401: The Man Who Ran 401 Marathons in 401 Days and Changed His Life Forever is the story of Ben Smith, a marathon runner who completed 401 marathons in 401 days in England between 2015 and 2016. Ben was bullied as a child and he attempted to commit suicide as a result of that experience. As an adult, he was dissatisfied with the way he was living until he discovered his passion for running. He decided to run 401 marathons in 401 days, raise money for charity, and find himself in the process.
By the end of the run, Ben raised £330,000 for two anti-bullying charities Kidscape and Stonewall, and ran over 10,000 miles which is the equivalent of running from Syndey, Australia to London, England. During his run, Ben met and ran with 13,000+ people across England. He also Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards in 2016, In the book, Ben shares his struggle with bullying, mental health, divorce, and navigating the vicissitudes of life.
Life is a series of choices, which is not what everybody wants to hear, because it reminds them they are ultimately responsible for their own contentment. They wake up every morning, commute to the office, come home, sit in front of the TV – because they are too mentally drained to think of an alternative and enjoy all the other things they have worked so hard to buy – and repeat, ad nauseam. And all the while they’re hoping for something more. I know, because this was my life – feeling trapped, groaning inside, conforming to what I thought society deemed to be success.
Running as a metaphor for life
Running was the thing I found that made me truly happy, and it works nicely as a metaphor – freedom, taking steps, leaving things behind – but it can be anything. Everybody has something inside them that will make them happy, and in my opinion you just need to find out what that is. And when you find out, you’ll see that security isn’t the same as happiness. But because we’ve become so programmed to believe that happiness is quantified by the materialistic stuff we have – and because the head so often rules the heart – too many people think they’re happy when they’re not, so they don’t even bother looking for it.
Ben’s Life before the Marathon
“There’s something you should know from the outset: that job that was draining my soul, the big bucks, the big house, the big car, the pension plan, the two holidays a year – that was one of the best parts of my life before now, my world after I’d been ‘fixed’. I was 16 and a half stone, smoked 20–30 cigarettes a day, had a mini-stroke at 29. Oh, and I was married to a woman, even though I knew I was gay.”
Bullying at Boarding School
“I can’t remember the first time I was bullied, but I know it started just after I arrived at boarding school. I was 10 and suddenly transplanted from a loving and supportive family into this cold, frightening building in the middle of nowhere, crammed with kids who, in my opinion, had been dumped there by their parents. Mum and Dad didn’t want to send me to boarding school – that wasn’t how they worked because we were a very close family.”
“I don’t remember there being a trigger and I didn’t even hatch a plan to end things. One day, I just found myself putting that knife in my pocket, taking it back to my bedroom and cutting at my wrists. You can only bury all that poison for so long, eventually the body reacts. Looking back, it was one of the most important times in my life. I was so worried about the fact I’d tried to kill myself that I eventually told Mum and Dad when I got home. It was a massive shock to them.”
The 401 Challenge Motivation
“I also passionately believed that people shouldn’t have to go through what I went through, so I knew I wanted to raise awareness and money for charities I really cared about. Kidscape and Stonewall do a lot of great work trying to prevent bullying in schools, but I still felt passionately that a lot of bullying in the UK was being swept under the carpet. So I wanted to spend a whole year, or more, raising the issue all over the UK.
“To fund the project, I initially used the money from the sale of my house, along with any belongings I felt I didn’t need. Drastic, I know, but corporate sponsors didn’t exactly clamber on board. And after clearing debts, visiting different countries to train and buying various other bits and pieces, I was left with about £4,000. I had to pay for accommodation, petrol, food and various sundries – for 401 days – so we knew we’d have to rely on operational donations from individuals and sell a lot of 401 merchandise.”
“Mum and Dad kindly bought me a campervan, which I would eat in, wash in, work in and, hopefully only occasionally, sleep in – and as no one else was in a position to come with me, I would be in the van on my own. I would also drive it to the start of my route every morning, and to wherever I needed to be after that day’s marathon was run. I named the campervan Florence, after my Grandma, who passed away a few years earlier.”
Ignore the Naysayers
“That was the general reaction: ‘You’re doing what? Running 401 marathons? In a row? Are you serious? No chance! I wouldn’t even bother.’ People looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Some people didn’t think I’d start The 401 Challenge, let alone finish it. I found it a little bit frustrating to start with, but I came to expect it. And then I learned to ignore it. I’d walk away thinking: ‘OK, that’s your opinion, but I’m going to prove you wrong.”
There’s a madness about complaining and whingeing and not doing anything about it, especially when you know you’ve only got one life. And those people who complain and whinge about their own lives are the first to judge anybody trying to live their life differently. That had been me, constantly telling myself I needed to change my circumstances, but I did bugger all about it for so long. I only had myself to blame; I was so hell-bent on achieving everything I’d been told I had to achieve to be successful in life, from when I was a kid, and I was scared of the alternatives, terrified to even consider thinking in a different way.
I’d settled, told myself: ‘No, I’m fine with my lot. If anybody else wants to do something different, I’ll watch from a distance.’ How awful is that? One life, and I’d settled on how it was going to roll out, from my 20s until the day I was old and grey. That’s where I was. And I wasn’t happy. But I stepped back from the situation and thought: ‘I don’t want to live this life anymore. I don’t know what life I want to live, but I know it’s not this one. But if this isn’t happiness, what is? Maybe if I start to think in a different way, I’ll find it. What if I get rid of the money and the possessions? That makes sense, because I can categorically say they’re not making me happy. And once they’re gone, maybe I’ll have a clearer idea of what happiness is.’ I suddenly realised you can do what you want, when you want to do it. If you really want to.
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.