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'You look forward, not back!' - Mark Pollock on trying to fast-track a cure for paralysis

The Belfast native chats to us about his new film and inspiring thousands of people to run.

Mark Pollock aims to find a cure for paralysis through his Run in the Dark project.
Mark Pollock aims to find a cure for paralysis through his Run in the Dark project.
Image: INPHO

Updated at 10.34

YOU MAY ALREADY be familiar with Mark Pollock.

He is the subject of Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story, which is in the middle of a limited run at the Light House Cinema. He is also the man behind the Life Style Sports Run in the Dark — an event whereby thousands worldwide pull on their running shoes and red flashing armbands before taking off on both 5k and 10k runs.

Pollock is a former rower who went on to win Commonwealth medals despite losing his sight at the age of 22. In 2010, he suffered a fall that has left him paralysed from the waist down. Thus, he aims to use the funds from Run In the Dark to attempt to fast-track a cure for paralysis and give millions of people hope worldwide.

Ahead of the run, which takes place on 12 November, Pollock spoke to TheScore.ie about the event, explaining how it is inextricably linked with his new film Unbreakable, directed by Ross Whitaker (When Ali Came to Ireland, Saviours).

“The story that’s told in Unbreakable is all about the science finding and connecting people from around the world to fast track a cure for paralysis,” he tells TheScore.ie. “There is no funding for this mission we’re on so through the Mark Pollock Trust, a guy called Piers White set up this global running event that’s happening in over 40 cities from around the world.

“It’ll be over 15,000 people involved in one night around the world. What we’re trying to do is two things — 1. We’re trying to raise funds to spend on our mission, and secondly, we’re trying to create a global community of people to deal with this global problem of paralysis. We want to get people excited about the possibility of finding a cure and we want to make that possibility a reality.”

Pollock has personally attended many of the screenings so far, telling his story to audiences both on the screen and in person.

“We’ve a mix in the audience. The majority are coming along who are interested in the story. We’ve also got a group of people who are directly linked to spinal cord injuries. People in wheelchairs themselves or families of those who are wheelchair users, or even families of those who are still in hospital.

“It’s been really interesting to hear their reactions, how they see my experience and the science. What they learn from our telling of the story. And it was important to me that there were people in wheelchairs in the audience at other screenings and that those families were there and that other people have come to support it.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction and I suppose those initial nerves about how people might react are slowly but surely lifting.

“It was a combination of two films with Ross Whitaker. I made a film about blindness in the South Pole and that was being shown in RTÉ when I was in hospital with the paralysis. It was strange having this really positive experience on TV while I was having one of the worst experiences in my life when I was in hospital.”

The official Run in the Dark website features interviews with some of the key people involved.


Source: Mark Pollock Trust/Vimeo

A friend of Pollock’s since 2003, John O’Regan coaches participants in the Run in the Dark.

“I was preparing to do a desert event — Gobi March – six marathons in a week,” Pollock recalls. “I was asking around to see if anyone knew anyone who had done the event. John had done a very similar event in the Sahara — John became the advisor to myself and a guy called Nick Wolf, so when I got back John and I then linked up and started doing some races together like the North Pole Marathon, the Everest Marathon and the Dead Sea Ultra.

“We then took slightly different directions. I went on to do the Arctic Circle and John went on to become an ultra runner. But we were really good friends and John has become an advisor and a coach for all the participants in Run in the Dark.”


Source: Mark Pollock Trust/Vimeo

Meanwhile, Pollock came across legally blind athlete Caroline Casey after she undertook an unusual adventure across India on the back of an elephant.

“I heard of Caroline and then I heard her on the radio around about the time that I’d gone to the Commonwealth Games, and I just thought I had to meet that person. I didn’t know why I wanted to meet her but I knew I had to meet her. I didn’t know what that meeting was going to be about or what it was going to lead onto.

“She was so engaging and her message brought such incredible hope. Since then, she’s been an incredible inspiration to me and shown incredible support through all the ups and downs over the last decade or more.”

In the video above, Casey poignantly recalls her reaction to the news that Pollock had been paralysed. She describes how she initially thought “that’s not real, that can’t happen” after the former rower’s initial blindness had been difficult enough to deal with.

“I think everyone including me had a reaction like that. If I step away from living my life and just look at it as a story, you would think that something like that [bad fortune] shouldn’t happen again. You can’t help but think that shouldn’t happen but of course they do and what I took from Caroline many years ago when I heard her on the radio was that you deal with these things — you look forward, not back.”

In the video, Casey also describes how she’s “incredibly grateful” to be able to run, and Pollock admits he didn’t fully appreciate the use of his legs before becoming paralysed.

“I think I was so busy thinking about my eyes to be thinking about my legs. On some of those long adventures, I would moan about the blisters and the sore legs and sore feet, but now I’d be delighted to have them. It’s only when a light is shone on these particular things that we focus on them and suddenly start appreciating them.”


Source: Mark Pollock Trust/Vimeo

Natalya Coyle is well known in this country for her achievements at the 2012 London Olympics, yet Pollock knew her long before she began triumphing in modern pentathlon.

“She volunteered her time and support before she was the big name post-Olympics that she is. Again, Natalya is another name who came up to support what we were trying to do without any agenda. From our point of view, the fact that she went on to come ninth in the London Olympics and is progressing and going on to be such a prospect for Rio has made her video and her support all the more powerful for us.”

However, despite Coyle emphasising the importance of Pollock’s guidance and explaining how he once came to her school and gave an inspirational speech, he plays down his influence on the Irish athlete’s success.

“It was very kind of Natalya to say what she said and I remember giving that speech in her school, but I would take absolutely no credit whatsoever for her ultimate result in the Olympics. That was very much down to her and her team of coaches.

“I suppose if people draw anything from my experience, then that’s a good thing, but all credit goes to Natalya directly.”

Moreover, Coyle admits to being “terrified” when she herself ultimately had to give a speech at that same secondary school. Tellingly, she went to Pollock — who so happens to be a seasoned motivational speaker — for advice.

“I think people have a fear of public speaking because they feel they have to tell something other than the truth,” he says. “It’s the same fear I have of writing, that somehow you have to use different language or say it in a particular way, whereas whenever Natalya and I discussed the truth of her achievements, when she stopped creating speech and started telling the truth, just as when we were sitting in the coffee shop discussing what she achieved, she became more confident in what she had to say whenever she was just telling the truth of her incredible achievements.

“When people speak from the heart, it’s much more authentic and others engage with that.”


Source: True Films/Vimeo

Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story is currently screening in the Light House Cinema in Dublin and touring the country for regional screenings and Q&As. Screening information at www.markpollockfilm.com/screenings

For more details on Run in The Dark, visit www.runinthedark.org

Visit Mark’s blog, which he wrote for the World Economic Forum, here.

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Paul Fennessy

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