Former photographer Sean Conway is a true adventurer; more than just a runner, cyclist or swimmer he was the first – and only – person to complete the ‘Ultimate British Triathlon.’ After cycling the length of Britain, he swam the 900mile from Land’s End to John O’Groats and completed the ‘set’ by running 1,014miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End… TriGear caught up with Sean to find out more about what makes him tick.
TriGear: Before you started tackling all of these epic challenges were you particularly physically active?
Sean Conway: Well I had to do sport at school, so I was physically active in that sense. But I didn’t join the gym for my entire 20s, I didn’t do any team sports. Pretty unhealthy back then, drank too much… I lived the photographer’s life in London, you know. I’d be lying if I said I was a complete coach potato, but I didn’t do any sport…
TriGear: Were you aware of the importance of diet back then?
Sean Conway: No, not at all. I knew nothing about nutrition. I eventually got a nutritionist on board, a guy called Steve Mellor who used to be a lecturer at Loughborough University; he taught me loads about nutrition – I learned all of that for the cycle and kept the knowledge from that and just applied it.
TriGear: How strict are you with diet now? You don’t strike me as a sports gel kind of person…
Sean Conway: No, I’m not really into the whole sports nutrition products thing; I just try and eat healthy. The only thing I really don’t do is that I try not to have sugars – although actually I do have it in tea and coffee. Sometimes you need sugar when you’re levels are low, but generally I don’t use sugar.
TriGear: Anything else you’ve ‘experimented’ with?
Sean Conway: Actually currently I don’t have bread, pasta, rice or potatoes either in my diet. I’m on just protein and vegetables and fruit, so I get all my carbs from that.
TriGear: Any reason for doing that now?
Sean Conway: Just because I feel better, feel healthier. For the run I needed carbs, a lot of carbs just for the recovery; so I was on third carbs, third fat, third protein and that was generally lasagne, spag bol, chilli con carne – plus extra butter on things and coconut oil…
I’m a bit all or nothing so between adventures I tend not to think about it too much and eat what I like. Weight is an issue for me – keeping it on. I tend to lose weight quite quickly so ahead of things I have to try and bulk up, and that’s quite hard when you’re on low carbs.
TriGear: You’ve pretty much covered the world – anywhere that naturally ticked the right boxes for nutrition?
Sean Conway: If I’m honest it was probably Italy where you obviously get a lot of pasta and stuff and by then, on the cycle ride around the world, I was quite malnourished and needed that energy. I was putting in so many hours on the road that the time off the bike was crucial – I just had to buy and eat anything. It’s actually kind of better to have the wrong thing than nothing. I ate a lot of chorizo, cheeses, salami, juices – quite a lot of cold, but convenient, supermarket food.
TriGear: And you enjoy a drink too…
Sean Conway: Like I said, I’m a bit of an all or nothing kind of guy. For the cycle trip around the world I didn’t drink that much in training, I was training 40hours a week for that, which was heavy.
But I’m here to live life – lots of the stuff I do is long, like months long and you get good at stuff after three or four weeks. That’s when I come into my own. Put me in a race for three or four weeks and I’m good at that; but something shorter and faster then something like alcohol will make a big difference. You feel the pain, you just care less…
TriGear: You say that it’s the fear of failure more than the rewards of success that drives you. But there’s also an attraction in failing spectacularly…
Sean Conway: Oh yes, heroic failure! If you’re going to go out, go out with a bang.
TriGear: On the massive-scale undertakings that you enjoy you can, presumably, take a fairly big knock and that’s going to be quite a small dent in the scale of things…
Sean Conway: You’d be surprise! If I’d had just two headwind days on the round the world attempt I wouldn’t have caught the other guy. 18,000 miles, and if I had dropped 100miles behind the record… To actually make up 100miles could take weeks, because you are pushing it at that fine line. Now these records are broken by hours, not days or weeks. The next person who breaks the round the world bike record will probably only do it 12hours quicker.
TriGear: When you’re planning the next challenge do you feel a pressure to top previous achievements?
Sean Conway: Personal pressure? Yes, absolutely. I did stuff for other people for the entirety of my ‘other life’, my old life in my 20s. It’s just personal now – I’ve found my thing, found my ‘beard’; I know what I’m good at, know what I’m capable of and that makes me a better human being.
TriGear: Ever tempted to do something ‘normal’ like a mere marathon?
Sean Conway: I’ve no real interest in doing a marathon; sometimes I think about it and I’d probably do it in fancy dress or something. It’s probably way too short for me, but I’d maybe do it if a charity asked me to help raise money for something I believe in… The same goes for a triathlon or even an Ironman really because it’s not my game – it’s short, a sprint. And I can’t keep up the pace.
TriGear: Love the fact that you can refer to an Ironman as short…
Sean Conway: It is in my game. And I honestly couldn’t keep up the pace – those guys are fast! Stuff that takes weeks long, that’s where I kick in and a lot of that’s mental of course.
TriGear: Mental stamina really comes with age, right?
Sean Conway: Yes, you get better at it, better mentally. If a toddler walks down the street and falls over they start crying; they’re not crying because of the pain, but because it’s a new experience and they’re like ‘What’s this? Waaaaaaa…’ The next time they’re like, ‘Ah yes that’s happened before…’ Life experience.
Also your heart’s been around a bit longer, you store fat a bit better when you’re older, you can store energy for the longer stuff – for the long, long stuff you’re in better shape. You know that niggle in your knee is fixable because it’s happened before. In your 40s you have problems with you knee and it’s yeh, okay – when it happens in your 20s your like ‘Argh! My leg’s going to fall off!’ But actually it’s just a tight ITB or glute.
TriGear: You’ve obviously inspired a lot of people. Who inspired you?
Sean Conway: Loads that I admire… Anyone that’s said ‘fuck that!’ to the system and followed a dream. Anyone that’s gone out and decided to do something. Someone like climber Kenton Cool – I love the fact that he went to Nepal 25 years ago and fell in love with the mountains and has given his life to his dreams of Everest – he’s done it 11 times, he’s climbed it twice in a week.
In swimming it would be Martin Strel, amazing, crazy. Cycling: Tommy Godwin; in 1939 he did 75,000miles in a year (averaging over 200miles per day.) Running would be Zola Budd – she used to run around barefoot back in the day and my mum used to say: ‘You’re my Zola Bud,’ because I’d run around barefoot all day…