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Lockdown Legends: Olivia Strong, founder of Run For Heroes

Olivia Strong is a documentary producer from Edinburgh who started the Run For Heroes campaign, a challenge that has exploded across the country with over 1 million runners participating globally, raising over £5 million for NHS Charities Together to support those fighting the coronavirus.

She’s also just launched her new challenge, the Faster 5K Friday, to support the Care Workers’ Charity.

Appearing on video series Up Close And Socially Distant, she chats to host Kate Thornton about how her idea started while on a run through Edinburgh.

How did you get the idea for your Run For Heroes campaign?

Olivia: I had come back to Edinburgh, and actually my work had been cut down to a two-day week, and so I had this extra time suddenly on my hands to be like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’ I was out on a run and I noticed just how many people were out doing the same just a week into lockdown.

READ MORE: Mo Farah reveals celebs he's challenging to Run For Heroes

So, I got home, and I said to my brother, I had this idea that if you run 5K and donated five pounds, then hopefully we could run 5K to raise 5K. If you nominated five people then, you know, it would continue – and that evening, Run For Heroes was born. Run, donate, nominate.

How quickly did it grow?

Olivia: It was amazing to see how quickly it grew. I set up the Instagram account on a Friday evening, nominated five people on a Saturday. I definitely nominated more than five people to try and kickstart it a bit more.

Then by Tuesday – so what, four days later – it had raised the £5,000 target. I was like, ‘Wow, this is quite cool!’ What do I up it to next? About 10 days in, it was at half a million and I was like, ‘I think it's going beyond my friendship circle now!’

How did it go global?

Olivia: The only people that I pushed it to for global was anybody in Sydney that I knew, because a few friends, you know, go over there for the sunshine and stuff, so they kind of kickstarted it. Then I started to see people tag it in Dubai and like Tokyo, which is crazy. And then it totally grew organically from there.

How did you get celebrities like Mo Farah involved?

Olivia: I didn't contact any celebrities for it - and I remember when Mo Farah and Ellie Goulding did it, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I pinched myself. I was like, to my sister, ‘Ellie Goulding has just messaged me!’

READ MORE: Ellie Goulding surprises nurse on her 'virtual' wedding day by singing along to first dance

They have a huge influence on people. They have a huge following, and I think that was really crucial for the campaign to get it much more widespread, which is thanks to them and all the initial runners, really.

You recently received the Points of Light award for Outstanding Volunteering from the Cabinet Office. How did it feel to get that call?

Olivia: I was so shocked! It was lovely to receive it on behalf of the whole Run For Heroes community. I really mean this with this fundraiser: it's been a team effort right from the beginning: all the runners that have gone out and run a 5K. People that have never run before to people that are experienced runners like Mo Farah - and they've then nominated other people to go and do it. I think that it's really a massive collaboration in that sense.

READ MORE: Run for Heroes 5km challenge founder wins Point of Light award

Where is all the money going to that you’ve raised via this campaign?

Olivia: All the money goes directly to NHS Charities Together. They put out a COVID-19 appeal at the very beginning of lockdown. They asked us to raise £100 million, and I think at the time they were about £26 million. All those funds were going directly to trying to make the NHS workers lives a little easier at the time, and still are to this day.

They're putting in wobble rooms, sleep pods, and extra tea and coffee and emergency fund packs to help if anybody has to stay overnight in hospital or in local hotels. We've heard from NHS workers saying how much of a difference it's made, because it just feels like the whole of the UK public are behind them, which is so lovely.

You have now launched your second initiative, Faster 5K Fridays, which supports Care Workers’ Charity. How does that work?

Olivia: The idea is that you run your fastest 5K every Friday for the next five weeks, and each time donating five pounds. We teamed up with Strava to do this, because Strava have obviously huge reach and they set up a challenge on their app for us, which is great, because it means that people can track how fast they're doing it in and see if they can try and improve their time each week. It's kind of meant to be a bit of fun.

READ MORE: Sport-2.6 Challenge raises over 10 million pounds to save UK charities

When we did it on the first Friday, it got £6,000, which is amazing, so hopefully each week it can continue to get a bit more, because you know, they're [the carers] caring for our most vulnerable right now in society, and any help that we can give them will be amazing.

Why would you incentivise runners to go out every Friday and try to beat their own personal bests in order to care for the carers?

Olivia: I think it's not only important from a personal level, you know, how much better people feel after they've walked, run, cycled, whatever it might be. Whatever's suitable for them. The feeling I always feel before a run is never as bad actually during, and then afterwards it's so worth it. Do you know what I mean? So A, that's really important.

And B, you know that you're doing it for such a worthwhile cause, because the care workers are actually doing an amazing job to try and help any care workers who are having to self-isolate as a result of COVID-19. You know, emergency funds for them. Often, they're not paid well...

READ MORE: Coronavirus linked to quarter of all deaths in care homes, official data shows

I’ve heard a lot of stories where they're staying in the care homes. Rooms that have like six other care workers in it, because they can't go back to their own families, because care homes in the UK have the highest cases of COVID-19. They don't want to put their families at risk, and that means that they're staying, you know, day in and day out to help our most vulnerable. I mean, if that's not motivation to go out and try and run, then I don't know what is.

How can we get involved?

Olivia: What I'd encourage them to do is, if they haven't participated already in the 5K challenge, is go out today. Run, walk, cycle. I've seen people swim. I've seen them horse ride it if they're lucky enough to have horses. It's also amazing, I've seen it grow throughout the world now that all these other countries are taking it on and doing it for their local hospitals.

It's really important to continue to exercise during lockdown, because otherwise we're just inside the whole time. And I've heard from a few people that they've continued to run and they've continued to feel motivated to keep doing a 5K. And now some people have got up to 10K.

To find out more about Run For Heroes visit: https://www.runforheroes.uk


Up Close And Socially Distant is hosted by Kate Thornton and features weekly video catch-ups with people who are all doing whatever they can to help those around them get through lockdown.

This week Kate speaks to Adil Ray, OBE, about co-presenting BBC One’s Eid special Celebration Kitchen Live, to teacher and free school meal delivery hero, Zane Powles, and to the founder of Run For Heroes, Olivia Strong.