“When you’ve been going for so long that long-term fatigue kicks in and your hormones begin to modify themselves, that’s when the real fun starts.”
It’s day 71, Sean Conway has just taken the last of his 1.5 million strides from Scarbrough to Brighton and is ready to swap his running shoes for his swimming hat, goggles and wetsuit to commence the final stint of what will be the world’s first ever self-supported continuous ultra-triathlon around the Great British coastline.
A 3,350-mile cycle over the hills of Devon and Cornwall, along the west coast of England and around Scotland had preceded the run, causing monumental fatigue, but the worst was yet to come.
Conway must return to his starting point in Lulworth Cove, Dorset via a mammouth swim that is expected to span two long weeks.
“Swimming is just miserable anyway, so when you have to do it all by yourself and you know that you’re not going to be going back to a warm bed afterwards because you’re camping on the shore, it almost destroys you mentally,” recalls Conway, who had planned much of the journey in his mother’s house in Cheltenham.
“Add to the fact that you’re re-entering the water at around 4am, it’s just horrible.
“Every day was just another 24 hours of grinding away.”
Many onlookers who have either read, or seen, the tales of this Zimbabwean endurance athlete, will struggle to even comprehend how someone could ever be forced into attempting such a feat, let alone do it out of choice, but for the 40-year-old its simple; to complete one or more of ‘the three f’s’.
Fastest, Furthest or First.
“Being able to hold a record was a massive motivator in all of this,” reminisces Conway.
“If it’s not a record, then I don’t really have the same motivation to do it.
“I need that goal in mind to thrive off because scary goals are basically my oxygen.”
However, Conway’s life hasn’t always been this way. The ex-photographer enjoyed a rural childhood and didn’t even own a pair of trainers until his late 20’s.
“I wasn’t sporty at all,” he remembers.
“I did a few things at school because I had to, but I wasn’t very good.
“I enjoyed being outside, but that was about it in terms of me doing exercise.”
The triathlete’s sudden athletic rise is to the expectations of sports scientists, what Heston Blumenthal is to the norms of fine dining, but it goes a long way to explaining the complex character that Conway is.
“The main reason why I got into sports, record breaking and the competitive side of it all was that I was incredibly skint,” he admits.
“I gave up my photography company for £1 when I was 30 and had absolutely no money, but I wanted to go travelling and was more than aware that nobody was going to just give me all that money.
“I basically thought to myself that if I was able to go out and break some kind of extreme record, then I might be able to secure some sponsorships.”
Since that moment, Conway has completed various challenges that include The London Marathon, a world record cycle from Portugal to Russia, and kayaking the Thames. Therefore, it may not surprise people that this technically wasn’t his first GB triathlon.
Starting in 2011, where all of this began, Conway cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, before swimming the length of Britain over the course of four and a half months in 2013, and then completing the three multi-discipline lengths by running 40 miles a day for 44 days two years later in 2015.
Very few, if any, could think of trying to do that again but by themselves and in one continuous go, however, that’s exactly what the ex-Gloucestershire resident decided.
“I got a first with both the Swim, and the Land’s End to John o’ Groats cycle, so the next logical step was to combine them with the run,” recalls Conway.
Despite this being one of the biggest tasks of his life, Conway remained incredibly relaxed about the triathlon’s route.
“All I really needed to do was make sure that I was on smaller roads and wasn’t going to go into any cul-de-sacs or dead ends,” he explains.
The Harare-born endurance-adventurer only had one method in mind to complete his latest task.
“It was just a case of me going all day until I was too tired, and then I’d find a place to camp and would stop there,” remembers Conway.
“That way suits me best. I’d rather spend my time training and making sure I’m fit enough to complete the distance than plan it all out meticulously.
“I don’t think anything I’ve ever done has gone even remotely to plan other than securing the records at the end anyway.”
Once again, Conway had encountered delays. Bike malfunctions, knee problems, weather and tidal changes, as well as difficulties finding enough food to ensure he was able to consume 5,000 calories a day. However, no-one could deny that the opportunity to achieve all three f’s was within reach.
13 days had passed since setting off from Brighton beach and the journey had been just as challenging as anyone would expect, but just one day of swimming remained.
Every stroke, fuelled by a mix of wild garlic leaves, dog treats, and even liquidised roast dinners, took Conway closer to his destination, and soon enough the “hardest 85 days” of his life would be over.
The levels of motivation that the triathlete called upon throughout this challenge are almost inconceivable to most people, but Conway didn’t reach that stage by mistake.
“I’ve always said that a bad day today doesn’t equal a bad day tomorrow,” explains the endurance athlete.
“You may start to think that because today has been bad, that the whole activity will end up badly and you should give up, but that’s almost always not the case.”
As Conway and his towboat full of medical supplies, food and drink, and camping equipment approached the shore in Dover crowds could be seen.
Groups of people had come to congratulate the Zimbabwean and celebrate what is an incredible achievement, but astonishingly, Conway didn’t want to bathe in the glory for too long.
“I was just relieved to be finished and able to move on to doing something else with my life,” stressed the triathlete.
Which explains how Conway, who like many others had, had his plans halted by the Coronavirus pandemic, has now moved onto his next task which he aims to complete this month.
“As a tribute to the natural beauty this country holds, I’ll be running a marathon a day for 15 days across all of the nation’s national parks,”