Interview:
Darren Edwards

Image Credit: Mark Conlon/World Marathon Challenge

Interview: Darren Edwards

Darren Edwards is a British adventurer and motivational speaker who has achieved remarkable feats despite sustaining a life-changing spinal cord injury in a climbing accident in 2016.  While rock climbing, a rock shifted causing him to fall, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Refusing to let his injury define him, he embarked on a journey of overcoming adversity and pushing his limits.

He became the first person with a disability to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Kayaked the length of Great Britain, leading a team of injured veterans and was part of the first all-disabled team to cross Vatnajokull (Europe’s largest ice cap) with 2 other adventurers with spinal cord injuries. He also pioneered adaptive freediving in the UK and is one of very few disabled freedivers in the world.

Darren has written a book ‘Strength Through Adversity’ which shares his story and inspires others to overcome challenges. He’s a true Role model for people with disabilities, demonstrating the power of overcoming adversity.

I spoke to Darren to find out more, before we get started, I have to say he’s genuinely one of the most inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.

To be a young man with the world at your feet, and a thirst to explore as much of it as possible. To then have the use of your legs so abruptly taken away, and not only adapt to life with a disability, but to take on challenges that even the most able-bodied of us would struggle with, is truly inspirational. Not only his feats of endurance, but his ‘mind over matter’ positivity which constantly drives him forward!

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Anyone who takes part in dangerous activities like mountaineering or climbing can relate to those experiences where you know you come very close to death.  We’ve all had them in one form or another, but you came much closer to death than most, ending up with life-changing injuries. How do you navigate that sort of physical and mental recalibration afterwards?

“I don’t know whether the psychological or physical element is tougher. I knew instantaneously that I was hurt in a bad way, but I perhaps tricked myself into thinking that I was going to make a full recovery. It was such an instant distinction between how I felt before and immediately after the fall as I couldn’t feel anything below my chest. I didn’t consider the implications, and initially thought I would be back at the top of ‘Worlds End’ at some point.”

“I was coming out of a nine hour surgery and I had a surgeon stood at the end of my bed, and they don’t sugarcoat things, they tell you in very black and white, as it’s not their job to make you feel better, but to tell you how it is. His message was that this was the end of this chapter of life and the beginning of a new one, as I’d severed my spinal cord leaving no connection between upper and lower. So there was no chance of any kind that I would get better, however hard you try or how much rehab you have. To be told I would never be back in the mountains was really difficult to hear.”

“So whilst the physical healing process had kind of started, over the course of five months from an intensive care bed, to being able to leave hospital and start this new chapter. Psychologically you’re still processing that and dealing with it trying to find coping mechanisms.”

“Right up to a year or two later I was still learning and adapting to the trauma, and trying to find a new passion or purpose, and has helped me to discover this second chapter in my life.  I’ve found more promise and opportunities and the horizon is brighter than would have ever thought being that guy lying on that cliff edge wondering what life was going to look like come tomorrow.”

I heard something about the first thing you did was to go out and buy a kayak, because that was the obvious thing to do without functioning legs?

“Yeah, that was it. While I was in hospital I met other patients who had been through the same process. They often talked about 5,10 or even 15 years down the road to coming to terms with their injuries.  I think it was supposed to help and be inspiring or uplifting hearing from others, but I felt like I was being told, what I couldn’t do anymore and I would have to change my sense of identity and change who I was as a person.”

“You kind of want to rebel against that, because that sense of adventure and love of being outdoors was a key part of who I was as a person, so that kind of got me thinking about if the mountains aren’t going to be a place I can easily explore anymore, how could I still get out, spend time with my best friend (Matt, the guy who saved me after my fall) and regain my sense of adventure. I don’t know where or how I landed on this image of somebody kayaking, with a mountain above them on a lake, and I thought why couldn’t I do that!”

“So I called up Matt, and said, this might sound crazy… but, there’s something I need you to help me with. So I essentially broke out of hospital, as at that point I wasn’t supposed to leave. I just felt compelled to do it. He was very supportive and said “I’m going to help you with this, I’ll take you, but I’m also going to do this!”

He took me to a canoe shop in Manchester, about an hour and a half away from the hospital. We came away with two sea kayaks strapped to the roof. I had no idea what half of it did, as I’d never kayaked in my life. I just felt like this was the start of something, and while it was the most over-ambitious, most optimistic purchase of my life, it was also single-handedly the most important thing I’d ever purchased because it represented the beginning of a new adventure.”

So, take me through the process… I totally get the desire to get in a boat and feel movement and freedom again, but why did it not stop at paddling across a lake or something, what compelled you to paddle from Land’s end to John O’Groats?

“This probably takes us back to the first question about dealing with things psychologically. I think I was giving myself something to work towards. To channel my frustration with my new found disability. I would be 100% lying if I said I didn’t have frustrations, so the idea of working towards a bigger purpose really helped to put everything into perspective, which gave me that sense that I was still me, and I hadn’t changed.”

“I’ve been surrounded by amazing people in my life, enablers who have empowered me, I’ve been very lucky in that sense. The day after my discharge, I had no idea what had been planned, but all my friends and family had booked a swimming pool, and this was my first experience learning to kayak. No matter how many times I fell in they kept helping me back in again. Then a week later they were carrying me over locked gates to help me onto the river seven.”

“I felt like I need to push to prove something to myself, trying to keep hold of my sense of adventure and identity. Once I arrived at John O’Groats 26 days after we set off, I realised how much it was part of the healing process. It was probably the first time in my journey that I felt content and alright with where I was with recovery, so I really needed it. It really helped me reframe my disability as not a negative, you’re not so much limited by your physical state, but limited by your willingness to adapt, improvise and overcome. We live in a brilliant society now, where we’re enabled and empowered to shoot for the moon and just go for it. We live in a society which is constantly progressing in terms of how accessible and inclusive it is. Part of my own rehab process is to go full circle, going to meet people that are at the start of their journey and give them a more positive message as apposed to the one that I got.”

Your clearly super motivated and positive, but did you ever find yourself in a really dark place?

“I did, it was not long before I was to be discharged from hospital, I had been with this girl for about for years and whenever she wasn’t around, if you had been on the ward you would have heard me talk about the first thing I was going to do when I left was to propose. I should have seen it coming as with hindsight she had stopped visiting as often, but I’d deluded myself into thinking it wasn’t a problem. Two weeks before my discharge she came in and said “She should have said this a long time ago, but I can’t do this, and I can’t see this working” she broke out in tears, stood up and walked out the double doors of the ward and I never saw her again. It was a time when I really needed people around me, especially when you thought you could have spent the rest of your life with that person. It really shifted for the first time very negatively how I perceived myself, and I didn’t really know how I was going to get myself out of it. I felt very much out of answers. I wanted the world to swallow me up, and I put the blue curtain around my bed and tried to shut the world out.”

“I was heartbroken and devastated, and if was in the days that followed that my physio probably gave me the single best bit of advice I’ve ever received. She said “Look, I know that me telling to to be positive right now isn’t going to achieve anything because it’s not a light switch, so I want you to do one thing for me, I want you to think about your life in four years’ time,  I want you to think in a big bold aspirational way about what you see yourself doing in tour years time, and I want you to retrace your steps back to now, to being broken-hearted, retrace those steps right back to today and I want you to tell me what’s the first thing that he did.” She was like “I’ll let you think about that for a bit”. When I thought about four years into the future, I thought about being back as a confident adventurous person, not this kind of vulnerable broken-hearted bloke that for the first time was doubting his future. That’s where the kayak idea came from, from a place of heartbreak and not quite depression but probably heading that way.”

“Had Kate (my physio) not come and given me that little pep talk, I don’t know where I would have gone, because I think I would have let it all snowball. Whereas I tried to think more of the identity I was striving for, than I’d become. It helped me take that first step to give me a goal to work towards, and that kind of dragged me out of a really dark period, but the hurt certainly stayed for a long time.”

 

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Talking of goals and motivation, lets talk about some of the other challenges you’ve done. You’ve taken on some massive challenges like seven marathons across seven continents in seven days. I guess there’s nothing that can fully prepare you for that?

“Absolutely, there’s a beautiful theme that emerges whenever I talk about these things, and that’s the absolute lack of previous experience. When this offer got made, to do seven marathons, across seven continents in seven days and be the first person with a disability to do it, and really fly the flag for what is possible, I was blown away, and I was 100% up for this, then the guy said “so what’s your current marathon, what’s your best time?” I was like in my head, Shit! I could lie, but would be totally found out, so I went with the honest, that I’ve never done them. I’d done a marathon in 2012 on two legs but I’d not spent any considerable time in a wheelchair, other than day to day life. And here we are 10 months away from landing in Antarctica, I had some convincing to do to show him I was up for it!”

“In reality there wasn’t much I could do to simulate what it would be like, all we could do was to make educated guesses. I had a purpose built chair with thick tyres with metal ice studs on. It could easily have gone wrong in the first 10 meters! We landed in Antarctica it was -27 with 60mph winds, when your going into the wind it felt like Eddie Hall or the worlds strongest man was pushing your head backwards, but when the wind was behind I just flew! The conditions were so varied from hard packed snow, to huge drifts where it was like just floundering on the spot. Then I get back to the plane and the reward for grizzling through 26.2 miles was I got to get back on the plane and be told that Marathon number two starts in 12 hours time!”

I could talk to you in detail about so many of your adventures to date. What have perhaps been your most challenging moments, those moments, where you say “shit! I’ve over committed here!”

“I think one of those moments was when I did the ice cap expedition with two other guys with spinal injuries. We were attempting to do something that had never been done by any team of people with disabilities before. Three days into the expedition we were hit by a two day storm, and as that storm first hit, our tent is nearly being ripped out of the ground, Ed and Nile were straight out of the tent, on battle stations, they were doing whatever they could, putting their bodies on the line to make sure we’d survive the night, and I tell you what, honestly for the first time in all of these expedition experiences I felt limited and I felt like I couldn’t contribute, because for me to get outside of my tent, I would have just got in the way and been a liability rather than an asset. I found that really difficult to deal with mentally, and could have really been a moment when I reinforced my limitations rather than reinforced how limitless you are.”

“It was a real lesson in Humility because I realised that you can’t always be the big strong alpha male to go out and save the day, sometimes you need to be the person who puts the head torch on and starts melting snow so when the guys come back in they’ve got a hot drink they can hold and thaw out a bit with.”

What are some of the unique challenges you face being in a wheelchair in these extreme situations.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is that my body doesn’t always give me the information I need. From the waist down I get no feedback, so things like the extreme cold can be particularly dangerous as I can’t tell if I’m cold or if I’m getting frostbitten.”

“This is something we’ve been working on for the upcoming south pole expedition, and I’ve been fortunate for Canada Goose to come onboard as the lead sponsor, and help with developing kit that will help me protect my bottom half from the elements. Unlike able bodied people my body could end up in a hyperthermic state without realising it, and things would happen very quickly!”

It’s one thing psyching yourself up for a big expedition, but what about dealing with the everyday grinds?

“I think again it again comes down to the focus on the ‘in four years time’. That helps you overcome the daily frustrations and helps overcome those days when you wish you could just get up those stairs on your own. Having gratitude for the positives too, helps keep perspective and the sense of aspiration for the future.”

“I’ve been very lucky to have really good people around me, my best mate Matt, and my long suffering wife who must think “What next?” every time I say I’ve got an idea!”

What is next?

“I’m embarking on a south pole expedition where I’ll attempt to complete the longest sit-ski expedition in the history of Antarctic exploration covering 333 kilometres to the geographical South Pole. “

“A friend and I are setting up a charity called ‘Adaptive Expeditions’ where we’re going to be providing adventure and expedition opportunities to people with disabilities who may not have had those experiences or opportunities. I want to give something back to the wider community.”

Darren is hoping that his South Pole Challenge will raise £300,000 for the charity Wings for Life which seeks to find a cure for Spinal Cord Injury. Visit DarrenEdwardsSpeaker.com for more info.