Ultra-endurance athlete launches new school wellbeing programme

Epic marathon runner Ben Smith, who is well-known for running 401 marathons in 401 days for charity, has launched a new wellbeing programme for schools. 

Educate recently got the opportunity to speak with Ben to find out more about the programme and to also ask him what inspired him to become an ultra-endurance athlete. 

Ben’s story isn’t like any other. The way he was treated growing up really shaped him as a young adult. He was sent to boarding school as a child and was bullied from an early age for being different. At the age of 13 he realised he was gay but supressed these feelings so that he would fit in with his peers. 

He said: “Back then being different wasn’t really accepted, not like how it is now. For five year’s I pretended I was a different person but I had no identity and no confidence. At the age of 18 it all got too much and I became depressed and eventually I tried to take my own life.” 

Ben tried to get his life back on track and went to university to study psychology.  

“I got a degree and was accepted on a graduate programme with Arcadia Group. I met a girl, fell in love and we moved to Bristol and later got married. In my early 20s, I was told that success and money was the most important thing, so I really focused on my career and left retail.  

By my late 20s, I was making around £70,000 a year which was amazing but there was something missing – I wasn’t really happy. I was drinking, smoking and leading a very unhealthy lifestyle.” 

He continued: “Then one day, I was sat at my desk in the office and I had a mini-stroke.” 

It was at this point Ben knew he had to change the way he was living.  

Ben said: “As I was recovering in hospital, I realised that this wasn’t the life for me. I made the difficult decision of divorcing my wife and came out as gay to everyone I knew.” 

As Ben rebuilt his life, his friend encouraged him to get into running and join a running club. 

He explained: “I was so nervous to join but after the first time something ignited inside of me. I enjoyed the feeling of pushing myself and I got the bug.” 

That year, Ben ran his first marathon. He said: “It gave me the belief that I could achieve something. I was happy at last. The way it changed my mental and health wellbeing was incredible!” 

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In 2014, he ran 18 marathons in different countries around the world. It was at this point that running gave Ben the ability to talk about he had experienced as a child. 

This inspired him to run 401 marathons in 401 days in 2016, raising money for anti-bullying charities. The 10,506.2-mile journey was completed around the UK and he raised more than £300,000. People far and wide supported him and even ran with him along the way. 

After the gruelling challenge he set up The 401 Foundation which helps local communities empower individuals to build confidence, self-esteem and positively contribute to people’s mental wellbeing.  

Fastforward to now and Ben is preparing for his next epic challenge – to run and cycle 14,000 miles across 50 US States in 104 days. 

This time around, Ben is inviting children across the country to join him, virtually, as part of a programme to support their physical and mental wellbeing. 

The 401 Wellbeing Programme is run by The 401 Foundation and encourages pupils to choose from over 100 activities from running and walking to washing the car or even baking, to count their steps and convert them into all important miles to complete the challenge. 

Participating schools will also gain access to a full suite of resources, including USA Challenge passports, reward and route trackers and medals, as well as free online yoga and meditation classes for adults and children. 

The programme is designed so that it benefits the whole school community and can be run in school, at a distance or within smaller school bubbles as and when necessary. 

Ben said: “At a time when mental health is so incredibly poignant, we wanted to create something that could not only support children returning to school but also teachers, parents and all those in the school community. 

“The 401 Challenge changed my life and touched more people than I ever thought possible. Accomplishing extreme feats is the clearest, undeniable example that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. I want to share that value of resilience with children across the UK and we felt that the USA Challenge offered an incredible opportunity to do that, inviting them to join us every step of the way, virtually.” 

The virtual USA Challenge is powered by MyVirtualMission, an online app-based platform that takes participants around the official USA Challenge route. The online map is interactive so children, teachers and parents can explore the USA through Google Street view as they travel along the route through each state.

Each school will also gain access to free online yoga, meditation, calisthenic and stretching classes for both adults and children under 12. 

To sign up to the programme schools can decide whether to select a payment or fundraising package, to either unlock instant rewards or pay an entry fee and then fundraise to earn additional rewards. 

To bring the virtual mission to life, interactive tools include route map posters, reward trackers, bespoke electronic bib numbers, postcards, #and classroom resource packs. Additional rewards, depending on the package include challenge passports, medals, pin badges, medal racks, signed copies of the 401 book, official USA Challenge t-shirts, food and drink treat boxes and an all expenses paid motivational talk and visit from Ben. 

The schools programme will help raise funds towards Ben’s target of raising £500,000 for The 401 Foundation. The charity offers easy and accessible grants to local community and grassroots community projects that support mental wellbeing and build confidence. 15 per cent of what is fundraised by a school will also be returned as a grant from the 401 Foundation to support the development of school mental health projects.

For more information on the USA Challenge Schools Wellbeing Programme visit 

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