Sean Conway, free radical. The man who swapped a corporate existence for a life of adventure.
Words: Alex Wade
Many of us know the feeling. We go to work, because we have to, but we’re not happy. We feel trapped, but can’t seem to make a change. And each day we submit to the daily grind, a sense of loss gnaws at us. We miss our younger self, the person with dreams, the young man or woman who was going to climb mountains, surf waves and live a life of adventure.
Sean Conway – now known around the world for a series of extraordinary feats of endurance – was one of us. “I’d just turned 30, and was living and working in London, with a successful career,” says the Zimbabwean. “I was a photographer, taking commercial portraits of up to 15,000 people a year. But I was miserable. I had bad skin and was depressed with the life I’d made. I kept thinking ‘why aren’t I trekking in a jungle in Peru, or doing something like that?’”
Sean was one of us – until he decided to make a radical change. “One day I walked into the office, and said to my business partner: ‘I want out’. I sold my stake for £1. I had no money, but I knew that I wanted to go travelling and vowed to fill my life with experiences rather than things from that day on.”
And some. In just five years, Sean, 35, has amassed enough adventures for a lifetime. They include cycling around the world (with a fractured spine), setting the record for sailing the length of Britain (83 hours and 53 minutes, from Land’s End to John O’Groats) and walking from his mother’s house in Cheltenham to London – for less than £48.50, the cost of the train. Eagle-eyed visitors to Watergate Bay might even have seen Sean: he swam along the Bay, not once but twice, as he became the first and only man to cycle, swim and run the length of Britain, and this year set the bar yet higher in completing a 4,200-mile, 85-day continuous triathlon of the British coastline.
“As soon as I quit my job, I started to think about ways to finance travelling,” says Sean from his home aboard the Lady Sybil, a restored Second World War gunboat. “It struck me that if I could find a record, to be broken or set, I might be able to get sponsors to help fund it. That’s when cycling around the world came to me. I felt a real flame of excitement in my belly as soon as I had the idea.”
Sean was injured in the United States during his cycling trip, and so didn’t bag the world record, but the flame kindled within was undimmed. He set about challenge after challenge – “the more bonkers, the better”, as he puts it – and acquired a notable tagline: “Britain’s most inspiring maniac”.
Books about his exploits have followed, so too work as a motivational speaker. There is never a dull moment for the former commercial photographer, who is presently contemplating – as you would – running the length of Africa. He’s also got a keen eye on learning to surf – and reckons he’ll sign up for lessons at Watergate Bay. “It’d be fitting – after all, I’ve swum and sailed Watergate Bay. I ought to learn to surf there.”
It’s all a far cry from his former life in corporate London, but if ever he needs a reminder of what he escaped, Sean need only look at the result of a £4 investment he made on the day he quit his job. “I bought a frame,” he says. “It houses the £1 I got when I sold up.”
That £5 symbolises the way Conway changed his life, but it’s more than that. It tells all of us that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. What we do could be a far-flung adventure, or it could be something on our doorstep. Being radical is about being brave enough to make a decision, to decide to do things differently – and who knows, it might even cost less than a fiver.