INVERNESS, Scotland When a hardy bunch of Inverness Caledonian Thistle soccer fans first decided to trek across the Scottish Highlands to their team's final game of the season in 2003, not for one second did they envisage a repeat.
Seven annual odysseys and more than 1,600 kilometres later, the Highland March (HM) -- www.highlandmarch.co.uk -- is now so regular a fixture on the group's calendar that talk of 2010 will soon be underway.
This year the group completed their longest march yet, from Kilmarnock -- venue of their final away fixture in the Scottish Premier League (SPL) -- to Inverness for the last home game.
The marchers completed an overnight, 82-km first leg and three of them covered the whole distance -- 305 kms in six days.
Over the years the group have passed through urban tunnels, muddy bogs and spectacular gorges but there have been only two ever-present participants: Englishmen Steve Taylor, 56, and 25-year-old Robert Wilson.
The idea, Taylor's brainchild, was born on New Year's Eve 2002 in an Inverness bar.
"I said to the guys: 'I'm going to be 50 next year and I fancy doing something to celebrate it'," he told Reuters by telephone a few weeks before setting off on HM7.
"We tossed a few ideas around, then I said: 'How about we walk to the last game of the season?'
"We weren't actually going to do it again, it was just meant to be a one-off. But the following year, once we got into the deepest part of winter, a couple of the boys who had done it said: 'Why don't we just do it again?'"
This steely attitude and sense of adventure is one of the reasons the march has endured so long. Another reason is the extraordinary Taylor.
Born and raised near his boyhood club West Bromwich Albion on the outskirts of Birmingham, Taylor developed strong legs and a never-say-die resolve by fell running.
So it came as no surprise when he decided to run 100 miles (161 kms) in less than 24 hours to mark his 30th birthday.
"Something went bang in my knee at 71 miles, but because the guy in second was catching me I had to keep going," he told Reuters minutes after setting off on the penultimate day of HM7.
"I eventually managed 102 miles, after 22 hours straight, and although my knee was problematic at the time I was back racing on the hills five weeks later."
For his 40th it was a 237-mile (381-km) route from Manchester to Glasgow in a day with a group of workmates, thankfully this time on bikes.
"I lost concentration after 70 miles, fell off my bike following a drink stop and broke my elbow. I'd told everyone at work I'd finish it so I just got back on and cycled the rest one-and-a-bit-handed," said Taylor, who works in information technology.
"It wasn't exactly the Tour de France but then we were just a bunch of working blokes from a factory."
Taylor's spirit has clearly permeated all the participants of the march.
"If Steve wasn't here it just wouldn't be the same," said Wilson, who despite wearing a heavy kilt sprinted to a meeting point on the 32-km penultimate day of HM7 just to beat others in the group.
This year, Taylor's 11-year-old son Finn easily completed his first full march day and at one point wrapped a crimson scarf around his head and cried out: "I'm Terry Butcher!"
Former England international Butcher, who provided one of football's iconic moments in a World Cup qualifier against Sweden in 1989 when he soldiered on with blood-soaked tape around his head, now manages Caley Thistle, whose season ended in relegation from the SPL.
The club were formed in 1994 when Inverness Thistle FC and Caledonian FC merged, and they reached the SPL in 10 years.
Promotion aside, their greatest day was probably beating Celtic in the 1999-00 Scottish Cup, earning the headline 'Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious' in The Sun newspaper.
Former manager John Robertson, who guided them to promotion in 2003-04 and at one stage found himself driving the team bus, told Reuters the Caley Thistle fans' spirit was unique.
"The one thing about Inverness is that geographically it's a layup people think is the back of beyond, so the fans are really passionate and they love their football club," he said in a telephone interview.
"There were a lot of politics when the clubs got together and people didn't think it would work, but within 10 years they were in the top league and they're still building up a fantastic support."
Robertson plans to join the march one day.
"I'm not daft though, I'll wait until they get the closest game," the 44-year-old joked.
Unsurprisingly there are further challenges on the horizon for the marchers, and later this month Taylor will attempt to complete the 153-km West Highland Way in under 30 hours, in aid of cancer research.
Worries about the global recession stopped the HM marchers raising money for charity for the first time this year but their trek has spawned the fund-raising Tartan March (www.tartanmarch.com) in August and September when several Caley Thistle fans will have 24 days to get from Oslo to Glasgow in order to watch Scotland's World Cup qualifiers against Norway and Macedonia.
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org))
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