In this episode we hear all about Sean's training for his latest challenge (fastest cycle across Europe), his thoughts on success and happiness, and just about everything in between.
August 17, 2017
Owner of the worlds most powerful beard, Sean Conway drops knowledge bombs in episode 1 of We Need More Heroes. We hear of how Sean went from being uninspired and lost, to endurance athlete and lover of life. After selling his photography business for £1, he set his sites on adventure and has never looked back. We cover Sean's thoughts on training, life, happiness, and just about everything else in between.
[00:00:56] I'm here at my office in London recording today's episode. I've snuck off to a little booth, so it looks like I'm doing something work related. The company I'm working for is an enormous, beastly financial services firm with over 40000 employees in 70 countries. The impressive job titles and fancy suits are often the stuff of envy from people on the outside. But actually almost no one I've asked here likes that job, and even fewer of them love that job. It seems like a perfect place to contrast those trapped by security, money and prestige with the journey of today's guest, who's taken a leap of faith to create a life he loves and make his passion his work. Our guest is an extreme endurance adventurer, potentially the coolest job title in the world. He's done an incredible amount of cool shit. In 2016, for example, the Discovery Channel followed him as he completed the world's longest triathlon, covering over four thousand miles around the edge of mainland Britain. He's written a number of books, speaks at loads of events, and never fails to inspire his adventure through and through, and has followed his passion to build a life he loves. The perfect guest for We Need More Heroes. Without further ado, I give you Shaun. The King of the beard, Conway.
[00:02:16] Hello. Good morning again.
[00:02:18] It is going great. Thank you. A very good start to a Monday morning. Having a podcast with you is much better than getting open my normal spreadsheets and doing boring finance stuff.
[00:02:26] Well, likewise, mate. I would have been busting my ass up a big hill on the bicycle this morning. So you've given me a much needed recovery break. So thank you.
[00:02:34] So, Shaun, to get the juices flowing. I like to ask three little instant response questions. So first thing that comes to mind. But you've got to be fast. Okay.
[00:02:44] Well, here goes. Kay. So first one, Batman or Spider-Man. Spider-Man. Why is that a Spider-Man suit? When I was a kid and I used to climb loads of trees. Number two, what did you want to be growing up? Spider-Man.
[00:03:01] Why did I even ask? That's what a joke. I kind of loved climbing trees and everything. How weird is that? It was that. Or an environmental lawyer. Believe it or not. Yeah.
[00:03:12] So I do have a third question in this, but I can sort of guess where this is going. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
[00:03:20] Oh, no, actually, mine would be invisibility. Doesn't mean I don't like people watching. I like being a wallflower. I like sort of being sort of under the radar when I can. Yeah. That's why I live in a in a forest in Cumbria or woodland. And yeah, I kind of like the idea of being invisible at be kind of cool.
[00:03:40] So you're living in Cumbria. What was behind the move to get up there?
[00:03:45] Well, I was racing the Route 66 bike race in America in October last year, and at our 23 I was leading after having cycled three hundred and eighty miles in that first 24 hours and I was in the lead.
[00:04:02] It was kind of flat and I was doing well. Feeling good. I went on to our 40, had a sleep, got overtaken us then down in third and then hit the hills of Missouri. So at sort of mile six hundred, halfway through day two, I just couldn't keep up the pace and these one and two sort of pulling away from me sort of every hour. There were probably, you know, half a mile further ahead of me on the hills and I was just getting pretty frustrated. And then at the end of day two, it's slightly short. Day two, because I had a couple of 45 minute naps, I'd only done two hundred and sixty mile. I think I injured my my knee, my quad, because I was just stomping my my style was all over the place and I was just quoting it, you know, stump up the hills. And I pulled my sort of tendon between my quad and my my knee and I tried to push on for another 300 miles, but dropped back down to sort of fifth place and then realised I was actually just doing myself more injury.
[00:05:04] And then annoyingly, I looked on the map and I was 150 miles from anywhere else in the middle of Texas to Falcoff for two days with one leg just to get to the nearest airport, which was Amarillo. I kind of flew home and as I got back to my boat, I lived on a boat on the River Severn Worcester. And I just realised I needed Hils in my life if I was going to be able to compete in some of these long Altra cycle races because, you know, the Midlands and certainly around Worcester's just dead flat, really. So the spur of the moment, I went online and looked for a flat to rent up in Cumbria. And five days later I moved in temporarily just to do some training and write my books. And I moved here and loved it. And now I'm here also.
[00:05:51] We actually. So I live on the on the seven as well in Shrewsbury, so.
[00:05:55] What we're doing in Worcester, well, that's where I bought my boat. I bought my old I bought an old World War Two gunboats on on eBay four years ago now. And it was near with Sturgis down on the seven. And that's where I bought it. And that's where it stayed. And I fixed it up. Spent three years fixing it up. And, yeah, that's where I lived for for three years.
[00:06:15] How did the idea of World War Two boat come around?
[00:06:20] I love the water. Like, I just I need water in my life, which is why I moved to the Lake District as well. And I've always fancied the idea of boat life but didn't want a canal boat. And I wanted something wood. And I love sort of old wood wooden things, anything, you know, sculptures, furniture, anything made out of wood. I really love it. And it just was the perfect fit for me. You know, it's got World War history, which is great. It's an old R.A.F. boat built by Harland and Wolff, the guys who built the Titanic, which is a bit worrying her and. Yeah. No, it's just a fancy boat. Life boat. Life's amazing. It simplifies your life. You don't collect loads of clutter.
[00:07:02] You don't need to appreciate your sort of resources and things like that. And, you know, you kind of spend less time at home when you live in a boat, which I like. It kind of forces you to go out and explore and spend time outdoors and things like that. So, yeah, I love it.
[00:07:19] Did have you retained that, the minimalist ethic after getting off off there. Now you don't live on a boat anymore, but did you sort of like, learn the value of that and now you managed not to collect a lot of shit?
[00:07:31] Yeah, I mean, I certainly don't buy stuff just for the sake of it. I don't own a a luxury. Don't even have one. You know, everyone has their little vices. You know, I love tinkering with Land Rovers.
[00:07:43] I love. I grew up with Land Rovers in Africa, so I have a kind of my hobby. So I've got a new twisted Land Rover. But I also have a couple of really old ones which are pretty much falling apart. And I kind of tinker with them. And I have to say, that's the one thing I miss. Living on a boat is not having a garage to just do my hobby, you know, and I enjoy I make knives as well. And, you know, having all those tools in a garage, you know, on land is nice. But I still don't buy stuff, really. So I have to say, it is nice having a carriage.
[00:08:16] Yeah, I can I keep wanting to get onto the main main part of the interview, but I can't. Every time you say something I like what. How did you get in to Weld or bow. And then you just mentioned knife building. How did you get into that.
[00:08:27] My kitchen knife. I have a knife. I had a big sort of cutting, chopping, you know, axe nights in the kitchen.
[00:08:35] It it broke. The handle broke. And then I was like, oh, I have to go and buy another one. But it was quite a heavy duty one and it was quite hard to find.
[00:08:44] And then I suddenly thought, ah, what if I could just make one out of some steel or something? So I went online and the knife making industry is huge. You know, these amazing people creating works of art, you know, in their garage all around the world now with through social media. It's great social media. It's bringing back all these crafts. You know, it's just great.
[00:09:02] I thought, yes, I just bought a sheet of steel, went and got a hacksaw and some files worked out how to do it literally next to my computer here as we speak. I've got a vise grip on my on my desk. So I do do some writing. And then I'd cut a bit of metal off the off the piece of steel and then, you know, send it down and try and sharpen it and all that.
[00:09:26] And then I've got a fireplace in my in my office which I then use to temper the steel. So I just throw it in the fire for about half an hour and then it's tempered and hardened. And the coolest thing is when I was redoing my boat. There's loads of little bits of wood, little bits of mahogany and and some tea and some oak that I took off the boat, which I just kind of kept. To be honest, probably was going to land up as firewood, sadly. But actually, I'm glad I kept it because I'm now using it all for the handles, for for my knives. So it's kind of cool that I've got a five year old bits of this old boat that I wasn't using that are now being repurposed for for my knife handles, which is pretty cool.
[00:10:04] The manliest pastime of all time. I make knives dip and that now I have this image of you just sort of like putting a knife together, looking over at your wood burning stove and you've got like her old school pipe and you're in a rocking chair with a tweed hat on me.
[00:10:20] I'm all the cliches. I'm all for me.
[00:10:24] So let's let's just backtrack a little bit. This series is is all about adventures. And I'm always interested to hear how people respond to the ubiquitous question of when somebody asks you to. So, Sean, what do you what do you do?
[00:10:37] She sets a tough one, you know, because it's it's a weird kind of philosophy. It's quite it's quite a British thing. Like what, you know. So what do you do? A lot of other countries in the world, people don't ask you that question. They're kind of just going like, how are you or what's new with you or. You know, what you up to? Like, this is really. I find it really fascinating that it's almost the first thing people say when you haven't. When you just meet someone new in a social situation, I get, you know. You got to answer it.
[00:11:09] So I kind of I kind of say I'm a I'm an endurance athlete. I consider myself more on the athletic side of adventure than the exploration. So, you know, you get people go and walk through the jungle and and explore and they probably discover some things. And then there's people like me, you try and break records. So I'm all about the three F's for me. Fastest, first and furthest. I am more than athlete, I think, than an adventurer. But people kind of don't really understand what I mean when I say that. So I kind of just say endurance, adventure athlete or endurance adventurer. People kind of understand what that means when I say it, unless unless it's a really boring party. And then I say I'm an accountant.
[00:11:55] I generally go with, you know, triathletes as well. I like endurance triathlete. I guess what I've been doing for the last four years is long triathlons. So, yeah, anything in the sports field. Non-professional sportsmen, I guess.
[00:12:12] And what what does a typical day look like for you?
[00:12:17] I don't have a typical day. And that's purpose for why I'm not very, very good with routine. I find it makes me really uncreative and I get bored if I'm doing the same thing over and over.
[00:12:30] So it depends on my year. I divide my year up. I sit and look at the calendar and I go, right, well, I'm going to probably spend this time writing. I'm planning for for an adventure. So I'll do some prep work here and I'll do some training here and I'll do the adventure here. Then I'll get back and I'll plan a speaking tour and then and then get back on to the writing. So there's kind of like an 18 month process really that I quite enjoy.
[00:12:56] And it starts off with writing the last adventure when you finish and ends with doing the next adventure. And and that's what I like. But, you know, outside of the day to day logistics of being a non-professional athlete, I, I try and spend as much time outdoors as possible. You know, I feel better when I go and spend some time outside. But otherwise, you know, I'm either walking uphill, going for a swim. I'm a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. So I try and do as many different type of activities as I can. I quite enjoyed trying to learn different things and then, yeah, just keeping busy in it. I try and get up quite early. I try and get up at sort of six in the morning and because I don't have a TV, I'm in bed at sort of nine, thirty ten at night and trying to make the most of the daylight hours. It's kind of one of the reasons I do this. This job in inverted commas is is to have variety which which I enjoy.
[00:13:52] Do you think that the the jack of all trade thing, do you see that as a strength?
[00:13:56] For me it's a strength. But everyone's individual, you know, some people hate the idea of of just being average at loads of things. They want to be amazing at one thing. And and don't get me wrong. You know, some things I do want to be really good at. Endurance cycling is probably the one aspect where I really think and believe can be one. One of the best. I guess if I put my mind to it, which I'm maybe going to try and do this year, I'd like to learn how to make knives.
[00:14:25] And I like to learn how to make ale and whiskey and make biltong and mountain bike and ski and snowboard. And, you know, I'm never gonna be the best at any of them.
[00:14:37] But at the moment, I'm kind of okay with that. I'm kind of okay with with learning it and enjoying the process, like and I used to be able to do painting and drawings as well. And, you know, I really wasn't that bothered about the results. I kind of just enjoyed learning how to paint and draw on the process. And then when I'd finished with that, I'd just be like, oh, I've thrown in the attic for some things, you know, doing the wrong thing. Things like, you know, still want to do the fastest. The first and the furthest. And that is then pushing it to to the limit, but are outside of that side of things. I quite enjoyed this variety, really.
[00:15:13] I was asking because I think I'm also in a similar boat. I was never really exceptional or anything, but I could do most things quite well and love to learn in the same way as you did. But it used to frustrate me so much when we were younger. I guess because you're constantly involved in more competitive things when you're at school, there's just always competition. I did a lot of sports and I was always quite good at them, but never the best. And it used to piss me off. And now I think I have reframed that in that. I don't always judge something by how well I do in it. But like you just mentioned, it's it's how much I enjoy it as well. So I don't have to do something just to be the best at it. It's really nice to just learn a new skill and then sort of move on to the next one.
[00:15:53] Well, exactly. And I mean, you know. That's it worked for some people, it doesn't work for other people, you know, I don't think there's no right or wrong in it. And you can change your mind, you know. You know, this year I'm focusing on on endurance cycling and I happily admit I want to be the best for that coming second. When I do my races, when I try and break my records, you know, I am striving for the best and those things and that some things, you know, I'm happy to to kind of just enjoy the process. You know, it depends on what I've realized actually a lot in the last few years is it's okay to be to have moods as well. You know, that's completely okay.
[00:16:30] Your attitude seems generally to live relaxed, quite laissez faire. You don't like the routine, but I'm interested in how that feeds into your training for endurance cycling, because a lot of people, especially now with the advances in training and sports science and all of all of that kind of stuff can require a lot of rigidity. And and I guess that maybe the opposite approach. So do you are you still really relaxed in the way that you approach that you just off go with how you feel? Or do you get a big structured program? Go to the best sports scientists and then just nail that?
[00:17:03] No, I have a completely different approach to the racing and record side of things. Records are getting harder and harder to break. People have you may have heard people throw around the term marginal gains a lot and people understand what that means. The difference between winning and losing an ultra cycling event could be sort of, you know, one or two miles a day more, you know, on these long on these long rides, when people are doing 200, 240 miles a day, one or two miles is the difference between winning and losing and when when leg hair costs you twenty five seconds per twenty five miles. Put that over over 250 miles. You're losing a couple of minutes. That's a few hundred meters. So there is that, that element of it. So I actually do do really take training quite seriously because I have to. You can't put in those big miles and you speak to all the ultra guys, you know, all the ultra runners, you know, the guys doing the 100 mile right runs and things like that and more. There are no shortcuts. You can't wing it. So I work closely now with the University of Central Lancaster. Dr. Howard. It's my doctor. Shout out to Dr. Howard. Yeah, he knows the stuff. You know, I do all my power tests, my sweat ray salt loss, heart rate, everything. I go and sort of do a monthly test with him. This is just in training. I don't do it all the time. So I'm there again when I'm on there next week. Yeah. And then next week. And just to to do an update on my power and and things and just to see where I am. Lactic acid threshold's an important one for me. I want to be able to recover. And if you push it too hard, your recovery is longer. So there's a lot of science behind it. Nutrition, aerodynamics, everything. You know that that side of things I do really have to take quite seriously.
[00:18:54] I'm just interested to hear what the prevailing wisdom is or maybe what your what your thoughts on it, because for training for a super long distance Ultra's, that used to be people would just run forever and try and run really, really long distances. And then the Crossfade guys all started doing that. Ultra's but doing very sure, intensive work. You tend to find things go back and forth in almost all fields. So bodybuilding, for example, people used to eat no fat diets, then the ketogenic diet came around. Then you get somewhere in the middle. So where where are we in like the pinnacle of training? What's the what's the prevailing wisdom or what do you go by now?
[00:19:31] You know, there's so many conflicting things at the moment for for sport. I think what works for you, you want to try different things. You know, there's the whole paleo thing that people are doing now that the high fat, low carb saying, yes, that works for certain blood types. You know, it doesn't work for other blood types. You know, you've got to try it out. I'm just a big fan of eating natural food. If you can pick it out the ground off a tree or or catch it and eat it, then that's kind of where I stand. Except I'll have rice and pasta probably because, you know, there's a process to create that. But, you know, I think if you just eating healthy and eating well, that's fine. On the nutrition side, training side for it, for the ultra stuff, you can't you can't get away with hit sessions. It's impossible. The top end, like sprinting cyclists, the track cyclists like Chris Hoy and stuff, they would probably struggle doing a 250 mile ride. They've got a different muscle makeup and, you know, they're doing high intensity, big cardio. You know, they're Veoh to maximize their power to it. I think Chris Hoy's power to weight ratio is something like twenty five watts per cagy. Chris Froome does only six point seven, you know, so it's very different. Exercising in different programs will create a different. Type of efficiency, you know. And from my experience, there's no shortcuts for the ultra stuff, you know. And the runners will tell you, like the guys, if you're doing a race. I've been told reliably I'm not. Not a particularly good runner. So but I've been told that, you know, you can if you're doing a race that's less than 100k.
[00:21:14] You can probably get by without injury on, you know, some good hit sessions and some Crossfade and various other things. But but the guys tell me that, you know, as soon as you do doing the hundred miles and so on, you've got to do the hours. It just takes years to build up those those tendons and those strengths. But once you got them, they stay with you. You know, like I cycled around the world fairly quickly, not not the fastest by any means in 2012. And, you know, I probably still benefiting now from some of the strength and resilience I got from from that ride, which is why you never see a 20 year old winning Ultra's. You know, just even though their cardio will be amazing, their muscle responses will be will be incredible. They recover to be super, super good. You know, the guys are winning. Ultra's on the, you know, mid 30s, late 30s, early 40s sometimes now even because it takes time, it takes time to build up their endurance, you know. And so for me, there's no shortcuts. You put the hours in and you put the mileage in. At the moment, I'm I'm doing a training block and I'm and sort of three months away from my next challenge. And I will I'm trying to do 350 miles a week at the moment. I'm looking to step that up to about 700, 750 in the next month and a half. So, you know, just for me personally, for the ultra stuff you just got to put in the hours and the Miles Malis mileage makes champions.
[00:22:46] You you mentioned that you did the sort of athletic side as opposed to just exploration or adventure. So what what is it that you think? What's your strength in in athletics? And why why do you think you're good at it?
[00:22:59] I don't know. I, I'm not sure. I kind of I get good. After two weeks, I've worked out like if you put me in a race or an event that's two weeks or more, I kind of get into my groove after two weeks. Really, I don't know what it is. I've realized I'm good at it. Biologically, I'm unsuited. I'm quite lights. I way my race weights about sixty seven, sixty six cages, which is pretty good. I sort of recover fairly quickly. I so I think there's a bit of biology in there you know. But good luck. Thanks Mom and Dad. You know I've been doing this for six years now, so although that's not that long, it's a lot of you know, I've got a lot of miles under my belt. I think I'd try to work out the other day on the bicycle how many sort of adventure miles I've got. And it's. Yeah, fifty thousand, I think. And that's just adventure. My that's not not training, Miles, that's just going off. And, you know, a big chunk of that was cycling around the world to be fair. But that'll do it. They'll be a big chunk. But still, you know, that also helps in, you know, where I am now is it's just that experience of, you know, when you got a knee and knee nego, you kind of know, you know, this is not an injury. This is just a tight abductor or or glute or something.
[00:24:16] You know, it is becoming more and more popular, these type of ultra endurance events, which didn't really have any of them, or certainly not as many of them twenty, thirty years ago. But for somebody who's thinking about getting into it, but they haven't done a big event yet or don't know that much about training for it. What advice would you give and what resources do you think are great for a newb to ultras?
[00:24:39] So depending, you know, whatever your discipline is, so whether it's cycling, you know, running, skiing, cross-country skiing, whatever it is, it's first you choose your disciplines. So let's say you want to do do running. I always say at the beginning, don't don't think about the technical side. Don't don't even take a heart rate monitor or anything, you know, don't stress over it. Just go out and do what you want to do because of the love of it, you know, fall in love with the discipline. You know, that I did that with with cycling at the beginning. You know, I just cycled Land's End to John O'Groats really slowly. Took me twenty five days, you know, that which is everyone knows pretty slow the records. Forty four hours on a traditional bike. And I fell in love with cycling. And in the meantime, it also gave me gave me some based fitness. And then once you've got that base fitness and you've gone for runs and you've, you know, you've convinced your mates to go out, run down to the pub and have half pint and run back or whatever, then you can start working. You know, once you got that base fitness, you can then start thinking about more technical stuff. You know, you don't have to go buy up by crazy trainers and things like that. And and then and then from there, you just decide. Your goals. You want to. You love it and you've enjoyed it. And you feel feel you're getting fitter. That's exciting. But then you choose your goals and your goal might be a math and your goal might be a double math.
[00:26:06] And you, TMB, West Highland Way, whatever you want to do. Choose your goal and then you can start focusing. Then you got to think Grier needs. I need to get my my my technique, my style, my nutrition. I always there's sort of five elements I always look at for performance. If you're wanting to push the big miles, you know, first there's is food you need you need to throw out food, hydration. You need to drink the right stuff and get the right amount of electrolytes in you, which you'll get from food as well. Sleep, you know, sleep is very important in working out too much sleep or too little sleep. You know, you need to look at that. Then you need muscle management. That's also very important. Things like stretching, massage, ice baths, know physio, acupuncture, whatever it is, whatever you need, you need to look into muscle management. And the fifth thing, which is probably the most important, but it's the one I only added to the list quite recently. It's it's motivation. You know, you got to find out what's motivating you and put things in place to motivate you, whether it's raising money for charity or committing to something you've told all your friends about. You know, it's the first thing I do. And I have an idea as I tell all my mates, so that if I don't do it, they give me you know, they give me grief for it. So those five things, food, water, sleep, muscle, management, motivation.
[00:27:24] Are there any things within those five that you've discovered fairly recently that you weren't using before, that now you just think this is amazing? I wish I found this earlier.
[00:27:34] I always looked at all of them, but I probably didn't focus on each of them or realize how important having all five together are.
[00:27:44] You know, you can if you have one, if you're doing a long race, if I'm going route sixty six bike race, you know, if I'd had one of those things at some optimal you know, I'm dropping Miles so you can have great motivation, great muscle management, great sleep, great hydration. If you got no food, you know, you game over. You can have everything. If you don't have motivation, you know you're going to lose weight or not complete your goal. Motivation is the one that gets a little bit harder sometimes, which is why in my next adventure is is trying to be the fastest. I've done furthest some firsts for the last couple years, which is great. But I've kind of I found not having competition was I was losing the motivation truthfully. You know, when you do firsts, no one else has done it before. So actually, you know, you've got no one to race against. I've realized I quite like chasing people.
[00:28:40] And so these are natural to thrive off that we just sort of wired for competition and think especially blokes.
[00:28:49] Yeah. And I it gives me a reason to get out of bed at six in the morning if I know that there's someone else racing me, you know, getting out of bed at five thirty. So I've now got my motivation back which which I was properly at, you know, sort of at the end of last year, I was kind of sitting here in my underpants pretending to be Hemingway in my woodin in Cumbria, going like, oh, you know what, Donna? I want to do another first or us cause further source. I have no time limit on them. You just go further really, other than a self-imposed time limit. And that's why I came up with my next challenge, which is the fastest one, which I kind of it's now giving me the motivation again. So find your motivation, everyone. Whatever it is, write it down, put it on a Post-it note next to your bed.
[00:29:36] So just to just to backpedal a little bit, looking into your until all the adventures that you've done, are there is there one that you look back at that you're that you're most proud of? Can you tell us the story of the one that you think? Yeah, I'm so glad I did that as easy one.
[00:29:51] You know, that's when I swam the length of Britain in 2013. That was the first that many, many people, including myself, probably subconsciously thought was probably actually impossible. But I was just going to wing it anyway and I was just gonna have a crack, you know, and that's the one that gave, you know, on completion, gave me the the confidence now to kind of go off and and do more stuff, you know, and. Yeah, so that that was that was tough. You know, I was the toughest four and a half months I'll ever have. I think, you know, swimming in cold water every day is is pretty miserable, Lorelai. So I'm cycling and running you liste kind of meet people and the scenery changes a little bit. And, you know, with cycling you got the downhill is running. You can kind of stop and sit on a stone wall and enjoy the scenery, whereas assuming you stop, you get cold all round is pretty miserable. So but competing that essentially that gave me the confidence I kind of was looking forward. My ability to go off and carry on doing more stuff, you know.