By Ben Smith
240 pp. Bloomsbury. $15.00.
Beware of “401”. What I mean is, the book’s author and subject matter, Ben Smith, compels you to believe a state of happiness, of true bliss, really can happen for us all. As did Smith, you just have to be willing to step into the unknown. To up and walk away from the present state of your life. Smith had it all (or at least what society generally dictates as that plateau of success). You know: married, big money job, big house, big car, paying into a pension plan, 2 holidays a year, etc. He jettisoned all of it. Some background is needed in order to understand the “why”.
Smith declares his early childhood to be a happy one. Loving parents and a brother he truly considers his friend. His father’s a member of the British Royal Air Force. His role requires travel, forcing Smith’s parents to enroll their children in boarding schools. This initiates Smith’s torments. In an almost a therapeutic sense, his words expose the brutal experiences he’s subjected to at these schools. Relentless bullying. At times, his peers subject him to physical abuse. While he does change schools, unfortunately, the poor experiences persist. Smith is driven to attempt suicide. True, Smith describes himself as something of a unique character. Not terribly athletic in his youth, he’s also gay (but has not yet come out), with a learning disability (dyslexia), and mired in depression. Keep in mind, Smith’s childhood schooling comes at an earlier time, when there was an emphasis to conform, as we’re now generally taught to embrace our differences. Instead, in these pages of “401”, if you don’t fit in, you’re an outcast, and treated accordingly.
Smith survives the schools, and enters society, but is now living something of a charade. He’s working the big money job, which fuels the typical mortgage and expenditures, and finds a wife. However, these accomplishments are masking a falsehood. The drum beats for Smith to be true to himself but he dulls it’s calls with cocaine, alcohol, and a 20 – 30 cigarettes-a-day habit. Smith describes himself as drifting. Merely existing. The lifestyle’s unsustainable. His wife discovers gay porn in Smith’s internet viewing history. She doesn’t divorce him because of it, but the experience leads Smith to seek counseling, resulting in his reconciliation with the truth.
Smith divorces, sells all of his belongings, moves on from his job, and decides he has nothing left to lose. He embraces altogether change. His running had been on the increase and, especially now, the miles help him cope, which brings us to the 401 challenge. Smith states, “I knew I wanted to do something that had never been done before, for causes important to me…”. The number four hundred and one being the number of consecutive, daily marathons Smith challenges himself to finish and in the process raise money for anti-bullying charities. By design this would also earn him the record of verifiable marathons run in consecutive days. Throughout “401”, aside from flashbacks of Smith’s background, the reader goes along for the ride so to speak during the trials of the challenge, along with anecdotes from those more deeply affected by his journey. What he sets out to accomplish is indicative of his character. Simply, Ben Smith is a good soul. Finally, the book is recommended reading for anyone intrigued but intimidated by the notion of running 26.2 miles. For the span of his challenge, Brown’s daily task has nothing to do with how fast he’s able to accomplish the distance (often stopping for a pint along the way).
Constructive criticism? By it’s end, the premise behind “401” felt over-extended. The journey’s minutiae perhaps too intensely focused upon. However, personally, whenever the subject matter is running-based, there’s rarely regret when the rhetoric run’s long.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “401”: Ben Smith refers to his runs as “filing time”. Upon a run’s conclusion, “…it felt like everything in my mind had been tidied up and filed away.”
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