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Sean Conway: ‘Once I’d been run over, I had to find a new focus’

Sean Conway recently made history by becoming the first man to swim, cycle and run the length of Great Britain. Through his own scholarship programme, he now encourages others to live life a little more adventurously

Sean Conway has become one of the most famous adventurers in the world - with one of the most impressive beards, too
Sean Conway has become one of the most famous adventurers in the world - with one of the most impressive beards, too 

Extreme endurance adventurer and owner of one of the most impressive beards known to man, Sean Conway finished the final leg of his ‘length of Britain’ triathlon by running a total of 1,011 miles, completing the epic on-foot journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End in just 44 days. Previous adventures have seen him attempting to break the world record for circumnavigating the globe on a bicycle – an attempt that was thwarted when he was hit by a car travelling at 50mph, resulting in a fractured spine.

Business Destinations got the chance to catch up with Conway as he recovered from his mammoth triathlon, where he explained that his greatest fear is failure, and how if you’d told him five years ago that one day he would become the first person to ever swim, cycle and run the length of Great Britain, he would have “slapped you and gone back to the pub”.

The monotony of the rat race, and the monotony of how we think we need to live our lives, depresses me and scares me

Does every great adventurer need an even greater beard?
Of course! It’s my super power.

You say that you grew the beard to shield yourself against jellyfish while swimming. Did it do the job?
Yeah – 100 percent. It’s kind of the ‘adventurer’ thing to do, to grow a beard. Along the swim [along the length of Britain] I wasn’t planning on having a beard at all because of the obvious disadvantages for swimming, but I kept getting stung on the face and it was only after a couple of weeks that I realised that where I had facial hair, I wasn’t getting stung as much. So, I thought it a good idea to let it grow.

You had a hard time attracting sponsors because many were worried that you would die – was there ever a moment when you thought you might?
Might die? No. Well… yeah. There was a moment at the end [of the swimming portion] when I was rounding Cape Wrath, when we lost the kayak and the rig. Stuff got pretty dangerous then, so that was pretty sketchy. But thinking that I just wouldn’t finish happened a lot. It was just so hard. Four and half months at sea is about as much fun as it sounds – that’s longer than people take to row the Atlantic. It was tough.

For somebody who admits to having a fear of the open ocean, do you ever question the path you have chosen to pursue?
I get scared, but I’m more scared of failing. I try to put a lot of stuff out of my mind, but I have a wild imagination – picturing things swimming below me, especially when you’re swimming at three in the morning and it’s pitch black. I just wanted to prove that it could be done, but while I was doing it, the motivation went from trying to prove [the naysayers] wrong, to trying my best not to fail.

In 2012, after you were hit by a car, you somehow still managed to cycle 12,000 miles with a fractured spine. What compelled you to carry on?
Once I’d been run over, I knew that the world record was out of my reach, so I had to find a new focus. My focus after I got run over was just trying to get back home to London in time for the Olympics. A school in East London had made me a replica Olympic torch to take around the world and get back to London with, so that became my motivation.

I had already failed in my goal, so I had to find a new one, and that became my new challenge – which was quite hard, considering the injuries I had.

What are some of the best memories you have from all these challenges?
Oh my god, that is impossible… I guess swimming with phosphorescence in the Irish Sea. Have you watched The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio? It was exactly like that. Just millions and millions of phosphorescence in the water, and every time I kicked a massive explosion of light would just erupt. That was probably one of the best experiences of my life, because I had no idea that they existed in such quantities in the UK, but there are millions of them here.

You were born in Zimbabwe. How did growing up there help to fuel your appetite for adventure?
I’m the oldest out of two – my sister came along a couple of years [after me]. She was always too young to play with, and a girl, so I spent a lot of time playing on my own in the middle of the bush before I went to school. I guess I just got used to dealing with my own company.

How important are the relationships you develop with your team when undertaking these adventures?
Mostly, I do everything completely self-supported. Even my next adventure, which has a swim in it, will be a self-supported trip – I will be dragging a raft behind me in the water with my camping gear and food. [However], it is important to surround yourself with the right people: people who are positive and who will help you get to where you want to get.

Though that is generally just in the lead up, with sponsors and people sharing your story for you while you are away – while I am actually on the adventure, I prefer to be alone.

On your blog, you mention how you “don’t [cope] with the cold all that well”. Why then do you dream of competing in an Arctic triathlon?
Because I like the challenge. I’m not particularly good at anything, really – I’m just stubborn, and that’s why I end up finishing [things].

I’m just fascinated by the human body and how it adapts to different situations. On the swim – for not really being a good swimmer – my body, without very much training, learnt how to swim properly by itself. It became more efficient. The same is true with running and cycling… It’s amazing what the human body can do when it’s pushed.

Do you think that pushing yourself to such extremes has altered your outlook on life?
Totally. It made me more confident in everyday life. If you’d asked me five years ago if I’d become the first person ever to do the length of Britain triathlon, I would’ve slapped you and gone back to the pub. We’re all a lot more mentally and physically strong than we think we are, and it is only when you go out there that you actually realise, “Damn – I actually did that”.

You have set up a scholarship programme to help others who dream of adventure. Why do you believe that living adventurously is so vital?
You don’t have to climb a mountain or row an ocean – you can just live everyday life adventurously. Think adventurously – you’d be surprised what you will discover.
For me, the monotony of the rat race and the monotony of how we think we need to live our lives depresses me and scares me, because I did that, and I was miserable. And you don’t have to.

I’m not saying everyone should quit their job and go off travelling. If you have a job and you love it, that is fine. It’s absolutely fine to have that security – some people need it. But you can find ways to be adventurous within everyday life, even if you do have a nine-to-five. You shouldn’t be doing stuff you hate for an extended period of your life, purely to earn money. That just seems daft to me.

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