After completing the equivalent of 401 marathons in 401 days, Ben Smith is struggling to adjust. He knows the answer lies in running.
On 5th October 2016 Ben Smith, 34, completed a challenge that he had been undertaking since the previous summer, completing his 401st marathon in 401 days. Yet when SPIKES speaks to him a few days after he’s finished Smith is feeling down.
“I think it’s because my routine has been disrupted,” he says. And what a routine it was, touring the UK in a campervan, running a marathon in a new location every day, strangers joining him every time he took to the roads, stopping to give talks in schools.
“I had a team of people who worked with me. All I had to do was rock up, run, talk to people, do the school visits, do the press. I very much lived in the moment.”
The jolt back to reality has been jarring. Smith is weaning himself off the heavy mileage with “a month’s worth of back-to-back halves followed by a month of 10ks then 5ks”. But something is different. “There’s no motivation in me at all,” he admits.
By completing his 401st marathon Smith reached the end of a road that spans further back than when he started the first marathon of the challenge in September 2015. His relationship with running began when he was aged 30, not soon after he suffered a TIA – effectively a mini stroke.
“It made me sit up and think that I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to do in life,” he recalls. A friend dragged him down to Southville Running Club in Bristol, where he lives. A smoker and a drinker who’d never done “any sport at all” before, Smith felt like he was back at school again.
“[I had] that nervousness, that anxiousness, [the feeling] that everyone will point and laugh at me,” he says.
Yet two miles of running/walking later he was hooked. “I got back and had a feeling of accomplishment. I think for the first time in my entire life I’d done something for me.”
“I am very lucky to find that running is what I want to do in my life”
Through his youth Smith had suffered with depression. He was bullied at boarding school and struggled to adapt when he went to university. Twice he attempted to take his own life. Running changed his attitude and outlook completely. He came out as gay, and slowly started to get his life together, with his new fitness regime central to it. “It was my therapy,” he says.
In 2014 he ran 18 marathons, “mostly to see whether I could do multi marathons,” he says. From there he started planning the 401 Challenge, which included quitting his job and selling his house. His aim: to run the equivalent distance of 401 marathons in 401 days. The goal: to raise £250,000 for LGBT charity Stonewall and anti-bullying charity Kidscape; to increase awareness of bullying in the UK; and to inspire and challenge people by inviting the public to run with him.
Everything was on track until day 280, when Smith’s back began to hurt. He ignored the growing pain and carried on running, putting his “health to one side” until he couldn’t any longer.
“I was crooked. I couldn’t even stand up straight. I couldn’t sit down, stand up, walk run, sleep,” Smith says. He checked into the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (he was running in Scotland at the time) where the doctor told him to stop. “It was like I’d failed, like I’d let all these people down.”
After ten days’ rest he returned to the roads. The injury had left him psychologically bruised and he had a 262-mile deficit to make up, which he would do by looping back to up his mileage on days when he had it in the tank.
He could manage the physical pain, but the emotional strain of the crazy challenge persisted. Life was going on in the background. Smith’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, for instance. He just kept running.
“It turned into being more of a mental challenge than a physical one. It was the relentlessness of it.” Every day strangers would run with him. Every day he had to put on his friendliest face and act like he hadn’t spent every day of the last year sleeping in a campervan and running marathons.
“It wasn’t that I had to put on a face of being happy all the time, but 9,500 people came out to run and they were meeting me for the first time. If I was miserable, that was the impression they would have got from me.”
On Smith ploughed. His fastest marathon of the challenge was his 398th, clocking 3:39:22 in Bournemouth. Three days later he completed his 401st back in Bristol, where he started.
His plan now is to establish the 401 Foundation and carry on the educational and fundraising work. The other thing he has to do is “re-engineer [his] focus” in a world where running is not his sole purpose for the day. That said, running is what helped him discover himself, and that won’t ever change.
“Running has been the mechanics for me right the way through,” he says of his recovery since that stroke four years ago. “I am very lucky to find that running is what I want to do in my life.”
For more information and how to get involved in the 401 Challenge, head this way.