Ben Smith is a true running inspiration. He is known widely for the 401 Challenge, and a running legend in his own right. What many people may not know is the story behind the 401 challenge, which is where Ben really provides real inspiration. He has motivated so many people across the country to believe that they can get out and run, and continues to do this today, with the launch of the 401 Foundation along with running events up and down the country that support the foundation. When looking for motivational runners to interview Ben was at the top of my list, and this interview really captures his genuine nature, which demonstrates that this challenge was more than running a long way over a prolonged time, it had a purpose, and he stayed true to this.
Ben, I am sure everyone has heard about the 401 challenge, but can you share with us a little bit about how and why this challenge started?
Gladly, to set a bit of context I started running about 5 years ago, after being quite depressed for most of my life. I experienced 8 years of bullying at secondary school because I was different and because of my sexuality. I tried to hide it as I was being made to feel the person I was wasn’t good enough, and this led to me trying to take my own life when I was 18 years old. I was a shell of myself, and had no confidence, being told everyday who I was, was wrong, this eats away at your soul. I thought I had to follow a set path, live a “normal life”, so that’s what I did: I met a girl after university, we were happy and got married; I had a house, car, worked 60-70 hours a week in a successful job. I had everything you would deem to be a successful life, you know that ‘life’ checklist’ and all.
At 29 I had a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack), I was sat at work one day and I suddenly couldn’t see and had numbness down my arm. I was taken to hospital and diagnosed as having had an incomplete stroke. I remember thinking to myself, I’m 29 years old, and I don’t understand why this has happened. But when you think about it, I was 16 and a half stone, smoked 30 cigarettes a day, I drank far too much to avoid life, and had all the external stress at work, along with all the suppressed stress of pretending to be someone I wasn’t, which I had normalised. This was my Eureka moment.
It was actually a friend from work who introduced me to running about 5 years ago, and asked if I wanted to come to her running club. I thought “this fat boy run”, I had misconceptions of what running clubs were like, thinking it would be elite and I wouldn’t fit in, but I went and fell in love with it. There were more people that looked like me, I started walking and running, ran my first half marathon in 6 months, and first marathon within a year, Brighton Marathon in 2013. I just got hooked to the feeling running gave me, the freedom and adventure, doing something I never thought I could, I had finally found something that made me truly happy.
I wanted to keep hold of that feeling, and see where I could take it, so I set about running all over the world, totalling up 30 marathons in the 2 years prior to the challenge. Half way through 2014 I came up with a plan to take my running to the next level and do back to back marathons, at this point I didn’t even know if I could do this let alone how many. I also knew that I wanted to make a difference for the things that affected me all my life, which were homophobic bullying and bullying in general. The charities I picked were Stonewall and Kidscape, which focused on the areas that I wanted to make a difference in. I knew I wanted to raise a lot of money for them, so in a way we picked £250,000 out of the sky really, and in order to do this we would need to do something pretty large. The logic behind it was “what is the largest thing we can do”, which is the world record. When we started to research it we realised that the official record is actually 52. I looked at the rules and regulations from Guinness, what we wanted to do was get out to as many destinations as possible and inspire people, and raise real awareness. To do this it was no good for me to do all the shouting, we needed to reach out to as many people as possible and let them do the shouting, let them pass the awareness as well. We wanted people to be involved, bottle my experience of running and give it to other people. In our opinion that did not fit in with the rules and regulations of Guinness, so we made a decision early on that our reasons for doing this was our objectives, not the record, and it actually transpired that there were other people around the world who had done the same thing. The most viable we could find was a guy who had ran 365. So we simply rounded up the number to 400 and added one for a victory lap, The 401 Challenge was born!
So, do you have the world record?
No, we never applied for the world record, this is the confusion that comes from some of the media titles during the project. It was suggested that we were breaking world records, but that was never the objective. It is a good headline, but we never applied for the world record, and I don’t have one, even though I broke it 8 times over. Sometimes you don’t do it for the recognition or the reward, but the personal reasons behind it. I think this is why it was so successful, people could see that it was genuine, that it was done from the heart for the purest of reasons.
What kept you motivated to achieve this goal?
People ask me every day what kept me motivated, the real motivation came from the objectives, the reasons I was running. Whatever goal you set yourself, you need to set yourself an emotional connection. It doesn’t matter what the goal, whether it’s a 5k, 10k, half marathon or 401 marathons, it is the emotional connection that will keep you going. There were days that I didn’t want to get out of bed, there were injuries, there had to be something in my soul to drive me. What that was for me is that I love to travel, I love to meet people and run with people, to see them succeed in things they didn’t think they could do.
I have a passion to raise awareness and eradicate bullying, but all of those came together as one, and this meant that I stayed motivated. I can almost guarantee that if I had done this for a world record I would not have completed it, which did not motivate me or mean anything to me.
What was the hardest time for you?
It was day 284, the point in a challenge when it almost came to an end. The 4 days leading up to this I had started leaning while I ran and increasingly became even more crooked. I went to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and was told by the doctor I needed to stop. I was in complete disbelief, I had worked so hard to get to this point and we were almost there I my eyes, we could see real change being made and the awareness growing every day, it was the team in the end that took the decision for me to stop and it was the right one. This didn’t stop me from feeling like I had failed though, I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to achieve. But I had already achieved so much, but in my heart I thought I had failed.
It turned out that I had actually fractured one of the vertebrae in my back a few years previously and hadn’t know about it, and I was also diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a deformity in the bottom of my spine. Owing to the impact of the running one of my discs had started to bulge and this had impeded on my spinal nerve; because my core was strong it had tensed up and this led to my spine twisting like a corkscrew. I was taking seriously strong painkillers, which is something I don’t usually do, and this is something that I don’t personally advocate when running. I had ten days’ worth of therapy, then we as a team made the decision that we would go back, and carry on, making up the 262 miles that I’d missed out on. And we did, I started doing ultra-marathons, not through the flattest part of the country either. It was tough, and there were days that I thought, maybe I should just give up. But in my heart I knew I was doing something that made me happy, it was easy to wake up and think, come on, it’s just another day.
Everywhere I go people talk about you, at Manchester and London marathons this year there were numerous people sharing their stories about running their first marathon with you, or this was their first marathon, and they started running because of your inspiration.
We hear amazing stories every single day, and it is just so amazing, to hear how running has touched peoples lives. We were the stone in the pond, we created the ripples, and then these ripples became other people’s stones, and they have created ripples and so on, it’s a domino effect. This is the power of sport, the power of finding something that makes you happy. When people want to achieve something, when they want to make a difference, this is the key to it, it’s about you being able to affect other people’s lives in a personal and positive way, in my opinion this is what makes us good human beings.
I don’t take full responsibility for this, it was completely a team effort, I had so many people around me that made this happen, that enabled me to just concentrate on the running. I had my dad who dealt with the logistics; my friend Tolu, she was the creativity behind the whole thing, she did the merchandising which obviously kept us all going and the social media side of things, which I controlled, but she helped. There was Lucy and Vicky who helped with the publicity along with Tolu. And then my other half Kyle who gave up his PHD, and his job, to support what I was doing. My mum was on board sorting out accommodation and therapy, but unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer in the January of the challenge and had to take a step back, and this meant my dad was looking after her, and still sorting out the logistics… without them, I just would not have been able to do it. Or be in the mind-set to make the impact on peoples lives as we did, it was a huge team effort.
Tell us, how do you recover from such a feat?
This is something that many of us think we know a lot about, including myself. But it is something that we couldn’t have anticipated, no one had ever done this before, there is no medical research or no evidence about how you should act, behave or recover. I remember coming up with a half-baked plan to recover that included a month’s worth of back to back half marathons, followed by a months’ worth of 10k, then a months’ worth of 5ks, which to me seemed logical. I remember going out for a run the day after the challenge, and I just couldn’t be bothered. I just lost my reason for running, and this was scary, as running had been such a huge part of my life.
I started to grieve a little bit for it, I got angry and depressed, and there was the physiological changes too. I found that because I had been running on adrenaline for so long the serotonin levels in my body were depleted. When I didn’t have the adrenaline in my body I would just hit a low. To suddenly not have this, you get the sense of loss. I remember trying to go to sleep, and my heart rate would suddenly jump to 180 bpm as this is what my body had been used to doing, so I just couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t sleep for about 2 months.
I was supposed to be riding a wave of excitement, we were being offered all sorts of wonderful things, but I just wasn’t in the right mind-set to take them, in a way I suppose I didn’t know who I was any more, I didn’t have that reason any more. It got so down that I had to go on anti-depressants for a month, they managed to sort me out, and I guess with the realisation of what ‘the new normal’ and sense of purpose is we are ok with now, and that’s in the shape of The 401 Foundation and the events business, and a possible new challenge in 4 years’ time.
What else kept you going through this time?
It was my family and friends, I just wanted to shut myself off from the world, and they kept me going. Kyle had to put up with so much during the challenge, and we all thought when I was back home everything would be great, but it just wasn’t. He had to put up with so much stuff, my mood swings, depression. On the morning of Sports Personality of the Year I was on the sofa crying saying I didn’t want to go. I just didn’t want to be that person that everyone knew, I did not want to celebrate. But with the strength of Kyle, and he is my absolute rock, I’m getting there. I wouldn’t say I’m completely there yet, but it’s getting better, it will just take time, and then there is the physiological elements, with my back as well. The one thing that also got my through is the passion to make a difference, and that is what The 401 Foundation is all about.
We will come to the 401 Foundation, but first im aware that Kyle completed his first marathon at London marathon 2017, how did that go, and how was the experience for you both?
That was an interesting experience. Some people say, couples who run together stay together. I don’t know who said that, but for us it was not true. The arguments that we had. I also had times that I didn’t want to go out for a training run, I hadn’t found my love for running, but I was feeling that I had to motivate Kyle to achieve what he wanted to achieve. He is amazing, to go from not running at all in January 2017, to running the London marathon.
It also enabled him to see what I was going through during the challenge, it’s funny it was about mile 22 at London that he said, I’ve kind of got a bit more respect for you now, and I said what, it’s taken you this long to realise.
What he achieved, I couldn’t be prouder plus he likes the bling!
What made Kyle decide to do London, who’s idea was it?
Kyle almost kept London a secret from me, I don’t know how he would have managed if he had all of a sudden started going out for long training runs. One night we were going out for dinner and it was before December, during the time I was low and depressed. And he told me he had signed up for the London marathon, and got a ballot place, and I basically burst into tears, I didn’t really know how to react to be honest with you. He didn’t do it for me, he did it for himself, in a way it brought us closer together, he understands what I went through now, and for him to be a part of that, means the world to me.
So what next Ben, you have touched on it earlier, but tell us more about the 401 Foundation.
We were being asked at the end of the challenge, what’s next, and the natural thing for most adventurers is to jump straight into the next challenge, and we were keen not to do that. We wanted to consolidate and understand the next steps in our life. After a lot of thinking we realised we had created a bit of a legacy, having had an effect on so many people’s life’s, so it only seemed true to us that we set up as a charitable foundation, and that is the 401 Foundation. We have designed a grant based fund, for grass roots projects across the uk that focus on building confidence and self-esteem along with tackling mental health issues. We have stayed away from larger organisations and focusing the money on those that need it the most, and I have a strong belief that smaller local organisations really know their people and there is some really solid work being done, that needs support and help, but doesn’t get it because the government needs to look at a larger scale where the biggest difference will be made. So there is a need for foundations such as ours. We are almost in a position to be established as a charitable foundation. This has been a long challenge, but we are getting there.
On top of that we didn’t want to be a foundation that relied souly on corporate funding. Funding is getting tighter and there is a focus on return on investment, so when looking at confidence and self-esteem this is not something that will necessarily be realised straight away, it will be seen over time, so to make this a viable venture we thought long and hard about how we can support the foundation through our own fundraising, and we have done this through our own events business. We are looking to run events across the country, where the funds will go to the foundation for these grants. It takes time, but we now have our first event on bank holiday weekend in August, and that will be a good gauge to see what the interest is from the public, we are really excited by it.
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So can you tell us more about the plans after these first events?
We are not quite ready to announce the full schedule moving forward, we know the plan, but we want to do it properly, we want people to know exactly what they will get at these events, and what it will do for them. We want to replicate the reasons from the 401 challenge, what I can tell you is every single one of the events will cover every single corner of the UK. But that’s all you are getting from me right now…
Tell us more about your next big challenge.
The next one will be an international one, but it is a long way off yet. I don’t think we are quite ready to talk about it yet, but it is in the planning process. We are looking at 2020 to 2021. We want to see if we can try to replicate the inclusivity as we did with the 401, but it will be more difficult as we will be so far away, but we are working with partners to see how we can involve people no matter where they are in the world, more information will come out over the year. We are at the same point as we were at the start of the 401, deciding on whether we actually apply for the world record, or we do things differently to keep to the objective, and just smash the world record, but unofficially.
We have just relaunched The 401 Challenge website and more pieces will be added over the coming months. Our aim for the website is to make it interactive, people will be able to interact with every day of the 401 challenge, look at stats, pictures and my personal views, and there will be an opportunity to add your own pictures, give your own perspective, and comment on it. To get a real community view. I am really excited about this.
On top of this we have been visiting schools and corporates delivering talks up and down the country about The 401 Challenge. I especially enjoy the school visits which we have been told have inspired so many kids to believe that anything is possible is you just believe. We have a full schedule of visits booked in until January 2018 but there are still a few more spaces if people want to get involved, just visit the 401 Challenge website and sign up.
I want to just say a huge thank you to everyone that was involved in The 401 Challenge, without all of you this project wouldn’t have been a success, I truly feel this has been a great representation of how a community can get together to make a real difference.