In case you weren’t aware, or within running circles, living under a rock, there’s a remarkable man whose charity challenge first came to my attention while Eddie Izzard was completing his own incredible 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa. This challenge would keep popping up in Facebook comments, and could not be ignored. Ben Smith is a 33 year old from Bristol who, as you read this, is deep into a personal challenge to raise £250,000 for Stonewall, the pro-LGBT, pro-tolerance charity, and Kidscape, an anti-bullying charity. Quite a sizeable mission, but perhaps not quite as gargantuan as the task of running 401 marathons in 401 days. Its hard not to imagine that Ben either has an unshakable iron will to succeed. Yet the story of how he came to running, and the 401 Challenge, makes it more remarkable that he came to prominence here.
Having read Ben’s biography on the 401 Challenge website, and from interviews I’ve heard with Ben, his story is relatable but no less despairing. Ben was bullied severely in school. He comes from what he described as a close knit family and went to boarding school. Quite within himself, he was seen to be an easy target. He left school, found a job, and got married, in their own home. He began to realise he was gay. When he came out, his marriage fell apart, and he was extremely depressed. He began to put his life back together through running, and struck upon the 401 Challenge before even running a single marathon. His challenge has seen him travel around the country to all corners, gradually growing in popularity, with runners encouraged to join him on any of the 401 marathons lovingly detailed, listed and diaried on the challenge website. He’s given talks to primary schools, been featured on the BBC’s London Marathon coverage, ITV’s Real Stories, interviewed on Marathon Talk among others, and captured the attention of local, regional and national press.
Ben’s challenge was briefly disrupted when he finally had to give in to a back injury to ensure he could complete the rest of the challenge, but since returning having taken a week off, Ben seems to be stronger than ever, looking fine after well over 300 plus marathons, and seeking to make up the mileage to make the challenge equivalent to the distance of 401 marathons.
I remember searching through his website one day, about halfway through his challenge, hoping to see if he would be back in my locality at some point. Indeed he was. Marathons 337 to 340 were all situated in Bradford or Leeds. I opted for 340, taking place on Friday 5th August, 2016. This one would start off in Horsforth, taking in Eccup, come back through Horsforth via the Leeds Country Way, before taking in Rawdon, Apperley Bridge, Calverley, Bramley, and then back towards Horsforth.
I was in several minds about whether to start with Ben and run some of the way, or try and meet him roughly halfway and see how I went on from there. In the end, I tried the latter. Across three (yes, three) buses, and a hasty jog up to Brownberrie Lane, I’d made it to Horsforth. I finally afforded myself a walk and noticed the 401 van parked in the grounds of Horsforth Sports Club. I continued on to Scotland Lane and stopped there. I would wait here patiently, then impatiently, for the best part of 80 minutes, occasionally pacing up and down and finding myself increasingly wanting to answer the call of nature. I almost gave up the ghost and decided I may as well do a long run in the opposite direction, in the hope I might bump into a large pack of runners. A mile and a half later, I was heading towards Cookridge Golf Club and seemingly not sure of my bearings, when I was asked by a lady wearing a Horsforth Harriers running top if I was looking for the 401 Challenge. Apparently they’d set off a little late and were running behind. Ever grateful my day off suddenly wasn’t a lost cause, I was led into the grounds of the club, to a dining area outside, congregated by runners in similar colours, men, women and children alike. I was introduced to Ray, who appeared to be in charge of the route, the support network, etc. And then Ben appeared. I introduced myself and he asked about the Rocktape, still clinging onto my right knee. I assured him it was fine and didn’t even need to ask for a photo!
We were all treated to a buffet lunch by the golf club, putting on a small and charitable spread of sandwiches, chips and nachos. There was plenty to go round everyone, and it was good to chat to some of the Harriers too. We got talking about different races, the route, and more besides.
After a while, Ben gave the five minute warning and we were starting our warm up. We went on our way and I opted to run ahead with some of the faster runners. Only doing around 9:00 minute mile pace, or slower. We went back through the Leeds Country Way, stopping once or twice to allow the slower runners to catch up. Down Scotland Lane, carefully treading past oncoming traffic, and picking up another runner from the Farsley Flyers en route. We left one or two more on Brownberrie Lane as an old school bomber plane flew low towards the nearby Leeds-Bradford Airport, and turned right to continue briefly up the road where we would head down a road for refreshment.
Ben had kindly reminded the front runners, myself included, that the run wasn’t about pace, and asked if we could drop back a little so as not to dishearten anyone. This was understandable. We’re all here because of Ben, and it would feel a disservice to simply head off up ahead and not do your bit for the slower runners. I liked the ethic behind this. Message delivered, we headed down the cul-de-sac for our first cake and water stop, hosted out of the back of a gentleman’s car. He was cracking jokes as he gave out the water and offered jaffa cake brownies. I wasn’t sure I’d earned my cake yet, having only done around 3 miles, but took on the fuel anyway. Ray would contact the next support further on, giving an idea of when we’d be expected. I thought to myself what a well-drilled operation this was turning out to be. Absolutely lovely for people to come out and support the runners operationally.
We moved on, and I dropped back a little to run with the Farsley Flyer, got talking a bit as we dropped down a descent on the route. We didn’t have any major uphill sections for a bit, it seemed, and before long we were en route to Apperley Bridge, the site of our next stop, the Stansfield Arms. This took us down a nice country road called Woodlands Drive, with great leafy surrounds, a memorable section of the course. I did a run back to check on the remaining slower runners at the back. After that, it was onward to the Stansfield, our next fuel stop, where we’d take on a few more runners, including a lady called Helen whom I’d met through a Facebook group called Run MND, a group for people dedicated to raising funds and awareness of motor neurone disease through running. Here I declined to take a mini Soreen, instead opting for flapjack, a Nature Valley bar, and more water. Onward we went, along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, the next long stretch of the course.
The sun was bearing down, seemingly warmer than I’d initially anticipated, and this was adding to the sheer beauty of this part of the run. I’ve never been to Apperley Bridge before – its recently had a new rail station opened near the Stansfield Arms – and I’d quite happily have a day just walking this section. A beautifully maintained stretch of canal was only enhancing this experience. It was good to be able to get to talk to Helen in person, rather than a forum, about our personal experiences of MND, from loved ones with the disease to the pressures of fundraising, along with other chatter about pace and previous races! Eventually we reached another stop, The Tiny Tea Room, whom the group bought all the remaining water from while Ben was busy buying ice cream and having his picture taken. Here I realised I’d lost a fiver out of my zip pocket of my shorts. How, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t dwell on that. I was started to feel it a bit now. Mainly the warmth. I was comfortable with the slower pace, just not the temperature, and staying cool was the priority. More suncream applied, and the tea room owner gratefully refilled my water bottles and those empty bottles and hydration packs of the others.
I heard at this point there were around five or so miles remaining. I’d run around 10 miles total. I’d come further than I thought I’d manage, and my right knee felt good. I knew I was going to end up finishing, whatever the distance ended up at.
We carried on towards Bramley, stopping one more time for water and other fuel – this time, orange segments and more flapjack. I clocked another mile there, but decided to run back and again check on the slower runners. We went on, and it was about half a mile until we turned off to the left to head down a woodland path section. I was running near the back at this point, knowing the final run back to Brownberrie Lane would be mostly uphill.
We stopped as we reached Horsforth. Its a big place! The effort was taking its toll on us all. Some of the more experienced were fine, others, maybe doing their first marathon, were showing the effort. We all wanted to finish well. And we did. Onward we all ran. I continued a little faster but still amongst the slower runners. I stopped at one point for one of the runners pointed out a golden postbox in honour of Alistair Brownlee. Of course, Horsforth is Brownlee country! Ben started surging up the road at this point. I told him he was running strong, to which he said ‘its only a hill!’ Up through Horsforth Park. We were nearing the Old Ball roundabout. I started to feel hungry. I was over 15 miles up at this point, in addition to the 1.5 mile run finding the runners. Must have been the running back. I told another runner it was chipolatas on the menu at home – and that’s if I could wait that long!
We turned the corner, having safely crossed the road, up Brownberrie Lane, and back towards the 401 Challenge van. That was it. We all came back into the Horsforth Sports Club car park. Ben had completed marathon 340 (technically, its 333, but heck), and we’d all finished with him.
5:45pm. The early evening was finally bringing a cooler air right when we needed it. Myself and Helen got another photo with Ben. For some, it was joyous. For others, it meant a lot more and became an emotional experience. Everyone here had their reasons for running with Ben, be to share an experience with Ben, to push themselves further, for the victims of bullying and prejudice, to remember a loved one. So many reasons why. You could see what it meant to people. The marathon remains the classic test of endurance.
I shook hands with Ben, said bye to Helen and the others I’d got along with, and went off to start the long bus journey home. I clocked 16.96 miles, to be precise, in a cumulative time of 2:50:01, but of course, that was with a lot of pausing on the Garmin, which just held out. I’d been on my feet for several hours, and it really felt like it too. And I’d effectively jumped from 11 miles to nearly 17 miles in my long run training. Still, no complaints. What an amazing day this had turned out to be. Everything I hoped for, and more.
What this run gave me was an appreciation for slower running and indeed those who run slowly. These people are what make running admirable at its core. You’ve no doubt seen the quote ‘a 12 minute mile is just the same as a 6 minute mile‘, and so on, but it felt really good to actually run with these people, taking it slow and steady…we were all out there a long time. The belief that slower runners carry to see their run, their race, their challenge right to the end is an amazing representation of the human spirit. Of course, it was amazing to meet the man carrying out the challenge, and let me tell you, I have every faith he will complete it. He’s looking healthy right now and the updates coming in from the Facebook page are full of positivity, and the final marathon in Bristol, I can only imagine to be the absolute celebration of the challenge and of marathon running.
It was an absolute, unforgettable pleasure to take part in this run with Ben, and the thirty or so people whom I joined the run with, Helen and everyone else included. A huge thank you to Ben for opening us this challenge to everyone to collectively join him, and to the operational team behind the challenge who are keeping this going. And thank you to the Horsforth Harriers, the second running club in the space of two weeks to show how welcoming the club scene is. Ray and his club planned the perfect route, showing the best the suburbs of Leeds have to offer, organising the support around the course, helping the run to go almost seamlessly.
Of course, let’s not forget this is a charity initiative. Ben has raised, at time of publishing this, £111,597 for the two charities, Stonewall and Kidscape, that he’s supporting. You can text BEN to 70660 to donate £5. You can also find more details below on where to get more information, merchandise and how to donate online. Please do consider it – its an amazing cause. And if you do have the chance to run with Ben, please do. Whatever your ability, you’re welcome. You’ll find yourself, and you’ll do more than you could ever imagine. And you’ll have a bit of a lark too!
The 401 Challenge shop (to raise operational funds)