Monday, December 15, 2008

Blind man and his team race toward South Pole

From the BBC in the UK:

A County Down man is about to set off on a unique challenge to reach the South Pole in the first ever competitive race since Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott's race nearly 100 years ago.

Mark Pollock (pictured training) and his team will navigate their way across 1,000km of the Antarctic Plateau in temperatures which could reach as low as -50 degrees Celsius while pulling a 70kg sled. No mean feat in itself, but to add to the challenge that Mark, from Holywood, is blind and will rely on the guidance of his team mates to reach the finish line.

2008 marks the 10th anniversary of Mark going blind, and it was on his 32nd birthday at the end of February that he signed up for the Amundsen Omega 3
South Pole Race.

Alongside Mark will be Dublin based rugby coach Simon O'Donnell and experienced North Pole explorer Inge Solheim from Norway.

Together they make up Team and will compete against five other teams including Team Qinetiq featuring double Olympic medal winner James Cracknell and TV presenter Ben Fogle.

Mark lost the sight of one eye when he was a young boy after his retina detached. It was while practising for a university boat race with his rowing club in Dublin that the retina detached in his other eye.

He never regained his sight.

Since then, the inspirational athlete has set himself a physical challenge each year.

In 2002, he won a Commonwealth medal for rowing and he was the first blind person to complete the lowest and highest marathons in the world - The Dead Sea Ultra in Jordan, followed by the Tensing-Hillary Everest Marathon from Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

He competes in each event with a partner, who takes up the lead in the races, with Mark running behind him. They are connected to each by a piece of string running from the guide's hand to Mark's.

For this race, Mark will have to pull a 70kg sled containing his food provisions and camping gear. A harness attached from his skiing equipment to his team-mate Inge's equipment will direct him through the terrain.

"I will be able to detect whether or not Inge is going left or right, uphill or downhill
by the way the equipment changes direction," explains Mark, who said his only worry about the trip was slowing his team mates down.

Mark has been undergoing specialist training for the race which will see him trekking for up to 16 hours a day and climbing heights of up to 9,300 feet.

He will set off on his six-week adventure on Monday (15 December). He will fly to Capetown to sort out his daily food rations and make his last alterations to his kit, before boarding a private cargo plane to a Russian scientific base in Novo, Antarctica.

"Before the race starts we have to undergo a 200km polar training warm-up which will take around two weeks. This is to make sure we adapt okay to the conditions and that we are fit and healthy enough to continue," said Mark.

He added that it is not uncommon for people to go into "polar shock" when they reach the North or South Pole.

"When they see the vastness of the landscape for themselves it does freak some people out. There is nothing but ice and snow for hundreds of miles and if anything was to happen, the nearest hospital is 10,000 miles away."

According to Mark, the dehydrated food he's taking with him, all non-perishable, is "actually quite nice".

Before he gets to eat though he has to set up camp, light a fire and melt some ice on his stove. His Antarctica menu features beef curry and rice, fish pasta or sweet and sour chicken.

For breakfast, lumps of butter will be mixed into a mixture of oats, dried fruit, milk and hot water to increase his fat content.

"When you are in such extremities, the body burns more fat to keep warm so I've had to try and double my calorie intake in order to gain extra body fat for insulation. At this stage, I'm absolutely sick of pizza," he laughed.

However, due to an increase in his physical exercise Mark has been burning up his calories almost as quickly as he eats them and faces coming home from Antarctica a lot lighter than he went.

"The further we get into the race, we will become more tired and sleep deprived - that's maybe when the problems will start. We are going to have to be very disciplined with our routine," he admitted.

"If we say we're getting up at a certain time and setting off by such a time we have to do it."

The competition begins on new year's day and lasts as long as the team take to cross the ice.

"I'll miss both Christmas and new year - but at least I'll be guaranteed a white Christmas," he joked.