Sean Conway is the first and only man in history to cycle, swim and run the length of Britain. That is an an amazing achievement in anyone’s book!
In his latest book, he discusses the final leg of this epic challenge and describes the huge hurdles he had to overcome in order to complete it.
But that’s not all Sean is known for. He also has one of the most epic beards I have ever seen!
So I was so happy that I got a chance to have a chat with him about what has inspired his many challenges and how he manages to maintain his beard when he’s constantly on the move.
Niall: What made you first grow a beard?
Sean: (laughs) I actually grew one when I swam Britain to, uh, shield off jellyfish.
Sean: Uh, because I actually was getting stung in the face a lot, and then, uh, when I didn’t have a beard, I was getting stung. When I had a bit of stubble, it stopped … It was physically stopping the tentacles touching my skin. Uh, so I grew it then, and then I’ve just kind of kept it ever since, to be honest.
Niall: Yeah, so, so originally wasn’t for aesthetic purposes. It was-
Niall: -literally to help you … (laughs) swim.
Sean: Yeah,… exactly.
Niall: Well, my next question was going to be: has it proved to be a help or hindrance? Obviously, it’s proved a help, but has it proved a hindrance at all on any of your adventures?
Sean: Well, uh, it actually … It does kind of get caught up with dirt a lot and it blows around in the wind. When I swim, it goes into my mouth a little bit. Um, but on the flip side, it gives me superpowers, so, you know … I think we’re all good.
Niall: Yeah I feel the same about my beard. (laughs)
Niall: Well I don’t know about you, I haven’t shaved for a long time, but yeah, the last time I did I felt depressed for days. It was honestly in mourning, I think! … (laughs)
Sean: Yeah. Yeah. No, I, I haven’t shaved since 2013, so …
Niall: Good man. (laughs) Um, so what actually motivated you to start doing these challenges, first of all?
Sean: Well, it’s just because I was born of living my ordinary life, uh, as a photographer and I just felt like I wasn’t challenging myself, so I just wanted to properly start challenging myself, you know, and travel at the same time. I … You know, I hadn’t travelled much, so I wanted to use these challenges as a way to see the world and, and to sort of push myself, uh, and to raise money for charity and stuff, so yeah, that’s, that’s kind of how it came about.
Niall: Did you sort of gradually ease yourself in? You didn’t go straight in for the, uh, the Triathlon of Great Britain? (laughs)
Sean: (laughs) Uh, uh, well, I started off cycling the length of Britain and then went to cycle around the world and then I did the swim, then the triathlon. Uh, no the run, then the triathlon, then back into cycling now for the last couple of years. No, cycling the length of Britain was my first proper adventure, I guess. That was ten years ago now.
Niall: Oh, really? Oh, wow. Um, and so which challenge has been your favourite so far, would you say?
Sean: Well, at the time of doing them, none of them. They’re all pretty miserable. (laughs)
Sean: Uh, but, but looking back … I don’t know, cycling around the world is always a cool thing to do and, um, I kind of urge any youngster to go off and do a, a cycle challenge. They don’t have to go around the world, but certainly a couple of months on a bike will, you know, make …you’ll learn a lot about yourself and the world, as well. Um, I guess swimming the length of Britain, though, was the one that meant the most to me, um, because it, it was the big one that everyone said was impossible and, uh, yeah, I managed to pull it off.
Niall: Yeah, it’s always great to do something against the odds, I guess, isn’t it? (laughs)
Niall: So that was probably the one you felt was most rewarding as well?
Sean: Yeah, exactly, and, and, uh … Because it was the most difficult at the time, um, you know, where I was in life and, you know, trying to pull it off and getting sponsors and all that sort of thing, so …
Niall: Okay, so where are you going next with your challenges? Are you still trying to push yourself further and further each time? (laughs)
Sean: Oh, yeah, always.
Niall: Is there much further you can go? (laughs)
Sean: Yeah. No, always pushing myself, um, but I’m kind of being more selective in what really motivates me now. … Which I quite like, you know?
Niall: Yeah. Well, that’s good, I guess. That’s great. You can sort of choose which ones you want to do, I guess.
Niall: So, I guess the round the world challenge must’ve have been the hardest, right?
Sean: Well, no. I mean, yes and no. Um, it, it was long and, and tiring and I was trying to do proper mileage, um, but you do get to experience the world and that makes up for it, you know? Swimming was cold and miserable. (laughs) I think, you know, that was the probably hardest. Um, but then, you know, my recent world record, across Europe bike ride, you know, that was really difficult, but for a shorter amount of time, so I don’t know what’s harder really, the long, slow stuff or the short, fast stuff. I’m still trying to work that one out.
Niall: (laughs) Still looking for the answer. So moving back to beards, you’re obviously out and about a lot. So I don’t know if you have any sort of grooming regime when it comes to your beard?
Sean: Yeah. To be honest, no. No. I should. Uh, I, I try and comb it once or twice a week maybe. That’s about it, really. Um, and I … Obviously, I shampoo it, uh, almost every day, um, but other than that … I should use oils because it is quite dry, but I just kind of … I use so much oil I kind of go through bottles of it and once a bottle runs out, I just forget to buy some, so I don’t do enough of that, but, uh … No, otherwise just shampoo and combing every now and then.
Niall: Okay, and I guess you can’t afford to carry all the beard products around with you if you have that many of them. (laughs)
Sean: Yeah. Definitely not. (laughs)
Niall: (laughs) Uh, I mean, are there any products that you would really recommend that you use? Um, whether that’s a comb you use or the shampoo that you mentioned?
Sean: No. I mean, I, I don’t use a particular one at all, to be honest. Um … No. Uh, I kind of just use whatever hair shampoo I’m using the time. I’m not precious about my beard. I probably should be, but, um, I kind of just go with whatever’s there, usually stealing my wife’s. She hates it. (laughs)
Niall: (laughs) Has she asked you to shave it off a few times?
Sean: No, she likes, she likes, she likes the beard. Um, she doesn’t like when I use her very expensive shampoo for my beard though!
Niall: Oh, I see. (laughs) I see. That will get you into trouble. I’ve done that few times.
Niall: (laughs) You just don’t realise, do you? You just think, “Shampoo’s shampoo.” Don’t you? And that’s it, but … (laughs) to women, it’s not apparently, but … (laughs) I’m learning that as well.
Niall: So, is there anyone you’d sort of described as your ‘beardspiration’ as I call it? So, someone who you think, “Wow, they’ve got a brilliant beard”? I mean, you’re mine, I think. (laughs)
Sean: Yeah. Geez, I don’t know. I mean, it’s very rare I see anyone with a bigger beard than me in real life, to be honest. Um, uh, it only happens about once or twice a year, and obviously there are people out there, but I never meet them. (laughs)
Sean: Uh, like some hipsters in east London. Um, or any of the old school explorers, you know, who, who sort of grew beards back then, those are the kinda guys I, I kind of quite like. Um … I guess Incredibeard on the internet. He’s quite funny.
Niall: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Sean: He’s got a big beard.
Niall: Yeah, yeah.
Sean: And I, I kinda like what he does with it, um, you know, doing all the crazy stuff, so, uh, I guess it would be him, really.
Niall: That’s cool. So you had a book out in the last few months. It discusses the final leg of your epic Britain Triathlon.
Niall: So which leg did you actually find the hardest and why?
Sean: Well, swimming the length of Britain was obviously the hardest, but then running is the one I failed at first time because I kept getting … I got injured on the first attempt and running … I’m just not very natural runner, so I did struggle to actually kind of get good at running. Um, so yeah. I did find that one probably the most taxing because I just wasn’t used to getting injured after only a couple of hours, you know? Like, whereas swimming and cycling, you’d go all day, whereas … I, I found it annoying that, you know, after two or three hours of running, I was man down, you know?
Niall: So you mentioned before that your wife obviously is a fan of the beard. What do the rest of your friends and family think of it?
Sean: Um, yeah, they like it. But, you know, my mum keeps telling me to neaten it up a little bit now and then, but, uh, … I’ve just got a puppy recently, so it’s, it’s now quite scraggly at the bottom because the puppy keeps chewing it. Um …
Niall: Chewing it? God!
Sean: So, yeah. (laughs) It’s kind of annoying.
Sean: They generally like it, but they ask me to neaten it up more than I do.
Niall: Yeah, sure. Um, and have you had any real negative reactions, like … I mean, not necessarily friends or family, just anyone you’ve sort of come across have they … Have you had any negative reactions to your beard?
Sean: Yeah. Um … No, not really. I mean, some people think it’s a bit show off-y, I guess, and a bit … It’s a bit of a try-hard beard. When you start getting to this sort of length, it does feel sometimes that I’m just trying to make a point with it, but actually I’m just doing it because I like it and I’m lazy. Couldn’t be bothered shaving.
Niall: Yeah, I guess a lot of people think that we grow beards just to sort of, you know, stand out from the crowd and stuff and, you know, “Look at me, I’ve got a big beard.”
Niall: But, actually it … Most of the time, it is just, “I couldn’t be bothered-
Niall: -to shave or … You know, or whatever, or I just like having a beard.”
Sean: Yeah, exactly.
Niall: So finally, what advice would you give to someone growing a beard for the first time?
Sean: You’ve got to get past the itchy stage.
Sean: Get past the itchy stage, uh, and then all will be wonderful. (laughs)
Niall: I know, that’s the key…
Sean: You’ve got to follow through, though. Yeah, you’ve got to just, you know, push through that itchy stage and then leave it … I would say leave it for like a year without doing anything. I think people quit too early on, I think, um, and that’s why they give up. So, yeah, I would say that would be my advice.
Niall: Yeah. I’m always saying you’ve got to be patient because people sort of expect instant results. They look at someone like you and be like, “Oh, wow. You only … You know, it only took a few months or whatever.” But, it’s … (laughs)
Niall: It’s not like that at all, uh, as you know.