Life isn’t all about ones self. It’s a very simple principle really, sadly all to often forgotten about. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in ourselves and forget about the bigger picture.
Saturday my faith in humanity was restored when I met a very humble man doing something extraordinary. Last year Ben Smith gave up his job and sold his house to embark on the challenge of a lifetime. He decided that he was going to run 401 marathons in 401 days to raise money for two anti-bullying charities and raise awareness on the way. I’d been following Ben’s adventures on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for a while and I’d made a donation to the cause and bought a t-shirt, however I was gutted that by the time I’d heard about his adventure I’d already missed his runs in my local area. I would loved to have gone and joined him to go for a run with him and offer support and encouragement first hand rather than just over the Internet.
Last Saturday I got the chance to do just that, as well as chalk up another location on my parkrun travels, Ben was back down this end of the country and starting marathon 390 from Rushmoor parkrun. Rushmoor is only an hours drive from me, a relatively short jaunt up the A3. Sunday and Monday he was actually even closer to me starting marathons 391 & 392 from QE and Lakeside respectively, but I sadly already had plans for Sunday and couldn’t get off work Monday, so short road trip Saturday it was. I’ve already blogged about my experience of Rushmoor parkrun so I won’t dwell on that too much, I’m going to concentrate more on what happened next.
Ben rocked up to Rushmoor parkrun shortly before 9am. He ran there from where he had been staying overnight and arrived with no pomp or fanfare. He’s an unassuming guy, he didn’t turn up and make proceedings all about him, he just sort of sidled up and stood away to the side and let parkrun get on with being parkrun. He attracted a crowd almost instantly and had made time for everyone who wanted a selfie with him, making everyone feel very at ease. The run director said a few words about him and his challenge and proceedings got underway.
Ben ran round parkrun at a steady pace with people accompanying him all the way chatting. I’d run at my usual sub 25 parkrun pace and was at the finish, with many others, waiting to applaud him across the line. Once he’d finished there was a call for all 401’ers to group together for a photo and get ready for the run. There were probably about 50 people at this stage who were going to go for a run with him. The plan was to run a mile or so down the road to Tesco where there would be a short stop for breakfast, then run on to a pub for a spot of lunch, do a bit more running and then finish back at the parkrun where the run started from, completing marathon distance. I had 12 miles in my training plan for my long run and a 10k race the next day so my intention was to run maybe 5 or 6 miles out with Ben and the group, then run back, best laid plans and all that…
We started off en-masse and headed off down to invade Tesco, a nice healthy procession of runners in need of bacon sarnies and hot coffee, being led by one of the local running club, Blackwater Valley Runners, who had planned the route for today. Ben slotted himself into the middle of the pack and started his many conversations of the day with other runners. Tesco is the post parkrun breakfast spot for Rushmoor parkrun and they kindly give a discount on Saturday mornings to people showing up with their barcodes, which is a nice thing that they do. I don’t think that they were expecting quite the numbers that they had today, but they coped admirably. The fuelling for the day well underway.
It was at this stage that I realised I had made a schoolboy error, I had left my wallet in the car. After parkrun I had gone and got my hydration vest out of the car and changed out of my Havant Apricot parkrun top into my Bosh running vest, but I totally forgot to collect that one important item whilst I was there, doh! What an idiot! So instead of loitering around inside the cafe I used the facilities and headed outside to chill out and wait for everyone to finish their food as it was a lovely morning. I had an oat and honey bar in my backpack so I had that for breakfast instead, not quite as satisfying as a bacon roll and a coffee I’ll admit, but it would have to suffice. Whilst outside I got chatting with Vicky accompanied by her dog, Luna, who also had to wait outside whilst breakfast was consumed. She had been involved in the challenge in it’s early days and was running with Ben again. I also met up with Lucy Saunders, the press and media supervisor for the challenge. She had brought Vicky out a hazelnut coffee but as Vicky already had one, this became mine, just what the doctor ordered.
Once everyone had finished in the cafe it was time for another photo opportunity outside with some of the Tesco staff. They had kindly supplied the group with water and bananas which was another really nice gesture from Tesco, fair play to them. Once photo’s were taken care of and Garmins restarted we were ready for the off. A nice procession of runners of all abilities, I wonder what onlookers thought when they saw us running out of the carpark and down onto the main road heading back towards the canal path that we ran along during parkrun. The group started to spread out a bit with the faster runners stretching out ahead of us. We reached a crossing where the group waited for everyone to catch up, I looped back a bit here to go back and check on the tail walkers. They informed me that they were just going to head back to their cars at parkrun and that we should continue on. I caught back up with the group, who were waiting at the entrance to the canal path. For me this is where the day really started, getting away from the hustle and bustle, the traffic, the road noise replaced with tranquility, the crunch of the gravel path underfoot and the noises of nature. Just what the doctor ordered.
Running in a group like this is very fluid, with positions changing regularly, you can be running at the back of the pack, heading up the front or mingling in the middle, there is no pressure. There are regular stops at junctions or crossings to ensure that everyone has caught up and we are still a group and not lost anyone along the way. Ben rarely, if ever, leads the pack, you tend to find him towards the centre chatting away, making sure that he has spoken to everyone and got a selfie with each person. It’s a very social experience, it’s hard to describe, but it’s a somewhat zen experience. We average something like 5mph, 12 minute miles along the way, it’s a lovely steady no pressure nimble along the canal in good company, the miles just tick by. The local wildlife seems bemused!
One of the running club pops up along the route with water for all participants which is very welcome, it is quite a warm morning and I’m trying not to drain my water & tailwind soft flasks. We pass people of the trail, some recognising Ben and asking “is that Ben?”. It is almost a pied piper type experience and I’m not the first to use that analogy. Something like 9 miles in from Tesco we reach the Fox and Hounds pub, the group is not stopping yet with a couple more miles on to cover before the turnaround. Some of the pack decide that this is the extent of it for them. I was tempted to stop here myself as I’ve already gone further than I was planning to, but you sort of get caught up in the moment, I don’t want to leave the group yet, I don’t feel ready to drop out even though the option is there on a plate. There’s lots of people from parkrun and the running club there to support, including some of the runners that dropped out earlier, the atmosphere is fantastic. However, onwards it is, the choice is made, it looks like I’m going the distance ahead of my training plan.
Onwards we go, lots of laughter and joking, general chatter between runners swapping stories about runs they’ve done, why they do it and so forth, everyone has their own story to tell and their own reasons and motivation. There’s always something in common in a group like this and conversation is easy as you all share a passion. Since the pub the numbers have dwindled a bit, we’re down now to maybe 15 runners at a guess. There another impromptu and very welcome water station just along the way, this time a family member popping up with drinks for all. A short break and a few more pictures, a shuffling of order and on we go. We don’t reach the ‘official’ turning point but after a couple of miles from the pub Ben decided that it was time to turn and head back, food is required. I have a little chat with Ben on the way back to the pub, he’s been answering questions the whole way so I have to ask him if he gets fed up answering the same questions day in day out and what does he get asked most frequently. His answer doesn’t surprise me, he enjoys and is passionate about what he’s doing and nothing seems to be too much trouble, he’s such a nice guy. “Why 401?” and strangely “do you like running?” Came out high in the list of regular questions he fields on a daily basis. I also ask about if he has days where he just doesn’t feel like talking much, everyone has them, as a runner we go through ups and downs during a long run, the mental side of it often harder than the physical. I can barely imagine the mental fortitude required to endure, survive and thrive from a challenge like this. Running one marathon is hard enough, doing it everyday, for over a year, well that’s quite another matter.
The run back to the pub from the turnaround seemed to take forever, the last mile seemed to just drag on, the guy I was running with, Simon, had just the week before completed a particularly grueling and hilly Ironman, agreed with me. They had clearly moved it a bit further, it just went on and on, bridge after bridge, corner after corner and from looking at my Garmin log this was my fastest recorded mile since parkrun! Eventually we rounded another corner and it was there, yes!!! no wait… ah, my wallet is still in the car……Idiot! I remember that I’ve got my phone on me, I’ve been using it to take photo’s along the way, it has Apple Pay though I’ve never used it. Time to man up, embrace modern technology and see if they take Apple Pay as I seriously could murder a pint. Fortunately for me this all works out for me for a change, luck is in my favour, I’ve been blessed by the running gods, today is the equivalent of a runners ‘perfect storm’, I exit the pub with a pint of lager and a pint of water, happy days! The local running club appear to have bought a mountain of chips and are dishing these out around the hardy runners. Lovely salted chips and a pint, this is clearly the way that marathon running should be undertaken with a nice sit down and a pint halfway through.
Lying on the grass bank, beers consumed and some food taken on board I’m feeling much better, I’m not sure there is a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon. At least I think that until I attempt to stand back up when we’re ready to head off again. After just over an hour relaxing everything has seized up a little bit, a little bit of gentle stretching and the life is returning to my legs which is going to be needed as the next stretch is where things are going to start to get harder. We’re 14 miles plus a parkrun in, so roughly 17 miles, there is still the small matter of the next 9 miles to get back to where we started and where my car, and wallet, is parked up. There is however a small detour planned for the trip back, we are heading to Morrisons to buy some doughnuts! An idea during lunch was snowballing, the doughnut challenge, you know, you have to eat a doughnut without licking your lips, well this is turning into #DoughnutorDonate.
Can you eat a sugar covered doughnut and say “Doughnut or Donate” without licking your lips? It’s harder than you think but why not give it a try! Nominate a friend to do it and film your ‘401 Doughnut Challenge’ and spread our message by showing you stand up against bullying. If you lick your lips text BEN to 70660 to donate £5. Make sure you use the text donate information and #401doughnutchallenge in your posts on social media to spread the word as far a possible. All proceeds go to Kidscape and Stonewall.
So at 20 miles (23 including parkrun) in we have a half hour stop at Morrisons whilst Ben obtains some doughnuts and shoots a quick promo video for it that can be seen on his Facebook page and the challenge is launched. Seize the moment!
Then it’s time to grind out the final few miles back to where we started so that we can finish crossing the parkrun finish line. Awesome! The numbers have whittled down but it’s been an amazing journey and experience. Such a nice atmosphere all day, such great company. My only regret is that is not joined him sooner and elsewhere around the country.
Ben truly is an amazing and remarkable chap, it’s actually quite a humbling experience to spend the day with him. I’m so glad I had the chance to get involved and be part of this incredible journey. I’m rooting for him to hit his target and can’t wait to see what happens next, what his legacy from this will be.
A smidge over 27 miles recorded and it felt awesome, my December marathon should be a breeze! Thank you for letting me be a part of it Ben, Blackwater and the rest of the 401 crew that day, fantastic.