The 401 Challenge

On the 28th December 2014 we had an email from a 32 year old man from Bristol. The mail explained what he was after and the following is a brief extract from it…

The 400 marathons will take me to 309 different locations throughout the UK spanning from Lands End all the way to John O Groats and will feature a mixture of organised national marathons including London, Brighton, Bournemouth x 2, Liverpool, Isle of Wright, Manchester, Milton Keynes and Edinburgh. The remaining marathons will take place in towns and cities throughout the UK and will consist of 26.2 mile routes which will be open to anyone wanting to join me from the local area including your club, I’m sure you can guess by now this is where I really need your help and expertise of the local area and as the main running club in the area below. I was wondering if you would be so kind to help me plan a 26.2 mile route which can be featured on my website and which I will follow on the day below?

Marathon 146 Sunday 24 January 2016 Wigan

To be fair to Jayne it would have been easy at this point to say gosh that’s going to take some organising alongside coaching, racing, working etc and politely decline. However after a chat with a few members the idea of running a Wigan Marathon started to develop.

That Bristol man was someone you are all very familiar with now and over the next 12 months Jayne and Dave spent many hours planning and checking a 26.2 mile route ready for Ben Smith to include in what was now called The 401 Challenge.

Skip forward to 24th January and welcome to Wigan Ben Smith!

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It was surprisingly warm as I ran down to the DW from Standish. I set out in full Harriers kit ready to join my fellow runners and had to stop after a mile to strip everything back off as it was so mild. I knew we would have a fairly decent turnout maybe 30 runners plus a few more from other clubs and so was looking forward to a great social day. Imagine my surprise when I got to the DW and found I was part of 78 strong Challenge 401 posse – absolutely awesome!

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It was never imagined that there would be so many people interested when it was being planned. Ben always gets a selfie with everyone he runs with so this needed to be done before we set off, not surprisingly it took awhile!!

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Time to go and we had to check with Jayne which direction to line up in such was how well we had all studied Dave’s map. Jayne adopted a racing start position!

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We headed out from DW towards Mesnes Park and the magnitude of what was going on started to dawn especially as we passed startled dog walkers not used to seeing 80 runners go bounding past them!

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From startled dog walkers to sleepy eyed Dads next! Gary Fitzpatrick was having a quiet walk through Mesnes Park with the push chair when he was steamrolled by the 401 er’s!

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We then headed to Haigh Hall, a great opportunity to get away from the narrow pavements and passing cars. Darren Finnegan was in the perfect place to capture us heading towards the first decent climb of the day. I hope someone told Ben that Wigan was a bit hilly in parts!

Most of the route so far was very familiar training routes for the Harriers although we were concerned Jayne might make us do a few hill sprints!

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Haigh was opportunity for a few to have a brief rest and after a quick tour of Aspull the whole party regrouped.

A brief inspection of the Balcarres indicated the pub was closed so no cheeky stop off unfortunately!

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There was no sign of any fatigue and everyone was still full of enthusiasm helped by Ben’s engaging personality.

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It was then time to head out of Haigh towards Standish and the next decent climb up Rectory Lane.

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Full of the lurgy it was here I said my goodbyes, a little sad that I wasn’t going to see the run completed but very pleased to have been part of it. Thanks Ben.

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From Standish to the End!

And so with Dave’s Siamese twin running mate having bailed out to enjoy some cake, these are our memorable moments from the rest of the marathon.

The pull up the hill past the Owls was taking its toll, but seemingly every few hundred metres, someone would announce that they had never ran this far before. There was a steely determination about the group by now. How could anyone show weakness with Ben amongst us? Andy Harrison’s feed station was still over a mile away, and with energy levels dropping, and hydration becoming an issue, the Co-op was a welcome source of fizzy drinks – no sugar tax for us please! As we approached Mossy Lea Road in Wrightington, there was a moment of concern as we couldn’t see Andy’s car. Then one of the advance convoy announced that it was just down the road, and with renewed enthusiasm we set off again. Very rarely have Haribos, flapjack and water been so gratefully received, as the plague of locusts wiped the table clean – thanks to everyone who donated here to raise £84!

The word on the street was that Ben was quite partial to a bacon butty, and concerns had been raised that he hadn’t eaten enough the day before. There is a nice little cafe (Cafe Alexander) at dangerous corner, and the plan was for Ben to have a cooked breakfast there. We’d already taken his order earlier in the day, and were amused that he wanted a FULL breakfast but WITHOUT beans, tomatoes and black pudding – how can it be full then? Julie was looking to stretch her legs (surprise, surprise), while Caroline B had to leave to make an appointment in London (!), so together with Dave they set off to book Ben’s fry up plus his favourite flat white at the Alexander. A really popular place with not many tables, we managed to secure him a seat in the corner, sharing a table with another client. Outside, the remaining group – we don’t want to exaggerate, but there still seemed to be 30 or 40 people – chatted and queued to use the cafe toilet! Many thanks to the cafe owner who donated £20 to Ben. As if that wasn’t enough, several other customers handed him £5 and £10 notes, without anyone mentioning donations to them! Real heart warming stuff.

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With Ben fed and more obligatory “longest I’ve ever run in my life” photos taken, we headed off towards Appley Bridge. We had barely gone a few minutes down Appley Lane when Ben suddenly staggered. We thought that he had gone light-headed, but it turned out that it was his back starting to spasm. Amazingly, we had heard him say earlier in the day, that he didn’t take any painkillers as he would prefer his body to let him know when something was wrong. His body had just taken him up on the offer. With Jayne talking about “needing an elbow in there”, the main man walked, shuffled and then started to run again.

We were now nearing 15 miles and we asked several people where they planned to bail out. The general response was along the lines of “well I’ve come this far, so I’ll just see how long I can keep going”!!! That old warhorse Kev Edwards had turned up to just do a few miles, but was still leading the pack. He’d run to the start and would have to run home, so his “few miles” was seemingly going to exceed 30. Andy Harrison was a little “perturbed” that Kev was at the front but didn’t even know the route! We suppressed smiles recalling a similar Kev incident in the Langdales on the Cumbria Way relay – slightly more serious repercussions in getting lost there.

As we headed up to Shevington from Appley Bridge, Dave was mortified to see that Paul Carter had sourced a hot steak pie from the local shop, while he had missed out. He’d been craving a pie for miles! The Wigan marathon was living up to its reputation. Another hill, another stop , then down to the canal at Gathurst (over 17 miles), where a few people called it a day. A big thank you to Andy Hardy for buying Tesco out of water and providing a welcome water station before our next climb – he re-appeared again later as we passed his house in Orrell! The hill up to John Rigby College is quite a toughie at the best of times. Chris Green was licking his lips at the thought of another gradient, and when a cyclist passed us, that was all the incentive that our favourite punk needed. He shot off and just about caught the poor chap at the top of the climb. One of our many support crew was kindly waiting to hand out gels, while little Erica dished out the Haribos – we could see that this was proving to be difficult, as it left fewer for her!

As we took on yet another climb, this one up to Orrell Post (19 miles), we started to realise that nearly everyone still standing intended to go all the way, and a significant number of those had never run a marathon before. Speaking to the newbies, we were waking up to how great an achievement this would be, and the whole team was determined to get everyone else through it. No-one more than Ben, who despite his back spasm, continually encouraged those who were suffering. It was around the Upholland area that we had our one real blight on the day, when Darren Horrocks slipped and fell heavily. He shook himself off and carried on, but the fall would eventually take its toll on him.

As we approached Upholland Parish Church, Paul Platt came bounding down the road like a hyper-active Tigger. He’d run the loop in the opposite direction, but had started to think that he’d got the route wrong and had missed us. At the Orrell junction, it was decision time for a few, who sensibly dropped the Billinge Longshaw loop, and headed along the “two mile stretch” to Windy Arbour – massive distance pb’s already guaranteed. This was about the 20 mile point, and as anyone who has run a marathon will tell you, this is where it begins. We have nothing but admiration for the way teeth were gritted, and while it is unfair to single anyone out, young Danny Yates was amazing. He had been “chafing” for a large part of the race, and now his quads started to really hurt. His dad, Ian, was doing a fantastic job in cajoling him along, but the promise of a good downhill section is not always music to your quads.

The split at Orrell proved to be a good idea, as the two groups merged around Windy Arbour and headed down to the Platt garden party. Dave (Platty) had gone beyond the call of duty (and all that), by waiting in all afternoon and then setting up a table with drinks and food. We had originally thought that this stop might have been too near to the finish (nearly 24 miles), but as it turned out, it was the perfect distance. Again, we were taken aback by how many runners were here, and how many of those were gunning for that first marathon. It was brilliant when Danny appeared to a round of applause, and Darren received a similar reception when he hobbled in. Unfortunately, Darren was in no shape to carry on – he was the proverbial “white as a sheet” – and as disappointed as he was, he did the sensible thing and allowed Platt taxis to run him into town.

Despite having carefully measured the course, and ensured that it was slightly long to satisfy Ben’s requirements, the numbers weren’t quite adding up here. It should have been just over 2 miles to the finish, and a lot of people had about 24 miles on their watches. So why was the all important watch of Ben’s reading less than 23?! Whatever the reason, this was now going to be an “ultra” for some. We made our bid for home and headed down the picturesque streets of Wigan towards the DW. Danny was running again, and Ben settled in with him, to encourage him along. Spirits had been lifted by the refreshment stop and morale was definitely on the up.

The DW came into sight and we ran past a high-fiving Waldu outside Pizza Hut. As we approached the finish, it was better than passing Buckingham Palace on the London marathon. A great reception from family and friends, and those with honest watches were welcomed to the marathon club. A hardy group, led by Andy Kaufman, then went that “extra mile” to get Ben’s watch beyond the requisite 26.2 miles. Ben himself took us past his mobile home, safely hurdled the chain link fence, and received the cheers from the crowd in what was now beyond twilight! This was a very emotional time for some. Loads of photos, commemorative cakes and back slapping. No-one wanted it to end, but for Ben it was just another marathon and so we ushered him into his van and sent him on his way.

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Ben’s records tell us that 78 people started the run that day, the second highest so far for his Challenge. 12 people completed a marathon for the first time, while 18 ran further than they have ever done before. Danny Yates became the youngest person to run a marathon in the 401 series. However, today was about much more than just distance running. Although we have mentioned people in our “memorable moments”, it would be wrong to single out individuals at the end. A simple thank you to everyone who ran, walked or supported the event.

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Epilogue
Barry Ryder had kindly offered to give Ben a post run massage. Sunday evening is not the easiest time to find a suitable venue for a mobile masseur and so Ben came back to ours. As those of you who spoke to him during the day will realise, he is a very special person – and we don’t say that lightly. “Inspirational” doesn’t do him justice. He has been in the darkest places yet come through, and wants others to benefit from his experience. Running was his salvation and he is determined to spread that message to others.

One particularly nice revelation concerned the selection criteria for the running clubs that were targeted to help with his project. We had thought that it was a “blanket” email drop, but Ben assured us that they looked at the websites / blogs of all clubs in areas that they were visiting, and tried to get a “feel” for the club atmosphere. They then selected those with a seemingly relaxed, fun and all-welcoming attitude. Well done to everyone for generating that environment.

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2 thoughts on “The 401 Challenge

  1. Pingback: The 401 Challenge – therunningpunk

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