A Dunmurry man has opened up on how a "Big Dander" held the key to saving his life and inspired him to keep battling his depression.
Des McKee told Belfast Live about how the charity walk had enabled him to gain new friendships and a greater support network for the darker days.
The 47-year-old said the walk, which focusses on raising awareness of good mental health and money for mental health charities, had helped him through a dreadful point in his life.
He said he had lived with depression for about 15 to 20 years but that last year it had all reached a breaking point.
He was contemplating suicide and had felt like he was beyond finding the will to keep going.
Des said the walk, organised by Brian Elwood, had offered him a route into feeling better.
"The last few years, things have gotten really, really bad with me for different reasons," he said.
"Last year, it was just the lowest I've ever been.
"Brian was on to me about doing the Big Dander and I was going 'yes I'll do it, yes I'll do it', but even up to the day itself, because of the way I am, I was never going to do it.
"And just that day, I thought 'I have to do this, I can't go any lower than what I am, I have to do it'."
He said he turned up for the first day of the four-day walk around the Ards Peninsula and suffered an immediate setback.
"My feet were in absolute bits and I was beating myself up because I didn't think I could complete the whole thing," he added.
"I came home that night and cried my eyes out, felt just as bad as what I did before I started it.
"But I thought I have to go back and complete this for my own sanity because if I don't, I'm not making it through the rest of the year.
"Couldn't do it on the Saturday, went back on the Sunday and a nurse called Jill patched my feet up and I completed it then on the Sunday."
He said the walk has marked a turning point for him in his life and has inspired him to stay active.
"I don't know how I did it but ever since I've been walking between five and 10 miles every day," he said.
"Don't get me wrong, there's days where I don't feel like doing it but just getting out there instead of sitting in the house moping - I just can't thank Brian and The Big Dander enough and the friendships I've made.
"I feel as if I can message them if I'm not in a good place and ask them just to talk to me for a bit.
"My depression runs deep, it runs really deep, I would have to force myself out of the house.
"So for me to even do something like The Big Dander is mind-blowing for me.
"It saved me last year, it really did and I'm already looking forward to this year's one."
He also encouraged people who were also struggling with their mental health to come along and he would be a walking partner to anyone.
"If you're feeling anxiety, just come and do it, you won't be alone," he said.
"There's ones there like myself that have suffered and I'll quite happily walk with anyone, we don't even have to talk, but I'll walk with anyone.
"I just live day by day, I can't plan ahead and some days it's hour by hour."
For Brian Elwood, the walk was born out of his own struggles with his mental health and a desire to change the pattern.
"So five years ago, I started telling people about this idea and then people said they would come with me so it grew legs if you'll forgive the expression and we had about 15 or 20 people," he said.
"Then we decided we would raise some money for a mental health charity called Emerge, which was very close to my heart and has helped me.
"But we still didn't have a name and I went to see an old friend of mine, Reverend McMillan in Dunmurry, Mac as everybody knew him and dear critter, he was on his deathbed.
"And I was telling him about this idea that I was doing a sponsored walk and he sort of scoffed at it and I explained to him that it was a bit different, we were walking from Carrickfergus to Portrush, 82 miles over four days.
"And he says 'that's a big dander!' and that was the name, that was the perfect name for it."
Brian said the first walk had been planned for 2020, but the pandemic put an end to that but in the last two years, walkers have raised over £15,000 for charity.
"This year we've decided to mix it up a bit, going a bit international if you like - we're starting off at the Circle K garage on the R173 in Dundalk and by the time we finish three days later, we'll be at the Slieve Donard carpark in Newcastle," he said.
"So they're getting progressively shorter but this one is a tedious one in a sense, it's a big mental challenge because it's a lot of straight, boring road.
"But we'll have a buddy system this year which means no one will be walking alone at all, so on-one will be lonely.
"We have cars along the different five and six mile stretches so if you park up somewhere and walk a bit, there's a car that can take you back if you're only doing one stretch."
He encouraged anyone who was keen to get involved and said he was already working on scouting out the route.
"This year we've changed the charity to Lighthouse - one of the girls, Michelle, everywhere she went last year, she took photos of lighthouses on the Ards Peninsula because she loves them," he said.
"And then I happened to bump into a girl in a café who told me she was working for a company called Lighthouse and I thought maybe we'll go with that then.
"I'll have the route driven half a dozen times between now and July and then I'll walk it in increments too so I know how it'll be and how to help people along it."
More information on The Big Dander can be found here.
- Krispy Kreme set to open first Northern Ireland store with new 'Belfast hub'
- NI designer Hope Macaulay on seeing Jennifer Hudson wearing one of her pieces
- Cost-of-living: NI mum opens up on sharing baths at home to save hot water
- Fundraising appeal for Belfast children left orphaned after mum's death