Talking Big Adventures: with Sean Conway - MeanderApparel

December 16, 2022 12 min read

Sean is an author and adventurer that I’ve been hoping to interview for the magazine since reading his books and hearing him at a talk in Edinburgh a few years ago. Sean’s gained a reputation as one of the most unique endurance athletes in the world and has set multiple world records, world firsts and attempted so many amazing challenges, that it would be impossible to cover them all here. Sean has cycled round the world, holds the record for cycling the length of Europe, completed a 4,200 mile triathlon around the coast of Great Britain and swam the length of Britain, a world first that he struggled to get sponsorship for because everyone thought that it was impossible and that he might die trying. Listening to Sean talk, he comes across very different to most other athletes, who often seem almost superhuman. With the greatest of respect, Sean comes across as a normal guy who has achieved some unbelievable things due to his force of will and his unyielding spirit and has the gift to convince the audience that we could all do the same. If you get the chance to go one of his talks, I would highly recommend it.

We first met you a few years ago when you came to Edinburgh for a talk about your book, Big Mile Cycling. I loved the book by the way, and I still have my signed copy

Thanks. Yeah, that's right. Cool. Was it that long ago?

Yeah, the last couple of years have flown by. What have you been up to recently? Any big challenges or is it a bit more laid-back time for you?

I'm just training a lot. I did a triathlon around Wales three weeks ago. Then I got ill, but it was sort of a blessing in disguise because it meant I just didn't train, and I needed that I think I needed some recovery time. Now I'm just training somewhere around 20 hours a week. I'm enjoying it, to be honest. Today was one hour and 20 Swim nearly a two hour bike ride, and then just a 10 minute, jog at the end to finish off the day.

That sounds like a good week of training for me at the moment!

 Sean on the Around Wales Triathlon

 

I listened to your talk about achieving the three Fs (First, Fastest and Farthest) and I came out really inspired to try and get my own. I have one, but then it always seems like work gets in the way.

Yeah, life, you know, it's tough. I've got two young kids as well. So that always makes things a bit more difficult.

You gave up your photography career to become an adventurer (Sean famously sold his photography business for just £1 to pursue his dream of breaking the world record for cycling around the world). Do you think that it’s good that you did that before you have so many mouths to feed? It would probably be more difficult to make that move now.

Definitely. There was one year where I only made £4,000 for the whole year, and you just wouldn't be able to provide for a family on that sort of money. So yeah, I did, I managed to scratch all my itches and get the ball rolling before I had commitments. I played it. Well, I think

You definitely did! I just recently watched your video where you share a message for your future grandchildren. It was so good! All of our team loved it. Is video something that you are going to do more of?

Yeah, well, funnily enough, every week people say, “You need more YouTube videos”, I'm running and it’s “You need more YouTube videos”. And I'm like, I don't want to be a YouTuber, or a vlogger, I’m just too old for that shit. But I have decided actually as of this week to start putting up more stuff and I'm going to start doing more YouTube videos.

Sean's story so far....
 

Let’s go all the way back, were you always really adventurous as a child? You grew up in Zimbabwe, so that must have been special.

It's weird. When people have asked me this in the past, and in all my talks, I sort of say, I wasn't adventurous. You know, I was just a normal kid. But thinking about it now, I did live in an adventurous part of the world. I grew up in big game reserves, big national parks with all the big five, you know, elephants and lions and cheetahs and hyenas and everything. So obviously, that is quite adventurous, I guess. But it sort of was adventure just thrown on me, as a kid. It's just like, it was my environment. So, it wasn't me choosing to be adventurous. I just happen to live in an adventurous environment. And, as a kid, I remember always wanting to do things differently. You know, I always got a kick out of just being different. I don't know why because I lived in the game reserves when went to school, I already stood out because everyone else lived in little towns and villages, on streets. Whereas, where I lived, my neighbour was a rhino. So already, I was different. And I think I enjoyed that as a kid. And then that, just led me on to this philosophy of I just want to lead a unique and interesting life. I want to live with edge. And my wife and I joke is my wife has no edge. Like, there's only two countries in the world she wants to go travelling to and one's Canada and the other ones New Zealand. Like every other country in the world, she’s just like “no not going there”

To be fair, Canada and New Zealand are both pretty good places to explore.

Yeah, but there's zero edge to them! I don't know if you've heard Ed Stafford is moving to Costa Rica. I'm like, what’s Ed up to? I messaged him and said “Dude, that is so awesome” then said to my wife, “you want to move to Costa Rica” to which she said, “Absolutely not!”. So yeah, I sort of, I guess, just the environment I grew up in, fuelled this desire to lead a unique and interesting life. And it just so happens to be adventurous at the moment.

You’ve definitely achieved that, and your adventures have taken you through some amazing places. But you’re often busy trying to be the first, fastest or furthest at the time. Do you find that chasing records on those journeys, takes away from these places, or does it add to the journey for you?

Oh, no, massively takes it away. Yeah, it's, it's pointless, you know, I might as well have done it on Zwift. Because I don't speak to anyone, I don't really sort of immerse myself in the culture. I'm living in service stations most of the time. But I'm not a very good traveller. My wife says I'm terrible on holiday, because I'm a monkey terrier by nature, and neither of those, like, being on holiday or just travelling, I get bored. I get frustrated, and so I got to have something to do. So if you said, you know, people say, Oh, you cycled across the whole of Europe and 24 days, you know, you didn't see any of it. And, really, they’re right. Okay, I don't want to see any of it. It will be there. I can go and see it when I'm retired. You know, it's sort of like wine tasting. You know, if you went to a wine tasting evening, you know, let's say there was, you know, I went through 15 countries or whatever. Let's say there's 15 little bits of wine to taste on a wine tasting evening. You don't get to like the third one and go Oh, I like this one, I'm going to stop here, I'm going to, I'm going to buy a bottle, that's me done while I'm gonna go home, you know, spend the rest of night drinking the bottle. You go through all of them, knowing that you're there for wine tasting, and then afterwards you go, oh, well, that was nice. I'll get a bottle of that. And that's sort of the philosophy of how I see it. You know, I don't regret not seeing any of it. Absolutely not. You know, you get a flavour for certain things. And, I know that I can go back there later in life when my kids are older and when I'm retired, but no, for me, there always has to be, for what I do, an athletic element to it, rather than an exploration. You know, in the world of adventure, there’s exploration on one side and sport on the other side. I'm on the sports side. So that's that sort of, that sort of scratches my, my Monkey Terrier itch, it feeds both of them.

Breaking the Across Europe Cycling World Record
(3890 mile route from Portugal to Russia in 24 days, 18 hours and 39 minutes)

 

Are there any places where you've gone through on those trips and thought, I've got to go back there and then actually gone back?

God? That's a good question. No, I've not purposefully gone back to somewhere because I saw it on one of my things. I've ended up going back to places like India, just on the off chance. But yeah, again, I'm sort of not good at travelling yet. So, I've sort of just been banking them all for now. You know, I'd love to go back to Peru and spend more time there. I love deserts. Which is shit being Ginger, but that’s the cards I was dealt. For some reason my brain loves deserts, like, just give me a desert any day of the week.

I know exactly what you mean, I spent a week in the Sahara Desert for the Marathon Des Sables and it really is a special place.

I just love barren, you know, the Atacama and even in the outback, which has no sand, it's just grass in Australia, but even that I quite like. Yeah, so there's loads of places I want to explore first. I'm not sort of on this sort of like, oh, you got to tick every country and things. But they are interesting countries and I'd love to get to more interesting new countries before I revisit other ones.

Running Across Iceland

 

You've now written seven books. How do you find the writing process? Do you find that it's a distraction from the adventures and the training? Or is it a welcome rest in between?

I do enjoy the writing. I've struggled in the last couple of years to find the time and motivate myself, because you can find the time if you want. My wife and I are both self-employed and we both work from home and the kids aren't at nursery or school full time yet so it's quite difficult. I have my shed in the garden, but the boys will come up there and even though I sort of say please don't, of course they do and then it sort of ruins your flow a little bit. And my office is just like a death trap for kids is swords and knives and pottery that's breakable all these trinkets I found around the world. Every time my son comes into my office, I’m thinking oh god he’s going kill himself or break something? I've meant to be writing another book now. And I've started it and I'm quite far in. But because I'm training 20 hours a week now and from four or five in the afternoon, that’s family time and that's my evening done really. I usually I'm better at writing in the mornings. And then I'm also better training in the mornings.

One of the things that I love about your books and your website (Sean’s website features an entire section dedicated to hiccups) is that you talk a lot about the failures. And I think that openness about the failures is important because you can have big success without failures.

It's important because a lot of the time, when you see people who achieve high levels of success in the sports world you just presume that they’re outliers, that they're the reason they're good at that is because they're outside the realm of normal people. And that could be wealth, they're really rich, Biologically, they're freaks of nature, they've got the best coach in the world, they have access to the best kits in the world, you know, and if they're an outlier, you sort of go, oh, that's great, of course they can do it because of X Y & Z. And that's what a lot of people were presuming, I was one of those, they just presumed I just had tonnes of money, and I could just splash it and everything. They presumed I was just biologically advantaged too. But it turns out, I'm not. I've been tested. I'm just normal. So yeah, I wanted to just show people, that actually, I'm not an outlier. I just had big ideas, and I just worked hard. I'm training 20 hours a week now, but I probably, that might go up to 30 or 35 with recovery. So, you know, that's what I wanted to share. That's why I put the hiccups up there really?

Swimming the length of Britain in 2013

 

Yeah, I think that's great. It seems to me like if you had some sort of biological advantage, it’s a relentless positivity rather than something physiological. Before you said getting sick was probably good because that's what you needed with a smile on your face. Every negative turns into a positive.

Well, it helps when you have a low IQ. It makes things a lot easier.

I don't think that's true.

Is there anything on any of your challenges or in general that you're afraid of? What scares you?

Not really. I'm not a big fan of balloons that have the potential of popping. Like a balloon on its own just minding its own business, I'm cool, but you bring a balloon near my face and like, squeezes then I'm not a big fan of that. But no, you know, I'm usually too tired. The speed at most of the things I've done, has, there's been quite a high level of sleep deprivation, and when you're so sleep deprived, you sort of just don't care about anything. I was sleeping and drain pipes that I knew wolves used as well in Ukraine and Russia. You sort of just don't care. Cycling on roads at night, you know that really, I shouldn't be cycling on because of the risk of getting run over, but you so knackered, you just sort of keep going.

Sean's (and some wolves) Drain campsite is Russia

 

What's the next big challenge?

Well, I'm re-attempting the Ironman challenge. Earlier in the year, I attempted the most number of Iron Man's in a row. So, I’ll be re-attempting that and that's what I'm training for now. That'll be in April. It’ll be 102 days, so April to July.

Does it get harder as it goes on and how do you prepare yourself for that?

It's the other way around. Usually, the first week is hell, and then the second week is also hell, hopefully a bit better. And usually, by the third week, you're sort of getting into your rhythm, providing you've not overcooked it on the first two weeks. Really trying to balance that tightrope, you push it too hard by trying to do 16 hour Ironman’s, then trying to save half an hour by pushing to do 15 and a half hour one, is that going to kill me, then I'll do the next one at 17 hours. And then I don't know, it's all part of my training now to work out where I'll be at that time. So yeah, that's what I'm quite enjoying, I'm actually getting quite geeky about the training, which I've never done before. I've never had Watt metre, I never used to run with a heart rate or watch or anything, whereas I'm doing it now, and actually, I'm actually quite enjoying it. To be honest.

Sailing Britain World Record
700 miles: Lands End to John O'Groats in 83 hours and 53 minutes 

 

If you had to give one bit of advice to give someone starting out on their journey towards big challenges, what would it be?

You need to be realistic with your expectations. I think that would be my biggest advice. Especially if we're talking in my world, the super ultra endurance stuff. You know from training for the MDS, you can't train for a month, it's just biologically impossible to do that. And I know people say oh, it's all about your mind now. Yeah. But if the camel overtakes you, because you're too slow, you're out. So, I think, if you want to train for something super ultra endurance or something big (if you want to train for 5k I'm not your guy) Just be realistic with your expectations on your progress. Give yourself time. After I got injured from the Ironman’s, I looked at the diary and it was 47 weeks away. I thought, right, well that's it, that was probably I felt good enough time to retrain for it because I knew I'd be I knew I'd be off for 12 weeks recovering and then that would give me about a 30 - 35 week training programme and even that genuinely feels a bit short to train for 102 Ironman 35 weeks, really it’s pushing it fine. Of course, I'm coming off quite a lot of fitness from the previous attempts a lot starting from scratch, and I've got 10 years’ worth of hard tissue strength and, and technique and all that. So that's sort of good. Well, my techniques not always great, but just set yourself realistic goals, take baby steps and just enjoy it for the first month. You know, as you say, don't just get bogged down with numbers and kits and figures and stats and things like that. Just go out and enjoy it, and then you'll get better.

There's a guy who’s 51 years old and he still runs a 2:25 marathon. People want to know, so what's your training programme and he says, “I run 10 miles a day that's it". 10 miles a day, every day. He doesn't wear a heart rate monitor, doesn’t push it as hard as he can, no sprinting no gym. You just know that actually if you just put in the time put in the hours, you'll eventually see progress.

 

Thanks so much to Sean for taking the time to chat to me. I really enjoyed our conversation, though I had to cut out a fair bit for brevity (mostly beard focused). If you want to read more about Sean’s adventures and “hiccups”, then head over to his website, where you can also find links to his books and upcoming talks. You can also follow him on Instagram here.


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