FEATURE – Lothian Bus Geeks in their own words

The Lothian Bus Geeks reflect on their epic charity challenge

We previously featured Chris Dunn and Neil Gregory as they embarked on their Edinburgh Bus Challenge, raising money for  It’s Good 2 Give in the process.

You can still donate here.

Since their adventure on the buses, they’ve given numerous interviews, taken part in photo shoots and quite rightly become Edinburgh fund-raising celebrities. We offered them our website as a platform to give their full story.

By Chris Dunn and Neil Gregory

On Thursday 9th January 2014, Chris Dunn, 24, and Neil Gregory, 40, hit the streets of Edinburgh at 6.30am in a quest to ride each of the 48 Lothian Buses routes in descending numerical order in the space of one day. Why? Just to see if they could! What started off as throwaway conversation turned into a reality, growing arms and legs, and mushrooming into an epic adventure that caught the imaginations of thousands across the Lothian region and beyond.

The benefiting charity

The challenge developed over a pint in the Tourmalet on Iona Street in summer 2013. Both friends were travelling home on different bus routes that day and the conversation had turned to travel in and around the capital. Both seemed to boast an impressive knowledge of the services on offer having lived and worked in different parts of the city during their collective seventeen years of residence. There and then the question was pondered; could it actually be possible to ride all of the routes in the course of one day?

Rules were established at the start. It was decided that a minimum of five valid stops must be spent on each route and this rule was carried through to the final day. It was also agreed that the two friends, both keen runners, could only use their legs to move from service to service. The idea that it was forbidden to change buses on Princes Street, the main thoroughfare of the city, was abandoned as this was found to make the challenge way too difficult.

Chris was the first to get cracking on the masterplanning, armed with Excel spreadsheet, timetables, maps and route planners available on the Lothian Buses website. Starting on the number 1 bus and finishing on the highest number seemed absolutely impossible because some of the routes only run during working hours and within distinct areas of the city. Neil suggested that the order be switched from the top 113 service to the lowest and so the countdown was then on!

Over the second half of 2013 BusGeek, as it was now christened, didn’t go away in conversations. The spreadsheet ping-ponged between Chris and Neil’s e-mail accounts, each taking it in turn to meticulously modify the schedule to join up the bus routes at the closest possible points, reducing the amount of running required. Chris, a Graduate Law student at the University of Edinburgh, and Neil, an Operational Manager at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) both identified that the first working week of 2014 was a good time to attempt the challenge as they were still on holiday. They beefed up their running regimes over Christmas, kept close tabs on the weather forecasts, and eventually plumped for 09 January as the gale-free and dry LothianBusGeek Day.

Chris and Neil at the start of their challenge

Chris, a keen Twitter user, set up an account two days beforehand so that progress over the course to the day could be relayed to a handful of friends who had taken an interest in the quirky project, perhaps because they had endured one too many conversations as ideas crystallised. By Wednesday Neil had sent his first ever tweet and was ready to give it a bash. Like Chris he let his friends know of the feed @LothianBusGeek. Lothian Buses were informed of what two of their passengers would be trying to achieve, Edinburgh Spotlight became involved, and the quest caught the attention of the Edinburgh Evening News, STV, other media professionals, social media experts and an army of Twitter users.

And so Wednesday turned into Thursday. With rucksacks packed Chris and Neil wandered up to Abbeymount to mount the 113 bus, their first of the day. They were greeted by Peter (@greenhac), previously unknown to either of them, who kindly provided them with GPS software for the day so that their route could be mapped. At 6.50am the 113 pulled up and the journey commenced. The first run of the day from Queensferry Rd to Murrayfield to catch the mandatory five stops back into the city centre on the 100 Airport Bus followed soon afterwards, it gave their lungs first gasps of the icy January air that didn’t seem to warm up at any stage over the next 18 hours…

Route followed route followed route. The circular 61 route, usually taken by Royal Bank of Scotland staff moving between their offices, had the addition of two sweaty men in shorts whose near full rotation on the bus perplexed its driver. The 49 was jam-packed with commuters and although it seemed rude to queue jump there almost felt an imperative. The mid-40s routes took the boys to the east of the city whilst the lower-40s saw them head south ready for the first big run of the day, three miles along the Straiton Road to join the 40 service from Loanhead to Hardengreen, one of a number of services that neither of the pair had used before.

By the time Chris and Neil were on the 42 bus the number of followers on Twitter had started to swell and it was clear that it wasn’t just names that either of them recognised. Peter Matthews from Heriot Watt University, who Neil knew professionally, was one of the keenest and questioned why the feat was not being done to raise money for charity. Whilst this had been mooted during the planning phase it had been decided to keep the day low key and actually just see if the challenge was feasible and the full itinerary could be completed. But at 11am the two friends thought ‘what the heck’ and tasked Peter with setting up a Virgin Money Giving page. And it was his kindness and hard efforts throughout the day that helped morph LothianBusGeek from a quiet giggle between two friends to the event that it became. Each journey thereafter involved one man checking routes and bus times whilst the other was kept feverishly busy entertaining an ever-growing army of followers.

Still smiling 10 hours into their challenge

The second big run of the day came early afternoon when the lads disembarked the 39 to run from the centre of Dalkeith to the Royal Infirmary at Little France. Here the Edinburgh Evening News filmed footage and accompanied them to Cameron Toll. Now down to the 30s there was a spark of excitement as the boys managed to leg it down Cockburn Street and get ahead on an earlier than envisaged 36 to the Parliament. This was something typical of the day where opportunity and fate occasionally allowed the adventurers to nudge ahead of time. But this was often compromised by routes offering a less frequent timetable and many gains were pulled back.

The 35 and 34 seemed to be almost racing each other to Fountainbridge according to the Lothian Buses app. Could the 35 speed with all its might against the traffic and nudge ahead? Yes! The sprint from the slower-than-anticipated 32 around the busy Drumbrae roundabout when the connecting 31 was in sight was tense and the Green Cross Code Man would not have been proud of the pair. Chris displayed far less fear of cars than his more timid counterpart…

Shortly after Neil completed a radio interview for Capital Radio whilst hot-footing it for the 30 in Balgreen, the men broke the news to their fans that the number 20 – a route from South Gyle to Slateford that finishes during peak hours – could not be achieved and that this would mean the challenge was ultimately over. However, with now over £500 raised for the Lothian Buses chosen charity Its Good 2 Give the mates intimated that they were keen to carry on and do as much as they could. And response was staggering from followers, many of whom were hooked and finding that concentrating on work or study was proving tricky. Chris and Neil were begged to continue and see out their countdown to the number one service.

The bus routes in the 20s sped by and the boys made up time, thinking on their feet and making some all-important, and by this stage typical, switches to capitalise on how the traffic was flowing: a 24 to south Tollcross rather than north to the New Town meant less running when the streets were full of commuters and a quicker connection to the 23. The friends were congratulated by a passenger awaiting the 27 and cheered by another on the 22, a route on which Chris’s girlfriend Ria joined the pair providing welcome water supplies and laptops by which they could charge their dying phones, essential for navigation and a high level of communication.

Ria left the boys at Queenferry Rd where they needed to get from the 19 to the 18 at Fairmilehead. This involved a punishing four mile uphill run from Morningside up Comiston Road in bitterly cold weather, even more gruelling given the distances that they had already covered during the day along with essential sprints. The 16 back into town, the longest time spent on a bus during the day, allowed the weary adventurers to binge like Pacmen. The wait for the subsequent 14 to the Foot of Leith Walk at Elm Row – the 15 had already finished for the day – allowed Neil to commandeer additional clothes from Pam, his friend who lived the closest to their present location. OK, this included ladies yoga pants but in plunging freezing temperatures he didn’t care. Both men appreciated the warmth of Tesco at the foot of Leith Walk and the hot air in Pam’s parked car before catching the 12 on the reverse journey.

At last, the single numbers! The level of tweets remained staggeringly high, LothianBusGeek was the highest trending event in the region, and the money generated was now well into four figures. Even the author Ian Rankin, local personality Grant Stott, and politicians such as Green MSP Alison Johnstone were offering support. Councillor Andrew Burns was prolific and bemoaned that his regular appointment with BBC1’s Question Time was getting in the way of his enjoyment of LothianBusGeek! There were followers in Stockholm, Spain and the USA. With most of the running out of the way but still some logistical challenges ahead Chris and Neil enjoyed a much-needed whisky in the Southern Bar to warm up, while waiting for the 7. It had become apparent that the duo could not make the final number 2 of the night and this resulted in a mass protest by fans who begged Lothian Buses to delay the service by 15 minutes or put on a special service just for the two men who had travelled the furthest that day…

Delighted to be on their last bus home

Friends had started to emerge in person to offer congratulations. One of Neil’s work colleagues tracked them down on their final slightly amended stop on London Rd from the 5 to the 4 with champagne and plastic glasses. Other friends sprinted over to Fountainpark to wave them off on the final journey of the day, the 1 to Easter Rd. And finally, in the final hour of the day, a very weary Chris and Neil completed their epic voyage greeted by Ria, Emma, Pam, Haggis the Jack Russell and a toast of well-deserved whisky – consumed at the final bus stop. The tweets were still coming in and the staggering total on the pair’s charity page continues to rise even days after the event.

Talks will now commence on how the lessons learnt can be translated into more organised charity events. This includes practical information relating to technology and health/safety to logistical planning. The pair’s experiences will hopefully provide valuable hints and tips for anyone planning similar activities either in Edinburgh or elsewhere given the interest expressed by those living in other cities and towns. The two men hope that their big adventure will inspire others to come up with their own creative challenges: the warm compliments that they received on the very idea of LothianBusGeek indicate that there is a demand for such events.

On Monday 13th, Chris and Neil met Lynne McNicoll from It’s Good 2 Give for the first time, and celebrated the money that was so unexpectedly raised.

They were also given a tour of the Central Depot and were gobsmacked when Lothian Buses offered to match what they had raised during their challenge, donating another £2000 to It’s Good 2 Give. The total raised is now over £4ooo!

Chris and Neil in the control room of Lothian Buses

Following the challenge the pair were, expectedly, physically drained and suffering from some sore muscles. However, the greatest effect was on an emotional level; a mixture of bemusement and pride with what they had achieved in what had started as a conversation between two friends. The fact that the challenge had never started out with the intention to be a charity fundraiser or of interest to others made it sweeter still to reflect on a very busy 18 hours.

Finally, Chris and Neil could never have imagined 24 hours beforehand that their geeky bit of fun over 85 miles, just intended for their own personal pleasure and to settle a pub-debate, would have captured the imagination and positivity of the public. They managed to journey five stops on to 44 of the 48 routes on offer to the general public that day.

In doing so they generated over 1,060 Twitter followers, and they raised over £2,400 for the It’s Good 2 Give charity.

You can still donate here.

GPS date of the route covered

You can follow them on twitter @Lothianbusgeek

It was amazing to watch this geeky bus adventure unfold on twitter and we look forward to see what this pair do next!

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