Fitness: A Life Less Ordinary with Newmarket's Ben Blowes
Ben Blowes describes himself as a pretty ordinary chap. “I’m just a roofer from Newmarket. I’m not that special,” he tells me. On the contrary, the 46-year-old father of two is quite extraordinary: an endurance athlete, with Herculean strength and gritty determination, he’s smashed at least one world record and pulled off back-breaking feats. We’re talking running the London Marathon with a bone-crushing tumble dryer on his back, surviving hellish conditions in South Africa at the hands of battle-hardened veterans, drinking the gut-churning stomach juice of a springbok, running a punishing 100 miles in 20 hours, with no rest. You get the idea.
So, what on earth possessed Ben to take on such arduous challenges? Well it certainly wasn’t a childhood as a sporting prodigy. “PE never appealed to me,” he admits, recalling his school days in Stetchworth. “I was a 70s child and my memories were of being stood in an ill-fitting kit in the freezing cold; it really wasn’t pleasant.”
Aged 17, Ben put on a pair of boxing gloves – and everything changed. With a natural talent for sparring, he relished the intensive training regime and became ‘obsessed’ by the sport, going on to win 15 bouts. After five years he retired from competing, focusing his efforts on coaching (later being appointed head coach at Cambridge University Amateur Boxing Club in 2009).
But when he was 33, Ben’s old coach tempted him back into the ring for one last explosive show, Blast From The Past. With five months to get ‘boxing fit’, the roofer started running – and, after triumphing in the contest, continued pounding the streets. Vividly remembering his first half marathon, Ben winces: “I hobbled back to the car thinking ‘There’s no way I could run that distance again! I’m never going to run a marathon’”. But within a year, he was eating his words, as he crossed the finish line of the Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida.
Since then he’s clocked up a staggering 15,000 miles in training and completed 175 races, including more than 30 marathons and ultra-marathons. “I think running appealed because, without being big-headed, I was getting really good times - under three hours for the marathon – and I’d never really been good at anything before,” Ben confides. “I just became absorbed by it. I’d run eight miles before work then get home and run eight miles in the evening. I’d do two or three marathons a year.”
One of Ben’s biggest tests was The South Downs Way 100; a relentless 100-mile race from Winchester to Eastbourne, which he tackled in 20 hours, only slowing to fuel himself at aid stations with ‘a handful of jelly babies and a swig of flat coke’.
A superhuman challenge, Ben says his wife Louise, with whom he shares sons Joel, 8, and Spencer, 6, was hugely supportive, and gave him the strength to carry on. “My wife is my biggest supporter. She knows exactly what to say when things are getting pretty dark, which they do in those sort of races,” Ben explains. “You go to weird places in your head, you’re hallucinating, and you think you can’t go on, but she’s always the voice of reason,” he smiles.
Finishing the race in 20 hours, 12 minutes, Ben admits the jubilation of crossing the ticker tape was marred by disappointment at not achieving a sub-20 hour time. “But my wife told me to snap out of it. The next day, and ever since I’ve been pretty proud of being able to run 100 miles non-stop!”
Hungry for another challenge, Ben applied for season two of BBC2’s Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week. “When I filled out the form, I never thought for one second I’d get in,” he says.
Six weeks later, Ben was called to London for a casting, then chosen for a selection weekend in North Wales, making it to the final 100, from 5,000 entrants.
“We got ‘beasted’ the whole weekend, but I loved it because it’s my style of training,” he beams. Ben won a place in the final 22 and flew out to South Africa in April 2016, to face a brutal cocktail of SAS-style military exercise, scant food and sleep deprivation, doled out by merciless Special Forces veterans from around the world.
“Physically I enjoyed it. The first days we were out on the plains, being made to carrying weight, lugging water barrels, carrying rucksacks, racing with concrete blocks. But mentally I struggled,” he confides. “My kids were six and four, and when we landed in South Africa, we had two minutes to call home then our devices were removed, so I couldn’t talk to my family for 10 days.”
The relentless regime took its toll and delirious with exhaustion, Ben convinced himself one of his boys had been hurt. “I pleaded for a two second phone call, but they couldn’t do that as it wasn’t part of the process. It played so heavily on my mind.”
As the days went on, the trials grew tougher, and when the recruits were weak with hunger, they were presented with a springbok and ordered to eat it raw. “This South African colonel, a monster of a man, butchered this springbok in front of us, put his hands inside, pulled out the liver and then made us eat it and drink its blood. The liver was still warm. People were retching and being sick. Then he got the stomach juice, put it on a tray and instructed us to drink it.”
Episode four brought the misery of ‘surf torture’, and after a day being battered by icy waves, Ben bowed out. “We were in the ocean for nine hours, and it was seven degrees so absolutely freezing. It was so brutal. I was exceptionally tired, exceptionally hungry and I managed to get through it and get to bed, and then I was dragged out and put in an ice bath. I’d reached breaking point.”
His spirits crushed by not making the final, Ben flew home with a heavy heart. Watching television the next day, he saw a man attempting to run the London Marathon carrying a tumble dryer. Aiming to break the Guinness World Record for the fastest runner with a household appliance on his back weighing 25 kilos, the runner fell short of the six-hour record. Having completed the London Marathon himself every year for the preceding decade, Ben decided he would take up the mantel.
He’d spent Hell Week running with a 25-kilo rucksack, so he knew he had the strength to withstand the cumbersome load. “I spent six months running with a weight vest, then after Christmas, I ran round the streets of Newmarket with a tumble dryer on my back for four months. I got some very funny looks!”
Initially confident that he would break the record, on marathon day, things didn’t go so swimmingly. “It was much tougher than I thought. I got carried away with the crowds, went off way too fast – and from halfway onwards I was just in a world of pain,” Ben shudders. “I felt like my internal organs were packing up. But I slowed down, relaxed and somehow managed to finish the race.”
Ben received a hero’s welcome, having completed the famous route in 5 hours 58 minutes, slashing two minutes off the record. “I was so relieved – and I couldn’t wait to get the tumble dryer off my back. I dumped it in a skip!”
A media storm followed with various interviews and appearances – and Ben raised just under £10,000 for the Newmarket-based Racing Welfare charity, the publicity boosting his goal of £1,500. “I was massively proud to have my picture in the Guinness World Records Book; most children grow up with it, but never at any point do you think you’re going to be in there!”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Ben hopes to row solo across the Atlantic in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2020. It’d be an epic feat, and the dynamic dad would need around £70,000 in sponsorship to compete. “I’d signed up for the 2019 race, but had to defer my place because I haven’t got enough sponsorship,” Ben says.
In the meantime, he’s been spending hours training on the rowing machine – though he admits nothing can really prepare you for the unpredictable will of Mother Nature. “Unless someone physically drops you in the middle of the ocean and leaves you there, you can’t prepare for it. They say the first two weeks are the hardest; you’re homesick, massively seasick and adjusting to this life of rowing for two hours, sleeping for two hours and doing that constantly for 60 days.”
If anyone has the strength of spirit to triumph, surely it’s got to be Ben? “I’d like to think so,” he says.
The down-to-earth roofer has also been busy launching Vivo Outdoor Fitness, a series of alfresco bootcamp-style classes, which take place in Kennet, Moulton, The Severals in Newmarket, and Barrow. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for two years now,” Ben explains. “The classes typically feature a lot of functional fitness movement, starting with a warm up, then mobility work, a workout, a warm down and a really good stretch at the end.”
Ben launched Vivo in January, and membership is growing. “The great thing is that it’s structured exercise suitable for absolutely anybody. We’ve got a 62-year-old lady coming to our 6.15am class who hasn’t exercised for a few years and she’s really getting back into it,” he enthuses.
Once a month Ben is also throwing in an ‘ultimate hell fitness class’, releasing the location just 60 minutes before the sessions starts, to add a bit of spice.
Spinning so many plates now – Ben still works as a roofer and does one-to-one personal training – just how does he keep up the momentum? “I guess I just want to see what I can achieve – and to inspire my children; that’s my biggest motivation,” he explains.
“I’m 46 now and not getting any younger. I want to make the most of every second that I’m on this planet and continually push myself because if I can do it – and really all I am is just a roofer from Newmarket – then anyone can. I didn’t do particularly well at school, and most of my life I’ve been a slightly overweight marathon runner, but I work hard and I hope I inspire other people.” By George, you do Ben.
Find out more about Vivo Outdoor Fitness at vivooutdoorfitness.com. To contact Ben regarding classes or sponsorship for the Talisker challenge, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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More by this authorAlice Ryan