Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Blind athlete seeks polar success

Simon O'Donnell and Mark Pollock
Simon O'Donnell and Mark Pollock begin the race to the South Pole on New Year's Day

by Gráinne McCarry

A blind motivational speaker from County Down has begun the first phase of the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race in Antarctica.

Mark Pollock is on a team with Dublin rugby coach Simon O'Donnell and Norwegian explorer Inge Solheim.

They must complete this stage to to enter the main 800km South Pole race, which starts on New Year's Day.

Mr Pollock decided to take part in the race to mark the 10th anniversary of losing his sight.

He will have to navigate his way through 200 kms of hazardous crevasse fields, which is expected to take 10 days.

The competing teams arrived in Antarctica on Friday having travelled on a cargo plane from Cape Town to the Russian scientific base, Novo.

It is predicted that the weather will be severe this week having been mild throughout the weekend. The teams have enjoyed three days of blue skies, sunny conditions and temperatures of about -5 degrees.

All of the teams have been given lectures in acclimatising to altitude, navigation and weather conditions from Mark's team mate Inge who is also a training instructor. Santa Claus appeared as the special guest at a good luck ceremony.

The six competing teams spent two days in Cape Town sorting out their food supplies and making final alterations to the 70kg sleds containing their equipment which they must pull behind them for the duration of the race.

Breakfast packs

Speaking to BBC Online from South Africa, Mark said it seemed like they had mountains of dried food to pack.

"We have to take enough to last the team at least 40 days so that means 120 breakfast packs, 120 daily food packs and 120 evening meals," he said.

"I'm not sure if I'll be able to carry all this."

Mark also admitted that his last weekend on home soil had been a nervous one.

"I was up until 4am packing," he said. "I had to keep double checking that I had everything and I must admit as it came closer to the time to leave I did start to feel very nervous.

"I wrote emails to my family and to my girlfriend the night before I left just in case. I was feeling quite emotional and it kind of surprised me. I'm not sure what way I thought I would feel.

"I'm okay now, though I can't wait for it to start - I can't wait to go skiing. It feels like the race has already started."

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