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Meet The First Man To Swim The Length Of Britain

Tens of thousands have cycled it, hundreds have walked or run it, but no one had swum the 900 miles between the iconic landmarks of Land’s End and John O’Groats before ‘mediocre swimmer’ Sean Conway came along

Many people said it couldn’t be done, that he’d die before he reached John O’Groats. But adventurer Sean Conway wasn’t going to be put off by these naysayers. He’d already cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, so why not swim it?

For most people, the thought of swimming even just one day along the coast of Britain would send shivers up their spines. But trying to conceptualise spending four and a half months of your life in the cold and murky waters of Britain’s west coast is the stuff of nightmares.

With four hour windows between tides, Sean swam one to two miles per hour, day in, day out. Some days he’d make great progress. Others, he’d go backwards in the currents. And throughout all of this, he’d need to keep his crew motivated – some of whom had quit their jobs to support him on this potentially foolhardy journey. So what does it take to become the first man to swim the length of Britain?

You can’t think about the 900 miles – instead I just thought about each day

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Q: When coming up with an idea for an adventure, what is it that motivates you?
A:
‘It all goes back to the three Fs for me: first, furthest and fastest. It has to be some sort of record. I’m not a very good traveller nor am I good at going on the kind of adventures where people just wander and make geographical, political or scientific discoveries. That’s really not my kind of thing. Instead, it has to be on the scale of adventure where you’ve got exploration on one side and sport on the other.’

Q: Where did the swimming Britain idea come from?
A:
‘So I’d just finished cycling around the world, which didn’t go according to plan. I got seriously injured when I was hit by a car (whiplash, concussion, etc) and came home feeling pretty depressed. At the same time, Dave Cornthwaite was swimming down the Missouri and I remember thinking that a swimming adventure would be something that would get me back on the horse.’

Q: What did you do next?
A:
‘Well, I did what loads of people do by looking at far flung parts of the world to try and find a swimming adventure. But at the time I’d been writing up my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride and I thought to myself: “Why don’t I try to become the fastest person to swim the length of Britain?” After some research, I discovered no one had even attempted it, so my idea went from being the ‘fastest’ to being a ‘world first’ – which was even more exciting.’

Q: What was your biggest fear?
A:
‘The distance didn’t worry me. You can’t think about the 900 miles. Instead, I just thought about each day. I knew it was tidal and that I had four hours to swim each tide with a seven to eight hour wait in between. I knew the swim was possible – even for a not terribly good swimmer. The difference between someone not having any swim experience and having a lot of swim experience is only about six weeks.’

‘My biggest fear was in fact getting near the end and not being able to finish it because of weather, especially up in Scotland. That was scary – in the last month I had hardly any good swimming days with 20ft swells. And then there’s keeping the crew excited about following a swimmer doing a couple of miles an hour in the water. I was worried they’d leave me!’

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Q: So what was the swim actually like?
A:
‘It was cold, miserable, long, boring and painful with jellyfish stings in the face. Swimming is unlike anything else, because there is no variety – you’re so close to the water that your ‘high eye’ when you breathe is only 3cm above the water. Even on a calm day you might not see land. All you’re looking at is murky water and then back up into the sky, leaving you with just your thoughts to amuse you.’

Q: What are you thinking about then?
A:
‘Everything and nothing. I have two sides to my brain. I have a crazy weird, airy fairy, eccentric side to my brain and on the other side, a very practical one. And it depends upon which side of my brain is working and they flitter between each other. So my airy fairy side will be thinking about what happens if a shark comes up and bite my leg off, and I’ll be thinking about how I’ll stitch up my leg and finish the swim. It’s very entertaining!’

‘The practical side is thinking about the science – the sweat rates, salt loss, calories, the five elements I need to concentrate on (food, water, sleep, muscle management, mindset) and how each of them must be fuelled.’

Q: How did your body react during the swim?
A:
‘From a fitness perspective I was getting more robust as the swim went on but I was more fatigued, my pace dropped and I was getting colder because I never had any recovery time. In the early days I had blisters on my tongue from the salt water, but I quickly developed a technique to avoid this. On the whole I felt good although I was eating 8,000 calories a day!’

Q: In the end, what stopped you quitting?
A:
‘The fear of failure. I’d much rather fail having a go at it, than trying to succeed in ordinary things. I have this panic attack of giving up, something that probably comes from when I got run over in America. I didn’t want to receive all those emails of pity.’

Conway’s book about his swim, Hell and High Water, is available now. You can buy it and find out more on his website, www.seanconway.com. Photography by James Carnegie

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