Posts Tagged 'Mark Pollock'

On Being a Realist

On the 18th July 2010 I was lying in the acute ward of The National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK. It was two weeks after my fall, I couldn’t feel or move my legs, I was pumped full of morphine and despite all of this I was feeling lucky to be alive.

As I lay there in the middle of the night I wrote a blog called, ‘Optimist, Realist or Something Else? I was surrounded by guys who were paralysed from the neck, chest or waist down and I was better off than many of them and worse off than some. I could acknowledge that they were paralysed but the question that I could not answer was: “Am I going to be one of these guys?”

And, as I wrote the blog I remembered a book that I had read called ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. He spoke about the Stockdale Principle, a principle based on the experience of long-term prisoners of war and how the optimists were not the ones who survived. Realists did. The reason for this was that the optimists thought that they would be free soon, so they never faced the reality that they may never get out. As a result they were constantly disappointed, demoralised and died in their cells. Whereas the realists dealt in facts, faced the reality of their current circumstances. They were the ones to survive.

This is why I titled the blog Optimist, Realist or Something Else? In those first couple of weeks I questioned if I should be super positive and say – I will make a full recovery – and risk being a Stockdale optimist. I also wondered – should I be a realist and embrace the fact that my legs are not working and therefore are unlikely to recover? But if I did that I feared I would potentially shut off the power of my mind and body to recover in ways that we don’t yet understand.

Looking back I can see how being an optimist was the easy option because it doesn’t demand an examination of the facts. Yet my reluctance to be a realist was misplaced and left me looking for something else. But there is nothing else, being a realist is the only option.

Now, as a realist I have been able to deal in all of the facts. The fact is that I have a catastrophic spinal cord injury. The fact is that I am paralysed and cannot move anything below my waist. The fact is that finding a cure has proven to be impossible up to this point in history. But it is also a fact that human history is made up over and over again of accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour.

I don’t believe that there is any need to worry about being a realist. Being a realist allows us to examine the full suite of options and that includes as much despair, as it does acceptance and fantastical hope.

Mark in Wheelchair

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More of an explorer than ever before

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In preparation for the South Pole Race I learnt a lot about Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, the polar explorers who carved those first trails into the ice in Antarctica. Their stories inspired and excited me, but I never felt like an explorer during the race. They were the first, the pioneers – that was their privilege, their courage, their sacrifice. They dared to chart the unknown world for the rest of us to follow in their tracks. I, and everyone who came after them, have simply been adventurers on a different type of quest.

Over the last few months I have begun to make sense of the irony of where I find myself now.  The moment I fell and was left paralysed everything changed. No matter how much I fight against it, it has. Forever. When I raced to the South Pole I was an adventurer, now I am not. My ability to compete on merit in adventure races is gone. Being blind and paralysed, I can’t pull my weight on the team anymore. If I dwell upon what I have lost too much, it could break me. Instead I see the irony of my new blind and paralysed self. My identity as an adventurer is gone, yet I closer to the polar explorers than I ever was while skiing to the South Pole.

I roll to Trinity every day in my wheelchair and strap my paralysed legs into my robotic legs and I walk. I walk miles and miles of uncharted steps. Success is uncertain, maybe even unlikely. I walk miles and miles with Simon, my South Pole Race teammate, at my shoulder, taking time from his work and his family to accompany me, step after step after step, along the frontier of recovery. Behind us is a diagnosis of paralysis, ASIA A complete meaning – further recovery so unlikely that conventional wisdom suggests that it is not worth trying. In front of us though is that vast, uncharted world.

Of all the things I have ever done this has the greatest chance of failure over success. There is so much at stake – the rest of my life, my relationships, my emotional and psychological wellbeing. We don’t know where the cure is. Out there, somewhere, like the South Pole, I am making the most educated guess available in this world at this time and I am pointing myself in what we hope is the right direction. I say we, because this exploration requires and is taking global collaboration – those supporting me financially through runinthedark.org, the spinal cord injury organisations I work with, the scientists, doctors, the paralysed.

So, I am embracing that irony and this new identity – former South Pole adventurer, now paralysed explorer on a mission to find and connect people on the frontier of spinal injury recovery. I am exploring the effects of aggressive physical therapy and walking my injured body and using the great support I have to try to connect those working in science and medicine around the world. If not for me, for the millions of people like me around the world, trying to live in the spirit of those early explorers and believing that just because it hasn’t been found doesn’t mean that it won’t be.

Fully Engage & Reap the Rewards

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been speaking at conferences all over Ireland and the UK. Sitting back stage waiting to go on, I have had the chance to listen to all sorts of corporate leaders, entrepreneurs and Olympic medalists sharing their stories. The message that is repeated time and time again is that getting fully engaged is the way to reap rewards…

Listening to their stories I was reminded of the level of commitment required, from so many people, to help me race to the South Pole. It was not difficult to get lots of people excited about the idea, but turning it into a reality was a different story. Trying to raise the sponsorship nearly killed the project before we even left for Antarctica. And there were other hurdles to deal with – unexpected changes to the team  , creating content for the media, living in a tent for 43 days, dragging sledges for 14 hours per day, coping with frost bite and losing 2 stone in weight.

The option of commiting anything less than 100% was simply not there. Even by being fully engaged with the project we were not certain of making it to the South Pole. However, it is the brushes with failure and level of commitment required that produced a feeling of contentment that I have rarely experienced.

The result of all of this is that I’ve decided that it is time to get fully engaged with a new challenge and over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a plan. It looks like I’ll be taking to the sea for my first  off-shore sailing race…all will be finalized in time for next week’s blog!

Battery-powered team-mates

For years I’ve been banging on about the importance of getting the right team around you…and this post is not going to dispute that. However, over the last week I added an electronic team-mate to the group.

A talking heart rate monitor from Oregon Scientific – the AH310 – is the new addition. It’s a heart-rate monitor chest strap with a built-in earphone jack in the chest belt. Through the ear phones I get periodic updates on what my heart rate is and I’m blown away by the impact it is having.

When I could see I used to use a whole suite of electronic equipment to measure my progress on a given day – electronic read outs on rowing machines, speedos on bikes and heart rate monitors when rowing, running, swimming or anything else. I was constantly checking and rechecking my progress against previous performance.

Sometimes I was ahead, sometimes I was behind but the point is that I had something to work off. But when I lost my sight I lost my training independence. From 1998 until today, unless I had a willing team-mate to either set the pace or read my scores out then I was completely on my own. I rarely, if ever, got off a piece of exercise equipment or out of the pool feeling like I had done enough. And for years I have found motivating myself for training a real drag.

The races and adventures have been amazing but getting my training right has been really tough. For example, back in 2006 I did most of my training on my own and eventually managed to over-train myself. I was training for Ironman Switzerland (3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and then a marathon) and was scared of not doing enough training. Pushing myself to the point where I became over-trained was, in no small part, due to a lack of feedback. For the most part I relied on perceived effort (difficult if you don’t have an initial mark to base the perceived effort on) and far too much time spent in the pool, on a stationary bike and on treadmills. The result was that my performances dropped dramatically, I was really down in the dumps and my weight shot up.

The over training, I believe came about due to 2 factors: firstly, I had very little feedback on how hard I was training which resulted in me doing far too much and secondly, I wasn’t fuelling my body for the effort I was putting in (but I didn’t really know how much effort I was putting in!)

Today, I’ve learned lots about the importance of nutrition and hydration but until I put my new talking heart rate monitor on for the first time, my work rate in training remained a mystery. Now, talking heart rate monitor in place, I seem to be motivated to train again on my own. This simply hasn’t happened since 1998 when I could see. I’m training more effectively, enjoying it and am even eating better than I have for ages.

Maybe, just maybe, this simple piece of electronic kit is the missing team-mate that I’ve been looking for. I’ll reserve judgement and see if my enthusiasm lasts but right now the heart rate monitor is in the team!

Shreddin’ the Slopes: Courage, Fear & Assessing the Risk

The challenge for last weekend was my first snowboarding experience on real snow. The plan for this challenge had been to get Nick Wolf (my Gobi March team-mate) to talk me safely down a mountain in Switzerland on my walkie talkie system that I bought for this year’s challenges. It seemed like a sensible, achievable goal.

We stood at the top of the mountain in Switzerland, our boards no wider than baking trays, and prepared to “shred the slopes”. As we strapped in, however, I was battling with a growing sense of fear. Surging through my mind were waves of doubt which often surface before the rush of adrenaline takes over.

All the usual suspects were there: Why am I doing this? I’m going to hurt myself. I can’t do this. How can I get out of this?

But with the board strapped on the navel-gazing was squeezed out by the adrenaline in full flow around my body. I was compelled to get up and go.
A rush of blood to the head made me set off without doing a radio test on the walkie-talkie or checking if Nick or the others were ready. Before anyone could say a word I was off. Sliding, turning, falling, sliding falling, turning, falling. But with cries of encouragement from Simone I soon entered my own world.

After my first few slides I didn’t hear the others. As I lay flat out after another major tumble Nick caught up and told me that I was just metres away from a tree and he had lost sight of me over the brow of the first hill. We hadn’t turned the walkie talkies on for this first run – whoops!!
Challenges like this are always met with a balance between courage and fear but the key is to make a judgement based on a sober, objective assessment of the risks. The aim in trying snowboarding was already a stated one so that was not in question. However the fear I felt was, I’m sure, part of a conscious and unconscious series of risk assessments.
As I sat at the top of the mountain I was scared. But where did these feelings actually come from and what was I really scared of? Was I scared of hurting myself? Was I scared of looking like an idiot? Was I scared of having to write this blog post with a report that snowboarding blind is just too damn hard?

The answer is probably yes to all of these things but ultimately, whether subconcious or not, I made the choice to push off and give it a shot. I felt the risks were not insurmountable and I had factored some of them out. For example, I had tried to arrive on the slopes prepared and ready by taking lessons on the indoor slope. I thought I had overcome the directional issues with the walkie-talkies as a substitute for sight. And I was relying on my own ability based on experience from other sports.
Our ability to assess the risks, to balance courage and fear, is done by preparing. But preparation can only take you so far. Eventually you’ve got to stand up and step off the mountain. It’s up to you…

The joy of acceptance

22nd July

I am a serial radio listener and own a portable FM radio which is nearly
always in my ear. But a couple of months ago I cut my radio listening down
to a minimum. The business commentary and constant negative analysis of
everything to do with the economy was genuinely getting me down, especially
if I woke up to the doom and gloom. But I am starting to get the sense that
there is a move towards the first steps of a recovery. But the first step
isn’t a quick fix, rather it is about accepting the reality of what is going
on. Optimistic, I know. But I really believe people might have realised the
trouble we are in collectively, and have taken a decision to do something
about it, rather than looking backwards, I get the sense that people are
gathering themselves ready for pushing on to the future.

When I first went blind in 1998, I became aware of something called the
Kubler-Ross model. It’s not too scientific, so don’t worry. It was created
by a lady called Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross who created 5 stages of grief. For
Kubler-Ross, the stages were originally designed for the terminally ill. But
I found great solace in it when I first lost my sight, and I believe that we
can all find parallels through it as we negotiate this economic cycle.

The first stage Kubler Ross looks at is denial. When I lost my sight at 22,
I simply couldn’t believe it was happening. I was in total denial. And I’ve
seen this denial happening in businesses of all sizes. For example, in the
financial world, who could have predicted the collapse of some of the
rockstar brands on Wall Street like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch?
Hundreds of thousands of people who work in the big finance houses simply
could not believe it was happening. Commentators were the same. In fact, the
denial was actually in place for years before the various company collapses
and it is the denial of the facts that has led us all to the economic
disaster that we are now facing. And the banks are not the only ones who
were in denial…we were all at it!

The next stage is anger. Soon after the denial, as the reality starts to
sink in, we look around for someone to blame. I did it when I went
blind…got angry with the people close to me, the doctors, the charities,
the government. I was angry and blaming them for what was happening. It is
the same in the recession. We’re all all angry and looking for someone to
blame. And it is why I decided to stop listening to the radio – it was the
hunt for the people to blame that was getting to me. Understanding what
went wrong and who was responsible is of course useful if things go wrong.
But blame for blame sake doesn’t usually fix the current problem.

Third, is bargaining. We all do it. I used to go to sleep and hope that some
kind of miracle would happen in my sleep. I thought I might just wake up and
be able to see. Sometimes I opened my eyes and did think I could see. But
miracles and bargaining haven’t worked for me yet and it isn’t going to
work for the economy. We’ve got to make changes not just
wait for them to happen!

Depression. This is the penultimate stage for Kubler Ross. After all of the
anger and the recriminations, depression is what she found. I think it is
dangerous to use the word depression loosely and as such I don’t think I got
depressed. I did feel sorry for myself but I remained in control of my
decisions. In an odd way, there was a comfort factor in lying in bed with my
head under the pillow. I was unable to interact with anybody, family or
friends.

Every morning, you hear depression mentioned in tandem with the economic
crisis. The morning radio reports have been filled with the negative stories
but, in my experience, this is not the end (and I acknowledge those who are
actually depressed which is a medical condition which is not what I am
talking about). For the vast majority of people there is a choice, not an
easy choice, but a choice all the same and that is to stop here or to move
on…

The final stage is acceptance. Very early on I realised that my challenge
was not about seeing again, it was about living again. I worked out that I
had a choice…to focus on the past (which wasn’t coming back) or to focus onthe future (which I could have a part in creating). But, ultimately, I’ve
been able to live my life on my terms. The key was accepting the facts – the
good, the bad and the indifferent.

If I’m right and the media reports are accurately reporting a mood of
acceptance, I believe we are just about ready to start recovering. If the
majority of us have accepted that we have a problem, and we can be part of
getting over it, then we have probably started to work collectively to find
a solution. With any setback, whether it is a disability like blindness or
losing your job, we all will have to move through some of the stages Kubler Ross
mentions, but it is only when we confront reality that we are able to really move forward.


@markpollock


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