Nick Ashill was knocked down and left for dead by a driver during a 5,400km run across America
UAE Portrait of a Nation: University professor back on his feet after hit-and-run horror
Five months ago, the dream of American University of Sharjah (AUS) dean Nick Ashill was to run across America.
The 52-year-old New Zealander was hoping to spread the word of pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that took his mother in 2015 and is thought to be one of the many respiratory conditions that affect 40 million people in the Mena region, many of whom are under 40.
Welsh-born Mr Ashill, who is an expert in luxury brand management and professor at AUS associated with the Chalhoub group, was hoping to run the 5,400 kilometres route in 108 days, hitting 50km a day before being reunited with his wife and children in Central Park, New York.
AUS had its very own Forrest Gump.
On August 2, life took a twist for the father of four as he was struck by a car and left for dead on a US highway.
“It could have been so much worse,” he says.
“If this had happened in a remote part of Arizona, New Mexico or California desert I would probably have died.
“I just happened to be 18 kilometres west of one of the best health and research centres in the country in Ohio.
“I have always wanted to run along Route 66.”
Although illegal to run on the highway in America, Mr Ashill was often left with no choice due to the rough terrain elsewhere, and he would be pulled over by the police — who were always helpful once he told them what he was doing.
“I was constantly switching between the fence-line and highway,” he says.
“There were a few close calls with oncoming vehicles, but mostly cars kept out of my way.”
“I remember leaving the support vehicle about 6.15am in a rural part of Ohio. At about 8am, I hit a road with two lanes going in each direction.
“I was on the phone using hands-free to speak with Sarah [his wife] on Skype as I was running, as she was due to fly in.
“About 40 metres out it [the car] came towards the hard shoulder towards me. It happened very quickly and I tried to jump over the metal fence to get out of the way but got smashed into a ditch. That was the last thing I remember.”
Mrs Ashill recorded everything on her laptop, and was able to call for help and describe the location where he had been hit to police so emergency services could find him. Mr Ashill was airlifted to hospital.
Doctors rebuilt his pelvis, and were pumping blood back into his body three days after the accident.
Despite struggling to walk the short distance from home to the university campus, Mr Ashill is determined to get back to doing what he loves — teaching.
He was professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand where he met Sarah. They made a decision in 2007 to move overseas so he took a job offer at the AUS in 2008.
Now at home, just over a week since arriving back in the UAE, Mr Ashill is readjusting to life on campus.
It takes him several hours to get ready every morning – take his medication, wash, dress and carry out daily strengthening exercises which the physios have designed to help him recover.
“It was supposed to be for two years, but I’m still here ten years later,” he says.
“AUS is one of the top universities in the Middle East and they were very supportive of me when I said I wanted to run across America.
“It’s only in the last ten years or so I’ve taken on ultra-running.”
Mr Ashill ran the Marathon de Sables in the Sahara Desert and the Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa.
The dropout rate for the Sahara race with just 950 or so of the 14,000 runners completing the race.
“Towards the end, I was hallucinating through exhaustion during the night stage, seeing elephants and double-decker buses,” he says.
“Running across America has been a dream of mine for decades. When I lost my mum to pulmonary fibrosis, a disease of the lungs, in 2015 I decided to use the run to help generate awareness for the disease.
“I gave myself a two-year time frame to train, and wanted to raise £35,000 for the British charity by UK fund-raising.”
The incident has attracted so much media attention in America and New Zealand, the profile of pulmonary fibrosis has been raised fay beyond his wildest imagination. But that has come at great cost to Mr Ashill's health.
“I’ve been going stir crazy recovering and need to get back into the classroom,” he says.
“I’m excited, but also a little nervous after everything that’s happened. There are some serious physical aspects of getting around, from home to the university, but I see it as just another challenge.
“The support I’ve had from the AUS students and my colleagues has been incredible.
“I had two beautiful books of good wishes and signature from them, their words have blown me away and inspired me to get back to work.”