Our volunteer fundraiser, Morgan Stanley trader, father of three, ultra-marathon runner Sergey Ionov has yet again conquered Badwater 135, notoriously one of the world’s toughest and most aspiring runs. This year Sergey did the 135-mile California route in 26 hours 49 minutes 6 seconds and finished third out of 68 participants!
Sergey ran Badwater for the first time in 2018 in support of Gift of Life and raised over £5,200 for children battling cancer in Russian clinics. For the Power of 10 monthly feature we talked to Sergey about big goals, helping charity and the support that can increase donations in power of ten.
Power of 10 is our anniversary feature with inspiring stories about our patients, doctors, donors, team members, volunteers, and fundraisers who have been with Gift of Life for over the decade, successfully helping seriously ill children in Russia.
Sergey Ionov finishing Badwater 135, July 2021
Sergey, congratulations on finishing the third at Badwater 2021! What a result. What was the most challenging part this time compared to Badwater 2018? You then ran 135 miles across the Death Valley in 50-degree heat for the first time and raised a significant amount for Gift of Life.
I took it more seriously this time because I was preparing to run for the result. I had a scrupulous training process and a strict regimen. Arriving in Las Vegas, I tried to eat healthy and adhered to a European time sleep schedule that helped me to get ready for the run. During the race, I felt more pressure, I had to focus on the pace, constantly squeeze a little more out of myself, follow the nutrition schedule (I consumed special runners’ energy gels and drinks that don’t go that great after a few hours of running). The pandemic has also added an extra burden. Just getting to the USA was already a problem. Before departure, I spent two weeks in Moscow, passed a bunch of tests and, leaving my family in Russia due to complicated logistics, flew to the States on my own.
What is it like running through the desert for hours and hours?
My perception of the world changes at these moments. For example, many fears such as fear of heights or darkness as well as worries about your health and everyday anxieties go away. They are being driven out by deep and intense feelings to family. Whenever I run, I feel how precious my children, my wife, my family are for me. I think a little about everything and start to remember something well forgotten. I have never practiced meditation, but judging by its description, my state during a long run looks like a meditative one. As if you leave your body and transform. You in ordinary life and you at the race are two different people.
Your colleagues and friends know that you have been helping Gift of Life for years and support your charity runs. Was it difficult to bring these like-minded people together?
It was not easy to take the initial step and ask people for donations for my first-ever fundraising campaign. It seemed strange to me at the beginning, but I tried it, and many of my colleagues, friends, and people I know supported me with a lot of enthusiasm. My colleagues were not surprised at all by my fundraiser. There are five basic principles at Morgan Stanley, one of which is giving back. We actively support non-profits and are engaged in volunteering: we hold sports days at schools, help planting flowers in nurseries, organise clean-ups, and come up with development strategies for charitable foundations. These can be very different volunteer initiatives depending on what you are good at. And more than 90% of employees are involved. One year I helped to arrange a sports day at my children’s school, another year I told schoolchildren how I chose my university and profession, what exactly I do at the bank, how my working day goes.
Have you encountered any indifference and distrust when raising funds for Gift of Life?
There was no distrust in Gift of Life. When I was fundraising, I told people about the charity, and how seriously ill children benefit from their support. People could see that it’s a transparent and trustworthy organisation. As for indifference, no one is immune to its cause. I have met people who simply did not understand the purpose of sports fundraising. But many, when they saw how seriously I trained for the run and what I went through at the distance, changed their minds. Running for the charity sounds simple, but it’s not as you put your heart and soul into this fundraising campaign and push yourself to the limits.
Raising donations, changing the attitude of people towards volunteer fundraising, and preparing for such a challenging race is a double burden. Don’t you think it would be easier to leave running for your own pleasure, and donate money to charity regularly through Direct Debit?
But this will not be the effort that increases the fundraising result tenfold. In the Direct Debit scenario, I can help alone, and in the scenario with the race, 50 people support me and donate to the foundation. It’s a larger scale event with a better fundraising result for the charity. And I also noticed that some people who supported my challenge once, keep following my races and helping the foundation. People are interested in seeing how their money donated to something specific, for example, a vital surgery or a course of life-saving medication for a child can save lives. They will reconnect at some point and help again.
A desert at plus 50 Celsius, the Amazon jungle… You deliberately immerse yourself in survival conditions. Would you describe yourself as an adrenaline junkie?
There is always something to strive for in life. If everything were enough for me, then what would the meaning of life be? What is life without goals? It just wouldn’t be interesting. I try to set a goal that seems impossible, and gradually go towards it, training and challenging myself. I want to test myself, understand my inner boundaries and each time I overcome new barriers. When I first ran along the trails in the Amazon jungle, where even the locals hardly walk, it was important to overcome the fear of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and other unpleasant creatures. And I managed to do so. Badwater was more physically demanding for me. I wanted to understand if it was possible at all to run in such extremely hot weather. The temperature at the distance is higher than in hot yoga, and you need to run for a long time. I ran for over 32 hours at Badwater 2018. Even people who have run Badwater ten times can break down in one year as they fail to push themselves. But it’s not like a parachute jump. Running for example isn’t acutely risky as with some extreme sports. And I like it because I don’t want to risk my life for adrenaline.
I like being in control and bring myself to the best level in training. I always use a controlled approach.
Do you use the same approach to succeed in work?
In general, I do. Sport helped me in my career, at least by the fact that I run for one and a half to two hours every day, and on weekends I can sometimes run for five hours with audiobooks and podcasts, and at this time I completely switch off. Plus, the experience of running, regular training and overcoming yourself proves that there aren’t many things that are impossible to achieve. Running develops self-confidence, and you take demanding work projects and bring them to the end.
Sergey with his wife Eugenia and the coach, Badwater 2018
You spend a lot of time running. How does your family feel about this?
Eugenia, my wife, thinks it’s a good thing to do, albeit it’s time consuming. Considering the many mental and physical health benefits there are from running, all the costs are justified for me. Of course, there are times when we both want to go for a walk with kids, but I have a training session that can’t be missed. Finding the balance is not easy, I would not have pulled it together without the support of my wife! On the first Badwater run Eugenia and my mum were with me as a support team. I remember at the end of the race Eugenia told me how poorly I looked sometimes at the distance and even my coach was worried that I might not get to the finishing line. It’s great I couldn’t hear their comments at the distance and continued to run vigorously. My wife was so right to only share her feelings with me after I’ve completed the challenge!
Your example must be motivating for your children to play sports.
Absolutely, a positive example is important for children. They just need to be supported and immersed in a sports environment, and then you won’t have to force anyone to run, explaining its instant and long-term benefits. Our daughters have already done the children’s triathlon and they liked it. All three of our children like swimming and cycling.
Sergey with his mum, wife and children, summer 2021
What advice can you give to adult beginners in running who would like to run for example the London Marathon? How to get ready for it if you started running only in lockdown, as many have?
First, stop putting it off until later, even if you are far from your peak performance. I always try to do my best, at that moment. Of course, there are risks, but in the end of the day I get more satisfaction from the result. Here’s a recent example. In less than two months before the Badwater 2021 I began to worry about an aching leg injury. Nothing too serious, but I could not train to the best of my abilities. Then at the end of May in a control race of 145 miles I had to withdraw after a third of the distance due to this injury and general weakness. I decided not to go to Badwater 2021 at all. I already asked the organisers to transfer my place for the next year. It’s a global competition and losing one of the six international participants was disappointing for the organisers. They asked me to think again and promised to provide any additional support, which was great. Finally, my family and I decided that I would go anyway. A week of these negotiations has magically healed my leg, and for the last month and a half I have been properly training. In the end of the day, it was an incredible result – I finished third. People tend to put thing off to the future, even if they are ready to take the first step now.
My path to the marathon lasted for five weeks, and this is not the limit. Of course, you need to know your capabilities, but you should not be too harsh on yourself.
My second advice is to consult a coach. I trained on my own for almost ten years, and last year I started remote training with Alexander Golovin, a coach from Moscow. He provides me with an individual training plan for a week, based on my feedback and performance. And he always knows where to push and where to let go. This allows me to get a better result with the same training time.
We hope that with the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, Gift of Life supporters will take part in volunteer fundraising initiatives more often to help children in Russian hospitals beat cancer. Can you share your wisdom with other fundraisers?
When you try to involve your friends and family in fundraising, it is important to rely on common interests or surprise people. It’s great when people see a fundraiser as an active pastime, a way to learn something new and get a unique experience. Let’s give them this amazing opportunity. And, of course, it is very important to set a goal which is hard to achieve, so that you must challenge yourself and step over the border of the possible. Let this be your motivation!
Photos: Badwater.com and Sergey’s family archive