Something Needed To Change
An Interview with Sean Conway
Extreme endurance adventurer Sean Conway is the first and only man in history to swim the length of Britain in 2013 from Land's End to John O' Groats across 900 miles. He has previously cycled the length of Britain (1300 miles) and plans to finish his Great British Triathlon in 2014 when he will run the length of Britain. Giving up a career in photography to pursue a dream of breaking the world record for cycling around the world, Sean gained sponsorship from USwitch.com and set out on this epic adventure on 18th February 2012. After three weeks he was ahead of schedule averaging nearly 180 miles a day. His dreams were shattered in America when a driver hit him causing severe whip lash, concussion, torn ligaments and a compression fracture to the spine. Despite this, Sean continued on dropping to 140 miles per day, changing his goal to get back to London in time for the Olympics and raise money for charity. He made it back with a week to spare, having covered 16,000 miles - 12,000 of them with a fractured spine. Here, Sean talks about these adventures and what drives him on.
THANKS FOR AGREEING TO CHAT WITH ME TODAY SEAN, I KNOW YOU MUST BE BUSY AT THE MOMENT!
No worries Steve, looking forward to it!
SO I GUESS A GOOD PLACE TO START IS HOW I FOUND OUT ABOUT YOU. I SAW SOMEONE TWEET ABOUT YOU, AND VISITED YOUR WEBSITE – HTTP://SEANCONWAY.COM – THAT IS A SERIOUSLY COOL WEBSITE! DID YOU DO THAT YOURSELF?
Yes I did it myself, it’s one of the skills I bought forward from my previous life. It’s something I enjoy.
IT’S REALLY SLICK. THINK WE NEED TO HIRE YOU INTO OUR DEV TEAM!
READING YOUR SITE, AND GETTING TO KNOW YOUR HISTORY, I SAW YOU WERE BORN IN ZIMBABWE. HOW WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD THERE? WAS IT A HAPPY ONE?
Yeah it was amazing. I grew up in post colonial Zimbabwe which was an amazing place to live back then. Obviously it’s a different story now. But, when I was growing up it felt very British, and everything worked. My dad was a game ranger – he still is a game ranger – so he looked after rhinos and elephants and game. So I spent all my childhood in the bush where there was obviously no electricity. And so I’d be running around and trying to get the elephants out of the garden and stuff like that.
WOW! SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT TO MY CHILDHOOD!
Yes it probably explains why I do what I do. My dad always goes to me “get a real job” and I’m like “I had no chance Dad!”
It was a pretty adventurous life you know. Growing up in the bush, and exploring and it was just so much fun.
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL GO BACK TO ZIMBABWE?
Well my Dad now lives in South Africa so I often go back and see him, but I haven’t been back to Zimbabwe for a while now. I am hoping one day that I will end up doing a bit of a dream challenge which is where I’ll be running the length of Africa. And that will involve a massive chunk through Zimbabwe. My Dad’s retiring soon so I am hoping he’ll be able to join me for some of it, and be in the support vehicle and we can go exploring together.
READING ALL THE AMAZING THINGS YOU’VE DONE MEANS THAT WHEN YOU CASUALLY SLIP IN THE FACT YOU’RE PLANNING ON RUNNING THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF AFRICA I AM NOT SHOCKED – WHICH IS SHOCKING!
SO GOING BACK TO YOUR CHILDHOOD. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REAL TASTE OF ADVENTURE, ASIDE FROM CHASING ELEPHANTS OUT OF THE GARDEN?
I am an endurance adventurer or an endurance athlete. That’s kind of my game. What that means is that I like to do stuff that is really high on the physical difficulty scale. So rather than the exploration side, I love pushing my body to its absolute maximum. So I guess the first thing I did was when I was about 11, I swam a mile across this lake at home. And I guess that kind of got me into sporty based adventures. And then after that I got into canoeing quite heavily and canoed a few marathons in South Africa. And that was really fun. So yes in my early days it was very much being outdoors, and taking part in very physical based endurance sports. So that mile swim across that lake was probably where it all began.
SOUNDS GREAT! A MILE SWIM FOR AN 11 YEAR OLD IS QUITE THE ACHIEVEMENT! LOOKING AT YOUR MOTIVATIONS FOR DOING THE EXTREME ENDURANCE EVENTS – DO YOU DO THEM BECAUSE YOU WANT TO SHOW YOURSELF HOW FAR YOU CAN GO, AND HOW MUCH YOUR BODY CAN TAKE? OR ARE YOU DOING IT TO PROVE TO OTHER PEOPLE THAT YOU CAN DO THESE RIDICULOUS THINGS AND TRY AND PROVE PEOPLE WRONG WHO SAY ‘IT CAN’T BE DONE’?
I always choose things that challenge me personally. I don’t really care about what other people think and what they think I can and cannot do. Equally, I get a big kick out of stuff that people generally say is not possible. Because, I mean, I wasn’t a good sportsman at school. I am quite short, I am only 5ft 8in. So I didn’t really feature in South Africa which is obviously a big rugby playing nation. I’m not an Olympian, I was never massively confident at sport but if I can go out and do this stuff then I hope it shows that anyone can go and do it. And that’s what I try and show people. But at the end of the day I do stuff to prove to myself I can do it, and I do stuff I want to do. I spent my entire twenties not really challenging myself and living in autopilot mode where I was just existing, and not living – I hated that. I stopped that and challenged myself to something that I thought was impossible for me, and achieved it, and this gave me my confidence back. Now I just know it makes me happy to go and push myself, and gives me a reason to get out of bed.
“I spent my entire twenties not really challenging myself and living in autopilot mode where I was just existing, and not living – I hated that.”
EXACTLY. THAT’S A GREAT ATTITUDE TO HAVE. A LOT OF PEOPLE FLOAT THROUGH LIFE AND LIKE YOU SAY JUST “EXIST”. HOWEVER, MANY PEOPLE ARE NOT AWARE THAT THEY ARE DOING THAT. WAS THERE A MOMENT OR AN INCIDENT THAT MADE YOU REALLY QUESTION YOUR LIFE, THAT PROPELLED YOU INTO ACTION?
It was a gradual process. I had a business in photography that I just ended up hating. When it’s your own business you think you will grow out of that. You think that you’ll try harder, work harder and that it’ll get better. The biggest mistake I made in my life was basing all my decisions around financial outcome rather than doing what I actually wanted to do. I shouldn’t have done that. It took a long time to stop [pause] at least three years after I first recognised I was really hating it. After three years I sat down and looked at myself and told myself that I can’t just carry on doing stuff I don’t enjoy. So I sold up. I walked into the office one day and sold my business for £1 to my business partner.
Yep that was it. Game over. Twelve years of business down the drain.
THAT’S UNBELIEVABLE. WHEN YOU WERE WALKING INTO THE OFFICE WAS THAT MOMENT QUITE LIBERATING OR WERE YOU THINKING ‘WHAT ON EARTH AM I DOING?’
[Pause] I didn’t really know where I was going but I didn’t care either. I was just so miserable that something needed to change. And when you are at that level I don’t think you even think about it. The only thing you do know is that ‘right, I want to quit.’ What I wanted to do next could come after I quit. It was liberating but a week later there’s a lot stress. You wake up unemployed, 30 years old, and the only thing you know how to do you can’t do any more. That brought on a whole set of other questions but it was at this time that I got into the adventure world. I was sitting there with £1 to my name. I thought maybe if I go travelling I’ll find my passion and maybe get into photography again, but the issue was I couldn’t afford to go travelling. This was when I thought of cycling around the world. I worked really hard on a proposal and 6-7 months later I was fully funded and preparing to break the world record.
“You wake up unemployed, 30 years old, and the only thing you know how to do you can’t do any more.”
THAT’S SUCH A CRAZY JUMP! FROM A MAN WITH A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS TO A MAN WHO RECOGNISES HE NEEDS TO DO SOMETHING, THEN ESCALATING TO A MAN CYCLING AROUND THE WORLD. HAD YOU BEEN INTO CYCLING?
It was more ‘what can I try that I think I definitely can’t do, and then see if I can do it.’ My whole life I thought people who cycle around the world are just another species. It’s like people who go to the Moon, you know that will never be you. But I was actually completely wrong. I had a bike. I had cycled from Lands End to John O Groats before but it took me 25 days (and the record is 44 hours so that’s how bad I was). So I wasn’t a particularly good cyclist. But I had swam that lake and done canoe marathons so I knew I had something inside me. And I followed all the around the world guys like Tommy Godwin, Mark Beaumont and Nick Sanders. All these guys who did these crazy things and I’d always looked up to them. Once I had sat down with a map and planned it all out properly I started to think to myself ‘actually, maybe I can do this. I can at least give it a go.’
THAT’S INCREDIBLE – MAKES ME WANT FIND A MAP AND START CYCLING!
A FEW WEEKS INTO THE AROUND THE WORLD CYCLE CHALLENGE YOU WERE VERY BADLY INJURED?
Yes I had a compression fracture to the spine, whiplash, concussion, some ligament injuries.
SO WHAT HAPPENED? YOU WERE HIT BY A VEHICLE?
Yes. I was off for a month and my sponsors were pretty amazing. I recognised I couldn’t break the record any longer but I was raising money for charity and I could still do that. So I decided to refocus my energies on raising money for charity and just trying to finish became the new challenge.
I IMAGINE THE PAIN WHEN CYCLING WAS HORRIFIC? ESPECIALLY WITH ALL THOSE INJURIES?
Yes but the Americans are great at giving you drugs! My back is still sore now and it’s been three years. But there’s nothing I can do about it now so there’s no point in crying over spilt milk. It is what it is, you just have to get on and deal with it.
WERE YOU ALWAYS CONFIDENT YOU WOULD ACTUALLY FINISH? EVEN WITH THE INJURIES?
Yeah I was so fit physically. To get back in time for London 2012 (which was the new goal) I only needed to do about 130 miles a day which is quite easy. So I knew I had it in me to do that because before the accident I was doing over 200 miles a day.
200 MILES A DAY!
So I knew I could physically carry on. But mentally, knowing that I couldn’t break the record anymore was really tough. It was way harder than any physical pain I was in. Never seeing my speedo go above 200 miles was really depressing. I used to get such a kick out of that. And there were dark times, especially when someone else broke the record when I was in Malaysia (9000 miles later) and I was thinking, ‘oh, that could’ve been me.’
I CAN ONLY IMAGINE – IT MUST HAVE BEEN SO FRUSTRATING. EITHER WAY IT IS AN IMMENSE ACHIEVEMENT. WHEN YOU FIRST CAME TO THE UK, WAS LEAVING YOUR FAMILY BEHIND IN SOUTH AFRICA A BIG CHALLENGE AS WELL IN ITS OWN WAY?
It’s weird – I got sent to boarding school when I was 7 years old so I was used to being away from them. Because I lived in the bush there were no schools around so you used to not have an option but get sent off to boarding school. Everyone did it, everyone seemed to come to England and go travelling. I studied photography at college and I was originally only going to come to England for a year. I remember I sold my car and some other bits, and then buying my flat and having £100 spare as I landed at London Heathrow. I didn’t know anyone and I had no real plan. I ended up in Cambridge in a cabbage factory which meant I was cutting vegetables for 16 hours a day, for £5 a day, so I could save enough money to come to London to then further my photography career which was my passion and the thing I wanted to do. I eventually saved £500 and moved to London and lived on sofas for a year but it was kind of fun and exciting you know? Sometimes you can overthink stuff and it can depress you, but actually there are different outlooks on what you are experiencing and I remember those times as being fun and exciting. Adventure isn’t always about climbing mountains and rowing oceans. It’s a way of thinking, it’s the way you perceive the environment you are in, and I was certainly having an urban adventure in London.
DO YOU SEE ‘ADVENTURE’ BEING PART OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
I’d like to be adventurous and do exciting things my whole life. But being an athlete, and doing the things I do, I am aware my body only has so many years left where I can do that type of endurance adventure. I am saving some challenges for when I am older. For example, mountaineering you can do when you’re older as it’s more technique than power based. But I am conscious my body will break sooner or later. I am also getting into filming and capturing my adventures (kind of like documentary making) and that’s something I enjoy. It’s giving me my creativity back. I love Instagram and things like that.
IT WOULD BE FUNNY IF YOU WENT FULL CIRCLE AND ENDED UP BACK DOING PHOTOGRAPHY!
[Laughs] Well you never know. I may very well get back into photography and videography but this time I will know what not to do and I won’t repeat mistakes.
YOU TOUCHED UPON IT THERE – YOUR BODY BREAKING. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT? OR DO YOU NOT THINK ABOUT IT?
Well I’m actually still fairly young. The long endurance stuff I do, you’re still good [for that] up until you’re 40. Your body gets stronger and it doesn’t produce stress hormones as much. When you’re 20 you get niggles and your body doesn’t know how to deal with it but when you’re 40 you know what you’re dealing with and how to deal with it. If anything I am lucky. A lot of the stuff I do is mental. It’s not heavy cardio because I’m doing events for months on end.
YES, I SUPPOSE SO. HOWEVER, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT DRIVES YOU IS BREAKING RECORDS. IS THAT STILL ACHIEVABLE AS YOU GET OLDER? OR DO THE REASONS YOU’RE DOING EVENTS HAVE TO CHANGE? WHEN YOU’RE 50+ YOU’LL FIND IT HARD TO CYCLE ROUND THE WORLD IN A RECORD TIME FOR EXAMPLE. SO THE BREAKING RECORDS SIDE OF THINGS – IS THAT A YOUNG PERSONS GAME?
[Pause] I am not sure I can answer that to be honest. If my body can’t break the records any more then maybe I’m not going to cope. Until it happens I don’t think I will know how I will react. Who knows? It’s a difficult question. I know personally that I like to challenge myself as well as breaking records. So maybe the challenge becomes ‘I will be the oldest person to cycle around the world.’ I am good at finding what I can get out of things so hopefully I can do that in the future, but who knows? For now I’m working on staying fit, challenges I have coming up, and avoiding injuries!
COOL, WELL YOU’RE CERTAINLY STAYING FIT IF BIG CHALLENGE NUMBER TWO IS ANYTHING TO GO BY. SO LET ME GET THIS RIGHT – YOU SWAM FROM LANDS END TO JOHN O’GROATS? I CAN’T QUITE COMPREHEND THAT. LOGISTICALLY HOW DOES IT WORK?
It was me swimming for 135 days.
I MEAN THAT IS JUST NEXT LEVEL MADNESS!
[Laughs] Logistically I had a boat that followed me until I got tired or it got very dark. And we would then use GPS endpoint, so the skipper on the boat would drop a pin on the navigation maps and record the co-ordinates on the paper chart. And then we would find anchorage. So we’d take the boat to shore, find a safe place to anchor, sleep the night and then the next morning you find the exact spot where I finished swimming and I jump back into the water and repeat the process for four and a half months and you eventually get to Scotland.
SO HOW FAR ARE YOU SWIMMING A DAY?
At the beginning I was doing 15-20 miles a day. The most I swam I think was 22 miles in a day. By the end, when the weather was getting really bad (meaning time to get to and from anchorages was taking so long) I was probably down to around 8-10 miles a day.
WAS THAT TOUGHER THAN THE CYCLE THEN?
Oh, way tougher. Financially, physically, and mentally it was way tougher. It was difficult as well to convince people that I actually had done it. There were a lot of naysayers out there. A lot of people felt it was just a publicity stunt. There were so many people who wanted to have their say and tell me it was impossible and that I was cheating and stuff. But maybe without them I wouldn’t have had the determination to keep going.
EXACTLY. THIS IS A RANDOM QUESTION THAT I’VE ACTUALLY ASKED TO ANOTHER ADVENTURER. IT’S FROM MY DAD!
Sure fire away Dad!
WE HAVE SPORTS RELIEF AND COMIC RELIEF AND CELEBRITIES THAT DO REALLY GREAT CHALLENGES THAT RAISES VAST SUMS OF MONEY, AND THAT GETS THEM DESERVED GLOWING PRESS. YOU’RE DOING AS HARD A THING AS THEM AND NOT RAISING ANYWHERE NEAR THE SUMS THEY DO AND NOT GETTING A FRACTION OF THE MEDIA COVERAGE. DOES THAT FRUSTRATE YOU?
I’m in a different world. You can’t compare it. No one gives Paula Radcliffe money to run the London marathon – it’s her job. People know she’s running the London marathon to win and break records. She’s got sponsors and it’s her job. And I guess I am similar to her in that it’s kind of like my job. I get sponsored, I attempt to break records and the public think ‘well that’s kind of what he does.’ Yet when my sister runs the London Marathon she’ll raise £5000 because the rest of the year she’s behind a desk and typing emails. So actually it is more impressive that [celebrities] like John Bishop and Davina McCall have done these challenges than me doing them because I’m expected to, and they are not. I think more people should do it. Adventure isn’t always the big stuff. It’s a way of thinking and a personal way of thinking and so good luck to them. I don’t do this for adulation or publicity and I think the reason they get both is because what they’re doing is so unexpected – which is great.
AWESOME! THAT’S A TOP ANSWER! MY DAD WILL BE INTERESTED!
DO YOU THINK YOU CAN EVER BE TRULY HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU’VE ACHIEVED OR IS THE ADVENTURER/ATHLETE ALWAYS THINKING, ‘HOW CAN I BETTER THIS?’
Yeah, it is a difficult thing. At the moment I am very happy with the direction I took in my life when I was unhappy. But like any sportsman I want to get better and improve and I do find happiness in the process. I’m [looking to] challenge myself on a day to day basis.
FINALLY, HOW CAN OUR READERS GET INVOLVED?
If they head over to SeanConway.com they can follow my challenges, and blog. I’ve got an online tracker so people can see where I am in the world. On certain challenges I ask people to come and find me.
I FORGOT TO ASK, WHAT IS THE NEXT CHALLENGE?
I haven’t actually told anyone this yet…
AM I ABOUT TO GET AN EXCLUSIVE?
I think you are!
THIS COULD BE ZIDILIFE’S FIRST EVER EXCLUSIVE. THIS IS OUR WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN MOMENT!
The challenge is an Arctic Triathlon. I am driving up to the Arctic Circle in the winter, completing a triathlon, and then driving back. So it should be very exciting.
OH MAN! THAT’S MAD!
You can join me if you’d like?
I’D LOVE TO BUT I STRUGGLE IN THE COLD!
Me too mate!
WELL WE’LL MAKE SURE WE USE YOUR TRACKER TO TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AND GOOD LUCK. WE REALLY HOPE IT GOES WELL!
I think I will need it.
THANKS FOR CHATTING TO US TODAY SEAN. WE REALLY APPRECIATE IT!
No worries Steve, it’s been awesome!