Sean Conway: The Endurance Adventurer

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Endurance Adventurer

Zimbabwean endurance adventurer, author and motivational speaker, Sean Conway became the first person to cycle, swim, and run the length of Great Britain solo, from Land's End to John o' Groats.

"When I sold my business for a pound that was me putting my foot down and saying I’m not doing stuff for money anymore. That was the big watershed moment in my life."

Yes, I have a wild beard. It’s the first thing most people ask me about so I figure I’ll start by telling you the story behind it. When I swam the length of Britain back in 2013 I kept getting stung in the face by jellyfish and after about a week I realised that in the places where I had stubble I wasn’t getting stung as much, so I thought if I grew a beard on the swim it would stop the jellyfish tentacles from touching my face, and it worked.

After that? I just maybe got a bit lazy. I also think that it gives me superpowers, but the main reason I have it? My wife likes it, she’s never seen me without it and I’m worried if I shave it she’ll divorce me!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Long before I was growing beards for jellyfish protection, I had my own photography business and had never so much as entered a 5k. If you’re familiar with those wobbly lines that appear when characters have flashbacks on cheap sitcoms, now would be a good time to picture some! 

My 'holy crap' moment

Growing up, I was a keen photographer. I lived photography, dreamt it, and I wanted to be this amazing National Geographic photographer or sports photographer. I moved to London and I could taste the money.

Photography is an interesting industry. It can be super creative or totally uncreative, within the same field. It’s so diverse; you could photograph funerals, for example, or you can photograph someone climbing a wall, it's so varied. I just chose the money stuff. 

Then, I hit 30 and had this ‘holy crap’ moment. I’m 30, I thought, why am I not travelling the world? My girlfriend had dumped me too, so all in all life was a bit shit. The first step was to get out of photography because all I was doing was school portraits. That was my bread and butter and when I say bread and butter, it was about 95% of the photography I was doing. My hard drive was just kids against a white background. I needed out.

I sold my share in the company to my business partner, James, for a quid. It was important to make this grand gesture. Moving forward in my life, I’d no longer make big decisions based on financial outcome. Until that point in my life, I hadn’t considered career longevity or creativity. The only driving factor for making decisions had been whether I would end up richer or not. So when I sold the business for a pound that was me putting my foot down and saying I’m not doing stuff for money anymore. That was the big watershed moment in my life. So much so that I refer to everything up to that point as ‘My Old Life’ and everything since as...

My new life

Don’t get me wrong, I loved photography, I breathed it, it was in my soul, but right now this world of adventure I’m in; the world of ultra endurance sport - it's amazing. It does, however, rely on my body performing at its peak and I’m 40 next year. I’m feeling fitter than I’ve ever been and enjoying having a very physical job, but I know that at some point I won’t be able to do the big stuff. When that happens I might get back into photography, but taking pictures of adventures instead of school kids.

©Sean Conway
"When you fail, you'll only emerge stronger if you ask why you failed... Literally sit in front of a mirror, pretend you’re your own boss and ask, ‘Why did that happen?"

Bigger challenges = greater rewards

Right now, I love having one epic project that I have to throw everything into and if it doesn't work, I’ll be screwed. It's the same with everything in my life. I prefer writing books to blogs, for example. A book is a hundred thousand words and it takes six months of hard work and dedication, but the reward at the end is so great. 

I thrive on those big, scary, long-term challenges, but on the flip-side failure hits so much harder too. I’ve attempted two massive challenges where my first attempts did not succeed. Running the length of Britain and beating the cross-Europe cycling world record both failed on the first try. I felt crap for six months after. I started doubting myself, but when I actually started breaking it down and realising why I failed and what went wrong, I started asking myself what I could have done better.

I used the failure as building blocks. Everything that happens is experience, I just needed to shelve that experience to learn. One time, for example, I was dehydrated for too long and I ate a bit of red meat that caused some inflammation in my knee. The lesson on that occasion was clear: nutrition and hydration have to be taken super seriously, especially when pushing your body to extremes.

Fail to improve

Everything you do is life experience. When you fail, you'll only emerge stronger if you ask why you failed. That’s super important. You have got to do a debrief with yourself. You’ve got to sit back and do a stock take to ask why it happened. It doesn’t have to be immediately afterwards when it’s hard to separate yourself from the initial disappointment, it could be a few weeks, or even months, later. Literally sit in front of a mirror, pretend you’re your own boss and ask, ‘Why did that happen?’ And you have to answer yourself honestly. And then you learn.

©Sean Conway
"I love the resilience and resourcefulness solo adventures have equipped me with."

Going it alone

I prefer solo challenges because when I complete them it's all me and I'm not sharing the glory with anyone! But I also want the responsibilities and crucial decisions to all be on me. Plus, I’m not a natural leader in group settings. If I was in an Atlantic rowing team and the boat capsized I would probably naturally just become the work ant, I’m not an alpha male, I’m not one to boss people around, I hate confrontation, I shy away from conflict and in a group I just mostly keep to myself, but I’m a grafter, I work, work, work. 

I don’t enjoy the bureaucracy of group settings, my personality just doesn’t work with it. I’m a monkey/terrier - in my everyday life I flit between things and I’m super inquisitive. I’ll do something for five seconds and then something else, but as soon as I’ve found the thing I want to do, I’m in terrier mode. My wife hates it because halfway through dinner I’ll suddenly remember about that thing I haven’t finished doing and I’ll finish my food and be off to the attic for the rest of the night fixing that thing I forgot to fix. 

Once I have an idea, I’m all in and I think other people could find that annoying about me. I enjoy making decisions and just doing them there and then. Having to run ideas past other people in group challenges, I feel like no one really wins because everyone is kind of tip-toeing around and compromising. Of course, team challenges have the potential to be amazing if you’re all on the exact same wavelength, but I love the resilience and resourcefulness solo adventures have equipped me with.

©Sean Conway
"The one piece of advice I want to leave you with is to write to-do lists."

Stop thinking, start doing

The one piece of advice I want to leave you with is to write to-do lists. Write a daily one and a long-term one. Even if you’re not a monkey/terrier like me, they are so useful for getting the ideas bouncing round your head out into the real world and on the way to becoming tangible. So, for example, I have loads of stuff to do around the house, I’ve got little projects in my head that I want to do. 

Physically writing things out on a piece of paper is the first step to planning and making time for them. Your lists don’t have to be all about household chores or hitting exercise goals. Write down that film you’ve been wanting to watch for a while or meal you want to learn to cook, and enjoy the feeling as you tick stuff off and enjoy the feeling of control it gives you. Fancy putting an ultra marathon or Ironman on your long-term to-do list? Who would I be to say otherwise?!

SMALL WINS EVERY DAY /
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