You Can’t Out Train Your Diet

#TeamUnbreakable #SmartBike #FastTrackingACure #Paralysis

I was apprehensive as I rolled in my wheelchair onto the scales in the National Rehabilitation Hospital. The screen said 111.3 kilograms for the combined weight of my chair and me. And, as I reversed off the scales and transferred onto a chair, I hoped that my empty wheelchair would weigh at least 30.4 kilograms on it’s own. If it did, then I’d hit 80 kilograms, the target weight I’d set for myself back in April at the start of my training for the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive on the 10 September – my first sports challenge since becoming paralysed.

My care assistant, Noel, weighed my empty wheelchair and its 30.7 kilograms meant that after 20 weeks of training and a pretty consistent high fat low carbohydrate diet I’ve dropped about 6.5 kilograms (nearly a stone).


Until my late twenties I seemed to be able to eat whatever I wanted and not put on weight. In 2002 I raced at the Commonwealth Games as a 70 kilo lightweight rower, but 5 years later, as I trained for Ironman Zurich, I had put on a whopping 20 kilos (over 3 stone). And, with recurring achilles tendon injuries stemming from my calf muscles being too weak to carry my growing frame, I was embarrassingly sent to buy Brooks Beast running shoes. They’re specifically designed for the heavier athlete as they spread the weight through a larger sole to avoid injury. None of it – the weight, the shoes or the injuries – were fitting of an aspiring endurance athlete.

In those days of running, cross-country skiing, cycling and kayaking thousands of miles across deserts, up mountains and to the Poles I learned that I could not out-train a bad diet. No matter how hard I exercised, the quality and quantity of what I ate affected my weight. Now, despite having completed more than 160 training sessions over the last 20 weeks that is still the truth. I split the training between walking in my robotic legs in combination with electrical stimulation of my spinal cord, indoor hand biking in the gym, functional weight training and in recent weeks we’ve been cycling in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on our new tandem #smartbike that our incredible sponsors Arrow Electronics delivered.

This training is certainly effecting my evolving body composition. Since I broke my back, my life is largely sedentary – I sit in my wheelchair, because I am also blind, unable to push myself around the city streets. The only time I move my body is when I am on the tandem handbike or in my robot.

But even this level of exercise – 9 or 10 training sessions per week – is not enough to keep my weight under control. Of course I’ve tried all sorts of “eating less” diets, and also the “being prepared with the right food” diets and there’s of course been the “pretending that I could do without cheese and bacon” diets. But none of them worked for very long. Then last year I was speaking at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland at their Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine Conference and that all changed.

My slot was immediately before Professor Tim Noakes, the author of great books like, Lore of Running, Challenging Beliefs and Real Meal Revolution. He is a doctor, an Emeritus Professor, a runner and most famously a controversial proponent of high fat low carbohydrate eating. I was in the RCSI early to test my videos for my talk and I headed up to the reception area for a coffee where Tim was sitting. I’d spent the previous 2 months following his high fat low carbohydrate eating plan after hearing about it in an audio book called Natural Born Heroes and I bombarded him with questions about my new eating regime, his eating regime.

We were drinking black coffee. Ideally, to fit with Tim’s way of eating, I’d have added some cream, coconut oil or butter but all they had on offer in the cafe was low fat milk, which Tim advises contains too much carbohydrate and too little fat. We discussed the world’s fear of fat and the move over the last 50 years towards a diet heavy in carbohydrates and sugars and with it the western obesity and diabetes crisis. We talked about the mental gymnastics that it takes to park the dogma about what is healthy and what is not.

To learn more directly from Prof. Tim Noakes check out his TEDx Cape town talk at

Since that conversation last year I’ve been largely sticking to a high fat low carbohydrate diet with only very few forays back to sugar and carbs. And for the last few months I’ve really gone for it and have been getting up and training early with no breakfast. Straight afterwards I’ve been eating a large bacon, mushroom and cheese omelette along with a coffee with cream. During the day I have a second coffee with cream and some days I have some biltong and nuts as a snack. But in recent weeks I just have not been feeling that hungry during the day. In the evenings, thanks to my fiancée Simone’s incredible cooking, I have fatty cuts of meat like lamb, steak, chicken with the skin on or pork chops. And I’ve really upped my vegetable intake helped by being able to have cream sauces and cheese with them – so, cheesey spinach or a Greek salad with feta or rocket and parmesan salad or roasted cauliflower. I’ve struggled to halt all hamburger cravings and sometimes give in to them but I’ve managed to avoid the naan bread and rice when having the odd Indian take away. Simone also makes baseless pizza which is surprisingly tasty and satisfies that post-pub pizza craving.

The point is that moving from a carbohydrate based diet to a vegetable and fat based diet doesn’t feel like a hardship in the way that all the other diets I’ve tried have. The high fat content kills the cravings for sugar and carbs and for eating large quantities. My energy levels are more stable, people keep telling me I look healthier than I have in years and perhaps, most importantly, this Real Meal Revolution way feels like it is a sustainable way of living and eating.

Now as I cycle our #smartbike tandem as part of #TeamUnbreakable I am a lighter, fitter version of my former self. It’s only fair really, because the power that I can contribute with my arms on the back of the tandem is significantly less than the power that Simon contributes with his legs on the front of the bike and I could not bear to have him carry me and heavy at that.

You can check out our training data online thanks to our friends at Microsoft who have created a microsite for the project at Please tweet us, blog about this or share on Facebook using the #SmartBike and #TeamUnbreakable hashtags.

Robots, Smart Bikes and Team UnBreakable

My empty wheelchair disappears behind me as I walk across the sports hall in my robotic legs. Dr. Neil Fleming monitors the electrical stimulation unit that is pushing current into my damaged spinal cord. And, Simon O’Donnell shadows me calling out the data from my heart rate monitor as I try to activate my paralysed muscles.

The heart rate data is the only real time feedback that I have to tell me if I am engaging my muscles or not. I can’t see my legs because I am blind; I can’t feel my muscles because I am paralysed. But the data paints the picture of my performance. Without it, I simply have no idea if my effort is translating into action.

With the magic number set for my heart rate at 130 beats per minute, I aim to hit that target during each 60 minute walking session. We set this heart rate after a blood lactate test in the university sports physiology lab. I aim by adjusting where I focus my effort, so, if I am only getting to 110 or 120 beats per minute I immediately know I have to do something different.

The lack of feeling means that walking doesn’t just come naturally to me anymore. I have to try to artificially picture what is going on in my nervous system and legs to have the intention of connecting below my waist right down to my ankles and feet. And, the data seems to show that the Mark Pollock Trust funded team in Trinity College Dublin is making some progress.

Early on in my recovery a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge informed our thinking about my training. It is about our neurology and how plastic it is, how much more subject to change it is especially when we train it. Referring to one of the experts whose work Doidge writes about he says: “Merzenich told me, “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain.” The only requirement is that the person must have enough of a reward, or punishment, to keep paying attention through what might otherwise be a boring training session. If so, he says, “the changes can be every bit as great as the changes in a newborn.”

For me the data is the reward – it is as vital for me, as it is for an able-bodied athlete to keep paying attention to my training. And, in the same way that the data informs my performance as we try to train for functional recovery after paralysis, it is data that is informing our performance out on my new #Smartbike tandem with Simon O’Donnell, my South Pole team-mate, as we prepare for the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive on 10th September.

As scientist Neil says – the body is an integrated system and the muscle, fat, blood, bones, immune system, mental health, all of it plays a part in being an athlete. Since I broke my back 6 years ago my training has been really focussed on the paralysed part of my body. So, when the opportunity to get back out and compete, to get amongst it appeared in the guise of a Utah Trikes tandem and a CBS crew wanting to tell the story, I started to work my upper body and core and really quickly started to see the benefits of training my arms, to feel the spill over effect to all of my body and mind.

Last Sunday, another person strolled ahead of us down the middle of the cycle lane with their earphones in. Like so many we’ve met on our cycles he remained completely oblivious to the 3.4 metres of aluminium tandem baring down upon him at 30 kilometres per hour. Like so many, he remained blissfully unaware of the 35 kilograms of frame, chains and cogs with a combined 160 kilograms of cyclists directed right at him. Despite Simon’s shouts of ‘coming through, coming through’ we again had to slow to a walking speed just shy of clipping the heels of the stroller.

As Simon steered us around the obstacle I fished out my phone to record a mini-podcast live from the bike. I held the phone in one hand and continued to turn the cranks with my other hand while recording. (You can click here to listen to the audio)

It was about 1 hour 15 mins into our training session. We had just finished our 3rd ‘Norwegian Pyramid’ and we were easing into our final one. A Norwegian Pyramid is a session developed by cross-country skiers in Norway to break up the monotony of endurance training. Each block of 5 minutes is set with different heart rate zones. For me, the target heart rates for each 5 minute block are 115, 125, 135, 125 and 115 beats per minute. The target cadence (the number of revolutions per minute of the pedals) is between 80 and 90, no matter what. And, the speed and distance is just a function of the target heart rate and the target cadence.

While I was recording my report from the bike, Simon, sitting a couple of metres in front of me on our tandem, was selecting the gears and steering our way through the human traffic. As usual he was monitoring his own data on a Garmin Edge 1000 bike computer mounted beside my own Garmin 520 on his handle bars. Both of them connected to an array of sensors spitting out data on the cadence of our pedals, the power output in watts as well as our individual heart rates. But the problem was that I couldn’t read any of it due to the blindness.

So, for the last few weeks, as we have powered through our Norwegian Pyramids, extended interval training and intense Fartlek sessions, Simon has been acting as my eyes relaying all of my data appearing on the screen in front of him. Just like when I train in my robotic legs, it is crucial for me to have the interaction of the different data points in real time. Too hard and I, like anyone training, rapidly become tired and underperform. Too easy and the body is never pushed hard enough to result in any training adaptation.

It isn’t a problem when robotic walking because one of the lads can read out the data in real time, but on the bike it is different. The wind, traffic noise and volume of information required made it impractical to have Simon continuing to do the job. And, without the data I may as well stay in the support van with my feet up.

But this weekend we finally solved the problem. Both bike computers remain on Simon’s handle bars. But, with the help of Irish Paralympic handbiker, Declan Slevin and Martin Gordon, a blind Irish Paracyclist, I have worked out how to convert my phone into a talking bike computer with audio announcements. This means that the technology talks to me now.

On Sunday, throughout the Norwegian Pyramids, a Wahoo Fitness App on my phone announced heart rate, workout time, speed, cadence and power output every 30 seconds. This was all made possible with a little ANT+ Wahoo key adaptor for my Iphone to pick up the heart rate and power data along with a Wahoo cadence sensor attached to my hand cranks and a Wahoo speed sensor clipped to the hub of one of the front wheels of the bike.

Now we truly have the #SmartBike that we set out to create with our friends and sponsors at ArrowElectronics and I am finally training again and getting really excited about the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive, a cycling event on Saturday 10th September. Please join us if you fancy a spin out, and tweet us, blog about this or share on Facebook using the #SmartBike and #TeamUnbreakable hashtags.




Jump On Your Bike With #TeamUnbreakable

We’ll be taking the #SmartBike out on my first sports challenge since breaking my back to the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive, a cycling event on Saturday 10th September with the option to ride 57km, 126km or 182km routes along Northern Ireland’s spectacular Causeway Coast.

We’d love you to join us on #TeamUnbreakable. So, if you are up for the challenge go to and sign up for £85/€100.

By signing up you will:

• Be part of our crusade to find and connect people to fast track a cure for paralysis.
• Contribute to our £42,500/E50,000 annual funding commitment for a research scientist;
• Secure an entry in the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive on 10 September;
• Get a limited edition #TeamUnbreakable cycling jersey to wear; and
• Get a copy of the award-winning documentary ‘Unbreakable – The Mark Pollock Story’.

Back in the saddle

#SmartBike #TeamUnbreakable #ArrowElectronics

The streets of Belfast were nearly empty, just a handful of buses and the odd car easing through the city. It was the summer of 1994 when the Tour De France had not yet been tarnished by widespread drugs scandals and my mate Alan Ritchie and I were inspired by the performances of sprint specialists, time trialists and Tour winners.

Each night that summer we pulled on our pro-cycling replica jerseys and jumped on our bikes. I wore an ONCE jersey and rode an old 1980s steel framed Peugeot that my Dad owned before me. Alan rode a Raleigh Team Banana and wore a Carrera Jeans jersey.

We powered through the city streets in our own imaginary time trials. We raced the buses and each other, sprinted through traffic lights about to turn red and broke free from fictional pelotons, crossing imaginary finish lines with arms held high to celebrate multiple fantasy stage wins.

But losing my sight in 1998 meant the days of surprising the opposition by making a break from behind the bus as it pulled off were gone. So too was my ability to look over my shoulder to see if I had broken away from the one-man peloton. Like so many things, the independence that the bike gave me disappeared along with my sight.

But it soon became clear, I just needed a work-around and that came through my Trek tandem road bike and my mates to pilot me. They were great years and for that reason, despite breaking my back in 2010, I haven’t been able to sell my tandem; I’m much too attached to it. Nick Wolfe, James O’Callaghan, Brendan Smyth all piloted that bike and led me through Ireland’s Wicklow 200, New Zealand’s Coast to Coast and Zurich’s Ironman.

Now, 22 years after those summer time trials with Alan in Belfast, and 6 years after breaking my back and losing my ability to ride my tandem I am back in the saddle. And for the first time in 6 years, I am competing in sport. It seemed it could never happen – the blindness took me out of the sports that paralysed people competed in and the paralysis took me out of the blind-friendly sports I’d built my adventure athlete career on. But a new bike – a glorious custom built tandem from Utah Trikes is the bike and pilot, Simon O’Donnell, my teammate from the South Pole Race, are both changing all that.


I can’t quite believe it yet, but I will be back cycling in Northern Ireland on the 10th September. We will be taking part in the cycling event – the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive.

The Peugeot is long gone and the Trek tandem is in dusty retirement hanging from the joists in my Dad’s garage. And the freedom they represent to me is being unlocked by my Utah Trikes tandem. I will get to feel the buzz of competition, the pain of the effort and the shared purpose of the hundreds of competitors as we snake along Northern Ireland’s spectacular Causeway Coast.


And, like those early days in Belfast, Alan will again be cycling alongside me. He will be on his Boardman road bike, (a substantial upgrade from his Raleigh Team Banana). We won’t be wearing replica pro-team jerseys, rather, along with a massive group of riders, we will be wearing #TeamUnbreakable jerseys with Mark Pollock Trust and Arrow Electronics’ logos on them.

We’d love you to join us on #TeamUnbreakable.

Go to and sign up for £85/€100 and choose to ride 57km, 126km or 182km routes.
By joining #TeamUnbreakable you will:

• Be part of our crusade to find and connect people to fast track a cure for paralysis.
• Contribute to our £42,500/E50,000 annual funding commitment for a research scientist;
• Secure an entry in the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive on 10 September;
• Get a limited edition #TeamUnbreakable cycling jersey to wear; and
• Get a copy of the award-winning documentary ‘Unbreakable – The Mark Pollock Story’.

The Test Is Just The Evidence Of What You Do In Training

The sweat is running down my face, my arms are burning and the rain is soaking me through. Simon is up front on our tandem bike changing up through the gears and calling “go” at the start of another push during today’s interval session. We’re training for my first sports challenge since becoming paralysed.

It is the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive, a cycling event on Saturday 10th September with the option to ride 57km, 126km or 182km routes along Northern Ireland’s spectacular Causeway Coast. And we’d love you to join us on Team Unbreakable (go to and sign up!)

It was only 16 weeks ago that I landed in Denver Colorado. Large snowflakes settled on me as I rolled out of the taxi and made my way into the University of Colorado’s Health and Wellness Centre. Joe Verrengia from Arrow Electronics, the guy who has funded this entire project as part of their sponsorship of CBS TV’s ‘Courage In Sport’ documentary, had dropped over from their head office in the city.

We rolled past the indoor track, weights machines and free weights. I could hear the thump, thump, thump of people pounding out miles on the treadmills and the familiar whoosh of people taking stroke after stroke on the rowing machines.

However, the hand bike was my target. I had to perform an incremental VO2 Max test, the same kind of test I did when I used to row and the same test that I did in preparation for the South Pole Race. The difference was that in the past I tended to perform these tests after months of training. This time I was going to test without any training sessions under my belt; into the unknown with a CBS TV crew filming it all. Shanon Squires from the Human Performance Lab was beside the hand bike getting a mask set up to analyse my oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and arranging a series of tiny needles to take blood from my ear at intervals throughout the test.


As I churned out the 10 minute warm-up, my mind was filled with the chatter that used to fill my mind when I was preparing to race: ’I am not ready’…This is going to hurt’…’Is there any way to just not do this?!’

But in the midst of the negative voices I could hear my old rowing coach Tim Levy’s advice about how to approach the first test of the season. “Just get a score on the board”. His point was simply to lay down a marker – once you have a score recorded you can’t hide from it. You either train well or don’t train well. You either improve on that score, or you don’t. The test is just the evidence of what you do in training.

And so I got a score on the board. Pitiful at best but a score nonetheless. And, that test was used to set all of my heart rate training zones for the initial phase of training – (much lower than I would have expected based on past experience before paralysis).

Things are surely different now I am paralysed. And this new body I am testing is also evolving and changing since I‘ve been walking in my robotic legs, electrically stimulating my spinal cord and getting my heart rate up to steady running levels. Yet this level of training is simply not enough for where I want my fitness to be. And, the test score was simply evidence of the training that I had been doing in the previous few weeks and months – clearly not enough.

But over the last 16 weeks I’ve improved. Since that first test in Denver I have completed nearly 150 training sessions, lost 4 kgs in bodyweight and done two more VO2 Max tests. Each time the score on the board has got better.

Now I have 4 weeks to go until the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive. By the time I sit on the start line on my custom built tandem bike I will have 20 weeks of training completed, 180 training sessions and hopefully a big group of friends all in our matching Team Unbreakable jerseys.

If you want to join us for £85 or €100 just sign up at you will:
1. Be part of our crusade to find and connect people to fast track a cure for paralysis.
2. Contribute to our £42,500/€50,000 annual funding commitment for a research scientist;
3. Secure an entry in the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive on 10 September;
4. Get a limited edition Team Unbreakable cycling jersey to wear; and
5. Get a copy of the award-winning documentary ‘Unbreakable – The Mark Pollock Story’.

Mark Handbike from Mark Pollock Trust on Vimeo.


The Day I Didn’t Die

I sat in my wheelchair eating a sausage and bacon roll as the wind gusted through the tented café at Henley Royal Regatta. Little has changed about the place since I first raced there as a 19 year old, the café still faces the river, the boat tents are still to my left and the Stewards’ Enclosure still over to my right filled with people dressed in rowing club blazers and summer dresses.

This year I was in at 8:30 am on the Saturday morning, early to avoid the traffic for my 1996 crew reunion lunch, the anniversary of our semi-final exit to Yale 20 years before. My carer dropped me into the Regatta Café and I waited there alone as he drove to Heathrow to collect my Dad and my mind gave me no choice, left alone and idle in this tented café, it has to re-live this day 6 years ago.

It’s like a bad movie that replays every year. My mind watches the laughs of the day and feels the pain of the night. Each Henley Friday I walk through a movie I know does not have a happy ending. The morning of Friday, 2 July 2010 I’d enjoyed breakfast with a friend in the same Café where I sit now. That night, after racing finished, I walked the small triangle from the Stewards’ Enclosure to the Leander Club. Standing in the home of British rowing, I had laughed and joked with the others, before heading back to the house and going to bed.

A short time later, I fell two stories from an open window and became paralysed. I don’t know what happened, nobody does, but most likely I was trying to find my way to the bathroom and running my hand along the wall as a guide I tipped out the open window.

It is always the first Friday in July and I am always at the Regatta.

As the footage replays in my head, there is a sense that somehow the fall didn’t happen. That somehow the ending is different. But it never is. The window remains open and the fall happens. It is an illogical mental exercise.

This year on the Friday, I was alone in my hotel room, thinking of my fiancée Simone, my family and my friends who saved my life. Some called and we talked about it. Some texted. And, some simply never mentioned it at all. Everyone deals with things in different ways.

The Friday is always difficult.

On the Friday I am comparing my life today in a wheelchair with my life when I could walk and feel and use my body. I was blind but that doesn’t seem to figure in the feelings of loss in this memory; I miss my body running the towpath before the day’s racing.

On the Saturday mornings the comparison is different. In Henley eating my sausage and bacon roll with the wind gusting through, I know this year is so much better than that Saturday morning 6 years ago when I was lying in intensive care, my family and Simone arriving; the devastation. On this Saturday morning I had a deep sense of how lucky I am.

The ending of this movie could so easily have been fatal. For at least one day every year I remember that no matter how hard my life is, living with all of the crap that goes with spinal cord injury, encountering death and getting another chance puts that hardship into perspective. It informs a lot of what I do; it helps me to live life the way I do.

It has been two weeks since I got back from Henley.

Time relentlessly moves on and as this year’s anniversary joins the others as memories, the words from that incredible piece of writing by Mary Schmich, made into the song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” reminds me not to worry about the Friday, I never knew it was coming.


Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.


The blindside happened on that idle Friday night. Yet in the replay of that day my mind tries to worry with the benefit of hindsight, to worry about something that can never be changed. Maybe all I can do, all any of us can do is to focus on the other memories. To remember that though I am sitting in this café in my wheelchair, sad that I am sitting, I am ecstatic to be alive.

Maybe I’ll try to focus on the Saturdays, the unexpected truth of this story. A truth that is days of spectacular sadness, struggle and survival. A truth that is anniversaries of rowing races and running, of love and nurture and the force of humanity. A truth that is those people who kept me alive and give me so many reasons to keep moving forward.

What the polar explorers teach us about resilience

There is no cure for paralysis and I am paralysed. So my motivation to connect people around the world to create a cure may simply seem like a personal desire to walk, to feel, to be my old self again. The fall that broke my back in 2010 leaving me with no movement or feeling below my waist certainly pointed my compass towards this frontier that I now explore, but that alone could never sustain what this expedition requires.

By day, I am a lab rat. I am shaved and willingly, joyfully caged in my robotic legs. I am wired to technology that unfolds the map of the inside of my body like the uncharted cosmos and with scientists, amateurs and other pioneers we explore it. By night, I connect. I try to bring foundations, investors, scientists, engineers and paralysed patient advocates together to be part of the solution. I can do all this because I believe that my real motivation, (the intrinsic motivation that comes from deeper within me than the extrinsic reward of walking, feeling, being my old self again), is to find what lies beyond this unconquered frontier of paralysis, to find what is on the other side of the hill.

And it is vital that we understand what really motivates us and why. Otherwise we could never sustain the effort. The scientific research programme we have created in which I am a subject is producing incredibly useful data, but it may well lead to a breakthrough that benefits my fellow paralysed. So something more than the inarguable self-interest keeps me in the lab, keeps me working.

The heroic age of polar exploration has long been a font of insight for me. And even more so now as I figure out how these explorers faced their frontiers. So, I travelled as close as I could to a man who is to me one of the most fascinating of those explorers, a man called Tom Crean.

He was a titan.

Born in Annascaul, County Kerry in my home country, Ireland, he returned and opened a pub there in 1916 after his polar exploration ended. Simply called, The South Pole Inn, it is still open and is a memorial to his incredible life.

Simone, my fiancée, and I toasted Tom with a beer named after him. Simone described the 18/35 logo on the pint glass, but I couldn’t recall the significance of those numbers even though I had listened to the audiobooks of almost all the stories of polar exploration before my own Antarctic adventure back in 2009. Having lost my sight when I was 22 I turned from international rower to a blind adventure athlete and I competed in the first South Pole Race since Scott and Amundson had competed for the prize of being the true first to the pole over a hundred years before. It was how I had marked my 10-year anniversary of going blind.

Surrounding us on the walls of the pub were articles detailing Antarctic exploration. Crean was on teams led by both Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. As Michael Smith, author of “An Unsung Hero”, points out, Crean spent more time on the ice than either of those two Polar heroes; he was pivotal to three of the four major British expeditions to Antarctica.

Source: The Mark Pollock Trust

Initially he served under Scott on the Discovery from 1901 to 1904, then on his fatal Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1913 and finally on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Endurance from 1914 to 1916.

It was during Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition that Tom Crean made the numbers 18 and 35 his own. At only 168 statute miles (270 km) from the Pole, Scott ordered Tom Crean, William Lashly and Lieutenant Edward Evans to return to base. Scott recorded the sorrowful moment in his diary: “Poor old Crean wept”.

Scott went on to reach the South Pole only to find Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s flag planted there first. Scott and his team then perished on the return journey.

Crean, Lashly and Evans made it off the polar plateau one month after leaving Scott and the others, but Evans began to display the debilitating symptoms of scurvy. In the harness for up to 13 hours a day, Crean developed snowblindness and hauled the sledge, his eyes bandaged with a tealeaf poultice. Risking crevasses, broken bones and certain death, the three lashed themselves to the sledge and slid 2,000ft onto the Beardmore Glacier to save three precious days of marching and food. But then Evans collapsed and with two weeks of travel out from the safety of Hut Point, Crean and Lashly began hauling Evans on the sledge.

On 18 February 1912, they arrived at Corner Camp with food supplies running low. With one or two days’ worth of rations left, they still had four or five days to travel. So, facing death, Crean volunteered to go for help. He had no sleeping bag or tent and was already physically exhausted.

Lashly held open the round tent door flap to allow Evans to see Crean depart. Evans remembered: “He strode out nobly and finely – I wondered if I should ever see him again.” Yet, with only two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits (keeping one in his pocket in case of emergency) Crean completed the 35 statute miles (56 kms) in a punishing 18 hours. The rescue was successful and Lashly and Evans were both brought to base camp alive. Crean more than earned his Albert Medal, then the highest award for gallantry.

Crean’s own survival, the rescue of his companions and his desire to return to Antarctica, despite this experience, still intrigues me. I can understand the motivation for Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott – the adventure, the recognition, the money and the influence. My own 43 days in Antarctica racing to the South Pole was fuelled by my desire to compete, to do something bigger than me, bigger than my blindness, maybe to take a small place in polar history.

Everyone else, including me, seemed to have an obvious reason to be there. But why did Tom Crean keep going back? He was not an officer or a leader on any of the expeditions; he gained very little public recognition or wealth. So, what drove him to go? What allowed him to survive?

I asked Crean’s biographer, Michael Smith. He said: “Crean was the type of man who wanted to see what was over the other side of the hill”. So, maybe curiosity and adventure were the drive. It also may have been that the other side of the hill was a great deal better than life in rural Ireland in the late 19th Century; maybe joining the British Navy was just a job? But this was a job that required him to endure torturous conditions, to put his life on the line.

The compelling but probably apocryphal story goes that the men who joined Shackleton did so in response to his newspaper ad for the Endurance expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

It is unlikely that Shackleton would have created an advertisement with any pessimism in it, but I am interested in the type of people who would have joined any exploratory Polar expedition, because I think motivation is rarely about the extrinsic factors, it’s rarely about money, recognition or status. They are all so easily granted and so easily taken away. People like Crean have a drive that comes from somewhere else, somewhere deep within, something intrinsic.

Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, whose name and face were on my skis that took me to the South Pole, wrote about this very notion.

“It is within us all, it is our mysterious longing to accomplish something, to fill life with something more than a daily journey from home to the office and from the office, home again. It is our ever present longing to surmount difficulties and dangers, to see that which is hidden, to seek the places lying away from the beaten track; it is the call of the unknown, the longing for the land beyond, the divine power deeply rooted within the soul of man; it is this spirit which drove the first hunters to new places and the incentive for perhaps our greatest deeds – the force of human thought which spreads its wings and flies where freedom knows no bounds.”

Explorers have a desire to make sense of the unknown. I believe that that spirit of exploration is held deep within us all.

Perhaps Nansen articulates what we must try to find as we explore our own frontiers when he says: “It is within us all.” Whatever the challenge, the motivation to keep going must come from somewhere deep inside us. External motivators are always temporary.

The answer to the question of why we do what we do is an internal one, often held privately, but one that if answered honestly will be the one that gets us there. I know that Crean must have had an answer to that question when he walked those 18 hours to cross those 35 miles of ice, uncertain if help would be waiting at the end. If he didn’t, he would never have made it.

Yes, You Need More Than Just You

Last Saturday morning I woke up, facing into my seventh and eighth training sessions in four days and I struggled. As my care assistant knocked the door, let himself in and made his way up the stairs in my house, I wanted to tell him to turn around and let me sleep on.

I want to write this blog to tell you that I can only do what I do because of people and the strategies that they help me to keep in place. Good people. It made me think of all of you who are part of Run in the Dark: training, struggling with training, fundraising, volunteering and setting up pop-ups. I suspect that the good people around you are as important to you as they are to me. Whether it’s a running partner or someone to watch your kids when you’re training or a good physiotherapist. We need more than just us to get where we want to go. It’s the only way. I am sure of it.

So, when last Saturday, my care assistant knocked the door, let himself in and made his way up the stairs in my house and I wanted to tell him to turn around and to let me sleep on, (not because I am lazy or just don’t fancy it, but because it’s hard and I’m tired and eight sessions in four days is a tough schedule with work and life and all it involves), I said nothing. And this was only because I knew that in 90 minutes time Simon O’Donnell, my South Pole teammate turned rehab teammate would be waiting in the gym to help me train and Dr. Neil Fleming, the post-doctoral research fellow that we fund, would be ready to capture the data.

My care assistant, Chris came into my room, I transferred onto my shower chair and rolled into the shower. He got my clothes, I dressed and we headed to the lab. Simon, Neil, Chris and I together completed 30 minutes of standing me at a squat rack completing single knee bends, alternate knee bends, double leg straightens and squats.

Then I completed my usual hour of spinal electrical stimulation while walking in my robot.

The reason I am doing it is clear to me – I want and have a shot at treating, if not curing my and others paralysis. I am the only person in the world so far who’s fortunate enough to trial this combination of electrical stimulation, drug and walking. But even when the future benefit is clear, my present self (the tired self who wants to sleep) trumps the future self (the paralysed man who is getting some way better). Even where there can be no clearer incentive for me to commit to every training session, I need strategies and good people to guard against my present self failing. People I cannot and will not let down.

So, now, at the end of another day with an early morning in the gym tomorrow, I think about that Run In The Dark red river of light that will flow through the streets on Wednesday the 11th of November carrying me along with it ( I think about the 25,000 people right around the world pulling on running shoes and going training and how you’ve helped me to get out of bed, to go to the lab. Over the last few years I’ve met so many people with different reasons for running: some run in the dark as first timers with the aim of finishing, some are there to win, some are there for their loved ones who are injured and so many are there to help us fast-track a cure for paralysis, to be on this most exciting of expeditions. Runners, walkers, volunteers, committees, professionals and sponsors, look after yourselves, get help and support from others to do so, and know that I couldn’t do this without you.

Mark at the Run In The Dark Start in 2013

My Beating Heart

I spend almost every day in the gym. I wear sports kit almost all of the time and I’m forever banging on about my diet and training. But I never have to change my kit after training because I never really sweat. The reason that I never really sweat is that my paralysed muscles don’t contract, which means they never demand extra oxygen, which means my heart rate never goes up and I don’t sweat and it’s incredibly frustrating.

But on the 14th of September everything changed. About 50 minutes into my usual 60 minutes walking in my Ekso Bionics robotic legs, something quite incredible happened. For the first time since I strapped my paralysed body into my exoskeleton in 2012 and over half a million steps ago, my heart rate reached a maximum of 166 beats per minute.

Watch Mark explain adding the heart monitor into today’s training.

The beating heart

Let me explain why this is so significant. In September 2008, a couple of months before I skied to the South Pole, I did a number of physiological tests. During one of these I ran on a treadmill and achieved a maximum heart rate of 178 beats per minute. At that time I was told that my aerobic stamina training for long distance cross-country skiing in Antarctica (mostly Simon and I training on indoor ski machines or dragging tyres behind us on a beach) should be in the range of 129 – 157 beats per minute. I was to start training at the lower end of this range and move towards the upper limit where I should feel it getting progressively harder. And, it did. At 157 beats per minute the effort wasn’t sustainable for 14 hours per day for weeks on the ice.

Below is a clip of Mark at his first South Pole training session with Simon O’Donnell in 2008.

Maximum heart rates differ depending on the person, age, fitness and on whether the test is done, for example, while running or cycling. We certainly must expect that there is a difference in maximum heart rate when the person being tested has been paralysed for 5 years and is being stimulated while walking in robotic legs. But we have no one else doing what I am doing yet to compare to!

Until we do, (and we are working on that), I am satisfied with comparing my stimulated robotic-walking heart to my heart before my body was so broken. Its beating, my body sweating through my t-shirt, my mind pushing me on, being able to embody my desire to train hard – at times I almost feel like me again.

Since the 166 beat high, I’ve managed to work out how to move between 130 and 150 beats per minute as I progress through our 60 minute training sessions. On the couple of occasions that I’ve pushed into the high 150s and low 160s, I’ve been overtired and struggled to keep my heart rate up on the following day. Using the rule of thumb of “180 beats per minute minus your age” suggested by Phil Maffetone –  I should be hitting about 140 for my ‘aerobic’ training and that feels right.

Waking my paralysed body

And the reason I am able to do this now? Electrical Stimulation. It has to be. Of course, none of this experience is real until the tests are done and the scientists’ work is peer reviewed and published, but it has to be down to the electrical stimulation of my spinal cord, because nothing else has changed. In fact, if you listen to conventional wisdom about paralysis – 5 years after breaking my back, I ought to be more paralysed, less likely to experience any change for the better.

As I train now in the physiology lab or in the gym in Trinity College Dublin the scientists strategically place electrodes on the skin on my lower back over my spinal cord to deliver painless electrical stimulation. The idea is that this transforms the nerve network in my spinal cord from asleep to a highly functional state; it reminds the spinal cord of its potential. It’s powerful, human, striding potential.

Then, as I walk in my robotic legs, the scientists hope that this weight bearing, this repetition of the walking pattern while my spinal cord is in this highly functional state will jolt it from its paralysis coma. Over time, we hope that this will develop the conditions to encourage my brain to regain some voluntary control over my legs. At that point the robot can power down and let my legs do some of the work. I understand it to be like the robot is performing the same role as a parent holding a baby’s fingers and encouraging him to stand and to take some early practice steps before he even understands what he is trying to do.

Mark Training with Ekso and Stimulation

Connecting the brain and body

I was just speaking at the RCSI Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine Conference. My slot was immediately before Professor Tim Noakes (author of Lore of Running, Challenging Beliefs, Real Meal Revolution, Doctor, Emeritus Professor, runner and low carbohydrate diet proponent). I was in early to test my videos and headed up to the reception area for a coffee where Tim was sitting and unfortunately for him I bombarded him with questions about my new eating plan. In fairness it is his eating plan. Simone is cooking for us at the moment from the Real Meal Revolution book and I’ve lost a tonne of weight and feel really well.

I told him about my recent Natural Born Heroes blog and we discussed my heart rate responses during my gym and lab sessions. He told me that even though I am now hitting 166 beats per minute highs I don’t need to re-fuel with chocolate milk. And he confirmed what my 24 hour ultra runner friend and Life Style Sports Run in the Dark Coach, John O’Regan says when it comes to performance, nutrition and recovery: “Listen to the body”.

 To learn more directly from Prof. Tim Noakes check out his TEDx Capetown talk below.


At the conference, Tim Noakes spoke about his central governor theory suggesting that the brain is significantly more important in our physical performances than many of us give it credit for. He believes during physical exertion at the point when we think we have given our all, it is simply a physical response to our brains telling us to take it easy rather than a physiological breakdown. He has written extensively about this and gives the example of finishing spurts in races and suggests that at a time when the muscles should be at their weakest, when our minds know that we’re on the home straight and are safe in the knowledge that we aren’t going to die, our bodies’ systems are allowed to open up and work harder.

So, it seems that not only the paralysed need to acknowledge the mind’s ability to give the heart reason for beating – to power the body to achieve its full potential. It also seems that the addition of a heart rate monitor to our training sessions in the lab is just the feedback loop I needed to encourage me to push on. The full potential of my paralysed body remains to be discovered but I believe that this week’s progress may be telling us that we can dare to try to realise it.

Inspired To Eat Like Natural Born Heroes

My friend Johnny Johnston recently recommended a book by Christopher McDougall called “Natural Born Heroes – How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”.

20 years ago Johnny and I used to row together at university and since then he has done all sorts including bare foot running, cross-fit and white-collar boxing. Almost all of his training has been high intensity, maximal output that he has combined with the fast paced life of a headhunter while living in London and then New York.

Mark and John Johnston

So, I expected Natural Born Heroes to be a high testosterone extreme fitness text, but it isn’t. It’s a mix of a swashbuckling war story, a lesson on Greek mythology and an analysis of human movement and it has made me think a lot about the fact that the human body needs so little to survive and is capable of such incredible feats. It’s made me think about what that means for me and how I think about my own body which I am demanding more and more of in pursuit of a cure for paralysis.

The book jacket says:

McDougall finds his next great adventure on the razor-sharp mountains of Crete, where a band of Resistance fighters in World War II plotted the daring abduction of a German general from the heart of the Nazi occupation. How did a penniless artist, a young shepherd, and a playboy poet believe they could carry out such a remarkable feat of strength and endurance, smuggling the general past thousands of Nazi pursuers, with little more than their own wits and courage to guide them? McDougall discovers the tools of the hero-natural movement, extraordinary endurance, and efficient nutrition.

It is the ‘tools of the hero – natural movement, extraordinary endurance, and efficient nutrition’ that are so engaging in this book. Johnny is applying it to his training and nutrition. He had an in-depth health check and found that his anaerobic (without oxygen) top end fitness was excellent, but his aerobic (with oxygen) base fitness was poor. So, he followed the Phil Maffetone 2-Week Test – in the book, experimenting with long slow runs at a heart rate of 140 (calculated at 180 minus his age) in order to build a base of aerobic fitness. He also reduced his carbohydrate intake and increased his protein and fat consumption. After 3 months the results were dramatic. In particular, Johnny’s lean muscle mass increased. Despite being ‘thin’ his body fat was 19% and it has reduced to 14% – not bad Johnny!

Natural Born Heroes is also informing my thinking about nutrition as I pursue a cure for paralysis. Over the last 6 weeks as part of our scientific research study here in Dublin, which I blogged about last month, I have completed my own battery of health checks in order to capture baseline data.

I’ve had MRIs to establish my muscle profile, Dexa scans to determine bone density and body fat composition and I have had a full blood profile done. The tests will be repeated and compared at regular intervals over the next 12 months as part of our research into the effect of electrical stimulation on my spinal cord and a drug to super-charge my nervous system while I stand and walk hundreds of thousands of steps in my Ekso Bionics robotic legs.

Mark undergoing initial tests with US/IRL Research Team

By the time I got to these baseline tests I didn’t need them to tell me that I had put on a load of weight since last year. To be precise 5kgs (11 pounds), let’s just call it a stone, of an increase. And, if I wasn’t prepared to listen to the clothes tightening around me, people were already saying, “you must be training hard“. You see, as I outlined in my blog called, ‘I’ve Gone Part-Time Paleo’  – people always say that when I’ve been eating harder than I’ve been training.

So, I started the Phil Maffetone 2-Week Test to see if I could get my weight back on track. I am 3 weeks in and really excited about how I am feeling and by the dramatic reduction in the size of my stomach. I’ve been starting most days with a protein and fat rich breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese or meat. Meat, eggs, cheese are all an option but not bread, cereal or sugar. During the day I’ve been snacking on biltong kindly sponsored by Stript Snacks and nuts.

Mark with Stript Snacks

And, for lunch and dinner I’ve been eating a mix of Paleo stews, Banting meals and lots of spinach and kale. If I need something different in the next few weeks I’ll rely on Life Style Sports Run In The Dark Foodie Tina Bergin’s protein rich running treat recipes on the Nutrition Blog – thanks Tina!

Natural Born Heroes has encouraged me to remain curious about my human body and its personal struggle to move despite paralysis. It’s reminded me to fuel it with the right nutrition and, like that ‘band of Resistance fighters’, to try to go beyond the apparent limits of my paralysis.

For those of you who are joining us at the Life Style Sports Run in the Dark in November – I strongly recommend that you consider the ‘tools of the hero’ as outlined in Natural Born Heroes – ‘natural movement, extraordinary endurance, and efficient nutrition’!!

Mark at home with healthy meal

Stimulating spinal cord injury research in Dublin

I floated out of my mind for a flurry of seconds and then I was back in the lab, on a bench. Like so many of the new feelings I’ve felt this past year it is hard to describe. It was a bit like the floating I felt on morphine in intensive care. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was what the scientists were looking for on the computer screen. They were electrically stimulating a part of my brain so they could see whether there were intact descending nerves despite my damaged spinal cord. And what really matters is that we were performing these tests at all! That this research is happening here in Dublin.


We’ve created a paralysis research program in Trinity College Dublin and we couldn’t have done it without the support that so many of you have given the Mark Pollock Trust. Thank you. 

The Trust now officially funds a full-time researcher, Neil Fleming, PhD who will run our collaboration with the American and Russian scientists.

If I take paralysis out of the analysis, this is an incredible milestone, the culmination of lots of hard work and effort. But I’m also frustrated. This past year, since the end of the UCLA trial and starting again here in Dublin has felt like we were standing still. Spinal cord injury research should be progressing faster and the trials should be bigger, more ambitious. Christopher Reeve used to urge the scientific world to work faster and harder and that call is still urgent.

Paralysis has to be part of the analysis of this announcement because paralysis is so devastating for every person living with a spinal cord injury. Every day I wake up I detach a bed bag and hand it to my carer, who helps me to get out of bed, wheels me into the shower. I get dressed sitting on my bed and then I roll to the lab, again only with the help of my carer. It is a paradoxical situation: I resent that I have to rely on my carers for everything, while being so grateful that they are there; I am lucky to have them at all. The creation of this trial is great, but I would trade it in an instant to be able to feel and control my body again. And this is what drives me to try to change the impact of paralysis on people and on those who love and support them. 

With Professors Reggie Edgerton of UCLA and Yury Gerasimenko of the Pavlov Institute, Neil and the team here in Trinity will study the paralysed body’s response to innovative electrical stimulation of the spinal cord combined with a drug to super-charge the nervous system while I walk thousands of steps in my robotic legs. 

rsz_research_team_1200x628 (1)

It’s also fitting that my university, Trinity and my colleagues, Dr Nick Mahony and Bernard Donne, who I’ve known since the good old days when I could both walk and see, have helped to make this happen. Nick and Bernard tested me in Trinity’s Human Performance Laboratory when I was trialling for the Irish lightweight rowing squads and again after I went blind and began taking on desert endurance races. And last month they were hunched over the computer alongside the American and Russian scientists looking to see what happened when I floated out of my body for that flurry of seconds. They created the space and gathered the expertise for us to do this trailblazing research and I can’t ever thank them enough.

Over the next twelve months I will spend most of each week in the lab, or walking while being electrically stimulated. That’s another feeling that’s hard to describe. The electrical stimulation on my back and the drug in my system when I’m walking in my robot make me aware of my legs beneath me and I can join in the walking enough to break a sweat. It doesn’t feel normal, like the way I used to feel my legs, but after five years of paralysis it is fantastic to feel and we know from the data that feeling is well worth pursuing.

This is the beginning of something. Something exciting, something that I hope will move us closer to the cure. So, it’s time for a small celebration, just so long as we keep our eye on the prize – to be able to take paralysis out of the analysis for everyone.

%d bloggers like this: