Ben's story: walking 1,236 miles for mental health

On 31 July 2019, Ben Garcia completed a 1,236-mile walk from John o' Groats in Scotland to Land's End in Cornwall. Ben tells us about his amazing mental health journey which took him from the kitchen of a top UK restaurant to a mountain in New Zealand and convinced him to spend three months trekking the length of the UK in support of the Mental Health Foundation.

My childhood set the tone for later life

I have to go a long way back to find where my journey truly began…

When I was young, I always felt different from the other kids. I found school harder than most and was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of nine. My school years were a difficult time and I had to search for ways to defend myself from the feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and exclusion that came with my diagnosis.

I would often get angry and aggressive to cover up how I truly felt. I just treated school like a playground and simply didn’t take it seriously. However, I always found that playing outdoors and being creative gave me an escape.

As a teenager, I got into cooking in a big way. I could lose myself in it and let my imagination roam free. It was a liberating feeling to do something where the outcome didn't depend on the ability of my reading and writing. It was therefore decided: I left school at 16 and went to college to study as a chef. After three hard years, I was ready for the big leagues.

A tough initiation into the culinary world

I managed to get employed at an excellent restaurant in a hotel in St Albans. It was a real bad-boy kitchen whose head chef was unfortunately as irrationally aggressive as he was brilliant. Throughout my time there, every day was a nightmare. I had spoons thrown at me, purée painted on my face and buckets put over my head. It was an emotionally abusive environment and it took its toll on me.

After sticking it out for nine months, it all came to a head. I couldn’t go on living like this so I dumped my then-girlfriend, quit my job and got on a plane to New Zealand, leaving my life in the UK behind. I eventually settled in Australia, getting a job in a really forward-thinking kitchen in Melbourne. Matt, the head chef, took me under his wing and mentored me.

Ben in the kitchen at Pei Modern in Melbourne

I was working 18-hour days but felt like a rock star: single, at the top of my game, and living my life as if I was invincible. I finally felt free.

But life isn’t that simple and what goes up must come down. I left Melbourne full of confidence and went to Cambodia to check out the amazing coastline and to spend a bit of time travelling. It was on one of this country’s beautiful beaches that I met a girl who blew me away. D and I travelled together and we quickly fell in love. This relationship changed everything for me.

From my dream job and dream girlfriend to rock bottom

We moved to Spain together and I got a job in a Michelin-starred restaurant where I worked the only way I knew: hard. But I felt this gap opening up in my life. All I wanted to do was hang out with D and my job ceased to be important to me.

The kitchen in Spain was full of bullies, with lots of mind games. I saw young chefs break down due to the anxiety they had developed in this environment of fear where they were treated like they were being weak. I had experienced this kind of environment before and I knew how to cope, but the more I worked there, the more distant I felt from what I really wanted in my life.

My mental health was suffering and something had to give. So I quit and moved instead to a small café where I cooked eggs for eight hours a day. Yet despite leaving the torment of a high-pressure kitchen, this change did not help one bit. I still felt lost and empty. I decided to take a break from cooking, so D and I moved to Nicaragua where we ended up running a lodge on a small beach. For the first month, life was great again, but once more things got hard. Really hard.

Ben and D outside the lodge in Nicaragua

D got sick and our relationship started to suffer. I had completely given up and lost who I was. I just felt numb. Never in my whole life had I felt so alone. The strong, confident man that D had met now saw no point in trying. I was truly at rock bottom. It was hard for D and she flew back home to the United States where she could properly recover from her illness. I wasn’t able to get a visa so couldn’t go with her, so stayed in Nicaragua and found a job as a charity hiking guide.

Nature helped me re-find my true self and set me on course for Land’s End

This experience changed my life. I had always been interested in walking and camping, and spending time outdoors has always been a way for me to look after my mental health. Walking is a physical challenge but also provides a mental challenge and enables me to break down all the thoughts and stories in my head and rebuild my true self.

When out in Nicaragua, my friend Rich came out to work with me. We spoke about doing some sort of walk to raise money for charity, but as D got better, I was itching to see her so the timing just wasn’t right for Rich and I to plan and take on this kind of big challenge.

Ben and D with Rich, who officiated their wedding

D and I decided to go to New Zealand so left Nicaragua for the UK for six months in order to obtain visas. One afternoon in February 2017, D and I went to meet Rich at the pub and the three of us got to talking about the possibility of doing a long-distance walk in England.

I was very interested in the big trails they have in America such as the Pacific Coast Trail which stretches 2,000 miles from Canada all the way down to Mexico. I thought that nothing in the UK could match that but then Rich suggested walking from end to end, between Land’s End in Cornwall and John o’ Groats at the northern tip of Scotland.

It’s traditionally a cycle route so I thought there would be too many roads and that the route wouldn’t be well marked out, however the seed had been planted and we left the pub excited by the prospect of this epic challenge. Over the next few weeks we looked into things a bit more and founds some blogs from walkers who had done the walk and found that you can follow a 1,200-mile route that links up various trails across the country. It would be a real challenge but something we were determined to do.

D and I moved to Alaska in 2016 and then on to New Zealand, and with Rich having limited time to take on such a big challenge before becoming a schoolteacher, he decided to take on the walk alone in the summer of that year. Even though I had left the UK, I never forgot about the walk, and was determined to keep getting out into nature to look after my mental health and to help fill the hole that missing out on Rich’s epic challenge had left.

“I am limitless”

In New Zealand, D and I went on a lot of backpacking trips and one afternoon in the winter, I found out that a friend from the gym was organising a big hike to raise money and awareness for a mental health charity in New Zealand. I immediately asked if I could be a part of this.

The plan was to walk for 24 hours straight across New Zealand’s Southern Alps in the Otago region. The route was about 50 miles long and we would be covering the same elevation gain as if we were climbing Aoraki (or Mount Cook as it’s commonly known in English), the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3,724 metres in height (12,218 feet).

A week after deciding to take on this challenge, we set off in the dark of a cold, dry evening. I remember being on the side of the mountain looking up at the line of headtorches above me, with the snow on the ground glistening from the light. It was quite a sight but my body was beat. We had covered 35 miles but still had 16 hours of difficult terrain to go.

Every ounce of me wanted to give up. The icy wind was cutting into my face, my legs were aching and my mind was just telling me to give up, to stop and lie down. Just like when I was at school, struggling to come to grips with my dyslexia, I was awashed by a wave of vulnerability. I felt like an exposed nerve, unable to move.

I decided to pause, to take a minute to try to keep myself warm and to overcome the voice in my head which was telling me to quit. I knew I had to change my thoughts, so I adopted the mantra “I am limitless”, repeating it over and over. Like that, a switch was flipped and all my negative thoughts fell to the wayside. I reached the top of the mountain in time to witness the beautiful sunrise and it was then that I truly saw the connection between walking and my own mental health.

From John o’ Groats to Land’s End

Walking has helped me so much and I began to think about all the other people in the world who were struggling to overcome mental hardship. I had to do something, so that week I booked my tickets to London and planned out the route from John o’ Groats to Land’s End.

Fast-forward ten months to 13 May 2019, the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, and there I was, standing at the edge of Scotland about to take on the challenge I had dreamed of for the previous three years, all to raise money and awareness for mental health. The walk itself was amazing.

My life has been turbulent, but one constant is how I feel when I’m out in nature, and the further I went along the trail, like a nomad with nothing but the bag on my back, the more at peace I felt, and the stresses from my life just washed away. I was left with who I truly am: someone who is happy and outgoing, who laughs a lot and has an open heart.

Ben en route in the beautiful Scottish Highlands

I found that the real challenge was not the huge amount of physical energy it takes to walk 1,236 miles, but rather the mental side, it’s the will to actually walk them. Physical and mental health are interlinked and when you’re physically drained, your willpower can weaken. I have learned to control my thoughts and I was able to get up every day, put my bag on my back, and just put one foot in front of the other.

I believe it’s important not to hide from your emotions, even when they are negative, because accepting how you are feeling allows you to act upon negative emotions and deal with them. Every time I felt alone, angry or upset, I would give myself time to come to terms with these thoughts and then apply the tools I have learned to put them behind me.

On 31 July, I arrived at Land’s End, reaching the end of this amazing challenge. After more than three months of trekking, I had finally achieved this goal which had been set in my mind for the last few years.

Reuinited with D at Land's End after an amazing journey

I feel so proud of myself for what I achieved. I’m grateful that I’ve built up great mental and physical resilience so that I was able to withstand the trials that I faced on the trip.

Raising money for the Mental Health Foundation was a blessing for me, as it allowed me to connect on such a genuine and deep level with people who were complete strangers. Helping others who are in need really fills my heart with joy, and the kindness of everyone along the whole way reinstalled my faith in humanity.

I’d recommend walking in nature to anyone

Walking allows me not just to connect to the beautiful outdoors – and I really did get to see the best the UK has to offer – but also to myself. This has always been great for my mental health and I’d recommend it to anyone who is struggling. Life for me is still a rollercoaster. It has its ups and downs, highs and lows, but I now have the tools to thrive and to enjoy life to its fullest.

Walking in nature truly has enabled me to manage my mental wellbeing and to prevent myself from falling once again into the evil clutches of mental ill-health.

The Mental Health Foundation would like to say a massive THANK YOU to Ben for his amazing physical and mental efforts and for raising over £3,000 to support our work into the prevention of mental health problems. Ben is a real inspiration, and we hope that by sharing his story, you too will feel inspired to help us make a change and build a world where good mental health truly is a reality for all.

Feeling inspired by Ben's story?

If you would like to take on an epic challenge to raise funds for the Mental Health Foundation then we'd love to have you on board. If you have any questions or queries, please don't hesitate to contact the Events Team by emailing [email protected] or by calling 020 7803 1123.

Alternatively, you could sign up for one of our own challenges or events – there are loads of things you could do to help make a big difference!

 Check out all the ways you can get involved