Last year was a life-or-death battle for athlete Marcus Smith. On February 10, 2018, he was hit by a lorry while cycling in Fujairah, which left him fighting for his life. By November, the Brit had run 30 marathons in 30 days, with his feat screened on the Burj Khalifa – a heartening story of human endurance.
Smith, 40, who was raised in Dubai, was training for four international ultra-cycling races spanning about 1,000 kilometres each, when the near-fatal accident happened; he was hit by the lorry and thrown into a brick wall at 54kph. On impact, he broke his shoulder and seven ribs, and punctured his left lung.
A near-death experience
“As I lay there on the floor, barely able to breathe, with blood from my crushed lung coming out of my mouth, I had a thought. It was simple. I am not yet ready to die. In that moment I had a decision to make – fight for every breath or essentially give up. I chose to fight,” says Smith. He admits that when he realised that it was blood that was filling up and pouring out from his mouth, he thought: “This is only supposed to happen in movies, not in real life.”
Help was not immediately at hand; Smith was 40km from the small coastal town of Kalba, a further 10km on from there to Fujairah and about 100km from the nearest city, Sharjah. Recalling the first crucial few hours, he says: “I asked myself, what can I do now to save my life? The answer was simple: breathe. It’s something we often take for granted, but in that situation, it was all I could do. I spent the next two hours focusing only on breathing as I was taken from the side of the road in a police ambulance, and later transferred to a normal ambulance before ending up in the emergency room of Kalba Hospital. Those two hours [were] the biggest fight of my life, as every breath became harder and more painful as the trauma of the broken bones started to zap my energy.”
Smith spent the next three days in extreme pain in intensive care. Simple movements, such as turning his palm from face up to face down, felt like major achievements. The athlete’s tagline for InnerFight, the health and performance company he runs, is “show no weakness”, which he says is a metaphor for life in and out of sport. He believes that “your mind is your biggest tool”, whether on a hospital bed or in the midst of a gruelling sporting competition.
“At first [your brain] asks you all the whys and the what ifs, but I quickly stopped those questions as I realised it would not change a thing,” he recalls. “Whenever my mind started to drift, I asked myself what can I do now? Normally there are many things one can do, but in my situation there were few, so repetition and micro goals were key, both to my progress in hospital and to gain my physical strength over the coming months.”
Once he was moved to an ICU in Dubai, Smith would continue to battle through the first crucial days of the fight, unable to walk, wash or feed himself. But he was driven by the determination to not only survive, but also to get back on his bike at the earliest possible moment. It would be a week before he was discharged, and his mantra for the coming months was simple: “the desire to just be better than yesterday every single day”.
Valuable lessons learnt
A former professional rugby player, Smith retired from the sport in 2010 and now competes in CrossFit, cycling, running and extreme endurance events and challenges. He is also a motivational speaker, fitness coach and entrepreneur, having launched InnerFight, and Paleo food provider Smith St Paleo. The accident and its aftermath are a testament to Smith’s mental endurance. In May, just three months after the crash, he took part in the 42.2km trail race on the Volvic Volcano in France.
A month later, he did the 50km cycle, 50km run, 50km swim at Al Qudra in Dubai, on the last day of Ramadan, starting at sunset with the goal of finishing before sunrise. He finished 90 minutes ahead of time. In July, he ran 195km across the island of Corsica, at 13,000 metres above sea level, in five days. The year culminated in 30 marathons in 30 days, which began on October 24 during the Dubai Fitness Challenge, with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, joining DFC ambassador Smith for a leg of the runs.
There have been many valuable lessons, he says. “Firstly, do small things over and over, and you will win. We often focus too much on the destination or our goal, and forget about all the little things that are needed to get us there. I was able to run those marathons after my crash because I spent hundreds of hours doing the smallest things to get physically better, which all added together to make the big things happen. Those [details] are often repetitive and, for some people, boring, but that is the process and I love it.
“The second is to live now with no excuses. Too often I hear people talking about yesterday and what they should have done, or tomorrow and what they will do, and they just forget to live in the present, and that is where life happens. When you are half-dead on a road, things get simple really fast, and the present matters the most. You do what you can to stay alive. For me after the accident, it was breathing. I put all of my energy into it and won.”
Some may wonder why Smith continues to take on challenges that put him at risk. “This to me is life. It’s living, it’s learning, its being, and I love it. I love the challenge, be it physical or mental. I love testing my potential and I just hope that through my story, others will test their potential and live life to the full.”