Watch, listen and read the full transcript of marathon runner Ben Smith’s TEDx Talk on Happiness at TEDxYouth@Manchester conference.
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Ben Smith – Marathon runner and charity fundraiser
My definition of identity is basically what you see on the screen here. It’s true happiness. And the best way I can describe this is by telling you a little bit of a story. Now, some of you in this room probably know my story. Some of you have been part of my story. You’re sat just up here.
At the age of 10 years old, I went away to school. My parents were both in the military, and I left what was a very supportive, loving family to go to boarding school here in the UK. The reason for that was because the schooling had finished in Germany, where my parents were based, and they didn’t have a choice than sending me to school here, and it nearly ripped my family apart.
I lost my confidence, I lost my self-esteem, I became quite shy, I lost my sense of adventure, my passion, I lost my identity, and I ended up becoming an easy target for bullies. At the age of 10, you’re supposed to be in a loving family, you’re supposed to have that support around you, and I just didn’t have that.
So, I was in this boarding school in Nottinghamshire, and I was waking up every morning not going to see my parents, having a constant level of torment about the fact that I was different to other people. I didn’t have the right haircut, I didn’t have the right shoes, I didn’t have the millions of pounds that some other kids at my school actually had. I was seen as different, and this made me start to question who I was, whether or not I was good enough.
The bullying started very much as a name-calling. It then quickly progressed to physical bullying. I was finding myself getting beaten up near enough on a daily basis, being chased into areas which I thought were my sanctuary: my bedroom. I couldn’t get away from it, but then, at the age of 13, I had an opportunity to change school. I was beyond excited. I changed school, but guess what: the bullies followed me.
At the age of 13, I started to figure out who I was, I started to figure out that maybe I was a little bit more different to other people. I figured out that I was gay, and to be perfectly honest with you, that terrified the life out of me, genuinely terrified the life out of me. My school didn’t talk about homosexuality. They didn’t talk about being gay. I had to look it up on the internet. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was an illness, I thought it was a disease, because when they did talk about it, it was spoken about so negatively that there was something wrong with me, clearly there was something wrong with me. I needed help.
Because I was so scared about being gay, I hid it. I hid my true self, my true identity, the basic make-up of what makes me me. And at the age of 18, this got so much that there was only one answer, and that was to try and take my own life.
One Sunday afternoon, I went down to dinner in the hall, and I took a knife, I went back up to my bedroom, I closed the door, and I had every intention of ending it then, because I couldn’t be who I was. Obviously, I wasn’t successful. I’m not a figment of your imagination. There was a knock at my door, and when I went to my door, I opened it up and there was nobody there. Now, I’m not religious, but, call it divine intervention, call it fate, whatever you want, something stopped me from doing it. I quickly fell into a depressive state, I had a nervous breakdown and I was pulled out of school. It kind of all came out — excuse the pun — but I still didn’t tell people that I was gay. I was still ashamed.
All the way through my 20s, I led a depressive life. I felt that, if I wanted to be happy — what society was teaching me was, if you wanted to be successful and you wanted to be happy, you needed to be straight, you needed to be married, you needed to have kids, you needed to have a mortgage, have a good car, a good job, a pension plan. So, that’s what I did. I got married, I had a wife — I didn’t have kids. That didn’t work.
And then, at the age of 29, it all came crashing down, and that was the start of my life, that was the start of me finding my identity. I had what they call a TIA, which is a transient ischemic attack, which is an incomplete stroke. At the age of 29! I was 16.5 stone, so very different to what I am now. I hated sport, I hated running. Genuinely, I hated running. I had no visions, no objectives, no wants in my life, and I was sat in a hospital bed, in the Bristol Royal Infirmary, thinking, “I’m 29 years old, and I haven’t got a clue who I am.” It’s like one of those Hollywood moments when you suddenly have a Eureka moment, but unfortunately, in Hollywood, it’s all OK afterwards. The reality is that you spend about two or three years trying to figure out how to uncondition yourself from the ways that you’ve been acting. So, that’s what I did.
I got divorced and I started my life. I came out. I spent most of that time moaning and groaning the fact that I should probably get fit and healthy, but not actually doing anything about it. Probably quite a few people in this room that take out a gym membership in January go for two weeks and then don’t go after that. I was exactly the same.
But then, a friend of mine got absolutely sick and tired of me, and basically dragged me down to a running club, and that was four years ago, and that was where my life changed. I found something that I could call mine. Everything in my life to date had been done because somebody else wanted me to do it. Because I had no identity, because I had no clue who I was, I’d been influenced by other people. Now, I was taking back control.
I started to run every week, and within about six months, I’d run my first marathon. It sounds a bit crazy, I know, but I loved it, it was my sense of escapism, it was my sense of communicating to the world, like we’ve seen with some of the people that have spoken already today. I’d found myself in running.
So, how did I get from that to running 401 marathons in 401 days? It’s a bit of a leap, but for me it was an organic process. I’d spent so long hiding who I truly was that, the moment that I had an opportunity to be who I wanted to be, I was going to grab it with both hands and go for it. So, the decision was easy. I’d found a passion in running. I knew I wanted to help charities that were related to the issues that I’d faced at school. So, I decided that I was going to give my job up, I was going to sell my house, I was going to sell everything that I owned and rid myself of my previous life to go and have an adventure of a lifetime.
On the first of September last year, I started in Bristol, and I ran 10,500 miles over 401 days. That was one marathon, 26.2 miles, every single day. I even ran in Macclesfield twice. I believe there are some people from the Macc Harriers here that I ran with. I got to meet 9,500 people that took part in the challenge that I did. It was my idea. It was my plan. It was what I wanted to do with life.
We wanted to inspire people, we wanted to challenge people, get them to do something, think differently, try something they’d never done before. We had over 1,500 people run further than they’ve ever run in their entire life, and I’m talking people who only turned up in the morning to run a couple of miles, and by the end of the day, they’d run their first marathon. That is astounding.
What I found from my experience was everything about what you think is in your head. Every limitation, every negative thought, it’s based on experiences you’ve had in life. That might seem quite simple, that might seem quite obvious, but it’s no more complicated than that. It genuinely isn’t. Finding true happiness in running, finding something that made me happy to my soul, happy to my heart; the fact that I knew that, if I could do it every day, for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t struggle getting out of bed in the morning; finding that brought a sense of peace to my life. It brought a sense of order. It helped me think about things in a completely different way, look at things in a completely different perspective. It helped me accept who I was.
At school, being a gay man, I was made to feel as though I was weak, subhuman, that I didn’t belong on this Earth. No kid should ever have to feel that way, ever have to feel that way. But now, I stand here before you having done something that nobody else has ever done in the world, feeling strong, feeling powerful, feeling proud of who I am, and not having the feeling like I have to shove it down everybody’s neck. I’m confident with who I am. I’m passionate about what I do in life. I might not have a clue where I want to go next, because it’s only been a month since the challenge ended, but I’m enjoying the journey.
Identity, for me, is true happiness. I’ll leave you with one question. What makes you happy?