Leaving the dark times behind

On Wednesday, November 14, the Run in the Dark is due to take place in Belfast, Cork, Dublin, London and New York.

Leaving the dark times behind

The event, which has 5km and 10km distances at each location, is so-called because it takes place at night, but for the race’s inspiration Mark Pollock, the term is slightly more literal.

Having gone blind in 1998, Pollock, from Holywood, Co. Down, became an adventure-racer, undertaking various extreme activities to raise money for charity. When he became paralysed from the waist down two years ago, the initial Run in the Dark was held to aid his rehabilitation, and now the aim is to expand the race.

“I was still in hospital last year and my friends set up these fundraising runs in Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Galway to raise money for my rehabilitation,” Pollock explains “This year, now that I’m out of hospital, I’m involved too and we’re doing it in Belfast, Dublin, London, Cork and New York, and we’ve also partnered with a whole raft of charities in the blind, spinal and general disability areas.

“We’re still raising money for my rehab, but now we’re trying to make our runs, and the infrastructure of them, available to all of those charities so they can raise money.”

To understand Pollock and the way he approaches challenges, we must go back to his formative years. Having had retinal problems from the beginning, he lost the sight in his right eye when he was five after getting a knock on the head. Thereafter, contact sports were ruled out in case the left retina became detached, so he turned to rowing.

“I rowed for Ireland as a junior and then I was progressing up through the ranks,” Pollock says, “but then the good eye went very quickly, the retina went off and they couldn’t put it back on.”

“I was devastated. I had lost my sight and I had lost my identity. I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything ever again, it was a dark time.

“I don’t know if I was depressed, but I just couldn’t see a way forward.”

Slowly, however, the darkness lifted.

“The first thing was to get back into rowing,” Pollock says.

“Once you’re in the boat, it’s about the rhythm of the boat and getting the feel, so I got back into that and competed in the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland [he neglects to mention that he won a silver and a bronze medal at the 2002 games].

“There is now adapted rowing for people with disabilities, but I was able to race in the ‘normal’ rowing.”

Despite having no real experience of long-distance racing, Pollock didn’t exactly ease himself into it either, undertaking six marathons in the space of seven days in the Gobi Desert.

“It felt as bad on day one as it did on day seven,” he says.

“We were carrying backpacks, and the feet get cut up and blistered.

There were some experiences that he regretted not being able to enjoy on account of the blindness, however.

“Looking at girls!” he laughs.

Having taken on more challenges, such as the Dead Sea Ultra (the lowest marathon in the world), the Everest Marathon (the highest) and the South Pole Race, where Mark became the first blind man to walk to the Pole, he was in addition building a career as a motivational speaker.

Then, in 2010, another challenge chose Mark, as he puts it.

“I was over in England at a rowing regatta,” he says. “I fell from a second-storey window, and that’s all I can say about the detail of that.

“I hit my head off the ground and fractured my skull, I don’t remember anything. I broke my ribs and bled through my lungs, ultimately paralysed from the waist down.”

After initial fears regarding his survival were allayed, Pollock set about once again trying to overcome a massive setback. Was the mental strength he had shown in getting over blindness a help this time around? “I think mental strength is a function, or a consequence, of having a goal and having a team to work with,” he says.

“If you’ve got something to go for and you’ve got people around you to go for it with, then having mental strength and motivation is easy.

“It took a long time, I was in hospital for 18 months, I didn’t really have a goal except making it from day to day in the beginning.

“Now I’ve got new goals and ambitions and loads of people helping, I’m back feeling positive and feeling strong again.”

That support structure is key, and it is what Pollock points to when he is told that he is an inspiration.

“People do say that, but I’m very quick to say that, as with the Run in the Dark for example, there are literally thousands of people supporting me to do it.

“If I’m an inspiration, I only represent those who have helped me to progress, going from the very dark times.”

* For more information, visit www.runinthedark.org or www.markpollock.com

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