Mark wants to to highlight challenges faced by people with Friedreich's Ataxia
Three years of intense training will culminate in a 15-hour swim across the English Channel but for Mark Colclough, the physical hardship he is preparing to undertake is nothing compared to what some people experience on a daily basis.
At 57, Mark “Cokes” Colclough will be the oldest Irish male to attempt to swim the 33 km English Channel when he takes the plunge in the coming days. However, while he recognises that the challenge is no small feat, he isn’t seeking fame or praise. Instead, he would prefer to shift the spotlight on to the reason he is doing this – to raise funds and awareness for Ataxia Foundation Ireland and those living with Friedreich’s Ataxia, an incurable muscle degenerative disease.
The journey has been three years in the making. At the onset of the pandemic, Mark organised a 10 km charity swim with Sammy’s Swimmers swimming group in Ballymoney, in which he achieved a personal goal of swimming 10 kilometres in open water in just under three hours. However, his reasoning for organising the event was about something much bigger than him.
“When I organised the swim, I said I wasn’t going to do it unless it was for someone or some cause,” said Mark, who lives in Ballymoney. “The drive to do the 10k swim was to achieve something on our coast but, most importantly, it was for AFI. My friend Martin Kilduff had just lost his brother to Friedreich’s Ataxia. Shortly afterwards, he lost his other brother and he himself has the condition.”
Following the fundraiser, Mark was introduced to the CEO of AFI, Al Young, who lives with AFI and many other conditions. This meeting inspired Mark to aim even higher with his fundraising events, eventually leading him to commit to his latest undertaking.
“I wanted to understand the physicality of what people with Friedreich’s Ataxia struggle with daily and I said to myself that to understand this fully, I need to challenge myself physically,” he said. “I wanted to take this a step higher so that people would listen.”
Since signing up for the English Channel swim, Mark has been training himself to tackle the distance in decreasing amounts of time.
“In my training, the aim was to try to do the channel distance in a week, five days, three days and finally, two days, before going over to swim the channel itself,” he said.
While the swimming challenge is hugely physical in nature, it also requires a lot of mental resilience, says Mark.
“You’re beaten before you get into the water. The mental thing is 80%, the rest is physical. If you have yourself physically ready, you still have to battle your demons. You meet a lot of people in the water,” he said, adding that prayer and meditation are some of the things that help him through.
“Here’s the key to it all: my own ego wont keep me in the water long enough. Nothing is worth any sort of praise with that amount of time in the water. Something has to drive me and what it is is that solidarity with Al and people like him where it may take them two hours to get ready in the morning.”
In recent months, Mark has been balancing his training and fundraising with family life and his roles as a musician and an addiction counsellor. He said that swimming has helped him in these other areas of his life.
“I’m fortunate in the fact that a lot of the help I give to people can be on the phone. I have noticed that, if a person is talking to me after a two-hour swim, the sessions are phenomenal. I’m open. It’s nearly a play on open water. The open water literally opens you to listen more and be more empathetic.”
Mark’s desire to understand and help others is a trait he feels he inherited from his mother Eithne. Following her death, he decided to ‘totally reassess’ the path he was on.
“When I went to St. Kevin’s cemetery at Tara Hill, all of these people came up to me and told me about what my mother had done for them. I was so moved. Here was I trying to to be famous as a musician and she was infamous,” he said. “She really supported a community and was one of the best counsellors I’ve ever come across.”
“I just said this woman was just fantastic so her death caused me to totally reassess.”
“I was left with one burning question: ‘what are you going to do now for others Mark?’” he added.
This led Mark to leave a 10-year career in print to move towards a career in addiction counselling. He returned to college and studied for the next 15 years from Certificate to Master’s level.
Befriending Martin Kilduff and learning about his journey inspired him further, eventually leading him towards fundraising for AFI.
“His disability became his incredible ability to teach me how to always think of others first,” he said.
With the Channel swim looming, the support of fellow swimmers in the Ballymoney community is something that will help Mark to drive forward. The Channel Swim will take place on a day between July 4 and 12 2022 when the conditions are deemed most suitable. Back at home, Veteran Swim and Surf Lifesaving coach, Thelma Blehein has gathered a team of local swimmers who will, as a group, swim 33 km over the course of that week as Mark is getting ready to start his challenge.
“This parallel challenge takes away an enormous amount of pressure knowing that the distance will be matched by my friends here in Ballymoney,” he said.
“While I’ve trained long and hard for this challenge, we never know what Mother Nature has in store on the day. So if, for any reason, I don’t get to complete the distance, the Ballymoney swim community have my back because we are united in our support for Ataxia Foundation Ireland.”
Over 20 local swimmers have signed up hoping to raise a minimum of €100 each.
“We have a lovely crew of swimmers of mixed abilities, from dippers to competitive open water swimmers,” said Thelma, the organiser of the parallel swim. “Whether they swim 100m or 5k, each and every one of them is making an equal contribution to this initiative.”
The community swims will kick off with an open invite community swim on July 2 at 8.30 a.m. Distances will not be recorded so everyone is welcome to join Mark in wishing him well on his journey. Whether someone is a swimmer or prefers to stay on dry land, Mark is hoping people will show their support for AFI in the coming weeks by donating to the fundraiser.
“This has been three years in the making. It will take 15 hours and then some but this is nothing compared to 25 years of muscle degenerative condition. I am hoping people might find it in their hearts to donate to help this worthy cause. People with Ataxia have to swim the channel every day.”
Donations to Ataxia Foundation Ireland (AFI) can be made directly on https://www.afi.ie/fundraising/cokes-channel-swim