenge? Whilst raising vital funds for breast cancer prevention? Sign up for your challenge today and start fundraising. Needs some ideas on what to do, check out our fundraising page.

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