September 26, 2018 7 min read
Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to take part on the Virgin Strive challenge alongside the Branson family and a group of talented entrepreneurs. I felt honoured to take part in the first stage of the month-long challenge, cycling and kayaking through Sardinia to raise money for Big Change.
The Virgin Strive Challenge is a purpose driven challenge designed to raise funds for Big Change - a not for profit organisation founded by Sam and Holly Branson to help children thrive in life - not just exams! Big Change invests in projects that can help kids with confidence, social skills and to develop a growth mind-set so that they can adapt to life’s challenges.
Virgin are the main sponsors of the Strive challenge and Virgin Start up had a place up for grabs to one of their start up companies!
When I received the email confirming I had the place to go cycling and kayaking with the Branson family I couldn’t quite believe it. I wrote back and asked if Richard would actually be there – I imagined I was signing up to a random cycle with a distant cousin twice removed!
When the training plan and lots of info on this pretty amazing charity and event started coming through, I realised it was very real.
As the founder of a cycle clothing brand – you would imagine that I’d be ready to take on the challenge but unfortunately not quite. Whilst I love my bike and enjoy a regular commute into Edinburgh and the odd cycling holiday – this doesn’t prepare you for cycling over 100K per day, with up to 2000 meter climbs, in 30 odd degrees, through Sardinia.
I have to admit I was slightly nervous when I received the training plan. I downloaded the 12-week plan (already too late for the 24-week plan). Each week involved 4 days cycling with a mix of 2 shorter/faster rides and 2 long rides on Saturday and Sunday. I set out to follow the plan completely. Edinburgh is pretty good for training as we’re not short of a hill to climb. I spent my weekly evening rides going around Holyrood park and weekend rides heading out of Edinburgh and down the coast.
A few weeks in and I was more than a little nervous. The training plan was telling me to reach 120RPM and I was no-where near it! Plus, the Saturday and Sunday long rides were a killer.
I reached out to my fellow Stivers and Lara Millward – aka - the Strive Mama – got in touch to offer some pretty awesome advice. Lara’s advice was to perhaps take it down to 3 hard sessions on the bike, include spin sessions and make sure I was eating enough of the right stuff – good carbs, sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa – oh and get some cleats!
This is great advice. Whist it’s important to exercise it’s also super important to listen to your own body and get the balance right. And - for anyone in training – I do recommend cleats. The push down and pull up (engaging both the quadriceps and hamstrings - I believe) definitely does help. I even managed to find a pair of Giro Petra spdsthat don’t actually look like cycling shoes!
I did a good few Spin sessions at Tribe Yoga’s– new spin studio which are pretty epic – and I’m confident I more than smashed the recommended RPM’s during their classes. Spin sessions do help to get your speed up as you can really go for it, plus the group sessions help with the motivation.
I met some of the core team of Strivers on the flight out, including Sam Branson, Noah Deveroux (community direct of Strive Challenge), Freddie (Community Manger) and Annie Scott- Strive communications! Immediately - I felt the warmth of my team mates and excitement about the challenge that lay ahead of us.
On arrival I checked into the first hotel and sorted out the bike hire. I opted to hire a bike, deciding it would be a lot easier than flying my bike out to Sardinia. Also, as I own a steel frame, flat handle bike, it’s possibly not best equipped for Sardinia. My bike, for the next 4 days, was a Canyon Endurace CF 9.0 and I could be persuaded that I might just need one of these to add to our growing bike collection. I hadn’t considered a carbon road bike up until taking part in Strive but I’m pretty sure the event would have been a lot harder without this bike.
The stage one cycle challenge started out in Pula (close to Cagliari) and ended 4 days later in Alghero. We cycled through beautiful towns, long steep hills, quaint villages and winding coastal roads. Each day we cycled at least 100K with various degrees of climbing, from more gentle 5% climbs, (these became nothing – almost flat!) to severe and punishing - 14% gradient climbs. At the end of the 4 days, in-case our bodies weren’t completely finished, we Kayaked for another 2 days!
The toughest day cycling (although this could be disputed) was our 2nd day. Our guide, Marcello talked us through the route on the evening before. Perhaps that’s why I heard Richard Branson order 4 bottles of wine for each table – get us drunk and we won’t notice what lies ahead! There was quite a loud explosion of laughter when Marcello told us about a 14% climb and quite a few of us heard 40%! Thankfully it was the former and we weren’t biking up Everest with some ropes.
It was indeed pretty epic. The 14% climb did get the better of me and it’s the only time I got off the bike, probably for not much more than a minute to have a little push. I’m totally ok with that. I can still say I did the journey with pure human power, pedal, pedal and a little push!
The last day cycling was one of my favourites. This was the journey from Guspini to Fordongianus passing through Marcella’s home town of Bosa which is stunning. I got lost from my fellow Strivers at some point just before lunch as I was taking in so much of the beautiful scenery. The colourful houses, and quiet towns (everywhere in Sardinia is unbelievably quiet) and breathtakingly beautiful.
The final day was the longest day and it did take us a good while (apparently around 10 hours in total) to complete. By now we had made some pretty cool friendships – that I’m sure will last a lifetime, and our crew kept each other going along the way. We crossed the finish line after our final long and hot day cycling greeted by cheers from our fellow Strivers.
In the evenings we had talks from some of the amazing Strivers and project leaders that Big Change are involved with. Essie North (Big Change’s Managing Director) talked about the work the projects Big Change help which is truly inspiring. Big Change get to the route of problems and help make the change in often underprivileged kids lives, before it’s too late.
One example is a programme that trains teachers to deal with severe behavioural issues, support pupils mental health and reduce exclusions from school.
As often it’s the most vulnerable children that are excluded from school, children that are born into poverty. Excluding kids from school only creates more problems in life and statistics show that 1 in every 2 prisoners were excluded from school. Big change supports projects that break this cycle early on in life, focusing on helping a young child rather than curing a broken adult.
We heard from, Matthew Hood, CEO of the Institute for Teaching, on teacher burnout and why not enough teachers are coming into the profession. Mathew talked about how great teachers making a huge difference to the lives of young people but today people are leaving the profession in bigger numbers than ever before. 40% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years of qualifying. Big Change supports teachers with a specialist graduate school that focuses on helping teachers to keep improving.
Listening to the speakers and hearing about the amazing work being done brought home why we Striving, inspired us to keep going and keep raising funds to make the difference happen.
On our last evening an auction was held by fellow Striver, the great Bob North, with all proceeds going to big change. Bob had kept everyone in good spirits with his great chat and colourful pants throughout the first stage!
Richard Branson modelled the Meander jacket and I’m not sure if it was the jacket or the model that sent the bids through the roof from the fellow Strivers, generously topping up the fundraising levels.
The Core team of Strivers are still enduring this epic multifaceted challenge which runs until the end of September (when they will reach the summit of Mont Blanc!). They are on a month long tough and gruelling journey to raise awareness, brining people together and raising money to make Big Changes happen.
If you would like to support this amazing cause you can do so here; https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/JillHenry1
We are also donating the profits from any pre-orders taken throughout Strive on the Meander jacket to Big change; Click the link below to check out the Meander jacket and the profits will be donated to Big Change.
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