To say I was excited when I found out this book was coming out would be a huge understatement. Alongside Lisa Jackson, Ben Smith is one of my huge running heroes. He’s definitely the reason I’ve run two marathons and trained for three, and I’d say he has had a large impact (without knowing it) on my ability to pick myself up after DNSing (did not start) my latest marathon due to illness and plan to run one just for fun around the local streets and another organised one.

I’m going to review the book but I’m going to share where my story intersected with Ben’s, first. I met Ben when he was doing two marathons in Birmingham with my running club (Kings Heath Running Club) in December 2015. At that point, I’d done several half marathons having come back to do the Birmingham one in October 2015 and was tentatively considering doing the Reykjavik Marathon. But tentatively, and I certainly hadn’t signed up yet.

Ben turned up in the local park in Florence, his camper van, which he was using to travel around the country. The routes the club had planned for him involved 2 x 13 mile routes per day over two days. This was his second day running with us and some of my clubmates were joining him for the second day. He was such a lovely character, very welcoming. I was quite nervous as I was (am) a pretty slow runner and I knew I couldn’t do a full marathon at that point.

Ben made a point of running and chatting with everyone during the run. He dropped to the back to chat to me (some of my clubmates ran with me, too) and made sure to mention that it was good for him to take it gently. We chatted about marathons and he’d actually done Reykjavik and could tell me about it.

But more importantly than that, he could gently persuade me that yes, of course I could do it, and would enjoy doing it and manage it just fine. He took selfies with all of us after the run, and we repaired to the cafe where he consumed a fair few calories. I then ran home, making that my longest run to date (14 miles) while he carried on for the second loop with some of the others.

And yes, I signed up for Reykyavik Marathon 2016 and did it (and you’ll notice if you click through that I wore my 401 branded buff to run it), and I would not have had the confidence to do it without Ben’s support and kind words of encouragement on that day. He was still running his marathons when I did that, now I come to think of it!

Ben carried on running marathons, and so did I – but not so many! I did the Birmingham Marathon 2017 and enjoyed that, too. I would never have considered myself “a marathon runner” without that first impetus, I wore my 401 wristband for that one and lots of my long training runs. Ben’s a busy chap with lots of friends and fans, but when I posted on the Facebook page to say I’d achieved another target, he said well done. And I was so chuffed when he spotted our kit at the National Running Show and stopped to say hello (he did a great talk at the show, too).

Ben had finished his 401 challenge by then of course – and our running club got to play one final part in it. A large group of us were incredibly proud to stand as a guard of honour at the Sports Personality of the Year 2016 awards show when he was given the Helen Rollason Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Face of Adversity. Lots of tears from both sides there!

So, Ben’s a pretty important figure in my running life and someone I really look up to. I hoped his book would be as honest and supportive as he is. Read on to find out what I thought of it.

Ben Smith – “401: The Extraordinary Story of the Man Who Ran 401 Marathons in 401 Days and Changed his Life Forever”

(5 April 2018)

After forewords from Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe, both fans of Ben’s, we’re thrown straight into it, 5,000 miles into his epic run around England, Scotland and Wales. From there, we follow Ben’s life, not in strict chronological order, but as it makes emotional sense to disclose what happened to him. Having seen him talk and watched his videos, it’s interesting that more detail is given to his school days and less to his working life, especially the point at which he had the wake-up call of a mild stroke. I think he’s emphasising the journey and the bullying aspects here, and as there’s input from Kidscape later on, I think this was a good choice. And although I know his story quite well, there were plenty of surprises here – I had no idea he’d only just got together with Kyle when Kyle went on holiday for a couple of weeks then Ben went … round the country on his own two feet! What a wonderful testament to a lovely relationship this is, especially when Kyle overcomes his own hatred of running (his mum and dad and mum’s friend also get into running which is lovely to read about and another new factor).

The story of the 401 runs is of course slightly shortened – we don’t get a note about every run or every club, and again, that’s a wise decision for the shape and size of the book. Those of us who ran with Ben know when we did it anyway. This is a blisteringly honest book, with quite a lot of swearing and openness (runners are very used to sharing both swearing and openness and this is on the whole a Good Thing, and I hope the rest of the non-running population get that). But I was surprised to read that …

  • some running clubs promised to do a route and then dropped out and no one ran with Ben
  • some running clubs didn’t want to get involved because of the charities involved (Stonewall and Kidscape) and, as Ben says, they didn’t mean Kidscape
  • some running clubs seemed to want to challenge Ben by planning unpleasant routes or bounding ahead and racing, or runners would ask him to hurry along

This all upset me a bit, although I’d rather know about it, but also …

  • many clubs were like my club, supported him all the way, gave him a hat and arranged pleasant routes with plenty of feeding stations. Hooray! Phew!

The narrative from Ben is interspersed with first notes from his parents and brother, then contributions from people who ran with him, and sometimes their parents. This was lovely, reading about the inspiration he gave them, mental and physical:

He was like some kind of eccentric travelling therapist, doling out great dollops of hope wherever he went. (p. 43)

And the mum of Katie, who’d really suffered after being bullied but found a real supportive friend in Ben summed it up:

That’s an incredible power to have, to be able to give somebody the belief that they can do something. (p.154)

I loved the acceptance that running – and a marathon – is what you make of it and should be enjoyed. This quote by Ben’s “Running Brother” made me smile:

If you had said to me two years ago that a marathon could consist of lunch, a pint of cider and mucking around for six hours, I probably would have said, ‘Nah, that’s not a marthon’. Now, having done it, I can say, ‘It absolutely is’. If it says 26.2 miles on your watch at the end of the day, you’ve done a marathon. (p. 103)

It was also great to read an update from Kidscape about what they’ve spent the money on, always a good thing to know.

Little bits I recognised of course brought a big smile. First of all, my friend Tracie is actually IN THE PHOTOGRAPH of Ben’s last marathon! How cool is that! Naturally, I’d leafed through, looking for a report of his amazing days running round and round with us in Birmingham. Nope. But then he gets to Sports Personality of the Year and …

That’s actually us! Of less immediate connection, he runs with a Mounts Bay Harrier (I have friends of friends in that club) in Cornwall and past the Minack Theatre where my friend Pam works, while going around Cornwall.

The book gives a really good portrait of a lovely man who’s not a saint, but an ordinary chap doing good for the sake of it, not the glory. At the risk of going all literary, and thinking of my other great passion, I think he’s the epitome of a good man according to Iris Murdoch: absorbing people’s pain, quietly doing good, not making a fuss about it.

In summary: This is not a book about running. Not really. It’s about doing a bit of good in the world and about making sure that you do what you love. It’s about overcoming adversity and then giving others a helping hand out of the pit of adversity, too.