Sean Conway: An interview on falling in love with running
Sean Conway and adventuring go hand-in-hand. From swimming, cycling, and running the length of Great Britain, to becoming a world record holder for the longest continuous triathlon (4200 miles), or to competing in Gloucestershire’s iconic cheese rolling competition, Sean knows a thing or two about living life outside the norm.
His latest adventure was The 496 Challenge. Here, Sean ran 496km across the 31 days of January in an effort to rediscover his love for running. As you do. The challenge built up incrementally, with 1km on Jan 1st, 2km on Jan 2nd, and so on, until eventually culminating in a 31km run on Jan 31st.
I spoke to Sean to find out more about his story, and how he’s used endurance sports to carve out a life full of adventure. What’s clear is that behind every great adventure, there lies a story. A story of unfulfilled dreams, of bumps in the road, of outright failures and, ultimately, of learnings.
Q: You talk about your hiccups on your website, and that you lost your way in your 20’s. Rather than following your dream, you chose the well paid corporate London life. What made you leave, and what did you learn?
Sean Conway: I’ve been thinking about this for about 10 years, but the problem with hindsight is that you reengineer things to suit you now. Whereas at the time it was probably a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. So talking about it now, it is hard to grasp exactly what it was.
I definitely didn’t chase the goals and dreams that I had, I just let them sit there, which was my biggest mistake. I thought, ‘Ok I have these goals and they’ll happen one day.’ Earning money was my focus and and to be honest, I thought I needed more money to live a fulfilled & purposeful existence – which actually didn’t make me happy at all.
The “money doesn’t make you happy” argument is tricky, especially if you know how it feels when you literally have no money. I came to the UK from SA with £100, not knowing anyone, landing up in Cambridge cutting cabbages in a salad factory!
Q: So money is still important to you, but it isn’t a main driver?
Sean: Exactly. What money definitely allows you, is the simple things you need to survive. But there also comes a point when you have ‘enough’ for financial security, and for some luxuries. That’s when you have to make a choice.
For me, I pushed things too far, in terms of the financial dream, and sacrificed all happiness. That said, I hate throwing the word happiness around, because when you’re not happy you think you’re failing – there’s a difference between happiness and joyfulness too – it’s fulfilment, really, I think. I’d fallen out of love with photography because I wasn’t doing the stuff I wanted to do – the goals and dreams I had at 15.
I got caught up in my 20s thinking earning more money would give me more time & freedom to pursue the things I wanted, but the complete opposite happened – more stress, commitments, and often more debt too.
Q: I presume quitting in that context was easy?
Sean: Absolutely. If you’re not getting any fulfillment from something, if no one else is benefitting from it, and if you don’t see a future in it, then it’s easy to quit. Had I had a family, a mortgage… then all of a sudden it becomes a different story, so I’m aware it can be dangerous to just to tell people, ‘Go quit your job’ if they have no other plan.
You need to have a plan, man! At some point you have to consider the end goal. I got into adventure sports because I needed the adventure element of travel, that ‘something’ which would fulfil me. I’m good with deadlines & quitting forced me to make a plan. But, if you’re thinking about it, then I’d recommend making at least a rough plan first, it’s about balance.
Q: And have you always been into sports?
Sean: Not particularly, I mean we had to do sport at school but I was terrible at rugby, didn’t play cricket, rubbish at athletics. I was ok at Canoeing actually but I gave that up when I was about 19. So it was definitely the sense of adventure that came first.
To be honest, getting into sport later was about being skint. I sold my photography company for £1 and I knew I wanted to travel and do something purposeful, but I couldn’t really afford it. So, I genuinely thought, if I try to break some sort of world record then I can get sponsorship.
The endurance sport factor was also slightly fuelled by the fact I’d cycled Lands End to John O’ Groats before in 2008 and this second meltdown was in 2011. So I kind of knew that getting up, cycling all day, sleeping & repeating, was something I was good at and that I liked. Except I just wanted to do it faster than anyone else. That genuinely excited me.
Q: So, choosing endurance sports was in part a financial decision, but in part about the competitiveness of doing things no one had done before?
Sean: Absolutely. The goal was the first thing, but realistically I had to get someone else to fund it. Pretty much all sports on the planet are only achievable through sponsorship. It’s great that sponsorship can make things possible and I’m grateful for that – things like the Olympics wouldn’t be possible without athletes being able to train to get there.
I basically thought, “I’m going to become a non-professional sports person, who has to think of a record, and then break it”. Which sounds easier than it is, because if it’s too easy, no one could be bothered and if it’s too hard, no one will fund it!
Q: Looking at challenges like the length of Britain triathlon, what is your response when your mind & body just say no?
Sean: I only really get that feeling when I’m swimming and running – it’s very rare that I’m super miserable on the bike. Except maybe early mornings when it’s cold and your clothes are wet. But, swimming can be a daily struggle, putting on the wetsuit and getting into the water, it’s tough.
Everyone says it’s type 2 fun, where you look back later and go ‘oh that was fun’, but it’s been 8 years now and I’m still looking back thinking that wasn’t fun – so maybe the swimming was type 3 fun!
Cold water swimming is just hard motivationally. The length of Britain triathlon itself was years apart, and because of how miserable the swim was, I think I’ll be the only person to have done all 3 disciplines the length of the country. Unless Ross Edgeley decides to cycle & run it!
Q: Let’s talk about your 496 challenge – what was your thinking behind that?
Sean: Well I’m turning 40 in April, and in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to get more into running in my 40s as cycling has always been my main focus. The 496 challenge was my way of getting into running and discovering a real love for it.
I thought I’d start slowly with 1km and increase my mileage each day by 1km and that maybe that’ll make me fall in love with running. If you do that in a 31 day month, then it adds up to 496km for the whole month. It sounds doable but it’s super backended, it takes 22 days to do the first half but the first 10 days ends up being about the same as the last 2 days I think!
It definitely builds a good foundation and I was amazed at how many people got on board. In the end there were hundreds of people who gave it a go and I think at least 50 finished it with me. I made a little video about it as well which was fun.
Q: Did it work – did you fall in love with running?
Sean: It’s strange – the fitness from that month stayed with me – but annoyingly after it I got ill and had a period where I didn’t run for a few weeks. We all know running is so injury dependent, but when I came back to it I felt amazing and that’s the place you want to be at with running I think – it gave me a really good foundation.
Cycling you can just go all day – but running you are balancing an injury game the whole time which can make you lose your love for it if you don’t manage it well. So starting small is good I think. All in all, yes I think it worked, I think I really did fall in love with running.
Q: And in 2019 you completed the Virgin Money London Marathon, how did that compare to your usual adventures?
Sean: It was great, I loved it, the crowds were awesome, the route was awesome, the running was awesome. Well, actually that’s a lie, the running wasn’t awesome. I was doing the run in this massive scout badge (for Scouts) which was bouncing around and the straps would fall off my shoulders. Imagine you’re running while trying to balance a tray of drinks, well that’s how it felt, except for 26 miles.
Overall though, I loved it as an experience and I’d definitely do the London Marathon again as it feels special. I’m not sure about other marathons yet, I’m self motivated so I don’t feel I need the crowds and to be honest, I’m not quick enough. I’m like a 4 hour marathon guy so overtaking is tough and the crowds aren’t always easy for my kind of running.
Q: Would you take part in other endurance events, perhaps ultramarathons?
Sean: At the moment, the plan is to do those organised events later in life. I’d definitely enjoy doing a couple of long ultras. So yes when I’m a bit fitter and more robust – maybe in my mid 40s it would be nice to push myself in the ultra world.
I’d also love to do some more storytelling in the form of my adventures, like the 496 challenge. I’m doing a marathon a day at each of the National Parks as a love letter to the National Parks of the UK. Then once covid eases I’d love to run across America or perhaps the length of Vietnam or India.
I definitely want to do a run which would take me at least 3 months. So it’s still a challenge but not so long that it stops being an athletic journey & achievement, as opposed to just going travelling. There’s definitely loads of ideas – I just need to convince my wife!
Q: You say that ‘adventure in its purest form is simply a way of thinking’ – how can people find adventure in normal life?
Sean: It’s tricky, for me it comes naturally to think adventurously. And I’m grateful for that. My advice would be that if you find yourself stuck in a routine, just change it. There are so many small ways in which you can be more adventurous. Think, if you’re eating the same thing each day, try something else. If you’re running the same route every day, find a new one. If you’re listening to the same music everyday, listen to new music.
Personally, I’m quite inquisitive when it comes to nature and I hate routine, I hate doing the same thing even if it’s just for a week so I’m loving being flexible and being able to work from home. There’s a lot you can do from home too, for example I ended up doing different things within the 496 challenge runs, like planting a tree. Even within that there is a mini adventure; you need to decide all the fun things like where it should go, which tree am I going to plant and so on.
Picking up litter running was something I did on another run too. For my mental health I like to do the big things as well – I thrive on making the big things happen and I’m very goal driven. Generally, I think, if I don’t do the big challenges whilst I can, then I’m going to regret it. This is all in the hope that when my son is a teenager he’ll think I’m cool! Although I’ve heard from a number of reliable sources that this is impossible.
Q: How big a factor is mental health behind the way you live?
Sean: Yeah, it’s big. Luckily, I find it quite easy to get out of a rut in my head and I know the formula now.. So if I ever find myself in one then I do a little exercise. That said, exercise alone generally makes me feel better on that particular day, but it isn’t always enough to get completely out of a rut.
Having a bigger goal, a crazier goal and doing the exercise required to reach that specific goal – that’s what’s truly important for me. Also, telling people about the goal helps. You need that accountability, you need people checking in on it so that you don’t lose motivation.
I always say to people, if you’re thinking about starting an adventure or doing something challenging then set up the Just Giving page NOW! Just get started, set up a website, tell your friends, put it in post-it notes on your mirror, follow through with it! Let’s be honest, if you have a reason NOT to do something, then you might not do it.