Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
The little things matter more to Adam Woolliscroft than to most people. That’s because he knows the difference that something as little as a millimetre can make. In 2010, he broke his neck playing rugby. Had the vertebrae broken 1mm more, his spinal cord would have been severed.
Life as a paraplegic could have resulted from a miniscule movement in the wrong direction. “On impact there was an almighty crack – you hear it internally and externally. I just knew something really bad had happened, there was no doubt about it,” says Woolliscroft, 39, a sourcing consultant and father to five-month-old Sienna.
He was immobile for weeks, and had three operations to fuse his neck. Then he faced the long road to recovery. A keen sportsman and runner, he set himself an ambitious goal to run the Great Wall Marathon in Tianjin just six months later. “I had to have a target, and it had to be a decent one. It was my handrail to recovery,” he says.
Though the Briton was an experienced endurance runner, the short recovery time frame to prepare for the 5,164 steps over the marathon distance was a tough call, even for him.
“When you have high standards, [the goal] has to be something big. I had to able to say, ‘Look guys, within six months, I’m going to do the Great Wall Marathon.’ In the circumstances, that’s an achievement that makes it easy to ask people to support your cause,” he says.
Woolliscroft raised funds for spinal research and the Ben Kende Foundation, a charity set up and named after a talented local rugby player who injured his spinal cord and became a tetraplegic just a month earlier.
This provided Woolliscroft with extra motivation. “For me, Ben was an example of a millimetre more.”
Although his rugby days are behind him, he regularly competes in endurance races around the world. Last year, he finished sixth at the Atacama Crossing, a seven-day, 250-kilometre desert race in the Chile, and third at the Mongolia Action Asia three-day 100-kilometre ultramarathon.
He always runs with a camera to remind him to capture the little things. “It’s more important to run these events and have photographs than to win them,” he says.
How did you prepare for the Great Wall Marathon?
Progress was slow. Lying down for three weeks and then only being able to stand up every hour during the day for the next three, my muscles had wasted away. I also experienced nerve damage in one arm. I started on the exercise bike – the risk early on was if I tripped over, I could have done more damage.
About three months before the race I started walking on the track, and then running.
I ended up doing incredibly well. It took me just over four hours and I came 15th overall and finished third in my age group. There’s a great photo at the finish of me with my arms outstretched above my head, which was still a difficult movement for me at that time. I was over the moon.
Did you ever doubt you would finish the race?
No. I knew I’d crawl around the course if I had to. I was going to do it no matter what it took.
What motivates you?
The quote “impossible is nothing” – why should anything be impossible? We draw limitations in our mind. With endurance, it’s a mental challenge more than it is physical; the human body can do incredible things.
We’re designed to do it, but our brain is like a sensor that tries to stop it living up to its full potential. Sometimes it’s needed and sometimes you have to stop. But life is about stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s about pushing yourself to the limit.
What’s been the greatest lesson of the experience?
I’m a massive believer that everything happens for a reason, and that you’re not able to appreciate it until after it’s happened. What many people don’t know was that I was planning to propose to my now-wife, Linds, the weekend after I broke my neck.
She stayed with me at the hospital for the first three nights and wouldn’t leave. Any doubts I might have had disappeared. I realised what caring for someone is really about.
Looking back, do you think the accident was a strange stroke of good luck?
It was very expensive and the insurance didn’t cover it all, so it was painful in multiple ways. But I guess it was. I appreciate my great life far more now; there are many little things I took for granted in a way that you can in this fast pace of life in Hong Kong. Sometimes you have to come very close to losing something to really put the right value on everything.
Awesome article Rachel. Thanks. Ad