By Clare Morin
There is something that all 4 Deserts competitors learn in the solitary depths of a desert race; they start to understand the power of their own minds. For Nick Ashley-Cooper, the inner strength he gained from pushing himself across the sands of the Sahara had a very real effect in his life – helping him to overcome a terrifying brush with paralysis. And now, a year after his near-fatal accident, the British competitor is returning to the desert once more.
Nick first started running in 4 Deserts events in 2008 when, nearing his 30s and aware of the need to “get into shape” he decided to tackle the Sahara Race. “My only goal was to finish, so it was great to finish 31st,” he recounts of his successful first attempt. “It was strange as I actually grew in confidence throughout the race,” he adds. “I thought that I would tire after the first few days and the last days would be the toughest. In fact it was the reverse... The closer to the finish line you get, the stronger your belief becomes that you are going to make it, and the greater your strength. You realize what a mental battle it is out there.”
After the Sahara, Nick threw himself into training for RacingThePlanet: Namibia, where he went on to finish 24th in a very competitive field. With two now under his belt, Nick’s vision grew to encompass the Atacama Crossing, RacingThePlanet: Australia and the Gobi March 2010. But in December of 2009, the unexpected occurred.
Nick was out riding his horse when he fell, his body slamming into the frozen ground. The impact of the fall caused a compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae, in the largest section of the spinal column and an area of the spine that is the source of much body motion and supports most of the body’s weight. A fragment of the bone broke off, bruising his spinal cord. He underwent immediate surgery to stabilize the fracture, had a metal plate inserted to cover three of the vertebrae, and then spent two months in agonizing recovery. “All I can say is I have a new appreciation for nerves and nerve function,” he says of the ordeal. “I suffered a lot of difficulties in the first two months as some of my nerves had been quite badly damaged – up to 70%.”
Yet, while lying in this debilitating condition in hospital, the mind of an endurance runner re-emerged. Despite the doctors being uncertain if he would even walk again, Nick simply decided that he would run across another desert. “When I was lying in hospital I told myself that I would race again next year,” he says. “A lot of my friends, knowing I did endurance races, used the remark: if anyone can do it, you can. And they were right, in a way; the races have given me a lot of inner strength to face this.”
With this positive frame of mind, Nick went about dealing with the sheer uncertainty of his injury. Pilates and osteopathy helped the process, and soon he was able to walk on crutches and then, walk unassisted. Remarkably, four months after the accident, Nick was out of the hospital and enjoying a trip to California with his fiancée, where he realized that the 4 Deserts would indeed become a reality. “We did a trek up to the Yosemite Falls, which was about 11km up and down a mountain path. It was the first real test for me.”
Now he is preparing for the Atacama Crossing 2011 and RacingThePlanet: Nepal. Nick admits that his recovery is still not complete. “I still have very weak muscles on my feet and [the] backs of my calves where the nerve damage is recovering,” he says. “Recovery takes up to two years so it will be a while before I know exactly where things stand, however not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I am to have scraped through this.”
Nick has decided to use his experience at the upcoming Atacama Crossing 2011 as a way of helping those who have not been so lucky. He is raising funds for Wings for Life (www.wingsforlife.com), a not-for-profit organization that promotes research worldwide towards a cure for Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Paralysis. And his advice to those who encounter similar physical trauma returns to the sheer importance of one’s thoughts: “Patience,” he says. “Have a goal. Get the best help you can find. Reach out to others who have had similar experiences. Stay positive.”