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With a decade of record-breaking, boundary-smashing accolades in the outdoors behind him, Sean Conway is a man seemingly estranged from his own limits of physical endurance. In 2012 he set out to break the world record for cycling round the world, just a year later he became the first person to swim the length of Great Britain. Far from content, in 2016, he completed a self-supported 4000-mile continuous ultra-triathlon to circumnavigate the entire coast of mainland Britain. In 2021 he was back at it. With the view to showcase the beauty within Great Britain, he did the only logical thing: setting out to run 15 marathons back-to-back in each of our 15 National Parks.
In this three-part series in partnership with OS Maps we catch up with Sean to find out what inspired him to take on such a challenge, what it takes physically to complete 15 consecutive marathons and discover some of his highlights along the way. You’ll also find the routes Sean ran to take them on yourself.
Running 15 consecutive marathons is plain lunacy, regardless of the terrain. But a sucker for a challenge, and certainly not one to be deterred by other people’s opinions of boundaries, in the summer of 2021, adventurer and OS GetOutside Champion Sean Conway prepared to run 42kms for 15 days straight across some of the most demanding landscapes in Britain.
But a challenge as formidable as this requires more than a catchy concept and unshakeable determination. During a year that saw more people exploring closer to home, by documenting his journey and encouraging people to run alongside him, he wanted to show off the incredible landscapes on offer in the country we live in and to inspire people to take responsibility for their preservation.
‘I see it as a bit of a love letter to our wide open spaces,’ says Sean. ‘We have the best National Park model in the world, whereby they are free for everyone to enjoy. Let’s make sure we look after them.’
For a man who made his name known by taking on feats of physical endurance — running swimming and biking all across and around the island — you’d figure Sean knew the National Park network like the back of his hand. But leading him to each corner of Britain, this project would introduce him to a whole new set of landscapes he’d never before set eyes on.
‘I’ve dipped into about out about half of the parks over the years, but the other half I had only really either driven through on a main road, or never been to at all. So I thought it would be a great way to see each of them, both on foot, and on the road,’ he explains. ‘And by running self-supported, I hoped I could show people that you don’t need big support vehicles with drivers, masseuses, and chefs. You can just do it yourself, if you want to.’
Driving his Land Rover Defender between each park, Sean would use OS Maps to plan the marathons and also the journeys between them.
‘There were a few things I needed to take into account when I was making the routes,’ says Sean. ‘Could I park there all day and did the car park have a height barrier? Two, could I do two or three laps back to my car for food and water that would make an exact marathon? I didn’t want to over-run any of them of course. Three, could I do my entire run off road? And four, was the location en route to the next park? I used OS Maps to look for locations, and plan a route for all 15 marathons and it was perfect for that. The snap-to-path feature allowed me to create extremely accurate and exact marathons every time.’
Starting the challenge in the Cairngorms, the furthest north of Britain’s National Parks, meant Sean could make the most of Scotland’s Land Reform Act or freedom to roam and wild camp as he pleased in some of the most spectacular landscapes the nation has to offer. Being June though, it certainly didn’t come without its own set of challenges and he’d soon come to realise why it is that the Highlands remain so sparsely populated.
‘Wild camping in Scotland is legal. So I made the most of the OS Maps website and app to find some hidden back roads to camp up for the night,’ he says. ‘The only downside was the blimmin’ midges. Camping was tough as my tent wasn’t midge-roof and during the day it meant I couldn’t stop to eat or stretch, so I just ran more and that made me suffer.’
You don’t need big support vehicles with drivers, masseuses, and chefs. You can just do it yourself if you want to
The Best National Park Model in The World
Fuelled perhaps by the romantic poetry of the era, in the late eighteenth century a cultural shift was taking hold in Britain. Land was no longer perceived purely as an industrial or agricultural resource but instead, increasingly as a source of recreation.
William Wordsworth famously quoted the Lake District as a ‘sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.’ But the concept of public lands in fact came only much later. A century down the line and the first freedom to roam bill was taken to parliament by James Bryce MP. Despite its failure, the intent started a movement during the widespread industrialisation and fast-swelling population that defined the following years.
By the 1930s, the public was demanding greater access to the countryside, and conflicts between ramblers and landowners came to head in the famous mass trespasses on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. In response to the protests, in 1949, the government passed an Act of Parliament to establish National Parks throughout the UK and in 1951 the Peak District was designated as Britain’s first.
Today, from the coastal low-lands of the Norfolk Broads to the high peaks of the Cairngorms, National Parks in Great Britain are responsible for preserving the most inspiring natural landscapes on the island.
Below we’ve detailed each of Sean’s runs through the Scottish National Parks, where you’ll find links to the exact routes and how to run or walk them yourself.
Cairngorms – 4th June
Home to 55 Munros (mountains above 3000ft) and four of the five highest mountains in the UK and three of the main ski areas in Scotland, the Cairngorms is Britain’s wildest and most rugged National Park.
It’s also the largest, twice the size of the Lake District and bigger than the entirety of Luxembourg and home to the highest and most extensive range of arctic mountain landscape in the British Isles.
Location: Start in Blair Atholl and run two 20km loops running north along a track and then back to Blair Atholl
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs was Scotland’s first designated National Park in 2002 and its proximity to both Glasgow and Edinburgh makes it Scotland’s most accessible.
Loch Lomond is the largest lake in Great Britain by surface area but, covering much of the western part of the southern Highlands, there’s so much more to this National Park. With 21 Munros and many more lochs, this wild landscape is a refuge fora huge variety of wildlife.
Location: Start from Brig o’Turk and run two 20km laps around Loch Venachar