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sean conway (Ultra Endurance Athlete)

On today’s podcast, we are talking to Sean Conway, a Zimbabwean ultra-endurance athlete who became the first person to cycle, swim, and run the length of Great Britain from Land’s End to John o’Groats. In 2016 he completed the world’s longest triathlon, a 4,200-mile journey around the coast of Britain. We talk about his journey and how he started in the world of adventure by swimming the length of Great Britain just to get out of the house!! Plus why solo travel is important to him and why he does these adventures alone.


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Transcript of our Conversation

Sean Conway

[00:00:00] 998_6789: It’s very rare that I’m having a good time. And if I’m having a good time, it means I’m not pushing hard enough. So yeah, for the most time it was tough, but actually doing stuff in Britain is heartwarming. It restores your faith in humanity, you know, everyone’s so friendly.

Hello. And welcome back to another episode of the modern adventurer podcast coming up. We have the incredible Sean Conway, an ultra endurance athlete who has pursued numerous adventures all over the world from cycling around the world. To a 4,200 mile triathlon around the United Kingdom, as well as a world record cycling across Europe.

I am delighted to introduce Sean Conway to the show. Thank you very much, mate. Thanks for having me [00:01:00] the pleasure. Well, great to have you on. And I mean, the sort of adventures that you have done over, I mean, the years now, counting. Absolutely incredible. How did this sort of love of adventure sort of come about.

I’ve always thought I had an advantage twists sort of side to me, but I, I kind of buried it in my twenties. Not really kind of feeling that it had any purpose or use of my life. I just thought it was a frivolous notion to think adventurously, and it was a kind of a waste of time because it was pretty selfish and, and, you know, there’s more book things to do, like earn money and buy food and, you know, all those sort of things.

So it was always in me. But I never really scratched my adventurous edge until I was 30. Ready. And so in your twenties, because I read that you sold your business for one pound, with the sole purpose of pursuing your passion. [00:02:00] Yeah. So actually you can see it behind me, that frame and a pound dirt behind me there on the wall is a, is the Jersey power note that James Carnegie gave to me when he bought my shares in our company.

And what it’s interesting. So it wasn’t to pursue a passion. I had no, no direction. I knew I wanted to go traveling. I always thought photography was going to be that passport to travel for me. But I’ve fallen out of love with it in my twenties. So I was just thinking outside the box, I just thought, well, how can I go traveling?

I, you know, how, what can I do? That’ll allow me to go traveling. And the only thing I could think of is actually, if I, maybe I broke some sort of record in the world, travel, I get some sponsorship. Maybe that was it. So I thought of, I thought of this, the run, the world cycling record and it was part of the world’s ever around the world bike first, ever around the world, bike race in 2012.

Entered that and then managed to get some funding to [00:03:00] pay for flights and food while I was away. And that sort of set me off on this path. Right. Was that when a whole group of people went round and I think he did it in like 82 days or something. So what the no. Back then. So 2012, the record was at the time 127 days.

Yeah. Just before we started. And most people have kind of tried to do it in sub a hundred days. I got run over, so I was out of the race pretty early on. But my call one that, and I think he did it in 107 days in the end with the new Guinness rules, which mean you can’t stop the clock yet. She did a 90 something, 92 93 days with the old rules where you can stop the clock.

So, yeah. Yeah, it was, it was pretty, pretty tough race, but it was it’s what I needed, you know, I just needed some excitement. I needed to push myself physically and mentally, [00:04:00] and that was pretty pretty in the deep end way to do it, but I’m glad I did it that way. You know? So you got hit by a car and then you were like, right.

I love this. Well, no, I was going to come home. Of course, you know, you have a serious accident with the compression fracture, my spine and stuff. But then I thought. You know, no one gets two opportunities to cycle around the world unless you walk Beaumont show off. And I thought, well, this is my chance.

You know, Y Y let me, I’ve got to carry on and raise money for charity. And that became my new focus. But secretly, you know, the records is what really kind of gets me going. A knife. And so you sort of started pursuing these passions and you, what your idea was very much to look at records and just try and break them.

Well, no. Initially the idea was to go you’re traveling for a year and get someone else to pay for it, you know, by, by way [00:05:00] of sponsorships, through trying to break a record. So that was it. That was finish the round, the world cycle, go home, try to get back into everyday employment, you know, went to the job center, signed on the Dole.

Wait for interviews, just tried everything for like nearly a year. I was just getting no interviews, nothing, you know, bearing in mind, I was 31 years old and I have no air levels and I didn’t go to university. So it was a, it was a tough sell. And, you know, I wouldn’t employ me to be honest. And I had no CV, you know, I photographed school kids, which was my job before I was a school portrait photographer.

So I eventually thought after a year, like, well maybe if I just try and break another record, at least again, me out the house for six months. And when I say house, I was living with my mother in a one bedroom apartment in in Cheltonham. So yeah, so that’s when I thought of swimming the Lake, the Britain just to kind of give me something to do, to be honest.

[00:06:00] Good. And how did that go? Well, the swim was well, I mean, at the end it went well. Cause I finished it, but the whole process of swimming 900 miles up the West coast of Britain, half of it in winter is I can assure you not much fun. But you know, it was the challenge that. I’ll always look back on and realize that’s the one that changed my life, because it just gave me the confidence to go off and pursue other goals.

It gave me opportunities to write books, which I absolutely love, which I probably wouldn’t have done that. I’ve not done that swim. And I wouldn’t have realized the joy you get to publishing your own book, you know? So yeah, I mean, in hindsight I look back now and go, well, actually that was, that was pretty cool.

And so with when that sort of transported you into the sort of world or [00:07:00] career let’s say of adventure what sort of happened after that? Because you then went on to break a world record in your 4,200 mile triathlon. Yeah. So well after the swim Swami, I decided to do the run. The run was to do the first ever length of Britain triathlon, which is just a bit of fun, to be honest, you know, it was nothing serious.

I just wanted to see what it would be like running a thousand miles from John grips back down to land’s end. And yeah, off to that, I really got this bug for. Sort of doing different disciplines. I wasn’t really into, I couldn’t choose basically whether I wanted to do only swimming, only cycling or running.

So I like this idea of doing a long triathlon and it turns out there’s a world record for triathlons and, and it was 3,200 [00:08:00] miles maybe. So I just upped that to 4,200 miles and did it around the coast of Britain. And yeah, that took 80, 85 80. I can’t remember now in the eighties days doing a was a 3,500 mile bike ride, 800 mile run, and then 120 miles swim, which up until a month ago was the longest self-supported some industry.

But yeah, it’s just being broken that record finally accompanied. It took so long. And yeah, so that was, that kinda got me into sort of doing multidisciplined stuff, which I really enjoy. I kind of like the challenge of doing different sports. What were the sort of amazing moments from that trip? Did you find.

To be honest, most of the trips most of the challenges I do are [00:09:00] pretty miserable while I’m doing them. To be honest, this is very, it’s very rare that I’m having a good time. And if I’m having a good time, it means I’m not pushing hard enough. So Yeah. For the most time, it was tough, but actually doing stuff in Britain is heartwarming.

It restores your faith in humanity. You know, everyone’s so friendly. People understand distances when you say, Oh, I’m running from Scarborough to Brighton people go, Whoa, they understand what you mean. And it’s, it really engages with people. It makes the whole journey quite, quite fun and exciting to do stuff.

In a country where people speak the same language as you and understand everything you taught me about, you know, because if I said to you, do you know, at once I cycled from Townsville and Australia to Mount ISER, you’d go what? I mean, I have no idea what that means, you know, whereas when you do stuff in Britain, everyone’s like, wow, that’s cool.

You know, so I really had a good time sharing the journey I’ve done in the UK, you know so I imagine you had a few sort of terrible moments along the way though, by the sounds of it. Cause you [00:10:00] grew your beard to protect you from jellyfish, which that is true. Yeah. That is true. So way back in 2013, when I swam that incompetent, after a couple of weeks of getting stuck, obviously started clean-shaven because that’s what swimmers looked like.

So I just copied them, you know, like, well, you know and then I didn’t shave for a couple of, for a week and then realized when I would. Where I had a bit of stubble. I wasn’t getting stung as much. So I just thought, right, that’s it. I’m going to grow this anti jellyfish protection beard. And that’s kind of, it kind of stuck ever since.

And then I met my wife and she’s, we had this rule from the first day we met, we weren’t allowed to Google each other. And actually we weren’t allowed, we only became Facebook friends after we were married, you know? So we, we, we we’d have no idea about each other’s online lives, which was a nice way to do it, you know?

So anyway, she’s never seen me without a beard ever, not in pictures, not in anything. And she likes the beard. So I’m kind of concerned if I get rid of it. Now it’ll lead to. [00:11:00] Divorce since you have to stay. So what were this sort of moment along the way, which you probably don’t look back in sort of fond memory in terms of what were the sort of lows of that trip did you find?

Oh, so on the triathlon or the swim and the triumph or both? Yeah. I mean, swimming in British waters, even in the summer day in and day out is pretty miserable. You know, all the triathlon I was sleeping or self supported or sleeping on the beach, getting up at 4:00 AM to catch the tide, putting on freezing cold wet suits, you know, that that’s not much fun.

You know, finding places to camp up in Scotland every night, you know, sleeping in drain pipes and. I want slept today in an advertising trailer. You know, those ones, they park on bridges. It’s actually a perfect tent quality for my blanket. You know, those, those are sort of the tough days, but it’s, it’s sort [00:12:00] of the, you know, I’m pretty blanket when I do these records, you know, I’m not looking in smelling the roses.

I’m, I’m head down, you know, it’s physical effort. It’s trying to perform at the highest I can for that sort of distance. You know, this is not. Red line, heart rate stuff. This is plodding along, just keeping a tempo, you know, minimizing your, your rest stops. You know, I’d give myself like 13 minutes to stop and eat food and that sort of thing.

And I’d give myself the same sort of time for when my alarm went in the morning to be on the bike or on the trail a little bit longer to get into my wetsuit everyday. But yeah, it’s just minimizing time off the bike and off your shoes just to try and get these records. So it’s very. You know, very, just grind, grind, grind, grind, you know, cause to do something for 85 days, that’s it takes a lot of sort of mental effort to keep motivated for that long, you know?

Yeah. And so what actually does sort of motivate [00:13:00] you where to keep going when times are sort of tough crossing the finish line that really helps, you know, I find that. Trying to get that record is, is enough of a motivating factor to tell me, to keep going. And also I’m mostly self-supported so, you know, if I’m off it through a record, I might be in the middle of Russia, for example, on my across Europe cycling record.

If I decide to give up, it’s not like I’ve just have a camper van magically whisked me away. Yeah. I’m still stuck in the middle of Russia, you know, so I’ve asked her just counts likely. So that’s kind of. Kind of keeps me going into that end goal. Really. And so you do all the sort of self-supported sailor expeditions.

Why is sailor travel important and why do you like solo travel? Because I’m intolerable to other people. I think I’m [00:14:00] very focused in the goals I have. And unless you align perfectly with those goals, you find me very annoying. Basically. So it’s just easier for everyone if I just go off and do it on my own.

Yeah. And that’s, that’s the main reason. And I, I enjoy my own company. I enjoy the, the, the goals and the challenges involved, that sort of stuff. And it makes the reward for me at the end, you know, all the more better. And even though often when I finished these records, I’m often just by myself, somewhere in the middle of Russia going, Oh, I’ve done it now.

Thanks. Right. And I’ve got to find a flight term somehow. Yeah. I was going to say, when you said crossing the finishing line, because most of these expeditions that, you know, people, when we do it’s very much, there’s no sort of finishing line, it’s sort of, you know, the sort of pub. Or the post office, which is in the middle of nowhere.

And so you sort of crossing, you’re like ha done that. Okay, great. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Now how do I get home? Yeah, yeah, [00:15:00] exactly. And it’s, for me, it’s not about having this big sort of hugging cheering moment with loads of crowds of people. For me, it’s just, I had a goal to break the record. I broke the record.

Brilliant. Now what’s, what’s the next one I can go for, you know, Yeah. So w I imagine when you saw, let’s say Ross actually swim round the whole of the United Kingdom, you must’ve thought poor guy. Yeah. Yeah. I was just like, man, you’re an idiot. Why go for that? That’s such a miserable one. Yeah, no, I was waiting for someone to do that.

So I’m surprised it took so long. It was five or six years, pretty much. Before someone had a crack at that swim. Because it was totally doable. It was totally achievable. You know, just have a bigger support boat start about 30 and than I did. And you had easy, easy break my record. And that’s exactly what he did.

He did those two things. So yeah, he’s a, yeah. And he’s a, he’s a boy. I know. He certainly has. I mean, [00:16:00] he’s enormous. Yeah. And so your sort of plan at the moment with the sort of adventures is to keep pushing yourself or where, where is it sort of taking you? Yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t really thought it through what the long-term goal in my records are going to be, because obviously at some point I’m physically not going to be able to compete, like in any sport you get older and, and you just, you lose the power and you get injured more and things like that.

Some things you still need to get better at like running ultra running. So I think I’d like to maybe move towards ultra running. I’m turning 40 in may and April. So I’d like to maybe do a bit more running. But I might start just doing more storytelling rather than breaking records. You know, I’m really, I really loved my writing.

I’ve written six, seven, six or seven books now. [00:17:00] And I love that. I I used to be a photographer, so I’m really getting into my filmmaking. So I, I can see myself doing a little bit more filmmaking things and really enjoy that. So yeah, I haven’t really thought it through. I’ve had this big project on the go since 2000 and early 2019.

And it’s obviously all been delayed and postponed now. So that’s my focus, the next big thing, which is top secret, of course. But I think after that I’ll be, you know, early, early, mid forties and I, yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. I’m very, what adventure has taught me. Is, we were a lot more resilient and resourceful, then, then we will give ourselves credit for.

So I always kind of just figured something will work out, you know, I’ll think of something. And then once I think of it, I’m blinkers and I’ll just go for it. Yeah. So how do you prepare for the sort of expeditions? Is it very much, you have the [00:18:00] idea and you’re like, right. I’m going for it, or is it a sort of.

Long process of the initial idea and then moving it into reality over the space of a couple of years, a bit of a mixture, depending on the rec codes, depending on who else is going for the record. So some records, you know, for example, my across Europe citing where we’ll wreck, what I really needed to do that pretty quickly because other people I knew were going through it and the record is just going to get hotter and hotter and hotter.

So. You know, those are the ones you just quickly kind of try and put together. And in three or four months, really? Well the, that record I failed the first time. So the whole process was, it was about a year. But the feedback certainly putting it off the ground I could do now in yeah. For four months probably.

But some take longer, you know, some take a lot longer to fund and get funding for them. And logistics and things like that. And fitness. You know, some take just [00:19:00] much longer to train for. So they don’t, it all depends. It all depends. I’ve got a long list of records and things I want to do. And, you know, some have probably missed the boat on, cause I’m maybe a little bit old for them now, and I don’t have that speed anymore.

But some of it too young for, so I’m going to wait until I’m a bit older. So it’s kind of nice having, having a range of goals and not wanting to do them. All right. Now, you know, what was the record around Europe? Was it around Europe pool across Europe? So it’s the, there’s two cycling records for Europe, there’s North to South and East to West.

And I was going for the East to West record. So from the edge of Portugal to UFA in Russia, which is on the Ural mountains, which is the bit where Russia becomes Asia from Europe to Asia. There’s a part of the show where we ask the same five questions each week. With the first is on your trips.

What’s the one gadget or item that you always bring? The one thing I take off every [00:20:00] single trip and it’s even on the small trips where I don’t need a lot of tech and a lot of navigation and stuff is a, is my adventure mascot. He’s called the little flying cow. It’s a little toy cow. I got in a chair to shop for one pound back in 2008.

And yeah, he’s been everywhere with me. So we’ll I’ll never go anywhere without the little flying car. And actually I’m currently doing a challenge called the four nine six challenge. Where in January you run one kilometer on day one, two K on day two, three, 10 day three. And so on. If you add that all up, you eventually run 496 Ks and he’s on my backpack for each of those runs as well.

So yeah, the little flying car, check him out on Instagram that Scott, I somehow managed to get that. Tag back in the day. So check them out. Have you got in there with you? I do actually. Yeah. See if I can reach over,

there you go. As I say, he’s on the back of my rucksack for my [00:21:00] runs at the moment. So yeah, there is amazing.

What is your favorite adventure book? Ooh, Shackleton’s story I would say is probably, you know, one of the ones that you just go, Whoa. I mean, just, they had so many things against them. Yeah, I would say any books that document Shackleton’s journey is pretty amazing. Another one I really love is there is a guy called George Mohamad.

He, and his mate decided to try and do land’s end to John O’Groats with no money or nothing. They started with no clothes. They just had their boxer shorts done and lands end. And they, every single day they would offer to wash dishes and pubs for food and the combination. And that eventually got given a scooter that a bicycle.

And yeah, it was, it was really good book. It’s called free country. George mood free country. [00:22:00] Check that one out as well. I think I remember that that was sort of back 10 years ago or so that was quite funny. Why are adventures important to you personally? They give me focus and I’m, I need focus.

I need big long-term goals in my life. Otherwise I get frustrated. And I need variety, which is why I like changing disciplines. So for me, they just give me, give me something to chase. We all need something to chase in life. Super important. Just find anything, chase it. And honestly, the rewards are so good.

Yeah. The sort of idea of, if you’re not, if you don’t have a goal, you’re just treading water. Yeah, exactly. But but goal is. You know, it’s gotta be bigger than the word goal. I think it’s too easy to say, Oh, just have goals and go for them. But like, I like the word shakes. You’ve got to chase something, you know, you’re not just working [00:23:00] towards a goal, you’re chasing it, like really be passionate about it.

Be relentless, you know? Okay. Do you have a favorite quote? I’m going to arrogantly say one of my

Which is adventure in it’s is, is not just it’s the adventure. Isn’t all about climbing mountains and rang oceans adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking. And for me, I really resonate with that, you know, just. If you just think more adventurously, it’ll lead to living a more fulfilled life, and that can be just, you know, the foods you buy in the supermarket here, whatever it is, how you get to work each day, you know, if you add the word adventure in there, you know, be more adventurous than then you just let a more fun existence.

I think that’s pretty good. [00:24:00] People listening are always keen to travel and go on sort of these big grand adventures. How does one become an adventurer? Yeah, I don’t think I’m not really an adventurer to be fair. I get cast as one, but actually I’m an option Germans athlete. So if you want to become in the sense of an adventure, so you want to earn money from.

Traveling places. Right. So if you want to become adventure, I guess that’s the goal, right? You, you go do things and you get somehow get paid for it. You basically gotta be a storyteller. I think foremost, if you want to earn money from adventure stuff, you got to do something that’s becomes a good story that people want to invest in.

And either they want it. And when I say invest, they, I mean, they could fund it from a sponsor point of view. They could buy the book about it at the end. So they’re investing something there. They could pay to come and hear you talk. They could download a film, you make about it. [00:25:00] But that’s basically what it boils down to is becoming a good storyteller.

And for me, the records is my angle. You know, you might choose to do history. You might choose to do science. You might choose. To do social social adventures, where you engage more people whatever you might choose just to do mountains, you know, whatever it is, have a story and tell it well, and people will be interested in following it.

Okay. That was good. What are you doing now? And how can people follow you? Right now, as I said earlier, I’m doing a thing called the four nine six challenge, which is, as I said, you run one K up on the 1st of January, two K on the 2nd of January. And so on as we speak it’s 12th of January. So I’m doing 12 K today and it’s really wrapping up.

In fact, it’s the first 12 days is the same mileage as the [00:26:00] last two days nearly. So it’s really. You know, back ends January. So it’s going to be pretty tough that last week, you know? But yeah, but been too, so yeah. Chicken outs on, on Instagram, Sean Conway, adventure on Instagram. And, or check the hashtag when you’re out to your end or the four, nine, six challenge.

That’s Yeah, it’s going to be, it’s going to be tough. I’ve also given myself different challenges within each day. So, you know, like on the ninth day I went and ran a routes that made a picture of a running man. So I went and went to a mountain and did this big long route. And when you looked at it from above, it was a running man today, it’s called a running rights day.

So it’s, I’ve got to run six K and write something. And then I can only turn back home once I’ve written this thing. So I’m going to try and write a poem or something about running. So every day is something different, which kind of makes it a little bit more exciting. Or one day I did litter picking for [00:27:00] example, as well.

So it’s quite a fun challenge actually. And I can do it during walk down from home, which is great. Yeah. Yeah. I have to say some of the photography or the places that you run around are truly spectacular. Oh yeah. Amazing place North Wales. I love North Wales. You know, not only do you have amazing stuff here, you know, you’ve got mountains, you’ve got beaches.

You’re also geographically right in the middle of the UK. I’m not too far into North Wales on near the English border. So getting around, you know, getting to, Scotland’s not the ball ain’t getting to. To call them was easy. You’ve got the peaks just here. You’ve got Snowdonia of course the Lake district’s not too far.

So actually geographically, I absolutely love it, you know? Yeah. It’s what’s cool. How, how do you think how does it sort of compare with your sort of upbringing in Zimbabwe? Well, there’s less lions [00:28:00] around and elephants. So that’s a big difference. It’s copying different, you know, I grew up my, my father’s a rhino conservationists, so I grew up in these big game reserves chasing elephants out the garden and that sort of thing, and living Pretty outdoors life.

It’s warm all year round. It’s, it’s really hot all year round, so it’s very different. But I like the seasons, you know, you like winter, like having a bit of snow once or twice a year, it gets you excited about it. I like, you know, Britain in the summer is amazing. You know, it’s absolutely the best Island in the world to be in, in the summer.

But then I like the winter, I like making my, my lock fire and ghetto mold wine at Christmas and things like that. Cause then in the Southern hemisphere, you know, Christmas is the middle of summer, so it’s a very different, different experience. So yeah, it’s, it’s very different, but I, I do love the UK.

It’s just that the opportunities here are so much, so much better, you know? Yeah. [00:29:00] And I suppose when COVID Ziva, Carina lockdowns finished what’s your big adventure next? Oh, Oh, phone. And I could tell yeah, y’all got a big one coming up. I was meant to, I was meant to be finishing it around about now.

But of course it’s been postponed, so probably be postponed till next year. There’s, that’s all I could talk about. Fortunately, it’s big. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done from a time point of view. So, yeah, it’s annoying. Cause I’ve done two, three big training blocks for it and then had to postpone.

So I guess in the month of January and all this four, nine, six challenges is my third big training block which will hopefully be useful for something. Fitness space down the line, but for now it’s just a bit of fun. Yeah. I guess we’ll have to follow you in wait and find out. Yes, you will. [00:30:00] Well, Sean, thank you so much for coming on the show today and it’s been an absolute pleasure listening to your stories.

Well, thanks for having me, man. Yeah, it’s always good to, to share the love and keep adventuring, everyone get out there and stay safe, you know, and we’ll be following your. Adventures or whatever this big grand adventure is in the future. Yeah. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much. So that is it.

Thank you so much for watching. I hope you got something out of it. If you did hit that like button and subscribe, if you haven’t already, and I will see you in the next video. Yeah.

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