Meet the Unbreakable Mark Pollock
New documentary sheds light on Run in the Dark founder and inspirational County Down sportsman
‘The end is just the start.’
That sentence might sound like fortune-cookie wisdom but, in truth, it serves as the simple mantra for a man who has learned to overcome near biblical odds in the course of a life defined by obstacles. For Holywood's Mark Pollock, the end of one challenge really does represent the dawn of something new.
With a certain amount of cruel serendipity, Irish filmmaker Ross Whitaker had set out to make Unbreakable, a documentary about Pollock’s extraordinary facility for inspirational achievement, before his subject suffered the accident which paralysed him in 2010. Following some internal debate, Whitaker kept the cameras rolling thereafter. The results were even more compelling.
Pollock’s time on earth up to that point already told enough of a fascinating tale to justify a filmic legacy. In 1998, at the tender age of 22, he lost his sight and intended career in finance to a condition that had plagued him since birth. He was (and is) a strong, fit sportsman, however, and the disappearance of one sense only spurred him to hone the others, to plunge headlong into a world where he was, at least in theory, more vulnerable.
He recalibrated, embracing his career as a motivational speaker whose words were backed up by the professional adventuring he undertook between speaking gigs. Incredibly, in 2009, he completed one of the planet’s most arduous physical feats: a three-week cross-ice trek to the South Pole. ‘This was my Olympic Games, my big one,’ he says in voiceover. ‘I felt an incredible sense of contentment.’
Whitaker’s beautifully constructed, startlingly personal film – subtitled The Mark Pollock Story – captures the essence of the County Down man’s previous existence, yet where it excels is in recording his iron-clad will to rebuild a life after falling, devastatingly, from a second storey window in the genteel surroundings of the Henley Regatta.
The Dublin-based director offers up a diary of the significant waypoints occurring in the years since that day, a period characterised by pain, emotional turmoil, heartache and, most impressively, an astounding spirit of hope. Pollock is a proud individual and his quietly touching admission that he desires to be more than a mere ‘novelty’ is amongst this chronicle’s truly human moments.
Concluding in early 2014, Unbreakable sees him and his devoted partner, Simone George, situated in Los Angeles, deep into the high-tech clinical trials – an intense combination of physical therapy, pharmacology and robotic technology – that they believe will allow him to recover some vestiges of his old self; trials which should benefit others in similar circumstances.
In the flesh, Pollock is as impressive as his screen persona. Urbane and witty, he wields a pioneer’s attitude to the path that destiny has dictated he follow, though he will never claim to be the sole author of his fate. He places great stock in the base provided by his loved ones, referring to the ‘real tangible benefit’ of having his family around him. ‘You just don’t do it on your own.’
He is the author of a book, however, entitled Making It Happen, which, as the blurb points out, 'offers insights into his experience about dealing with blindness and emerging even stronger at the far side'.
Those early months in the hospital were very dark, Pollock recalls. ‘The worst happened, but everything is now better than it was in those early days.’ Unbreakable, Pollock says, is about more than his own journey from the depths of despair: ‘With this film, we want to put paralysis on the agenda.’
He wishes to ‘use it as a tool’, to ‘start a discussion’, sentiments one can believe in when they are infused with a strength of personality that long ago decided to press on, to never retreat. Pollock now concentrates on conquering a branch of medical science where uncertainty remains.
The spinal chord is a crucial component of human physiology, yet the effects of, and treatment for, associated traumatic injuries require serious research. As such, Pollock divides his present routine into three phases: rehabilitation, ‘re-wiring of the network’ and regeneration.
‘The physical exercises, keeping the paralysed bits in good enough nick, is important for the innovations down the line.’ Indeed, there exist reasons to persist, he adds. ‘We’ve got enough data to know it’s worth going on with but it’s not real in science until it’s peer reviewed and published.’
It should be noted that Pollock’s considerable drive does not centre solely on his own affliction. ‘When you have an accident like this, the patient, the person in the bed, becomes the sole focus,’ he says.
That is a point echoed in the documentary and one at the core of his eagerness to promote The Mark Pollock Trust, a charitable foundation dedicated to developing a cure for paralysis and creating a collaborative global forum for interested parties – doctors, scientists, technicians – seeking the expedition of that goal.
Furthermore, the foundation’s Run in the Dark events – staged in November – offer crucial, immediate fundraising opportunities in five official cities across the UK and Ireland (including Belfast), and over 20 pop-up locations around the world, hosting official 5k or 10k night-time runs.
As far as Pollock is concerned everyone is in this together: allies large and small have swift progress in mind. ‘I’m extraordinarily lucky to have this support,’ he concludes. ‘I’m so determined to get out of the lab, to help people.’