Human Race: ‘This is for you, Mum’

Photo by Ben Knight

Ben Harris has a treasured photograph: it’s of a chubby baby wearing striped dungarees, being cuddled by a pretty young woman. The baby is him and the woman is his mother, Angela, who died when he was just eight months old. Growing up with his grandparents, Ben got used to seeing photos of his mother all over the house, always vibrant with health and happiness.

It wasn’t until he was seven that Ben, from Denham in Buckinghamshire, learned the shocking truth about her death. She hadn’t died from illness or an accident; she’d been strangled by his father during a violent row while the couple were on holiday in Tunisia. He was serving a life sentence in prison for her murder.

The dreadful knowledge sent Ben into a spiral of despair. Bottling up his anger and grief, he became a near recluse – playing computer games in his bedroom, eating chocolate and drinking cans of fizzy drink. By the time he was 16, he weighed 17 stone. His grandparents were worried sick about him. They’d already lost their daughter; they didn’t want to lose their grandson, too.

‘It was awful to learn that my mum had been killed by my dad,’ says Ben. ‘Apparently, he confessed shortly after being arrested for her murder – then he changed his story, saying that someone must have broken in and killed her while he was sleeping. My teenage years were a horrendous time.’

Desperate to know more about what had happened but not wanting to upset his grandparents by asking them too many questions, Ben began to do his own research, collecting cuttings about the court case and piecing together the story. He tracked down his father, but their meeting did not go well, and as

Ben’s mood grew increasingly dark, his grandparents insisted he see a doctor.

He was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, and was prescribed medication, hypnotherapy and counselling. He began to open up a little more and then one of his friends, Adam, suggested they go to the gym. ‘He’d read somewhere that exercise could help with depression – so I agreed to give it a go,’ says Ben, now 23.

Ben and Adam rolled up at the local gym one January, but, finding it packed, they went for a run instead. ‘We did one mile – I really struggled, because I was so overweight and unfit, but Adam kept me going. To my surprise I enjoyed the calmness it gave me and I agreed to go again the next evening.’

Soon the two of them were running three times a week. ‘The weight fell off, I was sleeping soundly and my grandparents were thrilled that I was no longer cooped up in my room, eating rubbish,’ says Ben. ‘I owe them so much. If it wasn’t for them bringing me up I’d have been in foster care.’

As running became a regular habit for Ben, his gran remarked how nice it was that he was ‘following in his mother’s footsteps’. Ben was astonished.

‘Your mum loved running,’ she told him. ‘She did the Hillingdon Half Marathon every year.’ Two months before she was killed, Angela had signed up for her first London Marathon, in aid of a local animal welfare charity. Ben looked through the box of running medals and photos that his gran had dug out. ‘There was Mum – striding along determinedly, arms pumping and hair flying in the wind.’

An idea immediately came to him. ‘Mum never got to run her marathon,’ he says, ‘but I could do it for her.’

Keen to finish what his mum had started, he signed up to run the London Marathon for the RSPCA. As part of his training, he also took part in his mum’s favourite race – the Hillingdon Half, which was held, fittingly, on Mother’s Day. ‘I thought of her every step of the way – and as I crossed the finish line I kissed the tattoo I have on my arm, which reads Angela – abitus sed non oblitus – gone forever, never forgotten’.

On marathon day last year, Ben’s friends lined up to cheer him along the course, while his grandparents watched the race on television. ‘I felt a mixture of relief and overwhelming joy as I crossed the line in 4:45,’ says Ben, who has lost six stone. ‘I thought, “This is for you, Mum.”’

A few months on, a framed display of memorabilia from the race takes pride of place on Ben’s bedroom wall, keeping him inspired. ‘Without running I don’t know where I’d be today,’ he says. ‘I was overweight, I’d lost my job because I couldn’t cope and had given up on everything. Then, like Mum, I started running. I lost weight, built up confidence and started getting my life back on track. No pain will ever come close to what I’ve been through, but it’s helping so much. Running has not only brought me back from the brink, it’s helped me move forward – and achieve Mum’s dream 22 years on. I couldn’t be prouder.’