Britain’s Most Adventurous Endurance Athlete – Record Breaker Sean Conway
British adventurer and endurance athlete Sean Conway is a man who doesn’t do things by halves! He’s a sportsman of the like you don’t see come round very often. Sean has tackled and completed some incredible endurance challenges in recent times, like being the first ever person to swim, cycle and run the length of Britain in his ‘Ultimate Triathlon’, and this year Conway crossed Europe on his bike in an amazing World Record time of under 25 days. Aside from his astounding sporting feats, he’s also a very talented author who lovingly documents his exploits around the world so we can all get a glimpse into his fascinating, not to mention exhausting journeys. We spoke to him recently about his records, the strangest things he’s encountered on his travels and why the beard is here to stay.
The MALESTROM: Your most recent book Running Britain details the final leg of your length of Britain ‘Ultimate Triathlon’. It’s an amazing achievement, how did you feel when you accomplished that?
Sean Conway: Well the run bit was the toughest for me because I’m naturally not a very good runner and actually I had failed that run once before the year before that. With running you’ve got to get the miles in the legs, there are no shortcuts, you can kind of wing it with cycling, swimming less so, but there’s no risk of injury. I really, really, struggled with the run.
TM: Many won’t realise that it was an unsupported effort…
SC: Definitely. When I can I choose unsupported attempts where possible, purely because I get more satisfaction out of it at the end and I quite enjoy the logistics of trying to work out where to sleep each night, all that adds to the adventure.
TM: How much did the people you met along the way help you?
SC: Loads, and that’s why I keep coming back and doing stuff in Britain because it’s just so heart-warming it restores your faith in humanity. When I did the cycle I’d come back and people will have left 50p on my bike seat or on the run people would buy me meals or would be waving me down with money for charity, so yeah it was great.
TM: What was the hardest thing about that challenge? When was that moment when you thought am I going to make it this time?
SC: Well, all of it to be honest. The running is just really painful. With cycling, you just get tired and miserable. But with running you get all that plus the constant pain because you’re abusing your ankles. I got something called runners gut where I had really bad bowel movements for a couple of days and I got really dehydrated. There was a bit in Scotland where I did some trails, shortcuts over the marshland, and I ended up in some sort of quicksand almost, some bog, right up to my thigh and then my hips. It was this thick mossy bog and I was all by myself then. I thought if I get stuck here no one’s going to find me for a long time.
TM: That sounds like a hairy moment…
SC: It was pretty scary and it was cold and wet. I had these waterproof socks on which are amazing until the water goes into the sock, then they never dry and you can end up getting trench foot by the end. That whole day I just ran with wet feet then later in my sleeping bag I take my socks off and turn them inside out and then wrap them around my thigh, which then kind of dries them overnight and by the morning they’re drier.
TM: So a bit like a human radiator?
SC: (Laughs) Well I try, something like that.
TM: What do you think off when you’re running or cycling & swimming for that matter? Do you zone out or are you very focused in your mind?
SC: It’s weird I have two very distinct characters in my brain. One is really methodical, really logical. There are four elements that I actually think about. That’s food, water, sleep, and muscle management. If I can look after all those four, the fifth one which is mindset is usually quite good, but you have to work on your own mindset. That could be by taking photos or listening to music, writing a diary, anything you think of that might put you in a better mood.
Photos are good as they focus your mind on something. But food, water, sleep, muscle management, those are the four big ones. To do self-supported events you really have to have all of those firing on all cylinders to do any decent mileage. So that’s one side of me, and the other is just away with the fairies, talking to roadkill and I have a little adventure mascot cow which I bought in a charity shop ten years ago, we have loads of conversations (laughs). I seem to flick between the two different personalities in my head quite regularly.
TM: What can you tell us about Britain from your unique perspective, having traversed it in such a unique way? Do you see it differently?
SC: I mean yeah, but every time I go out again I kind of see it in a new light. I guess that’s travel in general, you should try and go with an open mind. Every time I go somewhere, even if I’ve been there before it’s slightly different, the seasons are different, it smells a bit different, you meet different people. But I have to say, I’m lucky I’ve had the opportunity to see Britain from various angles. Especially the ocean, when I swam up looking at Britain from the sea for four and a half months, that was quite a unique perspective that mainly only fishermen or sailors get to see, not many people get to see the whole of Britain that way.
TM: You saw the whole of Europe with your record cycle. Tell us about that, it was the fastest time ever (24 days, 18 hours and 39 minutes), what an accomplishment, you must be proud?
SC: I am. It took me ten years and 60,000 miles on the bike to finally get a cycling World Record, I’ve failed loads of them. I went for the ‘around the world record’ in 2012 and got run over in America. I tried to do the Route 66 bike record as well but got injured. I got injured on the Europe attempt the first time, so this one was a long time coming. It’s partly scratched the itch, but it’s also made the itch more scratchy. So I’m sort of sitting here thinking now what?
TM: So what, you’re thinking faster times or a different challenge in Europe?
SC: Just a different challenge, bigger. I don’t know, it’s a difficult one, my own bench march for achieving these goals is getting higher and higher and that’s not making my decision process any easier. I don’t know what the next big thing is truthfully, because you can’t go down the rung or you won’t find it exciting or challenging and that’s half the point. So watch this space.
TM: With the Europe challenge, how important were the conditions there? Did they have to be just right to get that record?
SC: With running, unless you’ve got a real stonking headwind you can pretty much do the same mileage every day despite your fitness. With swimming, very similar again, unless the waves are really choppy for the most part you can plod along and make good progress. On the bike, if you have bad weather, headwinds, poor road quality, things like that, that could end your record attempt. With cycling not only do you have the four elements, the food, water, sleep, muscle management and the fifth of motivation, you also have serious other things to think about like about bad weather and road surfaces.
That all goes into part of your planning, I was looking at wind direction, road quality – especially out in Eastern Europe, food availability, where you’re going to sleep, it’s all part of the adventure, which is what I like. It’s why I go self-supported because If you have a full on support crew all of that stuff becomes less relevant. There are no worries about carrying mass, you can jump in the van and sleep wherever you want then carry on, it’s a lot more than just having strong legs.
TM: You slept rough most nights, how was that?
SC: Pretty much all of it. I think I had five nights out of twenty-five in a hotel and that was mainly to wash my clothes, because they would get so clogged up with sweat they would actually stop breathing and feel really uncomfortable then I’d start getting chaffed. So once a week I’d just go into a hotel and wash my clothes with the free shampoo. And then a bit like the socks, and this was the worst thing, I’d put my clothes back on and then sleep in them wet because that was less uncomfortable.
I used to get up at 03:38 am every morning, I’ve got this weird thing about not being able to set my alarm on the hour, so I’d get up at 03:38 am and it’d be freezing cold, this was April, and if you had to put wet clothes on then you’d be really, really cold till 9 am when the sun came up. It’s much better to wash your clothes in warm water and then sleep in them because by the morning they’re almost always dry.
TM: The smell must have been interesting, with not being able to shower regularly?
SC: Yeah, I mean that was the least of my worries. I did stink a lot. When I did the run there was a two and a quarter rule. When people came into the pub they chose to sit further than two and a quarter metres away from me, unless I’d been in a shower.
TM: What are some of the strangest situations you’ve encountered on your travels? I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds…
SC: It’ll often for me inevitably be the places where I sleep. I’ve slept in drainpipes, under the road not far from finding a dead roadkill, wolves tend to sleep in these things. I’ve slept under cafes with a gaggle of geese in the rain. I’ve slept in one of those advertising A-frame’s that they have on the side of motorway’s, that one was surprisingly comfortable, like a tent but it shields you from the light. I’ve also done loads of random camping on edges of fields, in the long grass getting ticks. I got two ticks on my ribcage when I ran Britain, that was from sleeping in dodgy grass. If it’s a clear night and I can get away without putting up my tent I generally do as it’s just a faff, but then of course the ticks get you.
TM: What’s the best city you’ve cycled through? Or the worst may be easier to choose?
SC: It’s hard to pick. Cycling through any city India, Calcutta, Mumbai, they were pretty stressful I have to say. But best, there are loads, some of the Italian cities are fun to cycle around because everyone’s on bikes. Places like Florence are pretty amazing. There’s a place in the Ukraine, Lviv, where almost the whole city is completely cobbled, and proper old lumpy cobbles and when you’re on a road bike on that it just rattles your brain (laughs).
TM: What’s the most useful piece of kit you always take with you?
SC: I mean gun to head and it’s not practical at all, but it would be my little adventure mascot, my cow. Whenever I have to pack my bike up and send it home it’s the only thing I take off my bike out of all my kit, and carry in my hand luggage. If my bike got nicked it would be the thing I miss the most. From a practical point of view, I’d take a little water filter, which filters out everything, E. coli, the works. I’ve drunk from horse manure water before, which still tasted like horse manure water, but I was assured I wasn’t going to die. I would keep that with me all of the time.
TM: What was it that instigated this passion for adventure?
SC: Well for ten years I was a school portrait photographer, photographing school kids for their yearly picture. I did that for ten years and it just drove me mad. As a photographer, you want to be creative, but I was just choosing the money gigs photographing 10,000 kids against a white background. I just turned thirty and realised this isn’t where I thought I was going to be, so I decided to take a year off and go travelling, which I’d never had the opportunity to do after school. But I had no money to do it, so my only logical thought process was how could I get someone else to pay for my travels. I thought maybe if I break some sort of travel based record like rowing or climbing maybe I’ll get a sponsor? That was literally the thought process, and then I heard about the first ever around the world bike race in 2012 and I thought I’d enter.
I didn’t even have a useful bike at the time, but I thought if I was part of the race people might want to sponsor me, there were a few other riders who had sponsors and it kind of made sense, and I was kind of desperate. So for eight months I worked really hard and got enough funds together to pay for flights and kit and food for the round the world challenge, then I did that and got back and all of a sudden people were like, “can I read the book.” Corporates were asking me to come and do talks, all of a sudden it sustained itself and I thought, wow, let’s go do something else. So here we are eight years later and that’s kind of ended up being a job.
TM: When you’re on these challenges, how does it feel coming back to the real world?
SC: In the world of adventure, if it’s a ruler, on the left-hand side you’ve got explorers and on the right-hand side you’ve got sportsmen and I’d be right at the end of the right-hand side of the scale. I’m not wondering round exploring, for me minutes count. I only broke the Europe record by twenty minutes a day and when you’re cycling over 200 miles you could quite easily be stuck at traffic lights for twenty minutes a day. Your passing four or five towns, each town has ten or twenty traffic lights, all of a sudden a couple of minutes at each one and that’s your 20 minutes.
For me, usually at the end of these adventures, I get home and I’ll be sick of doing what I’ve just done. Europe was slightly different because it was much shorter. That was 25 days, so just over half the next shortest thing I’ve ever done, so it was much, much shorter and I didn’t completely fall out of love with it. In the early days, I used to get really depressed. Nowadays, I write about it and that’s part of my recovery process mentally, keeping the passion alive and also stories for my future grandkids, that’s another reason I keep writing.
TM: How important is that? Does it serve as a reminder of how amazing it was when you were in those moments despite effort?
SC: One hundred percent. And I genuinely am writing them for my future grandkids. A bit like me my grandparents had my parents quite late in life, so I was too young really to appreciate the concept of grandparents and that they’re not going to be around forever and then all of a sudden all four of them were gone by the time I was a teenager. It’s kind of a regret because every now and then Mum and Dad will tell me a story about Gran and Grandad and I think, I kind of wish they’d had Instagram, imagine scrolling back through their photo albums? The only reason I’ve chosen books is that I enjoy the format, I enjoy the process of the story, the backstory rather than just having them as a journal on my shelf.
TM: What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve encountered on your travels?
SC: The elements can be dangerous. I’ve been chased by tornados in America, literally having to find shelter in a church which had a tornado bunker underneath. At Cape Wrath, during my swim a big storm came out of nowhere and nearly sank the support boat, that was pretty scary. I got followed by some gangsters in South America when I was cycling and ended up having to get a police escort for two days. I don’t know what they wanted, probably just to steal my bike, but they were genuinely driving right behind me for hours and hours at a snail’s pace. I was like, “why are you following me so slowly?” So there’s been loads of that sort of stuff, but nothing else that I’ve been aware of. Most of the time I’m so knackered there might be a wolf in the bushes right next to me and I wouldn’t have had a clue (laughs).
TM: Has your famous beard ever hindered you? I know it was grown for practical purposes…
SC: I don’t think so. It’s annoying when I swim now cause it’s so long it sort of folds up and goes in my mouth, but I think it gives me superpowers. It’s here to stay.
TM: So it’s the Sampson factor than? You cut it, you lose your powers.
TM: If you could pick just one magical moment, what would it be?
SC: Cycling over the Pyrenees during this massive thunder and lightning storm was quite amazing and beautiful, but also nervewracking because my legs were burning, I was on a steel frame bike and my mind’s going mad thinking, is lighting going to strike me? But I do enjoy the landscape and what the weather has to throw at me. There are so many great things, the people I meet along the way are amazing. I was quite concerned doing the European record, that the rest of Europe would be quite negative towards me, someone from Britain doing something over there, but I found it the opposite, everyone was really friendly.
TM: Would you recommend people push their limits a bit more and become more adventurous?
SC: Of course. You don’t have to climb a mountain or row across the ocean, you can add adventure to everyday life just with the food you buy, we all get lazy going to the same shelves in the supermarket and buying the same things. Try cooking different things, going to different restaurants or going a different way to work. There are loads of little things you can do. Alastair Humphreys coined the saying, “you have your work from nine to five, but you also have from five till nine.” It’s a big chunk of your day. I appreciate there are life commitments, but you should try and divide your life into eight, eight, eight. Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play. When I tell people that they say the maths doesn’t work, but it totally does.
Yes, a lot of your play time is commuting, doing the shopping, laundry and brushing your teeth, but there are certain things you can do. What I’ve done, well years ago I got rid of my telly, it was only till I got rid of it that I realised that it was just on, even though I wasn’t watching it, it just kept me in the room when I could have been doing something else. Take Facebook off your phone for example. I’ve now put all my social media apps sporadically on pages like seven and ten so I have to go and look for the app, it’s not just there in front of me on the homepage. Weirdly that really has worked. So you can make the most of your days, just by becoming more efficient in other ways. We should all have a physical goal in our life, outside of our everyday goals. Whether it’s running a marathon or whatever. As soon as you have a physical goal you’ll do three more things which will make you, I think, happier and healthier. You’ll eat better, you’ll get fitter and you’ll spend more time outside. Three things we should all try and do.
TM: Your speaking at The Cheltenham Literary Festival, do you enjoy sharing your adventure stories with the public?
SC: Yeah I love it. I absolutely love it because I feel I’ve learned a lot about how to live life and make the most of it and also how not to do it because in my twenties I was just following the money. I think it would be selfish of me to keep that knowledge to myself. I happen to enjoy doing talks but I also think I have a social responsibility to give some of the things I’ve learned to future generations. Kids now have a tough time, they get slated by the media and us adults. They’re in school learning a way of education for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. They’re also involved in the digital world which isn’t super healthy either. So I feel a responsibility to give some advice, and if they take one thing from it, whatever that might be, I’ll be happy.
TM: We always like to finish up by asking for a piece of wisdom you may have gleaned from your life. Does anything come to mind?
SC: It comes back to what I said earlier. Adventure isn’t all about rowing oceans or climbing mountains, adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking and I firmly believe in that. Try and think more adventurously and all of a sudden life gets more exciting again.