What is the Virgin Strive Challenge and how did it come about?
No-one’s going to believe this story, but it’s true! I’ve always been a fan of taking part in adventures and challenges and I’ve done loads of climbing, including Cho Oyu, Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But last March, I had this idea to travel from London to the top of the Matterhorn entirely under my own power.
I emailed my cousin, Sam Branson, and he replied straight away to say that he’d had exactly the same idea. The only difference was that he had thought of doing the same route but in the opposite direction. He’s even shown me the emails to prove it!
I’d originally imagined the challenge to be a smaller, personal thing. But Sam was keen to make it as big as it could be, and be more than just traditional fundraising. With a core team of 10 people and many others joining each leg, we’ll be raising awareness and £750,000 to help young people develop the life skills they need to reach their potential.
As Director of the challenge, I’ve had to set it up and, along with our Big Change CEO Alex Walters, I oversee all the different elements and make sure they’re all working towards a common goal. That has included finding partners and sponsors, recruiting team members, organising the route, training and nutrition, planning content and PR, and recruiting and managing a support team.
What do you mean by life skills?
When I was 18, I spent some time working in a London school for vulnerable children who struggle in the normal educational system due to behavioural issues. A lot had been abused and had extremely low self-worth. At the time, I was only a couple of years older than them, but it felt like we were speaking a totally different language. It wasn’t about GCSEs or level of academic education. This was about these children not having the core skills they need to make a success of their lives – communications, empathy, confidence, resilience.
I’ve had a privileged life in many ways, but when I was nine, my parents went through a very difficult divorce. As the oldest of four, I had to take on quite a bit of responsibility and draw on a lot of these skills. I know first-hand how important they are to helping children manage life and the challenges and opportunities it presents. The experience inspired me and I’m grateful to be able to raise awareness and money that we will use to support projects working to tackle it. During the Challenge itself we’ll be exploring these skills and creating content to help children talk about them.
Who’s taking part in the Challenge?
We’re really lucky to have some amazing people taking part, including Richard Reed, founder of Innocent Drinks, Marion Bartoli, the French tennis star, Ade Adepitan, the Paralympic medallist, and Ben Ainslie, the Olympic sailor.
A couple of weeks ago we did a core alpine training session in Chamonix where I got to spend time with Karl Lokko who’s taking part in the whole Challenge. I think he’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s an ex-gang leader from Brixton, London. He was inducted into the gang culture when he was 14, and by 16 he was a gang leader.
The turnaround from how he used to live his life to what he does today is phenomenal. He is now an ambassador for Kids Company, and a tireless community worker and campaigner working to reform gang culture in the UK. He’s also a poet, and he’s so incredibly articulate. He had never done any high altitude work before – on the second day he was prostrate on a rock, frozen rigid, two days later he was running across an exposed ridge, with sheer drops either side!
How’s the training going, and how do you fit it into your day job?!
The Strive Challenge is going to be a real physical test. I’ve always been sporty, and I’m a keen climber, but I am scared! I could probably handle each section of the challenge on its own, but when you add it up, it’s 31 days of activity with just six rest days. Of all the individual elements, I think I’m most worried about the three back-to-back marathons which kick off the challenge.
So, of course, we’ve been training hard! We’ve been working with the UK’s leading ironman performance nutritionist – Justin Roberts – who designed our training programme. I’m supposed to be training six days out of seven, but I seem to be in the office about 12 hours a day running the Challenge, so I’ve missed out on some sessions.
One of the biggest challenges I face is that I’m gluten-intolerant. We’re supposed to eat 6,000 calories every day during the challenge, but I won’t be able to eat pasta or bread. I’m not quite sure how I’ll manage, but I’m going to take loads of wheat-free pasta, energy bars, and nuts with me and hope for the best!
What was it like growing up with Richard Branson as an uncle?!
My overriding memory of Richard when I was a kid is that he was constantly playing practical jokes! He’s constantly pushing people in the swimming pool, telling them their travel plans are cancelled and cracking jokes. He never fails to make people laugh and creates an amazing energy around him.
One of the most important things he taught me was to always believe in people. He has a real belief in humanity and trusts people to do the right thing. I think that comes from his parents, my grandparents. My grandfather was a barrister in profession, and a soldier in the Second World War, but his real passion was archaeology. He had the same ability to touch people and had an amazing presence – I think that’s where Richard gets it from.