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London Marathon: My fight against pneumonia made me want to give back

When Conor Russell, 23, signed up for VSO ICS, he didn’t know quite how much of an influence it would have on his life. Inspired by those he'd worked with, he ran this year’s London Marathon for VSO. He tells us how it wasn’t a walk in the park.

Conor at the marathon

Conor at the start line.

As a volunteer on the VSO ICS sexual health rights team in north-west Bangladesh, we helped to achieve a lot.

Before our team of volunteers arrived, doctors and professors would occasionally come in to deliver one-off talks on sexual and reproductive health. It was great but it didn’t make for long-term progress.

We established networks that put the project in the hands of local people; taking volunteers from local youth projects and arranged lessons for them directly with those doctors.

Falling ill

Unfortunately whilst on the project I contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalised.

I was looked after all the way through by my VSO team and the guys in Bangladesh. I had friends supporting me 24 hours a day and when I came out of hospital, the country director even put me up in his house.

When I left the hospital I decided right then that I wanted to put that horrible illness behind me.

Desperate to give back

It was around November. I’d been back home for six months and had just started my Masters in London. The thought about how to give back to VSO was still on my mind. Looking on the VSO website, I was immediately taken by the idea of running a marathon. But I’d never run any more than a 10k. I was stepping it up to 4x the distance I’d run before.

Within 10 minutes I’d received a call and was booked on for the 2017 London Marathon. It was crazy how quickly things happened and even crazier how quickly the following months would fly by.

Conor on placement in Bangladesh

Conor with his team on placement in Bangladesh

Running for something bigger

My fundraising target was twice that of ICS. And I can’t lie, having to raise almost £2000 was definitely a bigger challenge.

But it was brilliant because fundraising not only motivates you to raise awareness – but also means you’re not just running for yourself. You’re running for something much bigger.

You’d be surprised how many people donate around the time of the marathon. When the hype starts – when it starts getting shown on TV – you can really build on momentum.

People over pounds

It definitely felt overwhelming at one point – reality hits you hard. I thought oh god, I’m going to have to pull my finger out. There were definitely moments of doubt, just like marathon training.

My trick was never making plans based on monetary value. It was more important to take into account how many people I was making aware and how I stayed relevant without being overbearing.

But between going back to a secondary school I’d previously worked in, asking friends and family to contribute, and – a real generosity – persuading a couple with an upcoming wedding to ask for contributions to VSO instead of wedding presents, I smashed my target.

Find a plan and stick to it


It was my first marathon, I did my research, registered for a planner and put it up on my wall and crossed it out every time I went for a run. That’s the key.

The training plans usually last 16 weeks. So I started with five mile runs and got myself up to 8-10 miles. By the end I was running 4-5 times a week as well as playing football.

I really got into podcasts. Desert Island Discs and Serial were my go-to. What also helped was running through central London – it got me used to the route I’d be taking.

Running the Marathon

Taking part in the London Marathon 

The big day


Everything you’re training for won’t compare to the day. Going over Tower Bridge to thousands of people cheering you on, running down roads that you never get the opportunity to – it’s amazing.

I remember running past a guy carrying a washing machine and thinking, ‘God, my training wasn’t so bad after all!’.

It's like going to a festival. You’re surrounded by people constantly and because of that, there’s a real feel good spirit. Everybody’s there because they want to be there.

People think you’re mad for doing a marathon. But it’s a leap of faith. The truth is that if you’re never going to take the risk, you’ll never know how much you’ll push yourself and what you can achieve.

I found out today I didn’t make the public ballot for next year’s London Marathon. But that’s fine. I know I’ve achieved something rather quite special already that I can’t stop talking about.

Do you know someone who wants to take part in the London Marathon 2018? Whether you're a keen runner or looking for your next big challenge, this will be a great chance to represent VSO.

Sign up for the London Marathon

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