“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
It’s hard to know where to start this story. Maybe it should begin back when I was a reckless youth throwing myself from high bridges into the water below, or as the fearless young boxer who thought he was unbeatable, but I can’t. Sure, they show tenacity and more than a little daring, but I had yet to gain my love of the great outdoors.
The catalyst to that love was a very dark period of depression that forced me to re-evaluate everything around me; a time so damaging that I had to go through a reinvention of who I had been before in order to escape it… Part of this process required me to make a fresh start, so I headed out into the countryside with my backpack looking to escape my former life, and there began my love of the great outdoors.
It quickly grew stronger than anything I had experienced before. Instantly, I loved the countryside, its rivers, its forests and most of all its mountains. These silent giants drew me in and soon I entered the arena of rock climbing, and it was here that I prospered greatly.
I became stronger physically, but more importantly mentally, and before long I was traveling all around the globe visiting incredible new places and dispatching harder and harder rock routes. As I worked furiously to master my sport, all the dark memories of my past disappeared, replaced by new adventures and a positivity so strong that I have never faltered since.
My life as a rock climbing adventurer was a good one, but each season was short lived due to the UK’s long winters, and I’m not one to be cooped up inside.
Indoor climbing walls quickly lost their appeal, so I went in search of something new. Naturally, I climbed ice, but the unpredictable winters here in the UK made even that seem to be hard found at times. Then a climbing partner suggested I try white-water kayaking. In the UK this is a winter sport; the amount of rain we have and the winter dam releases made it something that I could really get my teeth into during the climbing off-season.
I’d like to say I was a natural, but in all honestly that first day was a mix of swimming every rapid and chasing my boat down the shore. Yet it held me instantly and I was soon begging for more.
I spent the next few seasons climbing all summer and kayaking all winter. Soon I had a mastery of both sports and my life became one big merry-go-round of saving up for an expedition, having the adventure of my life, then finding a job to save up to go on another.
For years I had no interest in anything but these two sports, the training to be good at them and the adventures I gained pursuing them. They brought me great joy, while keeping me focussed and well away from the dark side that had haunted my youth.
I visited the Rockies, the Himalaya, the Andes and all the European Alpine regions. I was kayaking full on rivers, dropping off high waterfalls and climbing steep rock faces. It was the way I wanted to live my life and I would have been happy enough to do it forever.
But one afternoon near Vallouise in the French Alps fate dumped on me from a great height. A violent hydraulic on a flooded mountain river caught my kayak and sucked me in. I fought hard but bad luck and the power of the water resulted in my arm literally being ripped from its socket. This was no ordinary dislocation. I had serious damage to the muscle, socket and tendon and since that day it has slowly deteriorated to almost a weekly dislocation of one kind or another. Waking up in the night with my arm hanging outside of its socket and having to relocate it at 3am has become commonplace.
Eventually, I sought an operation and jumped through the necessary hoops for the UK’s National Health Service to operate on me and for the past year I have been forced to just sit and wait for the operation. During this time I have had to watch my body change. No upper body training has seen my muscles slowly soften and shrink and it’s difficult to imagine ever being as strong as I was again.
Yet I could not sit and do nothing. My legs worked fine, so I decided to use them. I hit the trail and I ran, ran and ran some more.
My motivation for climbing and kayaking swapped focus and I channelled my energy into running, and with a lot of effort, many miles on the trail and the love of being outdoors, I became an ultra runner. Not a great one, but I finish them none the less.
I had absolutely no idea there were so many adventures waiting to be had in running. Pretty soon I was embracing every opportunity to test myself against different terrains
I enjoyed the challenge of the long grueling one-day events, but then I discovered multi-stage racing, where I could go on huge journeys racing for several days. Blisters and sunburn became my trademark and these are now what fill my dreams. I have crossed the Sahara desert in the Marathon Des Sable, the Gobi desert in the Gobi race, ran the toughest most grueling race my country has to offer in the Scottish Ultra,
and crossed the Himalayan highlands in the Himalayan 100.
There are so many more, so many beautiful places that can be run across. I love ultra running. I love the places, the running itself, the effort and arduous endurance of those last few miles.
I’m happy to have found ultra running. It’s such an amazing sport with fantastic people in it. I’ve made amazing new friends, but most of all I feel at peace with myself.
Running has a great self-healing nature to it. Long ultra runs thinking of nothing but life can be so cleansing, and because of this I now live my life with great clarity. I live in a beautiful part of Scotland actually in the countryside itself, a runner’s paradise of runnable trails and hills. I need only jump my fence and I’m instantly running in the fields I love. I have an amazing girlfriend who supports and encourages what I do, and I have a job teaching at a university that gives me the holidays to go on these crazy outdoor adventures. Life is good. An operation would make it better, but life is still damn good!
Mark Lyons is a Scottish Adventurer who has had to learn to adapt his love of outdoors to the hand he has been dealt , kayaking and climbing all over the world before injury lead him to Ultra running, where he now continues his lust for new challenges. Currently Mark is training for the UTMB in the French Alps and writing about his adventures at www.runner786.com.