By Clare Morin
When we first wrote a feature about Nick Ashley-Cooper in September 2010, the British competitor was on the slow road to recovery from a brush with near-paralysis. There was one goal he was aiming towards: to recover enough to be able to race in the Atacama Crossing 2011.
Six months have passed, and the near impossible has been achieved. The 31-year old has regained his fitness, arrived in Chile, and is now taking on the next challenge of - completing each stage he sets out on.
“My main aim is to just get through the day,” he admits. “It’s become a challenge. Doing this after my injury has made it much harder. It’s been really challenging for my body, but also mentally – I’m asking myself, can I do this?”
Nick’s story began in 2008, when he first entered the Sahara Race 2008 as a relative newcomer to endurance events. He came in 31st, and spurred by that good result went on to compete in RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, where he crossed the finish line in 24th position. He next turned his attention to the 4 Deserts – hoping to complete the Atacama Crossing in 2010, but in December of 2009 he had an accident, falling off a horse and seriously damaging his spine.
It was while lying in the hospital bed, that he decided he would run again. And in June of 2010, he signed up for the Atacama Crossing having read about Paolo Giannerini, the inspiring Italian who had been diagnosed unexpectedly with Multiple Sclerosis while training for Atacama Crossing 2009. The 42-year old had pulled out as his life crumbled around him, but then he returned and, amazingly, completed the 2010 event.
“That really inspired me,” explains Nick. “I was quite ambitious and signed up for this event as part of my recovery target. Thing have been going well, although there is still space for recovery. Signing up for this race did definitely make a difference in my recovery, both physically and mentally.”
Nick’s recovery still isn’t 100%. “I have done lots of Pilates and gym work, and with all the rehabilitation I’m actually now more flexible than before the accident,” he says. Yet there are still things he cannot do. “The nerves around my big toe and calves are particularly affected,” he says. “It has affected my walking - I plot on my heels. Also my calves are not contracting completely, so they are still weak. Doctors don’t know if there will be full recovery.”
With all this, it seems remarkable that he would undergo as tough a challenge as a 250km self-support footrace across a harsh desert. But as Nick explains, when he comes across the tough spots in recent days, he has been finding immense strength in the people surrounding him. “People here are very supportive. I probably wouldn’t have come through this race, if it wasn’t for them,” he says. “Then again everyone has issues – I don’t single myself out in any way.”
When asked if there is anything else he would like to add at the end of the interview, he just grins and says: “Ask me at the finish line"