The 401:401 Marathon Man

The 401:401 Marathon Man
19 December 2014 Janine

Bristol runner Ben Smith suffered for years at the hands of bullies, leading him to rock bottom. Now he’s inspiring the best of us by raising £250,000 to help put a stop to bullying, and giving us mere mortals a chance to run with him along the way. 

But why? I hear you cry! Wait no longer. This is Ben’s story. Welcome to the 401 Challenge.

With a glistening post-run sweat on, two halves of Thatcher’s and a sticky table in our modest running club, I finally get to corner Ben Smith, 32, from Bristol, about his crazy challange, which starts on Sep 1st 2015.

Southville Running Club green sweaters are dotted around the room amid the mandatory winter hi-viz. And as Ben settles into imparting his story to me, the crowd dissipates along with curious glances at the two of us hunched over an iPhone. Our ciders disappear, and eventually we’re left with little distraction as we delve into this mad idea of his.  Well, it’s mad in my humble opinion, but Ben may of course have a different idea. ‘Yes!’ he laughs. ‘I completely agree to be quite honest with you!’

Ben has a hot date with 10,506 miles. If he were to run in a straight line, he’d run one-and-a-half times around the world. That’s a lot of pairs of running shoes, and enough banana gel to keep an entire Tour De France going.

On September 1st 2015, he’ll be embarking on a world record attempt that’ll see him run 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days (a number he picked for his OCD tendencies) in around 309 different locations of the UK mainland.

Along the way, he’ll be raising money for two charities; Kidscape and Stonewall, organisations which work tirelessly to support initiatives that address bullying.

If all goes to plan, Ben will have broken the current world record of 52 marathons in 52 days held by Akinori Kusuda, from Japan.

But a World Record on his CV isn’t the driving force behind this madness. For Ben has his sights set on a far greater challenge: to bring awareness of bullying to the UK and help put plans in place to beat it—a subject all too close to his heart.

Ben ran 18 Marathons in 2014!

Ben will visit schools during his challenge. ‘I’ll be speaking about attitudes towards bullying at morning assembleys, with tailored presentations based on the attitudes of the kids in the school.’ He explains. ‘If this charity had have been around when I was at school, I probably wouldn’t have gone through half the things I’ve gone through.’

In 1993, at the tender age of ten, Ben left Germany where he was living with his family, and headed for private school in the UK. ‘We were a close Yorkshire family at that time. I’d probably go so far as to say that I had a sheltered upbringing; all this changed when I went off to boarding school.’

Ben describes his ten year-old self as shy and under confident. ‘I was a fish out of water. The foundations had been ripped out from underneath me, which made me a target for bullying. I went through a lot of physical and mental abuse from kids, from name calling to being beaten up.’

The years at boarding school gave no respite and Ben’s low self-confidence continued to suffer along with his schooling.  Whilst studying for his A-levels, Ben tried to take his own life for the first time – and the desperation didn’t end when he left school. ‘I went away to Uni and I think the trauma I had gone through at school stuck with me because I couldn’t handle it. I was so under confident in my first year and so confused about who I was. I tried to take my life again.’

To make matters worse his family weren’t aware of what was happening. Just like 39% of victims of bullying, Ben didn’t actively seek help. ‘I was internalising it,’ he says. ‘I had this whole ethos about being the perfect son and about not complaining or being seen as ungrateful. Ultimately, I hid it all from my parents.’

His mum finally discovered the truth eight years after it all began, finding her 18 year-old son on the bathroom floor. Asking what she could do, he says he took her hand, walked her downstairs to the medicine cabinet and responded: ‘If you want to help me, you can help me take all of this.’ After eight years of bullying, Ben was suffering a breakdown. But with it, finally, he found the help he needed.

Dealing with a childhood wrought with anxiety is challenging enough, but the legacy continued to stay with Ben into his early adult years. ‘It’s only over the last year in particular that I’ve really dealt with it, come to terms with who I am, and what I’m about,’ he says.

So what’s been so special about the last year? It can’t be a coincidence that in the time Ben’s discovered running; he’s also started to find his feet, and much-needed road to recovery.

‘I hated running at school, but I’d always sit and watch the London marathon on the TV and wish I could be part of something like that. I’d find myself getting emotional about it. Something clicked when I turned 29. I thought, I’d like to do a marathon!’

Ben running in his home town. [Photo credit – Susan Boyle, SRC]

But it wasn’t exactly love at first run. ‘I ran the Brighton Marathon in 2012 and I hated it, it hurt like hell, (Probably down to the lack of training!) however three days later I’d booked the Amsterdam Marathon—I was hooked.’

Ben describes running time as his filing. ‘I come back and everything in my head is just filed away. It’s that simple—that’s what running gives me. I feel free.’

‘My life has changed since I started running marathons, it’s been a huge learning curve, getting to understand my body through nutrition and personal training, but also from the confidence and self-esteem that I’ve gained. Running has given me my life back really.’ It seems fitting then, that this is the way he’ll raise awareness and funds to raise awareness of bullying.

Talking to Ben provides more than a glimmer of an infectiously positive attitude that I could do with a sprinkle of. The first thing that sprung to mind when I heard about this challenge was ‘amazing!’ and the second thing was ‘not possible!’. And now, in the presence of Ben’s can-do attitude, I feel a little nag of shame for my nay-saying brain. ‘You know, I may succeed, I may not succeed,’ he says. ‘But half of the fun is in the challenge, doing everything I can to be prepared, and breaking through pain barriers; the constant mental ups and downs.’

‘I have no doubt that there will be days where I want to give up, days when I’ll question why I’m doing it, but at the back of my head I’m still linked to the feelings that I had when I was being bullied as a child – which drives me to succeed.’

‘I’m sure there will be people who’ll say it’s an impossible challenge. But there are all kinds of things that people never knew were possible until they gave them a try. For example, cycling around the world… reaching the North Pole… discovering America.’ The Christopher Columbus of marathons he may yet be.

What do his parents think? ‘My mum cried and then hugged me and said, “We support you 100%”.
My dad said, “Great, happy days!” And my friends after the initial shock have just said “Yeah! If anyone can do it, you can.” I’m beginning to think they might be right.

How you can support Ben

Preparation races
Ben’s approach includes proving to himself that he could first run one marathon, and then multiple marathons; which he achieved in 2014.
  • Stage 1 (2014) 18 Marathons in one year – completed
  • Stage 2 (Feb-May 2015) 16 marathons in 16 weeks including his first 7 Marathons in 7 Days
  • Stage 3 (Sep 2015 – Oct 2016) 401 Marathons in 401 days

Q. What inspires you? 
A. My friends, family and everyone I have met through running especially the amazing people at Southville Running Club. They have inspired me and given me the confidence and self-belief and support to think that I could actually do something like this. I have an amazing group of friends and family—no matter how harebrained my ideas are, they are always fully supportive.

Q. Favourite post-run snack?
A. I normally don’t eat an hour after running because I feel really sick! But then an hour afterwards I’ll pretty much hoover anything up.

The secret’s in the sandwich.

(Sigh.) Q. Pre-run snack? 
A. Three espressos to get everything moving, two pieces of toast with cheese and meat. It’s that simple.

Q. Have you thought about chaffing?
A. Yes. I’ve got a rub stick, I’m sorted.

Q, Do you have any tips for people thinking about a big challenge? 
A. Just go for it. There are going to be so many people who say you can’t do it / don’t do it / why are you thinking about doing that? / don’t be so crazy. But the thing is, at the end of the day, you only get one life. You either go for it or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. So if it’s what you want to do and it’s your dream then don’t let anything stop you!

Original story, published by WDOT.ORG (c)

Comments (2)

  1. curlygirlz 4 years ago

    Fab blog, what an inspirational story. Go Ben #401runwithben x

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