You couldn’t accuse Sean Conway of lowly ambitions. In 2012 the 32-year old set out to beat the world record for cycling around the world. A collision with a lorry scuppered his time keeping but didn’t stop him completing the ride despite multiple injuries including a fractured spine.
As a professional adventurer he then cast around for the next big thing. He doesn’t recall any epiphanic moment when he decided to swim from Lands End to John O’Groats but the idea gradually coalesced and the excitement grew when he realised nobody has done it before. He was also inspired by his friend Dave Cornthwaite who last year swam the 1000 mile length of the Lower Missouri River in the USA.
Apart from being a first, the swim fulfils a number of other criteria for Sean.
“I wanted to do something in the UK,” he says, “and something that should be publicly engaging. I also like the idea that because it’s new there are no rules to follow so I can define the challenge. I do however hope that someone can come along after me and do it differently or better or faster.”
Interestingly, Conway is not a swimmer. “I can swim enough not to drown,” he says, although we suspect that understates his ability. Like Keri-Anne Payne, Conway spent part of his childhood in South Africa (he was born in Zimbabwe) and took part in his first open water event aged 10. He does however estimate he swam no more than 5km throughout his entire 20s.
Despite this, his training volume is remarkably light: he confesses that organising the swim and fundraising take so much of his time there’s little left for swimming. At the moment he swims about an hour a day and also gets to the gym as often as possible to build his upper body strength, which he admits isn’t comparable with his legs. Contrast this to his pre-round-the-world bike record attempt when he trained for up to 40 hours each week including 18 hour rides on Saturdays.
“To some extent you get fit as you’re doing these things,” he says. “My main focus is to improve my swimming efficiency, build strength and avoid injury. Speed isn’t really an issue. It’s no point flogging myself now and risking burnout for the possibility of completing the swim a couple of days quicker.” He’s being coached by Ironman specialist Mark Kleanthous who’s “done a lot to help me improve my technique.”
Conway initially tried to find an inland route making use of the UK’s extensive canal network but as swimming is not allowed in many of these waterways securing all the necessary permissions and approvals proved impossible so he’s eventually settled on a sea route along Britain’s west coast. While this will be more challenging to swim, Conway says, “it looks cooler on the map.”
We wonder if Conway has under-estimated the difficulty of the challenge. “It’s totally doable,” he says, confidently. One of his concerns, almost trivial sounding compared to the scale of his endeavour, is swimmer’s ear (see H2Open Magazine Issue 16 for more on this). He points out that Dave Cornthwaite’s swim was held back by a week because of this painful condition.
“Another key factor will be the crew,” he says. “Everyone in the team is a volunteer, is giving up their time and putting their regular jobs on hold to help me complete this swim and there’s a limit to how much I can ask of them. We don’t know yet how we will all get on in the confines of a small boat or how we’ll cope with rough conditions, and they all have deadlines to return to their usual occupations. ”
Of the swim, tides, currents and water conditions he’ll have to deal with, he had little to say. We suspect some of these things may be bigger issues than Conway admitted in our interview, especially in the narrow stretch between Ireland and Scotland, and around the north coast of Scotland, where tidal currents can be strong and confusing. Conway hopes that by timing his daily swims with the tides, even swimming at night if necessary, he’ll be assisted rather than pushed back by the water. He still has research to do in this area.
A key motivator for Conway is to have a purpose beyond the challenge itself – a cause to promote and support. He’s picked War Child, a charity that “protects children from the brutal effects of war and helps to rebuild their lives.” Conway has seen the impact war has on children in Africa and knows how devastating it can be. He also hopes to give talks to schools, colleges and businesses along the way about pushing yourself and achieving your goals.
Conway has taken on and succeeded with big challenges before. He has a track record. But, as swimmers are fond of saying, nothing great is easy. The fact that failure is a distinct possibility, or even likely, shows how high a bar Conway has set for himself. We wish him luck and hope to report on a new record later in the year.
What is the total distance? “About 1000 miles.”
Will you wear a wetsuit? “Yes, and gloves, socks and anything else if necessary. I’ve got zero body fat.”
How long will it take?” About two months.”
How far do you plan to swim each day? “20 miles”
When will you start? “1 July 2013”
Where can people find out more and make a donation? www.seanconway.com