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Anto Finnegan takes on the Camino to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan pictured with his wife, Alison and their two friends, Cormac Carmichael and Brendan Elliot. The team are pictured undertaking the Camino Frances to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease
Marie Louise McConville

A former Antrim GAA football captain has taken on one of Europe's most gruelling challenges in a bid to raise awareness of a terminal neurological condition, following his own personal diagnosis.

Anto Finnegan completed 90 miles of the Camino Frances, the most popular pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago, travelling in a specially-adapted wheelchair through rough terrain, some off-road and up mountains, to highlight Motor Neurone Disease (MND) following his diagnosis in 2012.

The 44-year-old father-of-two was joined on his journey by his wife, Alison, and two lifelong friends, Cormac Carmichael and Brendan Elliott, who pushed and pulled the former Antrim star's wheelchair the whole way from the starting point in St Jean Pied de Port in France, across the Pyrenees to the final destination of Logrono in Spain.

In total, the group clocked up 144 kilometres (90 miles) over the course of six days, which saw them climbing mountains in 34 degree heat and on some days covering 32km over a 12 hour period. At the end of each stage, the group then spent time updating a blog about the challenge alongside a fact about MND.

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan undertaking the Camino Frances to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease

The group's blog featured on the deterMND website, a foundation established following Mr Finnegan's diagnosis with an aim of raising vital funds for research, and raising awareness of MND, which currently has no known cure.

The St Paul’s and Lámh Dhearg clubman said the group undertook the difficult challenge as it "mirrored" what it is like living with MND on a daily basis.

"We sort of tied it in with the condition itself, in terms of the Camino, it is quite challenging," said the Lagmore man.

"Living with MND on a daily basis is really challenging, not just for the person with the condition but for the people around you. We wanted something which mirrored the challenge of living with the condition.

"We decided not the pick one of the smoother routes. The Camino Frances runs to Spain. Our plan was to do between 140km and 160km of that route. We took some slightly different routes from the walkers as some routes down around the Pyrenees just weren’t accessible for the wheelchair in any shape or form. The paths were too narrow.

"I took a different chair than what I would normally use. I got mountain chair tyres and an attachment for the front, like a free wheel, it gives the chair more stability".

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan and his wife, Alison leave a MND message in a forest along the Camino Frances

Mr Finnegan said the group clocked up 29km the first day, over a 12 hour period.

"First morning we got out from St Jean in France," he said.

"You walk up into the Pyrenees, cross the border at the top, from France to Spain and then you descend into a village. In terms of being on the road, if you have moderate fitness, you would probably do the 25km in four to six hours.

"We had to take a slightly different route with the wheelchair. We tapped out 29km that day and it was the worst day for weather".

The team along the Camino Frances

Mr Finnegan said at the time the group thought the experience was "harder than what we had anticipated".

"We knew it was going to be physically and emotionally challenging," he said.

"We recognised it was going to be difficult and then the next morning, we got up and set out, which was also extremely challenging".

In the days that followed, the team of friends faced many challenges, including scaling the Pyrenees, and taking on paths, much of which was off-road "over boulders and muddy ground".

The team also spent one night in a monastery, where they shared a dorm with 72 other "wet and tired pilgrims". In the morning, they were "abruptly awakened at 6am with all lights on and Ava Maria playing through a speaker". After this, they were confronted with many hills, mostly "steep downhill with huge boulders that required a lot of lifting to pass".

The team completed 20km on day three which took 10 hours.

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan and his team left a MND message in a forest along the Camino Frances

Battling blisters, sore shoulders and with "feet in ribbons", the team completed 24km in six hours the following day while day five saw them clock up 32km in just under 12 hours.

Mr Finnegan said "at no time during the seven days" did the group of friends want to give up.

"The chair did take a bit of battering, we had to take a day off to work on it. We took a rest day. Just getting our batteries re-charged," he said.

"The four of us are quite bloody-minded in terms of when we set out to do something, the aim is to see it through. We were quite stubborn in that regard. At no time in the seven days together did we say we wanted to finish `this is too physically demanding'.

"For us it was about getting to the end of the day, deciding what tomorrow looks like. Everyday was planned out anyway".

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan on the Camino Frances

Mr Finnegan, who said he was currently doing "pretty well" managing his own condition, revealed the team wanted to complete the challenge as "something personal to the four of us".

"We didn’t do sponsorship, we didn't raise money, we didn't want to, it was a personal thing for the four of us," he said.

"For me it was purely, `This is something that is going to be a challenge with two of my lifelong friends and my wife'. They pushed the chair the whole way. There were parts of it where there were steps, or steep terrain was just so rugged I had to be lifted. I can’t propel. They pushed or pulled the chair the whole way between the three of them.

"We wanted to make sure the four people on the journey, it was personal to them. We just wanted it to be something that is really personal to us".

He added: "If we can use this experience to raise awareness, even just a small bit of awareness along the way, then we have achieved something".

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan pictured with his wife, Alison and their two friends, Cormac Carmichael and Brendan Elliot. The team are pictured undertaking the Camino Frances to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan pictured with his lifelone friends, Cormac Carmichael and Brendan Elliot.

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan undertaking the Camino Frances to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan and his wife, Alison leave a MND message in a forest along the Camino Frances

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan undertaking the Camino Frances

The team along the Camino Frances

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan on the Camino Frances

Former Antrim football GAA captain, Anto Finnegan and his team left a MND message in a forest along the Camino Frances

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