What kind of person runs three and a half thousand kilometers from Townsville to Darwin without a support crew, pulling a 50-kilo trailer for no glory and no gold? This guy. Meet Ben Ferris, 33, a man who just needs to run and looks to an unlikely hero – Forrest Gump, as his inspiration. Ben is the ultra marathon man.
Not all pro athletes are rich!
When you think of a professional sportsperson, what usually springs to mind are overpaid walking billboards paid to advertise their sponsor’s colourful logos in return for getting to live out their dreams. Then there are others. The unsung, the unheard of, those who live their lives with a passionate belief that they will do whatever it takes to do, what they believe, they were put on this planet for. In Ben Ferris’s case, it’s run, Ferris, run. He runs ridiculously impossible distances under the blistering Australian hot sun to no critical acclaim and without a single sponsor, all the while, raising money for charity.
Ferris’s earliest memories growing up on a beef and wheat farm in the New South Wales country town of Kyogle, involve running. “I was a hypo kid, for sure,” he recalls from Mullumbimby, where he lives in a decked-out van with his girlfriend Pauline, a graphic designer from France.
As a four-year-old, Ferris would take it upon himself to run to collect the mail from the post box at the end of the family’s one-kilometer long driveway. Another recollection involves a five-year-old Ferris racing the school bus, as it tore along the dirt roads with Ferris sprinting across the undulating fields in an attempt to beat it to the next stop.
Sport runs in his veins
Like the typical Aussie kid, sports were in his blood. He ran. He played rugby league, stuck out on the wing ready to show a burst of pace when needed and raced around the family farm on a motorbike. However, he also shared DNA with Australia’s most lauded sportsman. His great uncle was The Don. Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time. ‘I fed off the belief that sporting genes were passed down in the family,’ says Ferris. ‘I had an inner feeling of competitiveness and that whatever sport I tried, I was going to be good at.’
Distance became another motif early on in young Ferris’s life after his parents divorced and his mum moved to Ingham, north of Townsville. ‘The bubble burst and the world divided,’ he says. ‘We bounced back and forth as a custody battle raged through to the high court. Dad drove back and forwards to pick us up. It was a 1000-kilometer round trip back down to the farm. It felt like we were always on the move.’
So was Ferris, running in a straight line to the next town then hitch-hiking back, just for the fun of it. It was around this time, 12-year-old Ferris first saw the movie ‘Forrest Gump’. “It had a big impact on me,” he recalls. “Even as a kid, I saw the parallels. Forrest excelled at running and used it to deal with the emotional issues in his life, so did I. Forrest and Jenny came from broken families. So did I, and like me, there was always a distance between Ferris and the people he loved. Looking back, I realise I started making decisions and choices influenced by the film.”
All these elements combined, manifested into Ben Ferris finding his life path and running with it. Like Forrest Gump, he joined the army at the age of 17. It was the opportunity to travel and also gave him a channel to do something that he always wanted to do, race competitively in cross-country races
Competing costs – lots!
After he left the army in his mid-twenties, came competing in triathlons and iron man competitions. Selling the house that he’d bought early in his army career, Ferris travelled to Europe, America and Japan chasing a dream to be a professional athlete.
Although at 24, he is the first to admit that he left his run a bit late. ‘I spent $70,000 in a year because I had a burning desire to compete. Racing was an addiction. I was training hard 60 to 70 hours per week, spending around $800 just entering races. I remember sleeping on a street in Amsterdam with a ten-thousand-dollar bike strapped to my body because I couldn’t afford a hotel. I was still running on the hope that someone would sponsor me.’
Despite some wins — Asian Champion in the Half Iron Man in 2012 and competing in the Hawaii Iron Man World Championships in 2014 – no sponsors were forthcoming and he soon ran out of money. It was then Ferris started raising money for foundations such as Beyond Blue, St John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross. The deal being foundations would pre-purchase entry tickets for competitors, who raised charity dollars. “It was like busking. I’d set up an exercise bike in Byron Bay, or run on a treadmill with a sign explaining my mission and I’d ride for five hours, three days per week, on top of my training to raise money,” says Ferris.
It was now, Ferris started his grueling ultra-marathon runs: Sydney to Wollongong in a day. Brisbane to Byron Bay in 23 hours. A three-day schedule that saw him run from Byron to Lismore to Casino, Kyogle (past his Dad’s farm) to Nimbin, then Lismore back to Byron Bay before eventually tackling dragging a solar panel across the island of Bali and running Sydney to Byron Bay, which took a full 25 days, in the process raising thousands of dollars for charities.
There’s life in road
“It’s a way of travelling,’ says Ferris. “It just makes me feel more alive. There is a lot of suffering along the way, but there is just as much suffering working in an office in the city.”
In both circumstances, sometimes you just hit the wall. “You’re on the highway and there are so many big noisy metal boxes, or, cars as they’re called, and it’s hot, dusty and lonely. I run through a town, thinking, man, I’m the only one doing this! Why am I the only one doing it?’ says Ferris. ‘Then I tell myself that this is actually fun. If you keep moving forward and overcoming your challenges, it’s really fun.”
After conquering these distances Ferris knew that he was in perfect shape for the big one: Cairns to Darwin. He reached back into his childhood and drew inspiration from his childhood hero. ‘When I thought of Forrest Gump running across America and I thought, why can’t I do it? I knew it was now or never. In a few years, Pauline and I will probably be committed with responsibilities and kids.”
There was another poignant motivating factor behind the decision. Ferris’s father had always dreamed of riding across Australia on horseback. But after he had an accident and broke his neck, his dream was never going to come to fruition. “I’d always thought we’d do it together, so I decided to do it for him.’
Now the passion is raising money for others
Ferris decided he would raise money and awareness for The Royal Flying Doctor Service during the 44-day run. But again, he was going to do it alone and without a support team. “When you first start talking about it, people think it’s a crazy idea, then when you start to put a plan into action they think you’re just crazy,’ says Ferris. ‘My brother said, “Mate, you can die out there!” However, I don’t think of those small details. I think of it being a big adventure and focus on the finishing part.’
With no support crew, one of the logistical nightmares was how was Ferris going to carry his “odds and sods” as he called the water, food, bedding that was going to keep him alive out there in the desert. Then his brother gave him a bicycle trailer that a tourist had left behind, which Ferris customised with a harness that strapped to his body to tow. He then fitted the trolley with wheelchair wheels, sealed with a hard rubber designed to take on the rugged terrain. Afterwards, he nipped down to Bunnings and brought an umbrella to keep off the relentless Aussie sun. After months of training, he was sorted and ready to hit the road.
Setting off on the first of June 2016, in Townsville, Queensland, Ferris took a 400-km jog, following the sunrise and the ocean as he headed up the highway to Cairns, North Queensland before following the Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns and out along the Savannah way. The journey took him up to the Gulf of Carpenteria where Queensland borders the Northern Territory.
According to Ferris, time stands still on the road. “I was running 12 to 15 hour every day, which is about 100 kilometres per day. At every pub, I’d stop have a counter meal such as a big burger, chips and a ginger beer and have a chat with the locals,” he recalls.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner has long been mythologized. Ferris knows first hand how hard it is. ‘You’re out there on your own. You’re away from everything and everyone you know. It’s a solitary experience. Sometimes, I used to think if people could see how fast I was running out here, they’d be amazed! Then I realised that it doesn’t matter. I’m just doing it for myself. I’m living my dream.’
Not all smooth sailing
With 44 days of running shoes smashing the tarmac and then dry and dusty dirt roads, there were obviously some big setbacks. ‘There were points I was dragging my trolley through sand. My axel snapped twice and I went through my second set of wheels in the middle of nowhere. I had to go to the hospital in Normanton, and get second-hand wheelchair wheels.”
It could also be dangerous out there in the outback. ‘I had a couple of road trucks deliberately target me. I narrowly escaped by diving off the road into the grass with my trolley. Then there were the rough looking drunk tattooed idiots, who gave me a ‘Wolf Creek’ vibe by insisting I get into their car. It was scary. It took me a week to get over that because it made me realise how vulnerable I was out there.’
However, if anything, the experience gave him a renewed faith in humanity. ‘Most people were genuinely nice and interested in what the hell I was going out there. They’d put me up, buy me a beer in the pub, stop and have a chat on the road then bung me some cash for the charity.’
Finishing in Darwin was a big relief. ‘I achieved what I set out to do,’ he says. ‘You could say I’m running away from stuff but I think I’m running into a new world. I’m running towards something in the future but I’m doing it in the present moment. My message is feel good, your life is a reflection of thoughts, realise the importance of time and stay on the positive side of life.’
Ferris Gump is currently in training to run from Sydney to Melbourne. He’s planning to set up a foundation to encourage indigenous kids to get them running. Then next on his agenda will be emulating Forrest Gump, and running across America.
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