With less than 48 hours to go before I run my first ever marathon, I’ve been reflecting on the journey that has brought me – and Virgin Money – to the Start Line.
In February 2008 the UK Government announced the nationalisation of Northern Rock. Virgin Money had been the preferred private sector bidder and we had poured all of our energy into our bid. So the Government’s announcement meant that Virgin Money had an unclear future. I was in the office one day soon after nationalisation and Richard Branson called. The London Marathon team had asked him if the Virgin Group would like to sponsor the event.
The Virgin Money team had long shared running as a passion (even I used to run to work from time to time!) and the London Marathon did so much for so many good causes. It felt exciting to be part of something like that at such a difficult time, so – despite the money (which we didn’t have) – we said YES.
Meanwhile business was difficult as the financial crisis raged and, frankly, we were employing too many people. A double whammy – a committed sponsorship deal and a cost challenge. We needed to find a way to make sure the Marathon sponsorship would pay for itself.
It was then that we discovered JustGiving – the online donation company that many people use to sponsor marathon runners. We were shocked to see that they were taking 5% of each donation to their own bottom line – and even applying that charge to the Gift Aid which charities are able to claim on most donations. That meant that, once card processing costs were also deducted, nearly 8% of someone’s initial donation would go to JustGiving, and not to charity. That’s when we came up with the idea of Virgin Money Giving (VMG).
We built VMG to take on JustGiving and to be “not for profit”. With only a 2% charge to cover our costs, much more money went to charity. Over the years that has added up to more than £10 million pounds. Importantly, it also meant that we had a worthwhile project to keep our people fully employed while the financial crisis raged. And everyone who worked on it loved it.
The London Marathon team made VMG their online donation partner. And so we got to our first London Marathon in 2010. Richard had agreed to run, and Holly and Sam Branson went even further by running chained together with a bunch of friends – and made it into The Guinness Book of Records to boot!
On the morning of that first Virgin Money sponsored race I was whisked to the start in a car as the roads closed behind us. The field where the runners meet in Greenwich was full of balloons, music, and excitement. It was like a huge fairground, decked out in Virgin red.
Richard was getting ready to run. He had agreed to run in butterfly wings which had been made by someone who makes costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival. They were on a wooden frame and very heavy. He had never seen them before, let alone trained wearing them – but he was determined to run in them – and he kept them on all the way until he crossed the finish line! Afterwards he told me that it wasn’t the weight of the wings that had taken its toll, nor the 26.2 miles, but the fact that he had been waving to people all the way round and it had made his arms sore!
Every year we take 300 friends of Virgin Money to the grandstand at the finish line on The Mall. I thought it would be very dull to spend hours watching complete strangers running over the line. But it is one of the most emotional and inspiring experiences of all. Witnessing human beings of all shapes and sizes, all ages and from all walks of life run, walk, crawl or be carried over the line with tears of joy, pain or triumph is extraordinarily moving and a truly uplifting experience in a world which sometimes seems so full of trial and tribulation.
And after all, the London Marathon is the biggest single-day fundraising event on the planet. Since we have sponsored it, the London Marathon has raised over £250 million for charity – that’s a quarter of a billion pounds.
This year’s official charity is Cancer Research UK and all the money raised from their Marathon partnership will go towards the Crick Institute in London – an amazing medical research centre that will help to save countless lives and improve the quality of life for our own children and for generations to come.
Cancer Research UK is run by the wonderful Harpal Kumar, who I met at the Marathon finish line last year. As we were watching the runners finish in the London sunshine, Harpal suggested that he and I should run together this year. What could I say other than ‘yes’?!
I then promptly put it out of my mind whilst we floated Virgin Money and I put on weight and lost my running shoes. As soon as we had listed the business on the London Stock Exchange last November I dug out my kit and went for my first run for ages. I tore my right calf muscle and my back hurt. And I was getting older. And I was definitely travelling too much. And I was certainly too fat. And pretty busy.
No-one really expected me to run the Marathon did they? Well apparently they did. Suddenly a whole bunch of people turned up with training plans, physios, an alarm clock, Deep Heat, words of advice. Some people actually turned up in their running kit! So what could I do but squeeze into the kit and take to the road? On the plus side, training in Edinburgh is full of fun – Saturdays up at 4am enables you to enjoy the fun end of Friday nights out.
And here we are now to put it all together and actually cross the start line on Sunday. I am truly terrified. But I have learned so much. Been supported so much. Been sponsored so much. Been encouraged so much. One way or another I will get over the finish line!
See you at the start line!