The World’s Longest Triathlon

Sean Conway’s cycle, run and swim around the coast of Britain

When most people quit their job they hate they usually just find another one. But not Sean, he decided to put himself through a gruelling 5 year regime of strange and wonderful endurance challenges from climbing Kilimanjaro in a penguin suit to most recently, completing the world’s longest triathlon which was 4200 miles, completely self-supported.

 

Sean cycled through the Welsh and Scottish coastline on a bamboo bike, a total of 3350 miles. Then he ran down the east coast of Britain which took 1.5 million steps, until he got to Brighton where Sean swam over 100 miles in 2 weeks back to where he started. This was turned into a short TV show following Sean on his adventure, you can catch Sean Conway: On the Edge at 10pm on 30th August 2016 on the Discovery Channel.

I spoke to our very own Ellie Samuel, who is now part of Homegrown Adventure, who told me she had met Sean’s mum in Cheltenham one day and she started talking about all Sean’s adventures which inspired Ellie to head outdoors. A few years down the line she is a now a qualified mountain leader, small world ey? When I told Sean about this he exclaimed “oh great really? My mum does get around. The best PR agent ever!”

There are so many adventurers from the UK and I thought it was interesting how no one had ever attempted this, as far as I’m aware. The world’s longest triathlon around the coast of Britain was such an interesting challenge. Sean explains how he came up with the idea.

“Well I’ve cycled, ran and swam the length of Britain before but, it took me five years you know, and it was spread out over different events and I had years in-between. Once I’d done all three I was naturally looking for the next big thing. I certainly believe we should all have physical goals in our lives that we find difficult. I think it makes you a better person. It makes you happier. “

“I wanted to go away on adventures so I started looking at other countries round the world like India and America and Australia and I don’t know why I just got drawn back to Britain, it’s a pretty cool island.  I genuinely believe it’s the best island in the world. I worked out that a route around the coast line was going to be the world’s longest triathlon if I divided it up, that really captured my imagination. That made me explore it from an exploration point of view, and a physical point of view.”

You tend to forget what is closest to home because it’s so accessible and it’s always there. But Britain has a lot to offer and there is a lot to be discovered if you take the time to explore it.

Sean talks about why he enjoys it so much, “everybody speaks the language and everything is familiar from a cultural point of view, it’s got so many quirky bits and bobs that I never knew existed. Little parts of north wales where they barely speak English it’s brilliant, I love it.”

When I asked him was the hardest part he replied almost immediately “the swim! Yes the swim, I’m yet to find anyone in the history of ever who’s done 115 miles fully self-supported swim in the sea.” One of the most astonishing things about this was Sean did this without any support team or lifeboats. A situation like that, being out at sea, swimming mile upon mile would scare most people but this didn’t bother Sean very much; “I was too tired to be scared most of the time. And I was close to the shore, don’t get me wrong with all these challenges you’ve got to manage risk quite efficiently and you don’t want to just be gung ho. I’m a firm believer that we are way more physically and mentally capable than we think we are. You can’t just go willy nilly into something. If you want to climb a mountain, learn how to belay and put on crampons. So I looked at the risk and managed it.”

Swimming outdoors is slowly growing in popularity and it can be dangerous. Sean talks about what he thinks made his swim a success and what advice he could give to anyone looking to get into outdoor swimming. “Firstly you need to get your style down. Even though you are unfit swimmer if your style is good that will help a lot. An unfit swimmer with a good style would be way better than a really good swimmer with a bad style. If you want to go out and do open water sea swimming get your style correct and you fitness will generally come.” I asked naively “so by style you mean swimming technique.” “Yes swimming technique, umm, no your style, what you’re wearing” he says laughing.

Sean openly admits it was the hardest 85 days of his life and looking at the distance he swam, cycled and ran, you can see why. If you were up a mountain in the Himalayas and the only way back is to keep moving. But with world’s longest triathlon being so close to home and civilisation the temptation to quit might be very real for a lot of people. “I never think of those things. The idea of quitting never crossed my mind. You can’t have room for any sort of negative thoughts when you do these really big long things, you know, because they will weigh you down. I never thought of quitting but certainly I was at the point of really, really, really not enjoying it, most of the time actually. But as soon as you open that doorway to the idea of quitting that can be a slippery slope which is hard to come back from. I tell my family not to message me, I don’t speak to my family at all during the adventures.”

Do you not miss them at all?

“No” he says firmly “because you’re so focused. And you’re in Britain man everyone is so friendly and 99% of the world are full of friendly and amazing people. So you never actually get lonely. Yes you’re alone for a lot of the time but when you are pushing the big mileage you sort of need to be alone anyway.”

Lots of people want to get into the outdoors but don’t know how to. Sean was in a very similar situation a few years ago. He gave some advice for us mere mortals, “well just start small. You don’t have to go off and do the big stuff. It’s taken me five years to train to get to this sort of level of physical and mental strength. At the beginning I was too scared to walk up a hill and sleep on the top of it. Mainly because I didn’t know the rules and didn’t know what bag to have. You learn these things. Alastair Humphreys has an amazing philosophy where you go off and have these microadventures where you go off and have these adventures between your 9-5 job. You got 9-5 but you’ve also got 5-9. Start small, push that bar up a little bit every now and then, and push it higher and higher and higher. Don’t settle. Try something hard every time and before you know you’d be cycling round the world.”

Now the biggest challenge of his life has finished we wondering what Sean’s next challenge would be; “I have a very top secret one that I am doing undercover. I don’t know  if anyone will ever know about it because I really am just doing this one for fun, I’m not doing it for TV I’m not doing it for publicity I’m just doing it for the love of adventure. That one is in October. A lot of adventurers get annoyed with the ‘what’s next?’ question but I love it. I think you should always be having dreams and goals. I have a whole book of them that I’ve written down. Some of them are bonkers, running the length of Africa and things like that. But you’ve got to have them! And write them down, one day, hopefully, you’ll be able to do them.”

One of the first things you notice about Sean is his beard. I mean it’s kind of hard not to! Sean explains how he came about growing such a massive beard “I actually grew my beard when I swam the length of Britain to shield my face from jelly fish. I was getting stung in the face a lot and it sort of happened by mistake. I didn’t shave for a week which is kind of normal on the adventures and then realised the stings wasn’t as painful. So I just decided from that day on to grow it massive. So that was it really and now it gives me super powers.”

Sean hasn’t always been an adventurer, and I was interested to find out how he came onto this path. I found out that he sold his business back in 2011 for £1 and wanted to know why.

“I was miserable. I had dreams of being a National Geographic photographer. So my goal in life from an early age, I knew I wanted to be outdoors, I knew I wanted to travel, I knew I wanted to explore the world and for me a camera was going to be my passport to do that. Having a camera going photographing amazing people around the world. That was going to be my goal, my ticket to achieve my dreams of being outdoors and travelling around the world. Unfortunately, I made bad decisions and instead of following my dreams  I ended up in London photographing bankers babies and for school portraits and stuff like that and I was miserable. I was miserable. I couldn’t hold down a girlfriend. I had bad skin. I had insomnia. Life was just a bit rubbish. So I knew something had to change. Well I thought well if I just needed to get rid of it. I managed to find the one source. Which was the photography business. So I sold it for a pound. So I thought well. I’d fallen out of love with photography. Well photography wasn’t going to be my ticket to go travelling. What else could I do? That was when I decided to go off and do adventure racing and that is how it all kind of happened really.”

“I think people are starting to realise their potential. Like 20-30 years ago if someone said I was going to run a marathon people would have been like ‘woah, no way, that’s amazing!’ Now it’s like ‘oh anybody can do it’ and its true anybody CAN do it. But there are people who have no shown it. I guess people inspire other people.”

 

All picture credits: Discovery Channel, Sean Conway: On The Edge.
The show will be broadcast in three parts at 10pm on 30th, 31st August and 1st September.