Sean Conway has run, cycled and swam the length of Great Britain, and says that getting outside 'fixed his life'
You might know him as that bloke with the big ginger beard; but there’s a lot more to Sean Conway than meets the eye. He’s a professional adventurer and the only person to ever have separately run, swam and cycled between Land’s End and John O’ Groats. He ignores the nay-sayers and somehow finds a way to overcome every obstacle. He says that getting outdoors 'fixed his life'.
We had 25 rapid-fire questions about what first inspired him, the biggest challenges and why he has that big ginger beard.
1) What, for you, are the benefits of being outside?
Mainly fitness. I’m an endurance adventurer. It’s the far end of athletic rather than exploring. Sometimes I have to go to the gym for the weights side of things but if I have the chance to get outside to exercise, I definitely will.
2) What are your favourite things about being outside?
The smells. The sights. Getting lost. I love bad weather. I love its harshness. No epic adventure ever started with: “It was a bright and sunny day…”
“Adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking.”
3) What do you like about the UK?
I like the people and the variety. I like the fact it’s a small island and you can drive it in a day. You can get from the rugged highlands of Scotland to a flat beach somewhere in no time. I’ve been walking the UK for years and there are some awesome trails. Any city can be quite stressful but there’s stuff around. You just need the right tools to find out what’s out there.
4) What’s the best experience you’ve ever had outside?
There are so many. I spend so much time outside. I live outside! I did enjoy kayaking and camping along the Thames with some friends in winter. We had crisp, sunny mornings and frost everywhere. It was freezing cold – so cold we had to break the ice on the Thames with our kayaks.
5) What’s the worst experience you’ve ever had outside?
When I get sunburned! I’m ginger so I really have to watch it. And when you’re training hard you can’t take your eye off the ball or it could lead to dehydration and sunstroke.
6) What are your favourite outdoor pursuits?
Cycling. It has to be cycling.
7) What is your favourite outdoor terrain? Forest? Mountains? Coast?
I love hills. I’m quite light so I can get up them easily. I’m slow on the downhill but good on the uphill. And it’s rewarding when you get to the top.
8) What are your tips for people to get outside?
Weather plays a big part. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Get the right kit, make yourself a little pledge and get out there. I’m not going to shout at you to do it. People need to motivate themselves. Plus, if you’re an outdoor person already, it’s your responsibility to show a friend what they’re missing out on.
9) What about for people wanting the bigger adventures?
Find the right people. There are always people who will say ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you can’t do that’. You need to surround yourself with support. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of your ability affect your decisions in life. We’re all more physically and mentally capable than we think.
10) Why do you think some of us are couch potatoes?
Comfort kills ambition. People who like their job and have a happy family life can get very comfortable. We’re lucky to be born into this society but we can get lazy in our ways of thinking and as a result we miss out on life experiences as day-to-day existence gets in the way.
11) What made you first get outside in earnest?
I hated my job. I was missing out on so much. I had to think of a big, bonkers goal. For me it was cycling around the world. It was stupid, daft and accessible. In my old job I was miserable but I fixed my life by getting out there. You just have to find ways to make it happen.
12) What motivates you now?
Fear of failure. Fear of just existing. Fear of not making the most of my time on this earth. Fear of leading an average life. Everything I do has to be weird. I’ve achieved a couple of world records which I never realised I could do. You never know how good you are until you try. To try and fail is OK. To not try is inexcusable.
13) What do you eat/avoid eating?
I eat more or less everything as I always need to put on weight. I don’t eat fried foods but other fats are important to me such as butter, nuts, animal fats and coconut oil.
I also don’t eat processed sugars – such as sweets or soft drinks as they are so bad for you. They’re a really bad energy source. As a general rule I try to eat a third carbs, a third fats and a third protein.
14) Who are your heroes?
As I have three recognised sporting disciplines, I have three heroes. My cycling hero is Tommy Goodwin who in 1939 broke the record the most miles cycled in a year.
For swimming, it’s Martin Strel who holds successive Guinness World Records for swimming the rivers Danube, Mississippi, Yangtze, and the Amazon rivers.
And running…. I’m not great at it, but my mum would say I was like Zola Budd as we’d both run around the south African bush with no shoes.
15) Why the big beard?
While swimming from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, my face would get stung by jellyfish so I grew it for protection. It stayed.
16) What wise words do you live by?
Adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking. It’s a mindset. It doesn’t have to be a physically big thing. You can be adventurous in where you eat and how you get to work. Just look at a kid. They’re adventurous.
17) Is there something you don’t get outside without?
My little flying cow. He accompanies me on all my adventures and he even has his own twitter feed @AdventureMascot. He has 900 followers.
18) What do you like about OS maps?
I’ve been using OS maps for years. The OS app was a godsend when I ran the length of Britain. It was like Google Maps on steroids! I wanted to do the trails and canals and having them on my phone cut at least a week off my journey. I love the offline ability and the GPS tagging so you knew when you were lost. It’s a brilliant, fantastic tool. Thank you!
19) Tell us something not many people know about you.
I’ve never sent an emoji in my life. I can speak Zulu. I used to work on the Harry Potter films in the stills photography dept.
20) What do you like to do in your spare time?
Doing up my home which is an old WW2 sea plane rescue boat on the River Severn. I bought it two years ago on eBay and it’s an ongoing project.
21) Any guilty pleasures?
Rubbish films. They let me zone out and give me time where I don’t have to think.
Sean on his round the world cycle challenge
22) What’s your next big challenge or adventure?
Ooh that’s top secret at the moment, but I plan to do something in late summer/early autumn which will be the longest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. What I can say is that it will be an epic sort of ironman and will take about three months. It will be a solo trip again.
23) Why do you choose to go solo?
I’m happiest alone because the stress and the fate is all on me. I don’t like to chat when I exercise as I’m a grumpy old man! (laughs). I do long hours. Sometimes I do a 4am to midnight stretch. I don’t feel like talking to anyone!
24) What’s your Get Outside pledge?
I’d like to complete the official round Britain cycle route – The Great Tour – which is 6,800km – and maybe break its record.
25) A parting shot?
Remember, the physical pain goes. The emotional pain of giving up lasts forever.