Sadness, depression, pain, unhappiness, confusion, embarrassment, stress, insult – these are some of the things that Ben Smith, British marathon runner and charity campaigner, felt every single day for over 8 years of his life. Ben is a victim of bullying. “Imagine the uncertainty of waking up every morning terrified about what would happen to you,” said Ben to his audience of roughly 200 La Châtaigneraie Primary School students.
With parents in the armed forces stationed in Germany, Ben was forced to go to boarding school in the United Kingdom. Ripped away from his foundations, and feeling like the odd one out, he became shy and reclusive, an easy target for bullies who would persecute him simply for being different, in his case for being gay. “In an environment like Ecolint, diversity is something that is normal and cherished. But in many schools in the UK and across the world, having a different culture is seen as a bad thing, and some kids go to school every day fearing for their lives” he continued.
I realised I’d wasted my entire life
Despite moving past this difficult school period, going on to university and then a successful career, Ben remained fundamentally unhappy, as his self-esteem ended up at rock bottom and his whole adulthood was centred around pleasing others. “At 29 years old, I had my Eureka moment,” he said, as he found himself at work unable to see, unable to hear from his left ear and unable to feel his left arm. Ben had had a stroke. Yet apart from the fear he felt, this terrible moment also opened his eyes and he realised that he had wasted his entire life.
This was when he made a decisive choice to turn his life around. He came out as gay and decided to become fit and healthy. This was when the hard work began, Ben explains, as “you have to uncondition the way you’ve been thinking for years”. On a friend’s suggestion, he decided to take up running. From the first step, he fell in love with the sport and its sense of freedom, adventure and challenge. Within 6 months, he’d run his first marathon in Brighton, using marathon running as an opportunity to explore and express who he was, to challenge himself beyond the limits he’d put on himself throughout his life.
Running from London to Sydney
Realising he wanted to make a difference in the world, Ben and his close team (his dad, partner, and brand manager) came up with the idea of The 401 Challenge to raise awareness around bullying and sexuality. The challenge began on 1st September 2015, with the first marathon in Bristol. 400 days later, 16’908km later – roughly the distance between London and Sydney - it finished, coming full circle back to Ben’s hometown. “Running alongside 9500 people, drinking over 2600L of water, I had the adventure of a lifetime” he went on.
“I’m just a 34-year-old guy from the UK, and I can now stand up and say that I’m the only person in the world to have done what I’ve done” he ended. Launching a final call to students to imagine all the possibilities open to them, he concluded that “half the battle is in your mind to make sure that the impossible becomes possible. If you believe it, you can do it”. This was an important lesson for the 1200 Ecolint students that Ben spoke to during his 2-day visit: to trust in oneself, live for yourself and never bow down to a bully.
Through the 401 Challenge, Ben Smith has raised CHF 475’000 in support of LGBT and anti-bullying charities Stonewall and Kidscape. Bullying can be physical, sexual, verbal or emotional in nature. It can involve physical, emotional, verbal and cyberbullying. The latter, which is an ever-growing form of bullying, is reported by over 73% of victims. According to the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, there were over 11’000 counselling sessions related to cyberbullying between young people and Childline in 2015/2016. In Switzerland’s Canton of Vaud, a 2014 study of 7324 teenagers aged 14-15 revealed that some 46% have been victims of cyberbullying at least once.