This much I know: Mark Pollock - explorer/campaigner

Sometimes we choose our challenges. And, sometimes, challenges choose us. What we decide to do about them is what counts.

This much I know: Mark Pollock - explorer/campaigner

One of my earliest memories is being in hospital for an operation on my eye, when I was five. I was born very short-sighted and had always worn thick glasses, but then I lost the sight in my right eye, following a detached retina.

From when I was very young, I wanted to compete. The only problem was that I wasn’t allowed to play the contact sports offered at my school, because of the possibility of detaching my other retina — I needed to be careful with the remaining good eye. I had to wait until I could start competing in rowing, sailing and cross country running from the age of 11 on.

I grew up in Holywood, Co Down. Mum was a window dresser and dad was a quantity surveyor. I moved down to Dublin to go to Trinity College when I was 18. I loved every minute of it.

At 22, the retina in my good eye started to detach in different spots. They tried a couple of operations, but, eventually I had to accept that I was blind.

Racing to the South Pole, on the 10th anniversary of going blind, has been my greatest achievement so far – 43 days in Antarctica, on skis dragging sledges for up to 16 hours per day. We raced against Norwegian special forces, British military, a double Olympic gold medal-winning rower, amongst others, and we eventually finished fifth.

I don’t do life-and-work balance well at all. I don’t have set hours and switch between training, planning, office time, public speaking, socialising and lots of other things, seven days a week.

The blindness forced me to become pretty organised. And living in tents and carrying kit on my back, during the adventure races, forced me to get even more organised.

Pre-planning is part of my everyday life. But to stay motivated over long periods of time, I have to work or train with someone to guard against lapses in discipline.

The trait I most admire in other people is a commitment to dealing in reality and moving forward. My biggest fault is my commitment to dealing in reality and moving forward. I find it difficult to pause and enjoy the moment, to go on holiday and do nothing.

My happiest times are those moments shared with people trying to achieve something — both the people on my own team and the people that we competed against.

My idea of misery is being in a place with no mobile phone or wireless coverage, when I need it. The South Pole, North Pole and Gobi desert had none, but we were doing something exciting at the time.

If I could be someone else for a day, I’d choose Sir Ernest Shackleton or Richard Branson — they are both explorers in their own ways. In 2010, I was back in Henley — where we used to race when I was in TCD — for a reunion.

On the second night, I fell from the bedroom window and hit my head very hard. My friends, who were also staying in the house, found me and pretty much saved my life. They got me breathing again. I was paralysed.

It was four weeks before I was due to get married to my partner, Simone. We live in Dublin now, still engaged. She is a lawyer, involved in some commercial work, but is also passionate about human rights. She is much more of an activist than I am.

My biggest challenge, from those that I have chosen, was racing to the South Pole. And the biggest ones that have chosen me were blindness, in 1998, and paralysis, in 2010.

I find the combination of blindness and paralysis really difficult and frustrating. It has killed my ability to compete in sports that I used to enjoy so much.

Now, I speak publicly about motivation and overcoming challenges.

I am not religious. I am starting to learn more about Stoicism and interpretations of that philosophy. I suppose I am trying to work out why I respond to challenges in the way that I do. So far, life has taught me to expect problems as we explore possibilities.

For information on Mark and his motivational speaking, see www.markpollock.com . For details on the Mark Pollock Trust, see www.markpollocktrust.org . Follow Mark on Twittter #MarkPollock

In conversation with Hilary Fennell

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