By Cath Harris

“I just found out that I was good at extreme activity,” says adventurer Sean Conway whose endurance CV includes some of the longest, toughest and most innovative of, well, most things human propelled.

He invented, and has completed, a 4,200 mile self-supported ultratriathlon around the coast of mainland Britain and is the first person to have run, cycled and swum from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He also came close to breaking the record for cycling around the world but his efforts were thwarted in the US by a driver who struck him from behind, fracturing his spine. This year he will attempt to break the 37 day round-Australia cycling record for which he will have support.

Sean, 37, grew up in Zimbabwe where he enjoyed an active, outdoors life. “I didn’t compete and wasn’t in any of the teams in school but I enjoyed going for walks and climbing trees.” He moved to the UK in 2002 and worked on a farm and then as a portrait photographer. But adventure called and nine years later he gave up his job and started to plan.

One of his first goals was the round-the-world cycling record and after averaging 180 self-supported miles a day he was on course to set a new mark. The crash in the US ruined his plans although he still completed the 16,000-mile route, of which three-quarters was ridden with spinal damage. He remembers nothing of the impact but sitting and arching his back is painful now and he suffers nerve-related tension in his hamstring for which yoga is recommended. “I had worked so hard and really hoped to do something that no one else had,” Sean says in his engrossing book, Hell and High Water. He adds, “I didn’t achieve the record I was hoping to achieve and once I’d got my confidence back I was ready for another challenge.”

Sean Conway finishin ghis swim at John O

That was in 2012 and Sean has been setting standards for extreme adventure ever since. Unlike the round-the-world cycle, swimming from Land’s End to John O’Groats had never been attempted let alone completed. There was no recommended route or advice to follow other than from doubters, convinced he would fail. “But I did my research and there was nothing to say it was impossible, just that it was going to be cold and miserable.” Those conclusions were not wrong.

Sean had been a good swimmer as a teenager but had swum very little since and no more than three miles in one session. “I could do all the strokes but didn’t have a clue about technique, strength, style and breathing. For the first month I didn’t know what to do with my arms and had to think about every stroke. By the time I’d got the muscle memory I was completely fatigued.”

Surging tides, wind and rain, the searing stings of lion’s mane jellyfish and the unlikely appearance of a rare mako shark near the Pembrokeshire coast, far too close for comfort, were among the trials Sean and his crew faced. Added to that were repeated boat breakdowns and the loss of their kayak.

And while his back was uncomfortable if he sat, it was an old shoulder injury that hampered Sean’s swimming, causing him to unwittingly veer left. “If I didn’t concentrate I was swimming at 90 degrees within 100 metres.” Style tweaks evolved as Sean adapted to conditions. One of the first was his “ladder-pulling technique” in which he mimicked crawling along a ladder lying on the floor. “I’d reach ahead, grab a rung, pull it towards me keeping my hand fairly close to my body and then push the rung below, then repeat that with the other hand.”

“I wasn’t sure if that was even correct but it felt the best and with every stroke I was gaining confidence.” The adjustment enabled Sean to maintain a steady 2 mph. “I had to learn when and when not to breathe, not to fight the water and to use the waves when I could. I had to keep up my momentum.”

“I had to learn when and when not to breathe, not to fight the water and to use the waves when I could. I had to keep up my momentum.”

Sean’s swimming improved despite the exhaustion brought on by long hours in the water and sleepless nights in his rocking, noisy and soaking 26-foot support boat. Sea temperature was sometimes as low as 12°C which also sapped his energy. Ideally he’d have warmed up before jumping in but the boat’s cramped conditions made that impossible.

There were magical moments, too, however, despite the hardships. “Seeing phosphorescence is still one of the best experiences of my life and something I never dreamed I’d see in UK waters.

“I’d grown a beard to protect against the jellyfish stings and at one point the phosphorescence landed in my beard which lit up like a Christmas tree. We also got to explore the British coastline from an angle few others experience, and met some incredible coastal people.” Free accommodation, meals, lifts and fuel, and the loan of a kayak on the banks of Loch Eriboll, near Durness, were among contributions made.

Sean’s initial plan was to follow the west coast of England to Wales, skirt the Isle of Man then swim on to Scotland. But on a whim he chose to swim to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a “bonkers idea” that meant Swimming Britain included all four British countries.

“It was a pretty good call in the end because it meant we were sheltered from the weather. I wanted to have an adventure as well as a swimming challenge.”

Sean still swims and is keen to tackle challenges in warmer waters. “I really enjoy the fitness side of it but it feel like the UK swimming box has been ticked.”

For others seeking tough swimming challenges he says that conditions, food, water, sleep, “muscle management” – health and recovery – and motivation are key factors.

‘‘I’m motivated by the fear of being average and if you don’t have the motivation you won’t achieve anything.

"If you think about all the things that could happen you’d never leave your bedroom."

“I was cold, miserable, tired and hungry in Swimming Britain, all things that you recover from pretty quickly. If you thought about all the things that could happen you’d never leave your bedroom.”


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