Athlete Q&A: Ben Smith, founder of the 401 Foundation

From the Archive: this interview was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Totally Active Magazine.

In 2016, runner and athlete Ben Smith completed 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, raising £250,000 for charities along the way. Here he speaks to Jimmy Hyland about completing the 401 Challenge and what he has planned for his next big adventure…

Q: Hi Ben! Can you introduce yourself for everyone?

My name is Ben and I am the guy who a couple of years ago decided to run a marathon every day for 401 days in a row, that is around 10,500 miles, to raise a quarter of a million pounds for two anti-bullying charities because, for me, bullying had such a profound affect on my life growing up and I wanted to do something about it. The project was a huge success but mainly because of the people that were involved; we travelled the whole of the UK, ran with over 13,500 runners and for somebody that was never really into sport growing up, finding my passion for running later on in life, I would quite happily say it changed the lives of tens of thousands of other people that were involved.

Q: How did you start running and get into marathons?

Running and me, it didn’t connect when I was younger. At school, if you weren’t skilled at sport then you weren’t a sporty person so I didn’t really tend to get involved. My confidence and self-esteem were quite low from bullying at school, and it meant that I spent most of my life leading it based on what other people wanted me to do, rather than what I wanted to do myself.

At 29 I had TIA (a transient ischemic attack) and it was a turning point. I was 17 and a half stone, I was a 40 a day smoker, I was in a job I didn’t want to do, I was married and in a career that other people had basically put out in front of me. I remember having this episode and thinking to myself “I don’t want to do this, but I didn’t know how to change”. I put a few changes in place and about a year later, my friend introduced me to running and it was a shock to me that I actually enjoyed it!

Over the space of a couple of years, I suppose I found solace in running; it helped me build my confidence, it helped build my self-esteem, and it kind of almost allowed me to become the person I am now. It was during a spate of running quite a lot of marathons in 2015, I chose to run 18 marathons that year around the world, and running allowed me to deal with all the issues that I had at school. Coming out of the back of all of that, I realised that I wanted to use running, travel and this desire to help, to ensure other people didn’t have to go through what I went through at school.

Over the space of a couple of years, I suppose I found solace in running; it helped me build my confidence, it helped build my self-esteem

Q: Where did the idea for the 401 Challenge come from?

A lot of people seem to assume the idea literally just came to me in a dream, but who wakes up in the morning and goes, “I know, greatest idea in the world – why don’t I go run a marathon every day for 401 days!” Nobody thinks like that. For me, it was a process, it was an organic process, like I think a lot of big ideas are.

I wanted to create something that could make a difference and we came up with an idea of back-to-back marathon running and then we thought, what’s the biggest thing you can do with that? What’s the world record? At that time, it stood at 52.

Then I realised quite quickly that it was done by a guy running 106 times round a running track. We knew we wanted to raise a quarter of a million pounds, so we knew it had to be big, but also, we wanted to connect with people. We wanted it to inspire people, we wanted people to get involved, and trust me, no one was going to come run 106 times round a running track. I wouldn’t even turn up for that! I heard of a few people that had done one every day for a year, and so we simply rounded it up to 400.

Later, in April 2015, I met Larry Macon, the world record holder of the most amount of marathons run in a single year. He is the most incredibly selfless man, he’s so eager to connect and when I spoke to him and told him what I wanted to do, he thought it was awesome. He actually turned around to me and said, “Well, look you know, I think what you’re doing is great – have you thought of a victory lap?”. I added the extra one, and the 401 Challenge was born!

Q: How did you manage to get other people involved and how did it help them?

When we started the project, I don’t think we ever realised it was going to be what it became. I was very lucky; I had a very small group of people that surrounded me that believed I could do anything I put my mind to.

The strategy we put in place was to connect with people – we wanted people to come and join in. We wanted people to be able to access this, within all abilities. For me, my journey though running had started by turning up to a running club absolutely terrified, thinking I wouldn’t fit in, to then running my first marathon about a year later. My journey through running had filled me with confidence and self-esteem, in a way I wanted to bottle that and give it to people.

My journey through running had filled me with confidence and self-esteem, in a way I wanted to bottle that and give it to people.

Everything we did was built around that whole idea. We liaised with 350 running clubs around the country, who planned the routes around each of the towns and cities that we ran in. That meant they were sort of responsible for the event that day. So, they bought like-minded people. Then through social media we were able to celebrate all these people that turned up and ran their first marathon or ran the furthest they had ever ran before; their friends would see it and come to join us at a different area – so it grew organically. And I think because of that, it became something that people admired and really took to their hearts.

Learn more about Ben Smith and the 401 Challenge >