How an endurance athlete swapped the rat race for a life of adventure

“When I was 12 years old, I got my first film camera and I fell in love with photography. I remember thinking as a teenager that this camera would be my passport,” says adventurer and endurance athlete Sean Conway.

“I thought I would use it to meet people, to be wet, miserable and cold, hungry and tired, but pushing myself and traveling the world.”

Sean Conway takes a breather halfway through the world’s longest triathlon. Photo: Courtesy of seanconway.com

And while Zimbabwe-born, Britain-based Conway has climbed Kilimanjaro dressed in a penguin suit, circumnavigated the world on a bike and completed the world’s longest triathlon, for most of his 20s, he was neither miserable nor cold, hungry nor tired, and very much stuck in London.

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“I moved to London when I was 21 and instead of chasing fun and creative projects, I chose money,” he says. “By the time I was in my late 20s, I was running a business as a school portrait photographer. I was photographing 10,000 school kids a year in front of a white background. I turned 30 and I thought, ‘There has to be more to life.'”

Because hiking 19,000 feet without a penguin suit is all too easy. Photo: Courtesy of seanconway.com

Conway took drastic action and walked away. “I sold my business for one pound to my business partner, then spent four pounds getting [the note] framed,” he laughs. “I started out on Day One at minus three pounds.”

Craving adventure, but being both broke and unemployed, Conway figured the best way to get sponsored would be to do a world record. It was then that he saw an advertisement for the first-ever World Cycle Race, which was to start in Greenwich, London. He signed up, started a website and spent the next six months training and fundraising.

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“After three weeks of the race, I was way ahead of schedule, averaging nearly 180 miles per day,” he says. “Until in America a texting driver ran me over doing 50 miles per hour. I suffered severe whiplash, concussion, torn ligaments and a compression fracture to my spine.”

Conway’s bike and a well-earned rest in his ride around the world in 2012. Photo: Courtesy of seanconway.com

For most people, this might have been the end of the road. For Conway, though, who’d fought so hard to reset his life, it was just the start. “After a month in hospital, I decided I wanted to continue to follow my dream and keep raising money for a charity called SolarAid. I arrived back in London with a week to spare, having covered 16,000 miles — 12,000 of them with a fractured spine.”

From there, Conway has continued to find cruel and inventive ways to punish himself. He was the first man to swim the length of Britain, the 1,400 miles taking four and a half months in freezing waters. After taking a few jellyfish stings to the face early on, Conway decided to grow a huge beard to protect himself. (He still has it.)

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Next was a self-supported triathlon — the world’s longest — that featured a 3,200-mile bike leg, an 800-mile run and a 100-mile swim.

Have beard, will adventure. Photo: Courtesy seanconway.com

“It turns out I’m quite good at being wet, miserable and tired,” he says. “With each adventure, I try to set goals where I may not achieve the outcome. That means that when I awake at 5 a.m. every morning, I am never sure what will happen.

“In my old life, I knew exactly how each and every day would pan out. It was terrifying.”

The triathlon was self-supported, meaning Conway had to tow this raft behind him throughout the 800-mile swim. Photo: Courtesy of seanconway.com

His next aim is to break a lap record. That lap just happens to be of Australia, on a bike. The current record is 37 days, which equates to 237 miles each day. This July, Conway will attempt to do it in 35 days. It seems the challenges and adventures aren’t about to stop any time soon.

“As we speak right now, I’m looking at the one-pound note that I framed,” he says. “It’s a reminder that life is too short to be doing things you hate, and that you can change your life. Now go out and go for a run.”