What I’ve Learned: Adventurer Of The Year

Sean Conway, the first man to swim the length of Great Britain, shares his life lessons

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What do you do when you hit 30 and realise you've had enough of the 9-5? If you're Zimbabwe-born former photographer Sean Conway you sell your business for £1 and embark upon a world-spanning cycle trip.

Then you follow that up by becoming the first person to swim from Land's End to John O'Groats, covering 900 miles in 4.5 months, as he did last year.

With a cycle of Britain under his belt, and plans to run the length of the country – not to mention an Arctic triathlon set for summer – Conway's Adventurer Of The Year 2014 award has been well earned. 

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Here he takes us through the highs and lows of a life of extreme challenges.

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Swimming from Land’s End to John O’Groats is fricking miserable and cold and wet. You get stung by jellyfish all the time. The first few weeks were fun, while I was high on adrenaline, but you know, it dragged on.

I couldn’t chew, my tongue was swollen from the salt water, and I got eating fatigue where my body was just so tired of digesting food. We had to blend all of my meals – about 8,000 calories per day.

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I was 30 years old, I’d massively fallen out of love with my career so I thought: ‘Maybe if I break some kind of travel-based record it would be a way of me funding an adventure, breaking a record and exciting myself at the same time.'

I’m not ex-SAS, I’m not an Olympian, I’m not made of titanium. I’m 5’8”. I weigh 64kg. I’m definitely not athletic in appearance, but at the end of the day, I found something that I really wanted to do and gave it 110% to get there.

The biggest injury I had was being hit by a lorry when I was cycling around America. All I remember is going to bed the night before then waking up on the side of the road the next morning. I had a compression fracture to my spine, whiplash, concussion. My helmet saved my life.

We waste a lot of energy on rubbish, thinking about the materialistic side of life. You realise your aspirations and ambitions are really ridiculous when you’re cycling through another country on a bicycle that costs more than the local kids will probably earn in their lives. 

In the next ten years I want to run the length of Africa, I want to a big kayak, I want to get into mountaineering, I want to do Alpine. I don’t want to be seen as a sort of one-sport discipline.

I want my future kids to think ‘Wow, dad was one of the best multi-discipline sporstmen that’s been.’

I’m doing an Arctic triathlon this summer. It’s interesting to me from a scientific and biological point of view – I want to see how my body reacts. The human body is such an amazing thing.

You might have a 9 to 5, but you’ve got 5 to 9 as well, and that’s a long time. People definitely don’t make the most of that.

We’re all a lot more physically and mentally capable than we think we are. I dare people just to put their bar up a little bit and they’ll surprise themselves.

The pain of giving up will last forever, but the cold, the hunger, the vomiting, the physical pain you’re experiencing will go away.

Sean Conway's memoir 'Hell and High Water' (Ebury Press) is out 5 March. Sean will run the length of Britain in March, watch how he gets on in Discovery's Sean Conway: Running Britain later this year. The Sean Conway Adventure Scholarship will award one entrant £500 towards an adventure of their choice, seanconway.com


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