Interview

Sean Conway on rising to challenges

Author and adventurer Sean Conway offers advice on taking on challenges and achieving your goals

In Cycling the Earth you describe being stuck in a dead end job and feeling frustrated by your daily routine. How did you motivate yourself to make such drastic changes by cycling all the way round the world?

At the time it didn't seem so drastic, to be honest. I was in such a rut in life I just needed to do anything to add a bit of excitement into my days. Up until my 30th birthday I thought all I was doing was exhausting. By cycling around the world I thought I was finally living for the first time.

Were there moments on your journey when you wanted to give up? How did you find the strength to continue?

There were many times I wanted to give up. I was constantly cold, wet, hungry, tired and miserable, but every time I thought about giving up I would think about what I would have to go back to, and that was way more miserable than how I was feeling on the bike. Pain, hunger, tiredness - they all disappear quite quickly. But giving up lasts forever. 

Hell and High Water is a hair-raising story of your 135-day swim from Land’s End to John O’Groats. What inspired you to take on this challenge?

After I cycled around the world I was looking for the next big thing for me. I needed a personal goal that seemed out of reach. I think it's important we all do things in life which have an element of uncertainty. Trying to swim the length of Britain, which many thought was impossible, gave me the motivation to get up every morning. It gave me purpose.  

 

I like to do the three Fs: first, fastest, furthest. That makes me excited.

How do you set targets to make sure you reach your goals?

There are six things I always look at: food, water, sleep, muscle management, motivation, and conditions - like weather or terrain. As long as you can optimise your response to most of these, you should be able to succeed. If your plan for one or two isn't optimal, your risk of failure is much higher.

In August 2016 you completed a never-before-attempted triathlon, running, cycling and swimming the entire distance around Britain's coastline. Do you enjoy taking on challenges that other people see as extreme?

The best thing you can say to me is, "it's not possible," because then that makes me want to try even harder to prove that it is possible. I like to do the three Fs: first, fastest, furthest. That makes me excited. That gives me a reason to get out of bed. That makes me happy. 

You inspire many people to set new goals and achieve their full potential. Who has inspired you?

Many people inspire me, but I guess if I had to choose one it would be Tommy Godwin, who cycled 75,000 miles in one year in 1939, averaging over 200 miles per day. Even now that feat has been repeated, it will never be the same as trying to do it back then, with the equipment he had. He really is my endurance hero.

More about the author

Hell and High Water

Sean Conway

'Rain pelted down on the back of my neck and saltwater rushed down my throat as I tried to breathe into a wave. A foghorn started booming from a lighthouse in the distance. For a moment I thought it was a rescue siren for me. Imagine if I got rescued on day two. That would be embarrassing.'

In June 2013 Sean Conway set out from Land’s End in his bid to be the first person to swim the length of Britain. It was a challenge so extreme that not only had it never been attempted before, but most of the sponsors Sean approached turned him down as they were worried that he would die trying.

Landlocked Cheltenham – Sean’s hometown – isn’t really the ideal place to train for a long sea swim, and he only managed three miles in a local pool before setting off from Land's End. Once in the water Sean had to develop incredible mental strength to deal with the extreme cold and hours alone. He also needed to devise ways to take on the huge number of calories he needed to sustain him. On the support boat he and his three-man crew had to cope with storms, seasickness and living in close proximity for months. After taking a few jellyfish stings to the face, Sean decided to grow a huge beard to protect himself.

The physical challenge was gruelling, but came with unexpected rewards. Sean swam with dolphins and seals and among stunning night-time phosphorescence. He had a unique view of the British coast, discovering tiny hidden coves and exploring shipwrecks. When there were problems with the support boat, Sean and his crew met many kindly people who were willing to come to their aid.

From the first person to complete a British 'triathlon' - running, swimming and biking the length of Britain - this is Sean's remarkable and funny story about how anything is possible if you truly put your mind to it.

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