Extreme Sports: Richard Parks finds a whole new world at ends of the earth
Former Wales rugby player came back from injury to break new ground
Sunday 12 May 2013
It had been another long, dark night for Richard Parks, rugby player turned adventurer. He was back home in Wales, taking his dog for a walk. "We were attacked by another dog. I was really shaken up and Ben had to go to the vet with a gash on his leg. I was in A&E waiting for a tetanus injection until four in the morning. The irony is, it was in Newport. After all the places I've been."
The former flanker, who was capped four times by Wales, was recuperating from the Yak Attack, a 400km mountain-bike race through the Himalayas, and getting ready to take part in this month's Jungle Ultra-Marathon in Peru, a 230km trail race from 3,000m up in the Andes down to the Amazon rainforest.
Last year Parks was named Celebrity Fundraiser of the Year and received a special award from the Rugby Writers' Club after he climbed the highest peak on each of the seven continents and reached both poles inside seven months, raising £300,000 in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care in the process.
He was the first man to achieve the feat, which has become known as the "737" (the "three" poles include the summit of Everest). Now he is using these two latest events in the build-up to his next "world first", which he is keeping secret and will only call "Project X". Some might say he is barking mad. So what motivates the man to go above and beyond?
It all stems from the rugby, and a career which was ended at the age of 31 by an injury when he tore the cartilage off his shoulder socket. "I had my life taken away from me by injury, and the darkness and deep depression which followed gave me an agoraphobic feeling," he says.
He turned himself around after hearing a line from the eulogy at his grandmother's funeral which said: "The horizon is only the limit of our sight." It was penned by Rossiter W. Raymond, a mining engineer who, appropriately, led the first non-native exploration of Yellowstone national park in the United States.
Then Parks read Sir Ranulph Fiennes' book Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know and he has never looked back (or down). "These things gave me the courage to pick myself up and channelled my energies. I had never climbed a mountain before. I used my life savings and moved back in with my parents. I'm very grateful for that tunnel which allowed me to move away from the dark period."
He spent two years learning the ropes with mountaineers, so how did his training as a professional athlete help him cope with the demands of these extreme physical challenges? "On face value the two chapters are poles apart, if you'll forgive the pun," he says. "Rugby is a strength and power-based game. Now my training is more endurance-based. But there are a lot of crossovers that make for elite performance.
"Initially my mindset was to distance myself from the pain of my injury. But many rugby skills became very valuable: the discipline, professionalism, focus, attention to detail, drive, even pain management," he chuckles. "But the biggest skill set was being part of a team. When I got frostbite coming down Everest, when I fell down the crevasse at Denali [in Alaska], even in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, being part of something bigger was a motivational asset. Going up Everest, my parents remortgaged the house to fund that effort."
He left the team behind before Christmas, however, when he tried to reach the South Pole again alone and unsupported. He ran out of time and stopped his attempt after 600 of the 750 miles. In another example of real life intruding on his extraordinary world, he missed the "weather window" that would have allowed him to reach the pole because his luggage had been lost on the flight into Chile on the way there, which left him starting the trek a week late.
"The life I've chosen to live isn't for everyone, especially going to Antarctica," he admits. "There are a lot of challenges there, extreme cold, extreme winds, a week of white-out which was like being inside a ping-pong ball. But the physical challenges are immediately superseded by the mental challenge. And that's where I get my personal gratification.
"There came a point when it became a real privilege to have that mindfulness, to be in the moment. We all have incredible reserves to be tapped but it's bloody scary to open that door. I want to go through that door and see what's inside."
Parks has been battering the door down recently. After losing 15kg in the Antarctic, he had to be in the Himalayas and on his bike within a month. "I am pushing my body to the limit. It was a steep mountain to climb and this is one of the toughest years of my life. But I'm only just getting started. The skills and discipline in my tool box from rugby mean I'm a fit and healthy guy."
So he has been to hell and back, but it has brought him inner peace and reconciliation with the old life that he had seemingly been trying to escape from ever since that crushing injury. "One of the blessings of this transition over the last three years is that I had a lot of anger over rugby and I even distanced myself from my friends. But I don't have the bitterness now," he says.
"I enjoy watching it now and I realise the rugby community has given me many proud experiences." But he missed all of Wales's Six Nations glory. "I'm sad that I've been away from it all in a bloody tent."
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