Sunday, 23 April 2023

Marathon Efforts

When Pheidippides finished running what is now regarded as the first marathon in 490 BC he dropped dead from exhaustion. Just imagine, though, what he would have thought about the prospect of running the 26 miles every day for 106 consecutive days, or even 401 days.

To celebrate today’s London Marathon, and the feast day of our patron saint, St. George, here are the feats achieved by two British lgbt+ runners from my region.

The first of these was the 401 Challenge to run 401 marathons in 401 days set by Ben Smith.

Ben was born into a Royal Air Force family, which meant being stationed in a succession of RAF bases around the world. When Ben was 10 his parents decided to place him in a boarding school in England. Ben went from one school to another over the next few short years, including one near Retford, a town I know well not far from Nottingham.

Sadly, Ben’s school experiences were not all good ones. Having come from a close loving family he felt isolated and withdrew into himself. He began to realise he had sexual feelings towards other boys. Becoming more introvert and being bullied, and confused by his sexuality, Ben attempted suicide twice. After school he fell into depression even though his family had now returned to England and were close by.

In 2012 Ben took up running. He was instantly hooked and began training for long distance racing. In 2014 he entered his first marathon. From this experience he developed his 401 Challenge to raise awareness and funds for vulnerable youngsters who were being bullied for whatever reason. The charities he chose to fundraise for were Stonewall, the biggest lgbt+ charity in the UK, and Kidscape, a charity specialising in providing help to tackle child bullying.

The first of the 401 marathons was on 1st September 2015 in Plymouth. Sadly, the page which listed all of his run on the 401 Challenge website is no longer available. However, searching the internet I have found what I think is a list of the marathons Ben ran in my home county of Nottinghamshire. Here they are:

27 December 2015 – Newark

28 December 2015 – Nottingham

29 December 2015 – Nottingham

5 May 2016 – Retford

13 August 2016 – Clumber Park, near Worksop.

Everything was going to plan. Then, during his Aberdeen run in June 2016 Ben suffered an umbilical hernia and had to take ten days rest to recuperate. Sadly, this meant that he could no longer aim for 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days. An alternative plan was devised to ensure that by the end of his challenge he had run the full equivalent to 401 marathons in 401 days. For his subsequent marathons Ben ran an extra 2 and a half miles to make up the distance.

The climax of the 401 challenge came on 5 October 2016 in Bristol. There to cheer him over the finish line of his 401st marathon were hundreds of spectators, supporters, family, friends, and his partner Kyle, not to mention a lot of media. He had raised £250,000 for his charities.

Ben may not have made it into the records books because of his injury, but he won the admiration of the public. In October 2016 he won Fundraiser of the Year at the Pride of Britain Awards. In December he won the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony. This last award is named after a very popular sports presenter who died of cancer at the age of 43 and in awarded to athletes who have made an “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity”.

Even if Ben didn’t enter the Guinness Book of World Records, another runner from my region did. Her name in Kate Jayden (b.1987). Kate lives with her wife in Hartington, a village in rural Derbyshire about 35 miles from Nottingham. She was already an experienced marathon runner and triathlete with over 230 finishes.

Overcoming difficult experiences or health issues is often a spur for the athletically-minded person. Kate’s youth was bedevilled with anorexia and bulimia. It was to raise funds for a charity which helps sufferers of eating disorders that was the start of Kate’s marathon running.

The challenge to run 106 marathons on 106 consecutive days began as a joke with a friend, but Kate thought “why not?” The chosen charities for which the challenge would raise funds were the Refugee Council, the Trussell Trust and the Hygiene Bank. The two latter charities provide food banks and hygiene products respectively to people on a low income.

Kate’s challenge began on 31st December 2021. Unlike Ben Smith, Kate also had a full-time job while taking on her challenge. Not all of her marathons were run outdoors. Some of them were on a treadmill.

Kate often ran in the early morning before leaving for work, sometimes running in the cold and dark of a British winter. This may have brought back an unhappy memory of competing in a 24-hour run in 2014. During the night-time stage when she was several miles ahead of the rest of the runners Kate was grabbed from behind by a stranger and sexual assaulted. Kate fought off the assailant, and ran back several miles to find the next runner to raise the alarm. The race was suspended while the police carried out their initial investigation, then the race resumed, and Kate won.

On day 46 of the 106 challenge (15th February 2022) Kate experienced pain in her knee which slowed her down on subsequent runs. Only after the last marathon was it discovered that Kate had a fractured knee.

Kate’s challenge didn’t have as much of a high-profile as Ben Smith’s, but she had a solid fan base and interest picked up as she neared the final marathons. The 106th marathon was completed on 15th April 2022. Kate was now a Guinness World Record holder and had raised £25,000 for her charities.

Because Kate completed some marathons on a treadmill she shares the record with a Scottish couple, Fay Cunningham and her partner Emma Petrie, who ran 106 road marathons on 106 consecutive days. They began their challenge on 19th February 2022 and submitted their record attempt of running 100 marathons on 100 consecutive days. Having discovered that Kate Jayden was already attempting 106 marathons they added 6 more to their schedule to equal the record attempt. Fay and Emma now hold the record for the most consecutive road marathons, and Kate holds the record for the most consecutive road/treadmill marathons (as of todays’ date).

With more and more ultra and extreme sport challenges being created it should be a matter of pride that there are many lgbt+ runners who are representing our community and receiving recognition for their achievements.

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