It is a surreal sight. Hundreds of people running in the cold, pitch-black of a mid-autumn night, their faces lit from below by neon bands on their arms. And in the middle of this mass of humanity is 39-year-old solicitor Simone George, running on her own, glossy jet-black hair streaming down her back and tears running down her face. ‘I call it my 10k run and cry,’ she says.
She is taking part in Life Style Sports Run In The Dark, a five and ten-kilometre race launched four years ago after Simone’s fiance, 38-year-old blind adventurer Mark Pollock, fell out of a two-storey-high window in 2010. He broke his back in three places and is paralysed from the waist down.
The run takes place in 45 cities across the world and raises money for research into a cure for paralysis. A film about Simone and Mark, called Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story (released in Ireland and coming to the UK in the New Year), tells how they have overcome seemingly impossible hurdles.
Light in the dark: Blind athlete Mark Pollock, 38, pictured with fiance Simone George, fell out of a two-storey-high window in 2010, broke his back in three places, and is now paralysed from the waist down
Originally from Holywood in County Down, Northern Ireland, Mark was five when he went blind in one eye aged five from a retinal detachment. This occurs when the retina comes free from the inner part of the eyeball.
The problem affected his other eye when he was 22. In spite of two desperate operations to save his sight, he went completely blind.
He subsequently forged a successful career as a motivational speaker and adventurer.
Simone and Mark met when he took up salsa dancing and she, a solicitor, offered to help him learn.
They were just four weeks away from marrying when Mark suffered his catastrophic accident.
Simone has said that back then, she didn’t worry about Mark following his heart on extreme adventures, because he was so well prepared. ‘It is normally the mundane that gets you,’ she said. And that’s exactly what happened.
Mark had been staying in a house with friends visiting Henley for the famous regatta when he decided to have an early night and went up to bed alone.
Walking tall: Mark Pollock in the Ekso bionic suit
Simone was in Ireland, planning their big day.
Inexplicably, Mark fell from his bedroom window and crash-landed on to concrete, fracturing his skull and breaking his spine. To this day, he has no idea how it happened. He spent 16 months in hospital.
So marriage plans were put on hold and Simone found herself taking a year-long sabbatical and spending day after day sitting by Mark’s bedside.
The spinal cord relays movement commands from the brain as well as sensory information back from the body up to the brain.
It also controls certain automatic sensory information back from the body to the brain, and affects some automatic bodily functions such as breathing, sweating and regulating the body’s blood pressure.
With a diagnosis of complete spinal-cord injury, Mark had no significant movement or feeling below his belly button.
Although he believed he might pick up on his adventuring again, albeit in a wheelchair, a training trip to Norway made him realise that this was not possible.
‘I didn’t get the same buzz,’ he mourns. ‘I was being helped too much. Finding a cure for paralysis has become my adventure.’
Simone says: ‘I read literature about his condition almost from the moment he was in hospital.
‘When Mark’s South Pole team-mate, Simon O’Donnell, came to see him, I noticed that he was reading a book about neuroplasticity – how the brain and central nervous system are ‘‘plastic’’ and capable of change. It may be one of the keys to helping paralysed people.’
Simon offered to help Mark with physical training. ‘Without that, I think we would have given up on our quest,’ says Simone.
‘It’s hard enough going to the gym at the best of times, never mind when it takes three hours to get up, have a shower and get out of the door.’
Mark points out that in order to cure paralysis, we need to be aware of the unpleasant realities that come with it, such as lack of bladder control.
And he gives an example to show how his paralysis affects every single moment of the couple’s lives. ‘If I want to turn over in bed at night, I have to be physically wide awake and use my arms to lift up my legs, and then I disturb Simone.’
Following a fundraising drive, Mark became the first person to have his own £100,000 Ekso Bionics exoskeleton suit, which allows him to walk, with support. ‘Now I can hug my girlfriend,’ he says.
He already holds the accolade of being the first blind person to reach the South Pole on foot, and has also won two Commonwealth Games medals for rowing.
He and Simone travelled to Los Angeles earlier this year to take part in a ground-breaking experiment. ‘Scientists from a number of disciplines are looking at a cocktail of treatments for paralysis,’ he explains.
‘This is a combination of therapies, including robotics, electrical stimulation and drugs.’
He has volunteered himself to help the scientists in their quest.
Simone adds: ‘This is exciting stuff, this quest for a cure. And Mark does the hard stuff – the training, the drugs and the rehab.
‘Even if these interventions don’t help Mark, we hope to contribute to science which helps others.’
Race In The Dark is an acknowledgment of their current situation, and the atmosphere is electric with hope for the future.
‘The first year we did it was in Dublin and it was raining so hard,’ recalls Simone.
‘A man came over and told us that his baby had a spinal injury – hearing about Mark’s struggle was keeping him going.’
runinthedark.org takes place on November 12 in five official locations. Visit markpollocktrust. org/video.