In this interview with Jack Ross, endurance and adventure athlete Sean Conway discusses the challenges of becoming the first man to swim from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
“I can’t even look at porridge now. I used to be so into it!” says Sean Conway.
You would think a man who just finished swimming the length of Great Britain would be starving hungry. However, Conway has become so used to eating huge amounts of fuelling foods that all he seems to want now is the plain and simple stuff.
“All I really crave is red meats and really good salads,” he sighs. “For the best part of two-and-a-half years I’ve been eating for the sake of exercise, really. If I’m not careful now, I can just go through the whole day just eating a banana. I’ve really gone off most foods!”
Conway was the first man to swim from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and the mammoth effort required in the water was only part of the challenge. With very little money and a training programme that could best be described as ‘minimal’, there was much to do before he zipped up his wetsuit.
“When you attempt something that no-one’s done before you can’t ask for help or advice. A lot of my time was spent working out how I was going to make this swim happen, and that’s not just physically, also the logistics of it. I had to think of the crew, food, support boats, routes, and accounting for weather. All of those things I had to plan on my own, so my training suffered.”
Conway explained as well that prior to him taking on the challenge – in which he raised over £10,000 for the charity War Child – there was doubt as to whether he could even afford to take on the swim.
“I didn’t have a lot of money. I don’t come from money, so I pretty much spent my life savings, used my overdraft, credit cards and everything to get to the start line. It was very hard to find a sponsor at first. Everyone said, ‘well, we’re not going to sponsor you because it’s not possible,’ but Speedo came in at the end and saw the bigger picture.”
The swim marked the latest in a remarkable set of endurance challenges taken on by the South African.
“When I cycled around the world I got run over. From that I suffered a fractured spine, concussion, whiplash, ligament damage in my leg and ankle, chipped teeth… I’m still trying to recover from that, actually!”
Yet, he still went and did the swim.
“Well, swimming is quite good recovery for everything actually; it’s a good way of coming back from an injury.”
Identifiable by his ‘can do’ attitude, Conway also sported a distinguishing bushy ginger beard during his three months in the water. However, it was no fashion choice. He grew the facial hair in order to help protect his face against jellyfish stings which got to him in the initial couple of weeks.
It is clear that he is a man who will go to any lengths in order to achieve his goals – the beard, included – so what kind of advice does he have for would-be fundraisers or endurance athletes?
“My biggest piece of advice is that mileage makes champions! At the end of the day, get on a bike or get into the water, and the more you try at it, the better you will get.”
Indeed, practice makes perfect. “If you love something, keep going at it, and you’ll inevitably get better at it,” he says. Conway says that it is the adventure of each experience that keeps him hooked, as well as his love for sport. But what is his ultimate challenge?
“The big one? I’ve put it out there that I would like to complete my global triathlon by running across Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. That’s the only thing that I can think of that’s bonkers enough that would be on a par with the swim, you know? I want to try to lift my own bar. I’m not a runner, so that will be something that would be very tough for me, but a reason to get out of bed!”