WHEN John Oakden and his wife Sally embarked on the European Cannonball Run marathon car rally to raise funds for the RFU Injured Players’ Foundation and the Spinal Research charity, they knew from their researches that they were undertaking a serious challenge that might test them and their vehicle to the limit.
The extent of that 4,000 mile examination – and the capacity of their 1974 Ford Granada Ghia to cope – was underlined at the first port of call when they limped into their hotel near Kitzbuhl in Austria.
That milestone was 825 night driving miles down the road from their Weybridge start point, by which time the Oakden’s were in urgent need of a rest and their vehicle’s hanging-by-a-thread exhaust system also needed a spot of restoration.
That was when the pair, from Newby Bridge in the Lake District, realized they were among kindred spirits, even if their trusty steed was from a different generation and genre to the Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Astons, Porches, Bentley’s and Rolls Royces that comprised the starting line-up.
For when they arose from their nap, two of their companions – from the Ferrari and Porche stables – had effected a repair that lasted the rest of the trip and helped cement one of the many friendships that were forged during the expedition.
Sadly, there was no-one to give the satnav a hefty thump when it decided to take them to Milan rather than Zagreb en route to their next stop and with the temperature at 41 degrees Fahrenheit they were lucky to find a man with the know-how to remove the thermostat and restore power. That extended leg of the journey was easily the most challenging, even if it did end with a salute from the rest of the group when they finally rolled into the Croatian capital.
A day which embraced a chance to test their vehicle at the Red Bull Circuit in Austria sent the adrenalin racing as the old girl’s needle reached 90 mph, but if the couple were off the pace during that cameo experience as they headed for Salzburg, they managed to complete the journey to their Watford destination via Brussels.
There were even a couple of high marque vehicles that needed to be invalided home to add a touch of gloss to the efforts of the Grenadians, but a much more satisfying accolade came when the pair were presented with the Spirit of Cannonball Award, which is awarded by the other competitors.
“It was a wonderful experience and one we’d both like to repeat,” said John. “It was very full on all the way – the winner is the car which gets closest to an average speed of 61 mph -, but it was especially enjoyable because we were visiting places I hadn’t been to before.
“The car held together very well traveling near to 4000 miles at over 70 miles an hour, the companionship of the other people involved was fantastic and to get the award from them was a very moving experience.
“Apart from being great companions socially – we were breathalysed every moring before departure - they were also very generous with their support for the IPF and Spinal Research Charity and we’ve raised close to £2,000 for those good causes, so our thanks go to them and to everyone else who supported us.
“It certainly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it has whetted our appetite for finding another was to support the two charities.”
*John Oakden became an IPF client when, just after his 16th birthday in 1980, he damaged his spine in a rugby accident at Sedbergh School.
The RFU Injured Players Foundation supports people who sustain a catastrophic injury whilst playing rugby. The charity provides help and support for both players and their families in the early months of these injuries as well as in the long term and incorporates the former SPIRE Rugby Trust charity.
In addition to this support, the charity takes a more active approach to conducting and supporting research and education aimed at preventing injuries; and identifying how injured players can be helped more effectively.
Spinal Research is the UK’s leading charity funding medical research around the world to develop reliable treatments for paralysis caused by a broken back or neck.
Every year more than 800 people in the UK and Ireland are paralysed following an injury to their spinal cord. Spinal Research raises money to fund research into clinical treatments as well as vital basic science research. Thanks to such pioneering research, paralysis can now be treated and we stand on the brink of applying therapies that will restore movement and feeling and transform the lives of paralysed people.