They’ve walked Kokoda, Kilimanjaro, the base camp of Everest and the scary-sounding “Death March” of Borneo. They’ve challenged themselves to push through pain and “experience” life. They’ve raised over $20 million for research and awareness of brain cancer. They’ve done it for love.

The Mark Hughes Foundation arrived on the northern beaches on Thursday and walked from Manly Wharf to Palm Beach, part of the first of three 50km legs of “The Big Three”, the brainchild of Hunter Valley boys Luke Alexander, Nathan Hill and Ethan Coker.

The trio lost a beloved footy coach to brain cancer. They walk to honour the man and to raise money for research and awareness of a disease that kills more people under 40 than any other cancer. It’s under-funded. There is no cure. So they walk.

Heroes: Nathan Hill, Luke Alexander and Ethan Coker. Pic: Matt Cleary

The Beaches Champion catches up with the crew at Collaroy Surf Club after they’ve trekked up from the Wharf. There might be 40 people in the party, scoffing bananas and energy drinks.

Billy Peden is one of them. The 190-game Newcastle Knights man tangled with David Gillespie, Mark Carroll and Ian Roberts in those halcyon days of the mid-90s, early 2000s.

“It was always a tough game at Brookvale,” he says. “Manly had a red-hot side and we had some pretty good players, too. It’s nice to come here on friendlier terms!”

Friendly it is. Multiple cars heading up Pittwater Road toot support for the party.

Good Knight: Billy Peden. Pic: Matt Cleary

Rhali Dobson is one of them. She debuted for Newcastle Jets in the W-League fourteen years ago. She retired this year at 29 to support the journey of fiancé Matt Stonham, diagnosed for the second time with brain cancer. Six years ago he beat it. Radiation, all that. He will start 12 months of chemotherapy on the first day of the walk.

“When this sort of thing happens it’s easy to realise what’s important,” she says. “I had fourteen years in the W-League and Matt supported me through so much of it.”

In 12 months they will be married and it will be “as much a wedding as a celebration of the end of the journey”, Dobson says. “It’s going to be huge!”

You may remember the beautiful scenes when Matt Stonham proposed to Rhali Dobson after her last W-League game for Melbourne City.

We meet Mark Hughes, the brainchild of the whole thing. He was diagnosed with brain cancer on 18 July, 2013. By August an “avocado-sized” tumour was surgically removed from his brain. There followed 33 radiation sessions and six months of oral chemotherapy. Today, every few months he heads back for an MRI.

Today Hughes’s favourite saying is: “Get out the good china – today!” It means don’t put things off. Live your life. Challenge yourself. Finding a cure for brain cancer is the challenge of his life.

“We encourage people to challenge themselves as a way to raise money,” Hughes says. “The easiest thing people can do is buy a beanie. You can get them at Lowes and some IGA stores. Brain cancer is the biggest killer of people under 40. There’s no cure. Everything helps.”

Trekkers (L-R) Mark Hughes, Chris Lawrence, Alex Cooper and Sharni Cooper. Pic: Matt Cleary

Stuart Laundy is helping. His family owns the Steyne Hotel, among others, and is the major sponsor of the Big Three. We walk past The Collaroy and one of the party feigns to nip inside for a beer. “Don’t go in there, it’s one of Justin’s!” Laundy laughs, referring to fellow pub owner Justin Hemmes, who also has The Newport, another bar they’ll be forced to walk past.

Yet there’ll be time enough for beer. For now, onwards they walk, across Narrabeen Bridge and upwards through Warriewood, Whale Beach and beyond to the ferry that will take them to the Central Coast, the Hunter and the arms of their people.

We wave goodbye at North Narrabeen and think: Good luck to them. Good people doing their best for others doing it tough. We should all get around ’em.

And get out the good china.

Postscript: On Saturday June 19 the Big Three trekkers walked into McDonald Jones Stadium ahead of the Knights-Warriors match. By Sunday morning they had raised $102,000.

To donate to the Big Three Trek click here. To set yourself a challenge click here. To buy a beanie click here or get to Lowes and selected IGA Stores.

Brain Cancer statistics

  • Survival rates have increased by 1% over the last 30 years
  • Kills more children than any other disease
  • Only 2/10 people diagnosed will live more than 5 years
  • Kills more people under 40 than any other cancer
  • Receives less than 5% of federal funding for cancer research
  • One person every 5 hours is diagnosed in Australia