The Art and Science of Fitness | From overcoming Injuries to Pursuing Adventure
Through determination and perseverance, it is possible to overcome injuries and continue living an active, adventurous life. Setbacks should not be allowed to stand in the way of pursuing our passions.
Dr Mark Steven Woolley has had a roller-coaster life and has taught us all how to live an active, adventurous life even after injuries. Woolley, a PhD in Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (Computational Molecular Physics) and a teacher of Physics and Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalaureate system in a school in Spain, is an adventurer and retired ultra-distance athlete who was named Adventurer of the Year 2016 by the Federación Andaluza de Montañismo. He has run 1,316 km in Ladakh, India, while participating in the 111, 222, and 333 km categories at La Ultra - The High over the years. He has also served as co-race director and has brought students from his school in Spain to crew at the race.
The first major injury Woolley suffered was a fall from a rock face in North Wales in the summer of 1990. He was climbing very well at the time, relaxed and strong, but perhaps just a little too relaxed at the time of the fall. It was on a route called "Poetry in Pink" and the first and only protection bolt was about 25 metres above the ground.
He admitted, "As it was, I fell from about 5 metres, on the easy section, due completely to not concentrating on what I was supposed to be doing. As I hit the ground, I could hear the bones shattering in a sharp, sickening crescendo. It felt like I had suddenly drunk two bottles of whisky, one after the other, and then the pain started. My friend Andy told me that I had broken my leg, just above the ankle, and that I was okay, but that I shouldn't look at it. But I needed to see it, so I tried and couldn't see the foot. 'It's the other side of your leg, Mark.' The lower leg had quite literally snapped in half and the foot was hanging off the end of the leg by just a few tendons. Ouch!"
Woolley was airlifted by a military helicopter out of the slate quarry and flown to the local hospital in Bangor for emergency surgery, where the broken leg, with its five independent pieces of bone, was bolted back together and the foot relocated onto the leg. Four months later, the plaster was removed.
Woolley added, "At first, it was really hard work and the pain was tremendous, but I started to run. The surgeon who operated on me said that the leg was stronger than ever now with the new titanium plate, and it was these words that inspired me to push on and ignore the pain. The doctors in the post-surgery check-ups were the exact opposite. They told me that my running days were over and that I would be lucky if I could walk properly again. I despised them for their negativity and lack of faith in their own profession."
Woolley was determined not to let the injury stop him, and little by little, things got better. The leg got stronger and the pain eventually disappeared, allowing him to run again and even participate in adventure races again, which he did with passion.
However, a few years later, this all came to a halt when he was running steeply downhill, obviously overcompensating for the injured right leg with the left leg. He landed just a little too hard and drove the tibia through the patella, which required a second surgery to correct.
The second surgery took Woolley two years to recover from. When he received a call from a close friend, Jose Luis Rubio, to participate in an adventure race as an orienteering running partnership, he was probably at the lowest point of his life in terms of physical fitness. He started the race with the only hope of actually finishing, but the weather was really, really bad with heavy rain and visibility down to just a few metres. Mark and his friend went really slow in these mountains because of his lack of fitness, but somehow they managed to finish. Then reality struck them: Everyone else had gotten lost and they had won! In spite of everything – his injuries, lack of fitness, and their cool heads – the simple fact of keeping going and not getting lost had meant that Mark and Jose had won. Mark commented, "In this simple experience, I saw that just being there, keeping cool, and keeping going is what really counts."
Instantly, Mark was bitten by the adventure bug again and started training, regaining fitness little by little until he was in a position to actually race again. He was far from finished.
In his early 40s, he started a journey that is probably the most brilliant set of sporting and adventure experiences of his life that lasted for a dozen or so years. He trained rigorously every day, most days twice a day, and participated in some of the most prestigious ultra-distance races in the world. He would regularly run some 200 km a week in preparation for a big race, with the most significant probably being the Spartathlon. It took him three attempts to finish this race, and when he finally did, Mark was the highest-placed British athlete that year. He then went on to finish two more times.
The story of Pheidippides, who ran the original marathon some 2,500 years ago, was originally thought to be impossible, a little piece of Greek mythology. That is, until John Fodden and his team proved it could be done. When Mark finished the Spartathlon, he had Pheidippides tattooed on the right calf, the leg that had been broken. Mark shared his thoughts: "It means nothing is impossible. If I ever doubt myself, I look at the tattoo and remind myself of that message."
Mark has also completed the Badwater ultra-marathon, which crosses Death Valley twice, and countless hundred-mile races, both on the road and in the mountains. However, he says, "the one race that will remain deeply embedded in my psyche is La Ultra - The High in the Indian Himalayas. La Ultra took me to a different level, one that was more spiritual in nature than physical. It took me three attempts to finish the 333 km race according to the time limits set by the organizers, but the whole process forced me to adopt an approach to ultra-running that, for me, represented the ultimate goal. One where you have to connect with your spiritual side in order to function. Badwater had been the catalyst, but mostly the other races were mainly physical and mental. La Ultra was spiritual. The higher order, if you like, tying together the physical and mental in a higher evolved package."
But the heavy toll on his body eventually surfaced with a hip injury that caused the left hip to lock up completely in the middle of a 24-hour track race. The left leg had been compensating for the broken leg all these years and had eventually worn out. He underwent intensive physiotherapy, which got things working again, and then he had just one more race to run before retiring. Mark announced his retirement in the 111 km version of La Ultra. Mark acknowledged his mistake: "It really was a bad idea, and the pain was really quite troublesome, but the hip didn't lock up and I was able to finish. I was able to retire in style."
Mark had his left hip replaced with a shiny titanium one in December 2020. Afterwards, he started doing a lot of mountain biking and kayak surfing, but not as much training as he used to do. Earlier this year, Mark went to Ladakh summited Kang Yatse II and then rode 600 km on mountain bikes exploring Ladakh with Luis Guerrero from Mexico.
His right hip had also started causing him problems, and he was told he would eventually need to have it replaced as well. This eventually happened earlier this month. Dr Carlos Ferrer Privado, the surgeon who has operated on both hips, also accompanied him on the Ladakh expedition.
Mark doesn't plan on running again, not because he can't, but because he doesn't want to. "I'm approaching 60 and will never be as fit as I was when I was younger. The memories are perfect as they are and I don't want to ruin them with a poor or less-than-stellar effort. Instead, I'll explore new avenues and seek new adventures that may take me in different directions than my running did."
As Hunter S Thompson wrote in his book The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, "Life shouldn't be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. It should be a skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a ride!' "
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal