Ben Smith: Running for Awareness

A typically quaint family home in Lincoln is one of the last places in the world you would expect to find someone who holds a BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

The likes of Lewis Hamilton live the high life in Monaco, whilst Andy Murray looks set to eclipse the 65-million-dollar earnings mark by the new year.

But for one winner of the Helen Rollason Award it was never about the money, the houses, the fame or even the awards.

Ben Smith is an incredibly humble 35-year-old with an incredible story of pain, confusion, and ultimately triumph; with achievements stretching further than just 401 marathons in 401 days.

“It was almost like 401 days of counselling sessions. It was about getting people talking, using running as a mechanism,” Smith told me from an unlit spare room in his parent’s house.

Undertaking just one marathon in a lifetime can take many months of preparation, training, and of course the typical cliché blood, sweat and tears.

To do one every day for a year and a half needed a motivation far greater than the norm; something deep rooted and a feeling beyond the common need for accomplishment and fulfilment.

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Ben Smith ran 10,506.2 miles over the 401 days Photograph: Michael Lloyd

Whilst at boarding school Smith was a subject to bullying to such an extent that at the age of 18 he tried to take his own life.

“My mental state wasn’t very good at all,” he recalls. “I was a shell. An empty vessel. I had all my confidence and self-esteem inside me beaten out of me, both physically and mentally.

“I think things just started to boil over at this point and naturally I didn’t want this constant fear every morning of waking up.”

In a survey carried out in 2011 it was found that 16,000 young people were absent from school due to bullying.

This was Smith’s motivation.

For him the degree of abuse he received during his time at boarding school drove him to such a level where, tragically, starting the adult phase of his life was not as attractive an offer as ending everything.

“I didn’t want the worry and inner turmoil and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” Smith told me, the pain clearly still evident as he spoke.

“My parents were really shocked. They didn’t have any inkling at all about what was happening because I was able to cover it up really well.”

And why would his parents have had an inkling?

As a mother or a father you naturally find yourself worrying about everything to do with your children, from academic choices in school and university to their dinner in the evening.

The thought of your child considering suicide would be such an extreme worry that it would get dismissed, particularly if they were able to mask their true feelings in such a way as Smith did.

He confesses, “Whenever they would ring I would panic and cry down the phone and they’d ask me what was wrong but I would say I was homesick. I’d say I was just having a bad day.”

 

Who can blame him? Many kids struggle to pluck up the courage to tell their parents they’ve failed a Maths test, let alone the fact that they are considering suicide.

Smith’s childhood was unlike many others; his maturity at such an early stage of his life meant he could make decisions that even grown men often find a challenge.

At the age of 10 many young boys are outside causing havoc, sat inside playing video games or arguing over who has the better collection of football cards in their annual Panini collection.

Whilst all three of these may well have occurred during Smith’s childhood, it was the during the first decade of his life that something far more significant occurred; he knew he was gay.

“It was just a feeling. I suddenly felt I was attracted to men and I didn’t really understand it. I thought it was wrong because I hadn’t known any different,” Ben told me, the pride in these feelings still evident in his voice whilst recalling this moment in his life.

“I was never shown role models that I could relate to. The only gay role models at the time were very flamboyant and there was not a problem with that. But I knew I wasn’t like that.

“You don’t want to be different when you’re little. You just want to be part of the crowd, just want want to fit in. People started to call me gay and I began to protest too much.”

To hold such a maturity at such a young age speaks volumes of the mental strength this man has, if indeed running 401 marathons in 401 days did not make this clear enough.

This strength was built up over many years of hurt, meaning such a challenge as he undertook needed no greater incentive.

Smith was brought up with a military focused background, but nothing pushed him to complete this huge sporting feet quite like the earlier experiences in his life; accompanied with the knowledge that he could make a difference to those kids going through what he went through.

“We wanted it to be more than just a challenge for me, we wanted it to be a mechanism for other people to be inspired, to challenge themselves to do things they never thought they could. We found organically that the project did that, over time,” Smith told me.

“Naturally with all that it raised a lot of awareness around the issues of bullying, not just the £330,000 that we ended up raising. It raised the awareness that it needed.”

Smith was running not only to highlight the issues of bullying but also to raise money for two charities, Stonewall and Kidscape.

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Smith turned to running as little as six years ago Photograph: Michael Lloyd

Stonewall campaign for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the United Kingdom, currently running a rainbow laces project in sports such as football to raise such awareness.

Kidscape have a far tighter focus; to provide children, families, carers and professionals with advice, training and practical tools to prevent bullying and protect young lives.

“We were told half way round,” recalls Smith “That we had achieved the [target of a] quarter of a million pounds and I cried live on Sky News, not one of my proudest moments!

“But that was the final thing we needed to tick, the final objective.”

Both charities link succinctly with the experiences of Smith growing up, highlighting how much this challenge will have meant for him and his family.

Incidentally, the family Smith calls his own nowadays could have been very different had The 401 Challenge never taken place.

At the age of 29 Smith led the life of many; a wife, a home, a car, a basic job with a competitive pay.

But rarely did this vision that ultimately pushed him to complete the feat leave his mind.

Seldom, as any successful marathon runner would do, did he lose sight of his main aim, his target, his goal.

Recalling life at 29, Smith said: “I think for me I got very comfortable with my life. I fantasised about the type of life I could have being who I really was. I knew deep down I was gay. But some days that feeling would surge forward and other days I would be able to stick it back in the box.

“And I suppose…”

At this moment he pauses, showing the extent to which this stage in his life meant to him in making who he is today.

“I suppose I was happy to a degree, or at least I thought I was.”

Smith concedes that what he had at this stage of his life was a stereotypically ‘successful life’ to the many, but still held that vision of a life that he himself deemed efficacious.

It was his turn towards a sporting lifestyle which started to change things for the better.

His love affair with running started as recent as 2011 after many years of inactivity when it came to sport; proving the catalyst to a whole new life for a man who hadn’t fulfilled his life dreams just yet.

“I was very unfit and very unhealthy. I knew I needed to change but I didn’t really know what to do. It was actually a friend of mine that discussed with me at the time that I wanted to get fit and healthy and I was doing bugger all about it. So she had me down to a running club.”

Six years later, after sport had become the mechanism for change in his own life, Smith used this to improve the lives of others.

The 401 Challenge started on the 1st of September 2015, the aim to make sure no child went through the emotional turmoil Smith suffered for eight years of his life growing up.

Alongside his marathons Smith did talks to kids in schools across the country; 101 different ones to be exact.

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Over 300 people joined Ben Smith on the final day Photograph: Michael Lloyd

This enlightened to him even further to the power sports can have on people, and how it can be used not only to improve a life in a physical way.

“You can’t go and run a marathon every day for 401 days and it not have on impact either on you or on a collection of people,” Smith said.

“However for us we were completely blown away by the impact it had and it is still having. We have hundreds of letters and thousands upon thousands of comments. I think we ended up with about 36 million Facebook impressions throughout the whole challenge globally.”

Despite all of this support, The 401 Challenge was not without its drawbacks.

Something you would expect from an event which lasted 10,506.2 miles, defeated 22 pairs of trainers and ridding Smith of 19kg of body weight.

Amongst the hills in Aberdeen on the 10th June, after 284 consecutive marathons in 284 days, Smith suffered a bulging disc in his spine, made worse by a developing umbilical hernia; doubting he would be able to carry on.

There were two major motives that would push him through.

“Definitely the bullying side that I was campaigning for. Of course, the love and the support of my family as well. I have an amazing Mum and Dad. An amazing partner Kyle. He pushes me, he challenges me, he doesn’t just accept everything that comes out of my mouth. He believes in me.”

It was these family values that not only pushed Smith to carry on the challenge in June, but also pushed him over the line in October 2016.

The Millennium Square in Bristol was the stage, with two and a half thousand people making those final steps with him.

Smith recalls coming to a realisation that his life would be a whole lot different in 24 hours’ time after that final push, the final marathon, the final target.

“My job was to run around and interact with people; inspire them, challenge them and raise awareness of bullying and generate money to support the two causes.

“That was my job for 401 days that I did from six in the morning to eleven at night. So you learn to very much adapt to that situation.”

For the many the overriding emotion would be of relief, but for Smith this cauldron of emotions came with a tint of sadness followed by a dash of worry about what was to come.

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Smith said there were mixed emotions on the final day Photograph: Michael Lloyd

“When it came to the final day I suppose there was this mixed feeling of sadness, first of all, over the fact that this adventure is over. And actually there was a fear also of what is going to happen next, you can’t just stop.

“But then there was that joy of thank God it’s over. Thank God I don’t have to get up tomorrow and run a marathon!”

It became clear that the final day of this humongous challenge was all a blur for Smith, particularly the moment he crossed the finishing line surrounded by thousands of spectators.

The final sprint itself was far from a Chariots of Fire moment.

Alongside 300 other marathon runners, media from across the country and thirty kids under the age of 12 who won a competition to run the final length of the challenge, it represented a frantic school run more than the Hollywood finish.

Smith compared the attention he got once he crossed the finishing line to that of a celebrity getting out of a car at an awards evening.

The rush of people finishing behind him, the surge of media trying to get that first word, the cries of the school kids who found themselves swallowed up within the limelight.

“Actually, I can’t remember running through the finishing line, but literally crossing it and slowing down,” recalls Smith with a glimmer in his eyes.

“There were three kids with me. Then literally the four of us got surrounded by press, 360, cameras everywhere, people shouting my name, trying to get my attention for pictures. But it was normal, it wasn’t the red carpet roll out, even if it looked like that.”

Whilst Smith presents himself as a big team player, his individual sporting drive came through as he approached the ribbon at the end of the race.

“I remember crossing that finishing line, I remember speeding up just before I got to the line and thinking ‘I don’t want to be beaten!’ Obviously, there was s**tloads of kids and they all like to sprint ahead.”

This was where Smith goes beyond being a simple marathon runner, who simply wanted to finish the race within a good time, and becomes more of a sportsman with a want to win, a want to compete, a want to succeed.

Hal Higson, a lifelong runner and former US Olympic trialist, once said that “you succeed in any marathon when you finish”; putting into perspective the true accomplishment that Smith achieved in 2016.

The final image Smith left was that at the end of the day of the final run; an image which really sends home the true motive of the challenge – to bring people closer together and achieve equality.

Smith described the scene, just hours after the frantic final moments of the challenge: “I went back outside to help Kyle take the village down and all that was left was this almost symbolic sight of our camper van, Kyle and myself.

“I remember just turning round to him and saying, ‘let’s go home’.”

The 401 Challenge gave Smith far more than just a large Sports Direct receipt for running trainers.

It gave him a purpose in life, a family he wanted to live with and, most importantly of all, a stage to spread the message of equality.

In his own words, “if you want to change a culture, if you want to change people’s attitudes towards things, you have to start talking and showing the what the effect of it is.”

No story showed the effect of talking about a change of culture just as Smith’s did.

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