Mark Stevenson recently completed an epic bicycle ride from the north of Thailand to Phuket over the previous two months. He cycled thousands of kilometres, across mountains, past rivers, rice paddies, small town markets, big cities, ancient monuments and modern tourism infrastructure. He cycled the terrifying mountain ride from Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Song, the so-called “road of three thousand turns”. He has cycled on previous trips through Cambodia and Vietnam and down the Mekong, covering mammoth rides that few cyclists can even imagine, never mind contemplate actually achieving.
Even more incredibly, Mark is a hunk of cycling iron aged 68 no less! At an age when most men are looking for their slippers, so they can potter around their geraniums, Mark is out there pushing hard pedals in Asia’s often brutal heat for up to 10 hours a day.
If all this weren’t enough, Mark is also the survivor of not just one, but TWO liver transplants… one of a tiny handful of humans on this planet who can make that stunning claim to immortality.
As I sit with this incredible man, who is as gentle, kind and congenial a lunching companion as you could imagine, it’s hard not to feel in awe of his sheer will power, strength of character and immense physical courage. His is a sensationally inspirational story of conquering the most horrendous pain and suffering that life’s outrageous fortune can impose.
Mark’s incredible journey started not in the far north of Thailand, but many years before. Born in Liverpool in 1954, he grew up in Southport in the tough northwest of England, where Mark’s rebellious early years were associated with drug abuse and violence, resulting in numerous custodial sentences. By the age of 25, this self-confessed ‘bad boy’, had learned one of life’s important lessons, indeed what most people take for granted, that is the true value of freedom. He became very aware that he had to escape his current environment to continue his freedom. In his twenties, Mark’s strong character and determination started to shine through and he straightened himself out and started working hard in construction, where his natural strength and determination were great assets in building a successful career.
He emigrated to the lovely city of Cape Town in South Africa and ended up owning and running a construction company there. Adult life had become sweet, until a legacy from Mark’s misspent youth caught up with him. Unbeknownst to him, Mark had contracted hepatitis-C from a dirty needle in his teens. In 2010, aged 56, he started feeling very tired and went for tests at Cape Town’s famous Groote Schuur Hospital.
The prognosis could not have been worse!
Mark was told his liver had a cancerous tumour which was inoperable and he would be lucky if he lived for another 18 months. He decided to return to England and was fortunate enough to be asked if he would take part in a research project testing new drug therapies to reduce the size of cancerous tumours. With nothing to lose, he joined the ground-breaking research and was very fortunate to learn that the therapy had indeed shrunk the tumour in his liver to a size where it became possible to receive a transplant, IF a suitable liver became available.
In 2013, after several false starts, a donated liver was finally procured and a seven-hour operation saw Mark receive the transplant, and became one of a handful of lucky survivors of this difficult medical process.
Mark had visited Thailand several times before his transplant and had become fascinated by Buddhism and meditation. He returned to Cape Town and these spiritual practices, combined with running up Table Mountain, plus gym and cycle-training sessions, became the pillars of Mark’s strong-willed endeavour to re-build himself.
Tragically, Mark’s new liver failed after only 18 months and in 2015, the same surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital told him that his new liver was dead and that he should fly back to the UK that very evening in preparation for the worst. Full of medication, Mark arrived back at the famous Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where he had received his first transplant, for a nail-biting three-month wait until finally another liver became available.
Just 25 months after his first transplant, Mark became one of the almost unique humans on this planet to have undergone two successful liver transplants.
Sitting with Mark at We Café in Rawai after his tremendous cycle trip from Thailand’s north, and his even more mind-blowing life’s journey, I asked him how he now felt about all that has happened in his extraordinary life.
Mark emphasised that he is essentially a recreational cyclist who has now come to view these long trips as an extended meditation on the beauty and calm of being outdoors. He gave great credit to his Thai partner, Khun On, who encouraged and accompanied him on his epic rides, despite never having ridden before!
Mark spoke with immense passion and insight about the profound gratitude he now has just to be … here… now… alive.
Mark’s incredible life, in which he has twice faced then escaped death, makes his personal appreciation of this powerful piece of wisdom unique. It is, I believe, a wisdom we should all try to comprehend and make our own.
“Bicycling” Baz Daniel has been penning his Blazing Saddles column, chronicling his cycling adventures in Phuket and beyond, since 2013.