Sean Conway, 37, also known as ‘The Big Bearded Adventurer’*, is attempting to break the record for the fastest unsupported** crossing of Europe by bicycle, starting in Cabo de Roca on the Atlantic Coast of Portugal and finishing 4500 miles to the east in the town of Ufa in Russia. Currently the record stands at 25 days, 3 hours and 38 minutes. In order to break it he will have to cover around 180 miles a day.
It is a huge undertaking. Conway is disarmingly honest the effort involved, and about past failure - he has attempted this record before and is prepared both to talk about it and to say that in an unrealistically positively-presented world it is a part of life. And similarly he is disarmingly self-deprecating, happy to depict himself as easy-going and an ordinary bloke.
And yet, to interview him made it clear that he is anything but ordinary, and that his willpower is a thing made of tungsten. He is clearly an exceptional endurance sportsman with highly developed resilience and level-headedness. For anyone interested in endurance he is fascinating to talk to.
SEAN CONWAY SUCCEEDED IN HIS ATTEMPT TO BREAK THE RECORD FOR AN UNSUPPORTED TRANS-EUROPEAN CYCLE CROSSING. HE MADE IT IN 24 DAYS, 18 HOURS AND 39 MINUTES, BEATING THE PREVIOUS RECORD BY SOME 9 HOURS.
*After several jellyfish stings on a swim the length of Britain 2013, Conway grew a huge beard as protection. It has been his trademark ever since. He known as the Big Bearded Endurance Adventurer
**Unsupported means (effectively) that he does not have a support vehicle tracking and guiding him, handing over water and food. He will arrange his own food, water, repairs and accommodation along the way.
First a bit of Form
Sean Conway - like a lot of children I always wanted to climb Everest and go to the Poles. And cycle round the world. I was fired by lots of the big challenges, but I found the field dominated by a certain type – generally alpha male, well off and very macho - and it rather put me off. For years I was a school portrait photographer, but then I had a change in life. I wanted to go travelling but I had no money, so I began to think of records as way to fund and enable it. In 2012 I set off on the round-the-world cycling attempt. And then I found I was in the same field after all, and yet I still felt like a normal bloke.
Why the cross-Europe record? Why now?
I am at the culmination of an eight year dream to complete what I called the Three Fs, a World First, a World Furthest and a World Fastest, all of them significant endurance challenges. It has been my mantra for the past eight years.
In 2012 I attempted a ‘World’s Fastest’ by going for the record for cycling around the world. I had covered 4000 miles in 20 days and was way ahead of the record, when I was run over by a lorry in the States and couldn’t continue at the speed I needed to. I completed the challenge on the same route, raising money for charity, but it was no longer a record attempt.
Then in 2013 I succeeded in a World First, a swim the length of Britain. I swam from Land’s End to John O’Groats - along the north shore of Cornwall, around Wales, across to Ireland and up to Northern Ireland, then up the West coast of Scotland and across to John O’ Groats. It took me 4 ½ months.
In 2016, I did one for fun, entering the Route 66 crossing of America, between the West Coast and Chicago. Unfortunately I got injured again. But there was success in 2016, with my World Furthest, the longest triathlon that anyone has ever completed. I circumnavigated Britain in 85 days by bike (3200 miles from Lulworth Cove to Scarborough), on foot (800 miles to Brighton) and swimming (100 miles back to Lulworth Cove).
After that I began to look around at a challenge to fulfill the World’s Fastest and the crossing of Europe was the one that excited me most. For all sorts of reasons. There are lots of countries I haven’t visited before and of course Europe is quite topical at the moment, though if anything the ride shows how we’re all still cool and despite the politics, we want to get on with our lives and be good neighbours.
So it’s to complete the Three Fs, that’s why I am doing it. Oh, that and returning to put to rest demons of last year’s record attempt which failed.
Describe the physical side
Endurance comes with age. I’m 37 now and I have been doing this since 2011. As long as you have a good base to start with, then your endurance will stick with you. I still have it so for this event I just needed to get some miles into the legs. With the latent strength in all the hard tissue (tendons, ligaments and collagen) already there, I worked on muscle mass (the bit that comes and goes with fitness), and getting lean. This I can achieve in short bursts, so I haven’t done anything longer than 140 miles. Training for power like this has two effects. First you burn fat more efficiently, ie at a lower heart rate, and secondly the conditioning means that you are less likely to get injured.
And the mental aspects
I am very practical in my approach to an event like this and I divide my routine into six main areas -
1 Planning – Obviously there’s the planning before the event, but there is a lot of planning while I am out there, everything from where and when I need to stop to what sort of food I will need to buy
2 Sleep – This is a question of how much I have to have and how much can I get away with. You can win or lose on an event like this by having too much or too little sleep
3 Food – This is about balancing how many calories I need and the type of calories. I am pretty good at knowing this now, but it’s vital that you take in the right sort of food at the right time.
4 Water – I need to consider sweat rate and salt loss (which in my case is very high, about 3.7 gram per litre as opposed to most people’s 1 gram), so I watch this carefully. I know that I sweat about 1.5 litres per hour in 30 degree heat and around 750 ml in 20 degrees.
5 Muscle Management – It's stretching, massage and ice baths, basically, all of which I can self-administer. I carry a tennis ball which I use for massage - it gets a few funny looks from people who come across me… and for my quads I get to work with my elbow. A local river works well as an ice bath.
6 Mindset – if I have slept well and drunk and eaten, I know my mood will generally be fine. It’s usually only when these things are out of balance that my mindset is affected.
If I am down, I do in fact produce the same power, but I tend to faff around a lot more. I fiddle with equipment, start to think I am getting lost and begin to second guess the route. I allow things to plague my mind. My strategy for raising my mood is really to stick to the routine, to focus on eating and drinking. It usually works. Occasionally I listen to music.
What will be the most challenging aspect of the event?
The biggest challenge will be injury avoidance. Many people talk about the fact that a strong mind gets you through these events, but I have discovered that in some ways I have too strong a mind, which means that I don’t listen to my body carefully enough and I end getting injured because of it. So that needs to be managed too. These records are so tight that any injury will put you behind the pace. I am also concerned about sleep deprivation. If I have three or four days into a headwind and I start to make compromises on my sleep and other strategies by pushing myself too hard, then it can really affect my mood.
What are your general expectations (about the trip – and the likelihood of success)?
The only thing I am looking forward to in this is the moment when I cross over the finish line. If I’m honest, it is not about the journey, it’s about breaking the record [held since July 2017 by Jonas Deichman, who completed the 4500 mile distance in 25 days, 3 hours and 38 minutes.] I know his route and I know his times and if I don’t beat them then it is a waste of time in my book.
Of course there will be moments when I am inspired by the landscape, but I won’t devote much brain space to it. More relevantly I know that I will be cold, wet and miserable for much of the time when I am out there, so I suspect that any enjoyment or satisfaction will arrive in about a year’s time. People call it Type 2 fun, in that you don’t actively enjoy it at the time, but you realise later on that it was worthwhile.
You talk very forthrightly about failure
Things go wrong and you make mistakes. I had to think hard about coming back to his venture. But what I find is that life isn’t only about winning and breaking records, it is about giving things the very best shot that you can, and being confident that you could not have done any more. That said, I’m determined to break this record and I’ve been putting lot of work in to help me achieve this goal.
What does adventure mean to you?
In its purest form adventure is a way of thinking differently, so it might even be going to a different type of restaurant or reading different books. Of course I can have ‘normal’ holidays, but for adventure I feel I need a challenge and if there is no real jeopardy in facing a challenge or a goal and the possibility of failure, then it just isn’t adventurous. And yes, I’m definitely on the ‘physically demanding’ side of the equation. There has to be a ‘Hell, Yeah’ aspect, of really wanting to step up to the challenge.
Sean Conway’s attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the fastest time across Europe is sponsored by cycle insurance company Yellow Jersey.