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The back-to-back marathon king who sent a message of anti-bullying defiance

Ben Smith

Having completed 400 back-to-back marathons, the 401st left Ben Smith unable to put his feelings into words, let alone perspective.

He had navigated the length and breadth of the United Kingdom in his remarkable 401 Challenge. In the process he raised over £250,000 for anti-bullying charities Stonewall and Kidscape, inspiring countless folk young and old.

His journey to that point was a turbulent but ultimately triumphant one. In his own words, sheer will, grit determination, stubbornness and pig-headedness saw him complete the 401 back-to-back marathons to raise awareness over bullying. But he is far from done.

The motivation behind 401

Ben Smith was 18 when he tried to kill himself. From a Germany-based RAF family, he went to boarding school in England at the age of 10. The previously adventurous kid turned into a quiet, shy and reclusive boy. He was bullied, physically and mentally, and felt ashamed and trapped.

When he turned 13 he changed schools, hoping for a fresh start, but the bullies followed him. The switch coincided with him coming to understand that he was gay, yet he felt unable to be himself because of the strict views of his religious school. When he hit 18, he reached breaking point.

"I thought, I can't do this anymore," he tells ESPN. "It wasn't a cry for help, it was a genuine want to not be here any more so I tried to take my own life.

"I felt I'd failed at not being able to do that so I made that choice to be happy -- happy in inverted commas. I hadn't even come out, I hadn't had any experiences. So I had a warped view of reality on who I was supposed to be. That set off a string of events where I played it straight for the next 11 years until I was 29."

A lifestyle of 70 hours-a-week work, drinking and cigarettes took its toll and aged 29 he was sat in Bristol Royal Infirmary having suffered a TIA [Transient ischaemic attack -- a mini stroke]. It was his eureka moment, but one which did not come with an immediate understanding of what to do next. He put a flipchart up in his bedroom on which he "verbally vomited" all emotions, thoughts and goals.

He was persuaded to go and visit a local running club, but those teenage demons and doubts came back. "When I walked through the doors it was like I had regressed back to school," he said. "I thought people were going to look and laugh at me, call me names and highlight how I didn't belong there.

"I was terrified, but I managed to stick with it.

"Everyone was so welcoming and I walked and ran two miles. It was like I'd run a marathon, won a gold medal. I figured out what confidence was. I ran a little bit further, made friends, got clarity. It gave me an opportunity to express myself."

Running struck a chord with Smith and within six months he had run his first half-marathon. Then came the 2013 Brighton marathon and in 2014 he ran 18 marathons, spread all over Europe.

He enlisted a mind and body personal trainer and found himself in running. "I was experiencing a cool life -- my self-esteem was rising, I was independent. I was more open, I was coming to terms with my sexuality so I was much more congruent. I came out to my parents and they were absolutely fine with it.

"There was a belief that I could be who I was and could do anything I put my mind to, that's where the idea came from to run back-to-back marathons."

End of the road?

It was day 284 of the 401 Challenge when it looked like the dream was over. He sat in Aberdeen's Royal Infirmary in complete devastation.

Back in early 2015 he did seven back-to-back marathons in the U.S. from St. Louis down to New Orleans, encountering 72-year-old Larry Macon who has over 1,600 marathons to his name. They talked about beating the world record of 365 back-to-back 26.2-mile runs and Smith suggested completing 400. Macon reminded him he needed a victory lap, and the 401 Challenge was born.

Smith set a target of raising £250,000 for his two charities, but on day 284 -- his feet had already pounded 7,414 miles -- sat in north Scotland, the prognosis was grim.

He had fractured a vertebra.

The back pain was originally blamed on the umbilical hernia he had picked up in Alnwick a few days before, but when he was in Aberdeen's Royal Infirmary on day 284 he was diagnosed with spondylitis.

"That was when I broke down," he said. "I couldn't stand up straight, it left me crooked. I was like a question mark and my spine was shaped like a corkscrew. There was also the fracture between L4 and L5 which had irritated the disc and left me with sciatic pain."

Jamie Murphy, the ex-Manchester City footballer and now renowned physiotherapist, set to work on him and remarkably, 10 days later he was back on the road. He'd lost 262 miles in his enforced pause, but he ran an extra 30 or even 35 miles each day to make it up. By day 393, he was back on track.

The next chapter

It is October 5. Having completed his victory lap which took him from Bristol to his hometown of Portishead and back -- complete with a stop off for a burger and pint -- he crossed the finishing line.

Over 401 days it felt like had covered every blade of grass in the UK; 9,485 other folk joined him at various stages, running alongside him, sending a message of defiance to bullying. He also visited 101 schools, promoting the anti-bullying message. Earlier in the day his fundraising hit the £250,000 mark.

Amid the flashing cameras and media demands as mile 10,506 was ticked off, in his 22nd pair of trainers, Smith turned to his project manager and the overwhelming emotion translated into a simple question: "I turned to him and all I said was, 'so that's that then?'".

The welcoming pint of Thatchers brought some clarity and it signalled the start of the next chapter.

A three-month cooling down period is his next task as Smith enters more uncharted territory. A university has been enlisted to monitor the psychological and physical aftermath of this remarkable feat -- his addiction to the endorphins will need close attention as, without those, there is the risk of slipping into depression.

The tapering plan involves back-to-back half-marathons, then daily 10km runs next month and 5km runs in December. His "supersonic" metabolism needs to be managed and a 6,500-calorie diet reduced.

Smith won't stop running but his reserve energy will be driven into the 401 Foundation -- "it'll work with people, building confidence and dealing with mental health issues" -- an events company which will put on an annual 401 marathon and motivational speaking with 350 schools on the waiting list.

Despite having made history,and inspired thousands, he isn't one to sit around. He's only just getting going.

"When I crossed the finishing line it was a culmination of all the hard work and sacrifice but also the people I'd met," he said. "It was like we were a family that were standing up against something that had affected so many others.

"It was like an expression of my soul. It was spine-tingling. But I don't feel I have done something that special, I've just done something I love. But now, just a couple of days on ... I'm beginning to think it might be a little bit of a big deal."