On November 13, as darkness falls, thousands of people will run through Dublin, Belfast Cork, London and Manchester to raise money so that one day the paralysed might walk.
With pop-up events worldwide, Run in the Dark was conceived by the blind extreme sports enthusiast, Belfast-born Mark Pollock, who became paralysed when he fell from a second-storey window. He was determined to make something positive out of his misfortune.
“I’ve had three lives,” says Mark, when we meet at his home in Ranelagh. “There was the life before blindness, the life after blindness and before the paralysis, and now the blindness and the paralysis.”
Born healthy, Mark always had problems with his eyes.
“I was very short-sighted and had weak retinas,” he says. “I wore thick glasses, and was unable to do any contact sport. I lost the sight in one eye at five, and when I was 11 I got a cataract in my good eye. When they removed that, I no longer needed glasses. That was a wonderful moment.”
Frustrated at being unable to play rugby and football, Mark took up sailing, and at eleven, got into rowing. He excelled, rowing for Ireland as a junior, then senior. At 22, rowing for Trinity College, Dublin, life looked good.
“I was about to take finals in business and economics, and had a job lined up in London. I was training for the Dublin boat race, and I noticed my sight was blurry round the edges. Suspecting a detached retina, I went to Belfast for a check-up, then to Manchester for an operation. I had a second operation, but my sight had gone.
“I didn’t take my finals. I went home to my mother. I felt great uncertainty. I had lost my identity. I wasn’t in Trinity. I wasn’t taking my finals or going to London, and I was no longer a rower.”
Mark, though, is a force to be reckoned with. Having recuperated, he did a computer course, got a guide dog and learned to walk with a white stick. Within a year, he returned to Dublin, and managed to live on his own. He did a masters degree at the Smurfit Business School, and within three years of becoming blind was back rowing. He gained a silver and bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games.
“The first four years were all about rebuilding,” says Mark. “And from 2002 I began building up a speaking career, teaching motivation to clients, and tackling bigger and better endurance races. I had eight years of adventuring and did six marathons in a week in the Gobi Desert.
“When I looked at the world of banking, at what I had been going to do, I didn’t think I would be good at it. Certainly my blindness would not have been a strength; but in the adventure and speaking world my blindness was a strength. I had turned it into an advantage. When I went to the South Pole, I spent a year trying a different extreme sport each month. I involved my friends and had fun. I tried snowboarding and cross-country skiing and I did the round Ireland race in 2010, in a two-man boat.”
Shortly afterwards Mark attended Henley Regatta to support his old university. One night, he left his friends and went back to the house they were staying in. And the next thing he knew, he woke in intensive care in the Royal Berks Hospital in Reading.
“I’d fallen out of a second-storey window, and hit my head off the concrete ground. I had a fractured skull, bleeds in my brain, lots of internal injuries, and my back and legs had gone.”
He was later transferred to Stoke Mandeville for rehabilitation. By that stage it was clear Mark was paralysed from his belly-button down. He had use of his arms, but would be confined to a wheelchair. How did he come to terms with that?
“I went through a see-saw of emotions. When I looked ahead, and saw myself blind in a wheelchair, I felt dying might have been the better option, but predominantly, I was thinking how I could deal with it and what I could do to aid my recovery.
“After six months in Stoke Mandeville I was really down. The psychologist said, ‘If you think back to six months after your blindness, are your feelings now similar? Because look how far your progressed.’ I found that useful. But I was not prepared to take four years to re-establish myself as I had when I went blind.”
The Mark Pollock Trust was started by Mark’s friends to help finance his independence. The first Run in the Dark was in 2011. “I felt uncomfortable when all these people were raising money to help me. Now it has become about finding a cure for spinal injury. And we will find one. Though maybe it won’t be there for me.
“There won’t be a magic pill to fix spinal injury. I believe it will come from multiple sources; from exercise, robotics, drugs and electrical stimulation. Through the run, the trust aims to find the people working on spinal injuries around the world, and to connect them.”
Thanks to the trust, Mark was the first person to use a bionic walking suit on a daily basis. “I’m getting good at walking in it now. I can do about 2,800 steps an hour, that’s about a third to half of normal.
“Two or three years ago I said, ‘I don’t want to be a happy paralysed person,’ because I didn’t want to be paralysed. I still don’t. But I am now fulfilled. I went to Burma this year for the World Economic Forum. I’ve been to Harvard on a leadership course, and I’ve met incredible scientists who have been working on spinal injury for 30 years and are now making breakthroughs.
“If I allowed myself to think of the downsides of paralysis I would never get out of bed. At least I know I am contributing to finding a cure. By connecting others I can help in the hope of recovery.”
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