Could you cycle the length of America’s iconic Route 66, or complete a triathlon around the British Isles? How long would it take? Where would you sleep? What would you eat and how would your significant other feel about you absconding for weeks on end?
For most of us, such epic stunts are the stuff of mere fantasy, or enthusiastic post-pub discussions swiftly swept beneath the carpet in the cold light of the following morning. But for Sean Conway, they are real, doable things that he actually goes out and, well, does. We caught up with Sean – bearded adventurer, Instagram dog wrangler and Yellow Jersey ambassador – to talk about his most recent scheme; breaking the world record for riding from one end of Europe to the other. Sean’s route will see him start in Portugal and head east to the finish line in Russia. To break the record, he will have to maintain a daily distance of about 200 miles. And the most impressive part? He will do all this self-supported. Conway has a history with this record, having attempted it in 2017, but an injury to the quad muscle in his leg put a premature end to his first attempt. Now though, Conway is back with his trademark irrepressible enthusiasm and self-belief.
Tom Owen: Sean, sorry to kick this off on a negative, but this is not your first go at this record. Tell us how it felt to abandon your 2017 attempt?
Sean Conway: It was pretty gutting. When you plan these things, it’s not just the training, you spend months working out routes and logistics and you set aside months out of your diary. Everything was going well; I’d already gained 70 miles on the previous record holder in the first couple of days and I was going strong. However, there was a heatwave in Spain, it was like 38°C, it really was hot. With hindsight I probably didn’t keep myself cool enough, I probably didn’t drink enough water, little things like that. I just got to day four and got a little niggle, and truth be told it was a tiny niggle. It was a niggle that ordinarily you would just rest up a day or two and be fine, but unfortunately these records are so tight, a day or two is game over. I tried to push it for another day or two, but I was only managing to push 150-odd miles a day, and even with that I felt as though I was getting worse and worse. There were no signs of it improving at all, so eventually I thought, sadly, I’d just have to pull out. Anyone who’s been injured before can relate to just how… obviously it’s heart-breaking, but just so annoying. All of a sudden, especially when you get home, you’ve got a whole month of sitting at home doing nothing, and you were meant to be away, so that’s even more depressing, sitting at home stewing in your own misery.
TO: You mention the prep required. Exactly how long is it between deciding you’re going to take on a challenge and actually being on the ‘start line’, as it were?
SC: If I’d never done a big bike ride before, I would say give yourself nine months to a year, but because I’ve got a lot of experience of this sort of thing and I’ve got most of the kit already – I know the drill when it comes to self-supported bike rides – I just needed to train. I gave myself about six months, really. Between five and six months. Which is quite fast, but only because I didn’t have to focus on some of the other stuff, because I already knew the drill.
“I know the drill when it comes to self-supported bike rides – I just needed to train.”
TO: When you experience a setback, or ‘hiccup’ as we know you like to call them, how do you personally deal with that? Can you walk away from a challenge that you’ve not been successful in or does it nag at you?
SC: I’m getting better at it. In the early days I would get adventure blues and get back and be all depressed by it, but I’ve actually learnt to be a bit more practical about the whole experience. I like to get home, sit down and write a list. I’m like, ‘Right, why didn’t that work?’ and ‘How can I make sure that doesn’t happen again?’ and things like that. That’s how I deal with it now. Some of them that I haven’t completed in the past, it depends how far down the line it is, it depends if you have the motivation. It’s like when you write a really long email, and it doesn’t save and you haven’t sent it; you never really write the same email again, you just make the second one a bit rubbish.
Some of the big adventures, I get back and think I just couldn’t be bothered. I never forget them, they’re never out of my mind, but I sometimes think I’ll move onto something else then come back to this one. If I have to do it, if I feel it’s a chore, then it’s not worth it. I try and base my whole life around this. If it’s not a ‘hell yes’ then it’s not worth it. I think we should all base our lives around if it’s not a ‘hell yes’ don’t do it, because you just end up just wafting, you know? Some of the old records, one day they’ll be a ‘hell yes’ again, but some of them right now aren’t. But Europe is definitely a ‘hell yes’ thing, which is why I’m attempting it again.
“I think we should all base our lives around if it’s not a ‘hell yes’ don’t do it”
TO: Could you tell us a little bit about the process of getting from abandoning your attempt in 2017, to where we are now. Did you immediately want to do it again? Or did you go and do something else for a while before it crept back into your psyche and became a ‘hell yes’ again?
SC: Well firstly the process of giving up meant I was somewhere in the middle of the Pyrenees and had to cycle with one leg for two days to get to an airport to fly home, and find a bike box and get some clothes. That whole process was a bit of a mission, and wasn’t much fun. But once I got home, I really had no interest in having another crack. It was the end of the season, I knew I couldn’t recover and go back, so for me I thought I’d revisit it [in 2018]. Back then, if I’m honest, I thought by this point I’d have had another different idea that was a ‘hell yes’ and I’d pursue that instead. But yeah, it kept coming back into my mind – every time I got on the bike and I was feeling good I remembered that Europe record was still there. And then eventually, just before Christmas I think it was, I decided this year was a good year for it. I feel good, I’m a good age for it, this Europe record is only going to get harder to beat in the years to come, and that got me excited about it. That’s why I decided to have another crack.
You get more commitments in life as you get older, that’s just a fact. You’ve got parents that you’re going to have to start looking after, kids, family. So attempts like this do get more difficult. People always say to me, ‘when should I do this?’ and I say ‘do it now.’ Most of the time – obviously there are exceptions – doing these sorts of challenges gets more difficult to pull off as you get older. Yes, you may be very lucky and have an understanding family, you may have no dependants, you may win the lottery, whatever. But for the most part, if you don’t do it now it’s just going to be harder later on.
TO: We’re big fans here of the Instagram accounts you have created for your two dogs (@adventuremillie & @adventureshackleton) – apart from them, do you have people relying on you at home?
SC: Yeah, I have a girlfriend and we rent a house, so we’ve got to pay rent, and we’ve got the dogs to look after, and my parents aren’t getting any younger, all that sort of thing. I’m just like everyone else. There will be children at some point along the way, so I’m just like everyone else, really.
Everyone thinks Adventure Millie is mine, but it’s not, it’s my girlfriend’s. I have nothing to do with Millie’s account, that’s her dog. I’m Shackleton’s owner, master, lord of the manor! I got really excited with his account at the beginning, but now to be honest the Instagram account is just to have a living memory of his life, and my account is for that too.
TO: Instagram is just one of many ways people can interact with you. How important is interaction with the wider public to you? Does it keep you going during your challenges? Does it inspire you to dream up new ones?
SC: Definitely, 100%. There are two main reasons I make my Instagram public, rather than just a private ‘record’ of my life. I want to inspire people to lead healthier and happier lives and get fitter and eat better, and get healthy and spend more time outside. Also, if I can use my influence to raise some money for charity, that’s why I do it. It’s great to get some response from it. In a world where there are no charities and nobody needs inspiring, I would make everything private and I wouldn’t do it. If I made it private now it would be a bit selfish of me, because I have an opportunity to hopefully give other people the realisation of their potential. I think it would be selfish if I just kept that to myself.
TO: Do people ever contact you and say ‘I’m about to go and cycle around the world, and it’s your fault’?
SC: Yeah, loads. At the moment I try and reply to everyone, but I probably get between five and 10 emails a week. In fact, I replied to two people today about that exact thing, cycling around the world. They also then follow along with ‘what bicycle do I buy?’ or ‘which countries do I need visas for?’ but for the most part it’s usually preceded by ‘it’s your fault that I’m miserable and cold and hungry and wet, but totally awesome.’
TO: And after you smash the Europe record, which we’re sure you will, what’s next? Do you think about the next-next challenge or are you always laser-focused on ‘the now’?
SC: A bit of both, a bit of both. I think of what I’d like to do in the future, but I also think of what I need to not do so that I have something to do in the future. I don’t want to do it all now, or I’d just get bored. Imagine if I’d done it all, I’m only 37. What these big adventures have taught me over time are three things, three really important life skills. One is resilience, one is resourcefulness and the third is level-headedness. I think if you’re resilient, resourceful and level-headed, you’ll kind of get out of anything. If all of a sudden you get ill, and you have to change your lifestyle you’ll do it because you’re level-headed. If one day, you’re super skint and you run out of money, you’ll be resourceful, you’ll make a plan. I think that’s why I’m not too worried about the future, because I feel I’ll just make a plan, whatever happens.
TO: Thank you Sean! and good luck with the attempt in April.