Meet The Lad Who's Running 401 Back To Back Marathons To Raise £250,000 For Charity
A while back, a friend of mine told me I should speak to her mate Ben Smith. He was, she assured me, in the middle of something worth writing about. Ben is a 33-year-old guy from Bristol, and he's currently running back to back marathons to raise money for the charities Stonewall and Kidscape. As I'm fascinated by people who enjoy torturing themselves, especially for a good cause, I did speak to Ben when he ran through Manchester in January (he had stopped running by the time we spoke, luckily).
To my discredit, this was at the beginning of the year, and I've only just got around to typing up the interview. I don't feel too bad, though. Ben's story is definitely still relevant, even two months down the line. That's because Ben is running 401 back to back marathons in the UK. Four zero one. I feel a bit ill just thinking about it. When I caught up with Ben, I think he was on 120-something. He's currently on 167 at the time of writing. When he's done, he'll have covered the equivalent distance between London and Sydney.
So why the hell is he putting himself through this?
"I'd just read this book which asked a simple question, 'what makes you happy?' And when I figured out it was running, travel and business, I looked at my life and thought, well, I'm not doing that."
Credit: Alex Wright
Prior to this, Ben had been an active runner. He'd completed marathons in the UK and on the Continent. He'd spent some time looking up the world record for the most consecutive marathons run back to back. Different numbers appeared everywhere, some verified, some not. There was a Spanish guy attempting 365. When he saw this figure, Ben thought "if we're going to do this properly, we need to do this properly. So I decided to round it up to 400, and that's what it was until April last year."
After a chance encounter with Larry Macon, a 69-year-old Texan with over 1,500 marathons under his belt, that number grew to 401. Why? Larry suggested Ben "have a victory lap," so he added one more. The 401 Challenge was born.
Here's the thing. Lots of people are really into stuff. Quite a lot of people are really into running. Even so, very few pursue the stuff they're into, be it running, knitting, stamp-collecting - whatever - by doing it 401 days in a row. So if you suspected a greater motivation behind The 401 Challenge, you'd be right. Ben's parents were in the army. After growing up in Germany on a base, Ben, aged 10, was sent to boarding school in the UK. "I was a fish out of water. I became quite shy and I was an easy target for bullies. At school you're trying to figure out who you are. I figured out that I was gay at the age of 12."
Ben was bullied relentlessly, and at age 18 he tried to take his own life. Things worsened at university, and another suicide attempt followed. Over the next decade, Ben made a conscious decision to live what "society deemed a normal life. A straight guy." He got married and did what he could to suppress his true self.
"I led that life until I was 30. At the age of 30 it all piled up on top of me, as stuff does in life, and I made the decision to actually come out and say who I was. At the same time, I started running." At this stage, Ben was seven stone heavier and a 20 a day smoker. He also suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), otherwise known as a 'mini-stroke.' Running was a mechanism for him to change his life.
The 401 Challenge began on 1 September 2015. Ben is attempting to raise £250,000 for Stonewall, an organisation which campaigns for LGBT equality in Britain, and Kidscape, an anti-bullying charity. "If Stonewall wasn't around I wouldn't be able to be the person that I am. I wouldn't be able to love the person that I love.
"Kidscape is very much focused on all aspects of bullying. They actually work with schools and teachers and they're very good at the implementation of policies. They're not a massive charity but the work they do is incredible."
Credit: Alex Wright
Ben's dedication to these charities is admirable. My respect for him only grows when I think about the physical toll he's putting himself through to support them. It's not just bloody nipples and blisters (although there is a lot of that). His kneecap came off centre and doubled in size near the beginning of the challenge. He's had stress fractures, and tendonitis so painful he couldn't put on a sock.
A team of volunteer physios piece him back together each evening, but he also claims he's used to it now. "My body has adapted to running 26.2 miles a day. I'm not saying it's not difficult. My legs hurt every single day. But it becomes more mental than physical. I don't look at it as running a marathon a day, I look at it as running 183.4 miles a week. In order to do that I need to heal properly, make sure I have therapy, and it all works toward that goal."
He's also rarely alone on the road, as keen supporters join him along the way. "We're working with over 250 different running clubs throughout the country. I'm meeting like-minded people who get what I'm doing. When I'm feeling down, I've got that positive energy around me from other runners."
Another motivating factor? "Food. I eat around 6,000 calories a day."
Ben is currently 33 marathons shy of the halfway point. Thus far, he's raised £35K. On his website, Ben says, 'The 401 Challenge isn't about being a victim, the challenge is about showing people that no matter what you go through growing up there can always be a positive outcome if you want there to be."
I can think of few people who've worked harder to reach that outcome than Ben.
Words by Jack Blocker
Featured image: Sally Evens