As he stood shivering and soaking wet under a bridge on the Woodhead Pass in pouring rain, so cold he was unable to buckle his rucksack up, Ben Dave considered whether he would be able to continue with his ambitious attempt to run a 495-mile long lap of Yorkshire’s boundaries.
“I was just so exhausted, I thought I’m not going to be able to do this,” he explains. But he was determined to push on by the parallel between the gruelling challenge and his own inspiration for taking it on; encouraging men to open up about their mental health problems following his own battle with depression two years ago.
“My message had been ‘You can get through this and come out of the other side’,” Ben says. “I felt that if I chucked the towel in, that would be undermined.”
Ben, a 31-year-old freelance events producer from Harrogate, came up with the ‘Running Yorkshire’ challenge earlier this year after withdrawing his application to run the 155-mile long Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert after becoming concerned that he would not be able to raise the thousands of pounds needed for entry.
He says being a “typical Yorkshireman”, he balked at the costs and decided to instead set up his own original challenge closer to home. “I move around a lot for work and I’m always trying to play runs and laps,” Ben says as he speaks to The Yorkshire Post in a coffee shop in Leeds two days after triumphantly reaching the finish line in Scarborough after 18 days of running across roads, bridges, paths and moorland. “So I started to think of the biggest lap I could find. I thought the idea of running the boundary of Yorkshire was an original idea. My girlfriend Rachael is a graphic designer and we did a video and I said ‘I’m going to do this’.
“This bloke messaged me and said he had done the exact same thing in 2016. I couldn’t believe it! I met him and it turned out he had done it really quietly and raised a few hundred quid for Yorkshire Air Ambulance. He was very self-effacing but he came out and met me on the run while I was camping, brought me fish and chips and gave me tips for all different bits of the journey.”
The keen runner, whose surname is Davis but prefers to be known as Ben Dave, set himself the target of raising £10,000 for the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a charity leading a movement against male suicide, which is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
After setting off from South Bay in Scarborough, his journey took in the Cleveland Way, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, Humber Bridge and Spurn Point before ending back up where he started. After starting on Yorkshire Day, August 1, and the story of his challenge becoming more widely known about through social media and news reports, Ben was joined on parts of his adventure by dozens of fellow runners and well-wishers, with his fundraising surpassing £25,000 in donations. Ben says his own personal experience with depression made him realise how difficult it is for many men to talk about their problems; something further brought home when runners who joined him for different legs of the route started sharing their stories with him.
“I went through a bout of depression at the end of 2016,” Ben says. “I got really bad, really quickly. I found it really difficult to ask for help and it was really isolating. I felt I was the only one who had these sort of problems. Afterwards, I really wanted to say something about the fact I had been there and been through it but I didn’t want to look like I was attention-seeking and ‘woe is me’. But when I came up with the run, it seemed the perfect opportunity to open up about what had happened.
“I ran for 10 miles with a guy who had been suffering with depression and I could just tell he had never told anybody about it, not even his wife. The amazing thing with running is because there is no eye contact and you are a little bit tired, it is easier to have an open and honest conversation. There are no boundaries and awkwardness. I ran with another guy who had tried to kill himself and was saved by paramedics. He was a real prime example of the importance of CALM’s work.”
He says another man who had suffered with depression was inspired to start running again by the challenge. After the pair had been exchanging messages, the man surprised Ben by turning up in person with one running group.
Ben says regular exercise was a key part of his own recovery, with friend Adam Ebzao dragging him to the gym each day at the height of his depression.
“That kept me going really. I remember just having this really heavy cloud over me, I couldn’t think straight, it was awful. But Adam rocked up every day and we went running. Eventually, I stopped drinking and focused on my running.”
Despite being a keen runner, Ben says the challenge of running almost 500 miles in just 18 days – the equivalent of more than a marathon a day – was an immense one.
“After the second day I was in Redcar and my back was in bits. We stayed in a bed and breakfast and just did a massive clear out. I had brought cooking equipment and just thought, I would rather have cold food,” he says. “That made a massive difference.”
In addition to Woodhead Pass, other challenging days included his efforts to run from Tan Hill to Whernside, from Yorkshire’s highest point to its highest mountain, with 14 peaks in between.
With Ben trying to stay as close to the border as possible, he was running across moorland in the rain when hill fog came rolling in to make conditions even more treacherous and his wet hands made it almost impossible for him to use his navigation app. After falling in a bog, he decided he would attempt to get off the mountain – only to realise he had been running in the wrong direction back to where he had come from after receiving a call from his sister who was tracking his progress online. But he managed to get through the day – only the third of his challenge – and complete 32 miles. “I was just broken by the time I had finished. But I thought if I can do that, I can do anything.”
As he came up The Humber towards the end of the challenge, another problem hit – Ben suffered a muscle injury that meant he was struggling to lift his leg. “I ended up walking 20 miles using a walking stick like a crutch. I limped to Kilnsea. But I put a post on Facebook to say I was really struggling and a lady called Laura Egan, who is a sports massage therapist, came out and worked on me for two hours. She came back the next two days to meet me in Hornsea and Bridlington. She saved the whole thing, I thought I would be walking to Scarborough.”
But despite the difficulties along the way, Ben says the journey was an overwhelmingly positive experience. One of his best days was passing over Stanage Edge in the Peak District. “We ended up picking up lots of runners, including a police officer who had lost colleagues through suicide. Another lady whose brother committed suicide gave me £20. I met some amazing people. I didn’t expect as many people to come out as they did along the way. People could track my journey and where I was online and in the middle of nowhere, we had stopped for a Coke and this woman burst in and asked me to have pictures with her kids.
“People were so kind. When we were out on the moors, these two women had decorated each gate we went through with messages saying things like ‘Keep going’. But it took me about three gates before I clocked on it was for me!”
He says finally reaching Scarborough was an emotional experience as friends, family and strangers cheered him to the finish line. “It was quite strange, I had never looked more than a day in front. I tried to break it down into lots of little runs. But just as I was coming out on the beach, I started thinking about the whole thing and it was overwhelming. I still haven’t really processed it properly.”
Importance of opening up
Ben has a simple message for anyone struggling with mental health issues.
“Just speak to somebody, anybody, about it – take the first step,” he says.
“I remember feeling like my life was over and there was no way I could come out of it. It is almost like being drunk, you lose the capacity of reality and feel like you are never going to get back to normality again – but you will. I think exercise is a massive, massive part of it. Just going out for 20 minutes gives you a sense of control over your life.”
Simon Gunning, chief executive of CALM, says: “Ben’s approach to this challenge has epitomised everything that CALM is about. The energy Ben has shown towards suicide prevention is inspiring and we’re truly thankful.”