independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Setting his sights high

Since he went totally blind at age 22, Mark Pollock has achieved things most of us can only dream about. Now he's headed for the South Pole. By Susan Daly

Driven: Mark Pollock in training ahead of his race to the South Pole

Ten years ago, Mark Pollock woke up in a hospital bed and realised two things. The first was that the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, a fact he gleaned from a radio playing in the nurses' tation. The second was that he couldn't see.

"I was uplifted to hear them talking about the Agreement on the news," remembers Mark.

"What I didn't realise was that I was totally blind because I still had bandages on my eyes. But I was never to see again -- I found that out for certain two months later."

Mark Pollock is now 32, an adventurer, international motivational speaker and super-tough athlete who is aiming to be the first blind man to reach the South Pole on foot.

But in 1998, when he went blind for good, he thought his life was over.

"I was devastated," he says. "I thought that was the end of everything -- sport, work, study, girlfriends, socialising. As far as I knew, people like me -- blind people -- couldn't do anything."

Mark had problems with the retinas in both his eyes since he was a child. When he was five, he lost all sight in his right eye. The rest of his childhood was spent being steered away from rough team sports, in a bid to preserve his 'good' eye.

By the time he left his home in Holyfield, Co Down, to study Business and Economics in Trinity College Dublin, he had become a champion schools rower. It was a passion he was to follow in his college years -- and one that helped bring him back into the world after he lost his sight.

"The reason I was so devastated was that I had been a person with a very strong identity. I was captain of the rowing club, I was loving Trinity. When I went blind, that identity was completely scrapped," he says.

There had been a small chance that surgery would put Mark's remaining eyesight at risk -- but he never really countenanced such an outcome. He had been earmarked for a City job in London before he had that fateful operation in April 1998. He was cocksure, confident, ready to take on the world.

Instead, Mark found himself back living with his mother, learning to do the simplest things all over again.

"I had to find a new process of doing everything. For me to know if it was night or day, I would have to reach over, find my talking alarm clock and find out. Sometimes I couldn't find my toothbrush or I had to figure out which one was mine."

The initial frustration and anger subsided, and Mark enrolled in a course to help him cope with all aspects of his new life. "I just wanted to be independent again. I started to get the tools that might help me: my computer; my speaking clock; my watch; Larry, my guide dog."

But reality bites. While Trinity awarded him an honours degree, that job in London was now out of the question.

Mark and Larry came to Dublin, where he began putting himself forward for job interviews. Prospective employers didn't know what to do with him.

"They didn't know how to cope with a blind person, and I couldn't tell them how it would work, because I had never worked as a blind person. It was a Catch 22."

His potential was finally realised by the father of one of his college friends, who set him to organising corporate entertainment.

Then it was time to rebuild his sporting career. Rowing was still something he could do and he won bronze and silver medals for Northern Ireland in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

He set himself bigger and bigger challenges. With a sighted partner racing with him, Mark ran six marathons in seven days across the Gobi Desert in China in 2003, raising tens of thousands for charity Sightsavers International along the way.

A few months later, on April 10, 2004, he competed in the harsh conditions of the North Pole Arctic Marathon.

It was the sixth anniversary of his going blind.

In his private life, too, Mark began to take matters back in hand. "People began to say to me, 'Sure you'll be going for personality now'. Well, actually no, I still like to go out with good-looking people. I don't know why -- I must be a very shallow person!"

Mark doesn't believe in playing the martyr. Handsome, clever and with a nice line in self-deprecating humour -- why would he settle for less?

Mark has come such a long way in a decade -- but he plans to go further than most of us could dream.

"Normally, the anniversary of my going blind is just my own private thing. But this year was a huge build-up to April 10 because of the Good Friday Agreement being 10 years old," he says.

"There were a lot of flashbacks to that time, and it brought it all home to me. I've gone from a hospital bed to saying I'm off to the South Pole. It's not about the blindness anymore."

His South Pole expedition is gruelling by any standards. Mark will pull a 200lb sled for at least 12 hours a day, for 44 days straight.

He will be racing against nine other teams, including that of BBC personality Ben Fogle and his Olympic gold medallist pal James Cracknell.

So he is training intensely -- last weekend, he spent five hours pounding the streets with his dad, two tractor tyres dragging behind him.

A recent stint in Norway, trying to traverse the sastrugi, a landscape similar to the frozen waves of ice he will encounter at the North Pole, was instructive.

"We discovered so many things that could knock us at the first hurdle," reflects Mark.

"Even opening a cup could give me frostbite, because I would have to take off my gloves to feel the lid. So I'm going to have get special gloves that I can feel through."

Then there is the small matter of sponsorship. The race to the South Pole will cost around e150,000 and Mark is trying to combine his work and training regime with sourcing a sponsor who will be attracted by the high-octane profile of the feat.

The most immense mountain to climb, though, is purely mental.

"You're alone with your own thoughts for 14 hours a day. Most people wouldn't spend 10 minutes with themselves.

"People have been taken out of races like this because things in the past they haven't dealt with start appearing four or five days in and they can't handle it," says Mark.

"I'm hoping all the time I have spent racing in the past 10 years, all the time I have been forced to spend in my head, will give me the edge."

To contact Mark, log onto www.markpollock.com His South Pole blog is now online at www.simplydecide.com

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