The Red Bulletin September 2019 (UK)

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Nick Ashley-Cooper

The

noble’s

calling

A triple tragedy

transformed a hedonistic

New York DJ into an

accidental earl – and

a dedicated ultrarunner

Words MATT RAY

Portrait NEIL MASSEY

Even a privileged background can’t

insulate you from tragedy and pain.

Nick Ashley-Cooper discovered this

in 2004 when his father was

murdered by his own estranged wife.

Six months later, Ashley-Cooper’s

elder brother died of a heart attack.

These events catapulted him out of

his career as a professional DJ in

New York and into the hereditary

role of the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury.

Returning to the family’s UK

estate, St Giles House – then a

disused wreck – Ashley-Cooper took

on the mantle of its restoration,

enrolling in the London Business

School and turning parts of the home

into accommodation and an events

space. He also took up running,

clocking up marathons before going

deeper into ultrarunning territory.

Then, in 2009, more outrageous

misfortune struck when he took

an awkward tumble from a horse,

fracturing a vertebra and permanently

injuring his spinal cord.

Rather than accepting a limited

life, Ashley-Cooper pushed himself to

recover and, a little over a year later,

ran a 250km ultramarathon across

South America’s Atacama Desert. He

still walks with a limp, but has a love

of the mountains and, on August 26,

will embark on the gruelling 300km

Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc Petite Trotte

à Léon, ascending the Alps (to a height

of 25,000m) to raise money for the

Wings for Life Spinal Cord Research

Foundation, which aims to find a cure

for spinal injuries. The earl’s life has

been one of highs and lows, but has

his strength been forged in adversity?

the red bulletin: Losing your

father and brother within a year

must have been deeply shocking…

nick ashley-cooper: The way

I lost my father and brother was very

sudden and unexpected. Part of me

was just like, “Wow.” There was

a realisation that you’re just not in

control of life; it has its own path and

you have to adapt to the things that

are thrown your way. I became very

focused. I felt driven and, in a way,

that’s how I channelled the grief:

“Right, I’m going to try to turn this

tragic situation into a positive. I’m

going to do it for me. I’m also going

to do it for my brother and my dad.”

Your sleeve tattoo looks like a

robot arm. What does it mean?

When I was DJing in New York, the

event I was doing was called ‘Robots’.

Part of the rationale of my tattoo

was that I realised I was being taken

down a different path and my life

was changing. But I’ve always tried

to stay true to myself, and I didn’t

want to lose sight of where I was at

that point in time, so it anchors me.

Why did you turn to running?

I find it really grounding. That’s the

beauty of running. It gives you that

space to just think and be alone with

your thoughts.

You turned the derelict St Giles

House into a business as well

as an ancestral home…

No one thought that this house could

be saved. It seemed like too big a

mountain – no one had lived here for

50 years. I used the most simple yet

profound lesson I’ve learnt doing

ultramarathons: don’t think too far

ahead. Break it down into chunks

you can tame, get little victories

along the way, and don’t think of the

whole problem and be overwhelmed.

Meeting Dinah [his wife] – someone

who seemed to be up for an exciting

adventure – it was like: “Why don’t

we just move into a few rooms of this

crazy, falling-down house and then

think of what to do next?”

Though unlucky to fall from a

horse and permanently damage

your spine, you had the good

fortune not to be paralysed. What

was that whole experience like?

It was the toughest moment in my

life, mentally. I felt really scared in

the hospital, not knowing what my

future would be like. It was such a

strong emotion. Then I imagined all

those who have been through harder

stuff, and I was in awe of them. When

I attempted to run again, it felt like I

was running on sand; I couldn’t lift

my legs. Now, I’ve just become so

used to that feeling when walking

– that’s the technique.

Has adversity shaped you?

Adversity is a powerful thing. You

get confidence when you have real

adversity and you find a way to

overcome it. It’s also really important

to know that you’re not always going

to overcome everything, and not to

beat yourself up too much when you

don’t manage to do something.

Have you been surprised by what

you’ve achieved despite having

a permanent injury?

You’re capable of much more than

you think. That’s what I’ve learnt

through all the things I’ve done, from

ultrarunning to mountaineering; that

the limits of what you can achieve

are much further than you think. It’s

for everyone to try to find it. I mean,

my edge is here, but you see some

of the things that people are doing

and it’s insane. I’ve always had that

hunger to try to find my personal

edge, both physically and mentally.

Do you feel your life was destined

to be the way it is?

I’m not one for destiny. Life is like a

wave you ride. You’re never really in

control and, if you can let go of that

notion and just ride the wave, you

get loads out of it and won’t be upset

when something knocks you for six.

Nick Ashley-Cooper is an ambassador

for the Wings for Life Spinal Cord

Research Foundation; wingsforlife.com

28 THE RED BULLETIN

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