MENTAL health has become a huge issue for many people during lockdown with jobs and income hit and people being separated from loved ones.

Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised £32.8m for the NHS with his daily walks, provided a glimmer of hope and boosted our spirits - and reminded us that heroes do still exist.

Step forward Darlington’s Mark Wagstaff, an ex-Army Troop Corporal of the Royal Dragoon Guards, who is attempting a virtual bike ride from Darlington to Athens for the Combat Stress charity, which is dedicated to helping military veterans with mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This is by no means a simple challenge for Mark. He suffered a sudden, major stroke in April 2018, underwent brain surgery to save his life, and was left without use of his legs and left side of his body.

He is still undergoing intensive rehabilitation in a battle to regain his independence, and he sees this challenge, taken on a rehabilitation bike in his home, as a way to drive him on whilst raising money for a cause that is dear to his heart.

“I’m raising money for the fantastic Combat Stress charity, which helps with veterans’ mental health issues, and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and it’ll help me lose a bit of timber”, said the 55-year-old.

Robert Marsh, Director of Fundraising at Combat Stress, said: “We’re so grateful to Mark for choosing to support Combat Stress with this truly awe-inspiring endurance challenge, and we will be cheering him on through every virtual mile.

“Without the efforts of fundraisers like Mark we wouldn’t be able to continue providing our life-changing treatment to help veterans tackle the past and take on the future”.

Athens was a logical choice for Mark as a final destination as he has a Greek mother and the idea of having a gyros and Mythos beer under a virtual Parthenon would drive him on.

The journey is 2,047 miles, and Mark hopes to complete the challenge in 84 days. He is currently on 220 miles and so far has raised £1,192, having already exceeded his initial target of £1000.

The former Health and Safety Officer has never lost his determination to overcome the huge adversities he is faced with, and credits his wife Kerry for keeping him focused.

Mark was in the army between 1987 and 1999, when he was medically discharged after losing an eye in a training accident in Canada, shortly after meeting Kerry. They were married in 2003.

Kerry spoke of life with Mark, “One thing we do joke about is his “no filter”. Since his stroke he comes out with some corkers, not quite politically correct, or if someone stops in his wagon wheel (wheelchair), especially on route for a beer, he gets itchy wheels and just zooms off while they are in mid conversation so I have to apologise and march after him!”

“I am proud of him, after such a life-changing illness, his ability to think of others and their personal problems and not sink into depression himself, is all down to a fabulous, loyal and patient wife. That was a joke of sorts!”

The fact that Mark has managed to keep fighting on and helping others is truly a measure of an indomitable spirit, a wicked sense of humour, and unwavering support from his friends and family.

One such friend, who prefers not to be named, told of the time Mark and he came up with the idea.

“As all good ideas, it came up while having a few drinks. We thought it was a fantastic idea and would give Mark something to aim towards after lockdown had stopped him going to the gym. For Mark to continue his rehabilitation, we thought this might provide a perfect trigger, and of course he could raise money for Combat Stress, which he has done before with a push-up challenge and other social events”

“We thought we could also make it a bit of fun, with every country he passed through, update his blog with him holding a bottle of beer from that country. The next day, he told me he’d ordered the rehabilitation bike to do the challenge! It’s still really tough for him as he only really has use of his right leg, so 20 miles for him is like 100 for most people.

“He’s had donations and messages of support from as far away as Australia. He’s simply a hero and this is more than anything a message of hope”

  • To help Mark along on his trek by donating, or to check his progress, visit his JustGiving page