Growing up in the outdoor paradise of Canberra, Australia, Ben Smoker was always active as a kid. But for the vice president of IT for OrthoCarolina, adulthood stepped in and refocused attention from outdoor pursuits to indoor responsibilities. As his demanding job and growing family took priority, he lost control of his health. Weight gain and high blood pressure followed.
One fateful Christmas Eve, Smoker decided he’d had enough. An uncomfortable half-mile run led to an amazing transformation that found Ben competing in his first 100-mile race just a few years later—regaining his former love of running and his health along the way.
Smoker shares with us how he was able to make such huge life changes, how he keeps family a priority while staying active, and his secret locales for elevation training and the best cup of coffee.
What was it like, growing up in Australia?
The vast majority of Australian people live within 50 miles of the ocean. Most of the country is warm to hot most of the year. It’s very easy to get around outdoors most of the year. There’s no weather-based impediment to getting outdoors—there’s no excuse. Outdoor living and outdoor culture is very much the lifestyle.
I grew up in a city called Canberra, which is known as the “bush capital.” It is an outdoor paradise. The city is almost designed with health and exercise in mind. It has one of the world’s great pedestrian and bicycle pathway system.
What activities did you do as a kid?
Growing up I was, not a talented, but a very enthusiastic and keen runner. By the time I was 13 years old it was not at all uncommon for me to go out for a 10-mile run. I didn’t know that wasn’t common compared to what all the other kids were doing.
As my career progressed, I had less and less opportunity to be in the outdoors. The inevitable happened at around 30, when metabolism started changing. I had work commitments, I had a wife, a child, and another child on the way. I started gaining weight. It wasn’t too long before things had spiraled out of control and, all of a sudden, I weighed 240 pounds. I had furious blood pressure problems.
How did you turn the corner?
I realized that the same person who got me into that mess would be the person to get me out of that mess. I needed to get off the couch and get active again. Christmas Eve, 2009, I told my wife I was going to go for a run. I went out and I ran a half a mile in 7 and a half minutes. And I was absolutely, utterly exhausted. The following day I could hardly walk. I said, “I’m going to go for a run again today.” She said, “Why? Look what it’s done to you.” I said, “You’re going to have to get used to seeing me like this.”
You kind of skipped over the couch-to-5K thing?
I’ve never been known as a person of sound judgement. In June of 2012, 18 months after beginning to run, my first race was a half marathon with a reputation for being difficult. It was called the Hospital Hill Half (in Kansas City). I then skipped marathon distance and went straight to 50k (31 miles).
After numerous 50k races—trying to get better at that distance—I did a 40-mile. Once I did 40, I did 50. Once I did 50 I knew I wanted to sign up to do a 100. In 2014 I completed the Umstead 100 mile race in 27 hours and 53 minutes. Weight-wise I went from 240 pounds to 175 pounds and my blood pressure dropped from 160 over 110 to 115 over 70. I went from a resting heart rate of 95 bpm to 42 bpm. I did all of that just by getting off my lazy rear end.
One of the best things you’ll ever do is stop calling someone else your primary-care physician. Start calling yourself your primary-care physician. You should take responsibility for your own health.
You’re now a father of three and hold down a full-time job. Training for ultra-distance races takes time. How do you fit it in?
The job demands are very high, and I also add to that a really big commute. My daily commute is 110 miles round trip. Running time is challenging.
One of the ways I fit family into my running schedule is, I’ll start my running time by taking my 9 and 6 year old out and do anything from 2 miles to 5K with them. Then I drop them off and go out and do another 5k, or 10K at a slightly elevated pace. So I combine family bonding time and a little bit of my own training time.
My wife is very gracious. On Saturdays she allows me anywhere from 4 to 6 hours on the trails. Also, I don’t watch television, so that frees me up.
Ramping up to that kind of mileage is tough. Add to that a job where you’re often sitting for long periods. What do you do to avoid injury?
I have learned to become mindful of little things, including posture when I’m driving my car, posture when I’m sitting at the office at work. Everywhere I walk, I’m obsessive about good walking form, correctly using my muscle groups, things like that. I will not run listening to music. Listening to the way that your feet are contacting the ground is one of the ways to remain injury-free as a runner.
My 9-year-old son is a very competent runner. He just recently won his age group in a 10K race. He’s as thin as a microphone stand, and yet even he admitted that my feet strike the ground more lightly than his.
Where do you love to spend time outside?
Rocky Face Park. It is absolutely fantastic. It’s not a big park, but it’s built on a small mountain. From the parking lot area to the top of the mountain is about 700 feet of vertical gain. It’s great for training purposes. If you want to do some long-distance training, you don’t need to carry a backpack or food. Because of the nature and the size of the park, you’re back in the parking lot again every 30 minutes or so to refuel. But there’s enough variety that you don’t feel like you’re running around in circles.
They run several races there from 5k to 50k. There’s one called the Stairway to Heaven Vertical Mile. It’s a 2-mile loop—with 1 mile up and 1 mile down. But the majority of the “up” is on a granite rock face called the Stairway to Heaven. It’s eight complete laps, 16 miles, 5,600 feet of vertical gain. I call it a mini-ultra.
Where do you go to pre-fuel or re-fuel?
In Mooresville there is an outdoors clothing store that also has a very high quality coffee shop in it. The clothing store is called Brushy Mountain Outdoors and the coffee shop is called The Bean Stash. If you don’t know about this place, you need to.
Rocky Face Recreation area is approximately 1.5 hours north of Charlotte, just past the town of Hiddenite, NC. The 318-acre park packs a ton of activity into its small footprint—all of which is centered around the 1,800 foot granite Rocky Face Mountain. Five miles of hiking/running trails, camping, and a sizeable rock climbing surface make for a full day of exploration possibilities.