If you have ever attended an obstacle race in the UK, read Obstacle Race magazine, or in fact just been on social media then you will have seen (and let's be honest, he's pretty hard to miss), if not heard of Joel Hicks, fundraiser extraordinaire, and founder of the charity foundation Always With A Smile.
A goodwill ambassador of many events such as Tough Guy and Spartan Race, Joel and his team of Smilers are ever present at all and any events across the country, from OCRs to the World Coal Carrying Championships.
Whilst I had seen Joel at a few events (and been incredibly impressed by the fact that he completed the Beast, a 20km obstacle course race dressed in a teeny pair of red pants and a spartan helmet) I did not meet the man himself until I attended Urban Attack in Manchester 2014.
Infectiously happy, this man is a tidal wave of goodwill, and it's not hard to see why he is so successful at what he does.
Let’s start with the basics for those who don’t know you: who are you, and what is the premise of the foundation, Always with a Smile?
My name’s Joel Hicks, and Always With A Smile is a foundation that was basically set up with three aims, the first aim is to help out charities and good causes: to help them raise money and raise awareness for what they do. The second aim is to try and inspire people to do something that they have never before considered doing, to push them out of their comfort zones and basically live their life to the full. There is then the third aim, which is simply to put a smile on the face of as many people as I possibly can.
How did the idea for the foundation come about?
The foundation just evolved really out of nothing, it wasn’t something that I intended to set up, and it wasn’t something I planned on doing.
I went to the world bog snorkeling championships in 2006, just a one off event with a couple of friends. We had a great day, I performed a bog snorkeling Haka, and the people there were very welcoming and said that we added something different to the event.
I started to look around at other events after this and ended up going to Hell Runner a couple of weeks later. Over the next few weeks I did several more events and this really started the ball rolling with the foundation. What originally began as something where I was planning on doing four or five events a year has now turned into something where I do fifty or sixty events a year.
As you say, you do 50 or 60 events a year, you also seem to like to make these as hard for yourself as possible: for example the London Beast where you wore a teeny tiny pair of pants and a full Spartan helmet, whereas I for example, was carrying a camelbak with gels and water, and wearing full kit. Is there a reason to make these events more difficult for yourself?
The foundation has a general rule that every event I dress up as something new, apart from obviously the naked run, where you can’t dress up as a lot really….
It’s about having a good time, and sometimes I do wonder why I have come as what I have, for
example doing Tough Guy as Sponge Bob Square Pants was pretty tricky as I couldn’t see out the front, the Berlin marathon in a polyester gingerbread man at 36’C wasn’t the best idea. Some of these I question the sanity of what I am doing, but basically it’s about entertaining people that have come to watch, or who are taking part, and trying to raise awareness for the events and the charities that they support.
You are a goodwill ambassador for many events, such as Tough Guy, or Spartan Race. What does this involve?
It involves several aspects of the foundation such as encouraging first timers to try something that is a little bit different, to push them beyond their comfort zones, and being an ambassador, it’s about spreading the ethos of those events. Both Tough Guy and Spartan Race carry a certain attitude and way of living, which fits in well with what Always With A Smile is trying to promote.
With the obstacle race scene in particular, community lies at the heart of it. There’s not really another sport out there where you can go, not really having met anybody that’s at the same race, and you come away having made half a dozen friends that you’ll always see again and remain in contact with. Obstacle racing fits in really well with that have a go, don’t take your self too seriously, attitude of the foundation. It doesn’t matter if you come first or last as long as you have good fun, and are getting a bit dirty in the process!
Speaking of Tough Guy: that is taking place next weekend. Last year you dressed as a Knight in Shining Armour. Do you have anything special for us up your sleeve for this year?
I do have a couple of ideas for next weekend, nothing has been finalised as of yet. The costume is always the biggest stress I have when it comes to an event: not the training, it’s the costume. I am yet to decide what I will be appearing as at Tough Guy, I know a few things that I will be doing around the course that may raise a few eyebrows, there will be one or two surprises in store.
Tough Guy is one of those events where my role is to drag off people who can’t finish the course: or won’t make a decision as to whether they should finish the course [That’ll be me!] A lot of people think Tough Guy is not as tough as it is. It looks like hell, and it is. But it’s one of those events where you’ll do it and you’ll say afterwards you hated it and I’ll never do it again, but it’ll be the proudest thing you’ve ever done and you’ll be back next year.
How do you see the foundation growing: what are your aims?
The foundation started as my little baby, it gave me a focus in my own life. It has rapidly grown into what it is today. To take it to the next step is going to involve a lot of things coming together at the right time.
The foundation is a goodwill movement, it’s not a charity in itself, it supports charities and is there to inspire others: what I’m hoping for is to set up little Always With A Smile foundation pods all over the country where people will effectively inspire others to do what the foundation is setting out to do. There are no criteria you have to meet to join in events or to be a part of the foundation. You don’t have to be a certain standard of fitness: some events like Spartan Race or Tough Guy involve exercise, but it doesn’t take any exercise to enter the Worthing bird man and fly off the pier, to go nettle eating, or to do ice diving or a bungee jump, whatever you want to do, there’s something for everybody.
I would love to see little hubs of Always With A Smile starting to form all over the country, to encourage the young or old, men, women, children, to get involved, do something a little different, to not take themselves so seriously and just have a little fun.
What is your ultimate personal goal in life?
Just to be happy. Happiness is a really simple concept, and yet we seem to find it very difficult to achieve in life.
I think the way we look at life needs to be reassessed, people treat life like work: we have these goals at work and we try to apply the same thinking to life. Being happy should be the be all and end of all everyone’s life. That how I live my life and what the foundation stands for.
Would you say that being happy is your greatest asset?
I try to live a very positive life. We all have bad days where we throw a few tantrums, where we feel that life is getting on top of us a little bit, but generally speaking, I like to think that I am a positive person, and that that positivity comes out in what I do. I get a lot of happiness and joy from the foundation and from the foundation inspires in others.
Give me a word that your friends would you to describe you.
I often get Crazy, Naked, I may be described as a lo
t of the time. I often get “I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on”
How would you like to be remembered?
What I’ve tried to do is to not take myself too seriously, to put a smile of peoples faces. Everyone goes through hard times, everyone has a back-story, and everyone has a struggle. I think if people can look at me, and at my life, I hope they can take a step back and say “there is always light at the end of the tunnel’, that you can get through things and that that goal of being happy, is still achievable no matter what.
It’s striving for that happiness that keeps me going. It’s what the foundation is all about, it’s very important to me, and should be, I hope, the most important thing to everybody else.