Chris HuntBASE Editor and Bristol-based adventure writer with a penchant for travel by bike, interesting coastlines and adventures that end in the pub.
In this three-part series in partnership with OS Maps, we take a closer look at GetOutside Champion Sean Conway’s National Parks Challenge — which saw him take on 15 marathons in 15 National Parks in 15 days — to learn what it takes physically and mentally to complete such a challenge and discover some of his highlights along the way.
Now on the home straight, in part three we catch up with Sean as he crossed the Severn Bridge over the mouth of Britain’s longest river and into Wales where he has just three marathons left to run. Simple right?
Participation in any newly found activity, regardless of what it is, always lands somewhere on some kind of commitment spectrum. One person’s idea of commitment will of course look pretty different to that of someone else. But the ‘commitment spectrum’ for running is surely wider than any other activity.
If you’ve followed Sean Conway for any of the wild ride that is his adventure career over the past decade, you’ll know that he does nothing by half measures. Endurance and suffering are Sean’s bread and butter, be it long-distance swimming, ultra-cycling, or a triathlon the length of Britain. So when he decided to take up running, it was never going to be half-arsed.
‘I always said I wanted to get into ultra running when my body was ready for it,’ says Sean. ‘When I turned 40 I thought that would be a good age to start my running career properly, and I’m loving it so far.’
The Form of a lifetime
But whoever you are, and whatever you’re made of (mentally and physically), the act of running the 390 miles which make up 15 back-to-back marathons will take its toll. Sooner or later, the wheels will fall off. The real art of ultra-endurance lies in negotiating some kind of a deal with your physical self for the part that comes next.
Sean spent a little time finding form again by running solo in Devon’s national parks, and he managed to put his newly acquired niggles of the last 12 days to rest. Then he crossed the Severn Estuary to face three final national parks.
In the Brecon Beacons Sean was joined by the biggest group yet, with 22 runners joining him to complete the full distance. Among those runners was one of Britain’s leading alpine and high altitude climbers, and undoubtedly no stranger to the commitment spectrum himself – Kenton Cool.
‘I’ve known Kenton for years now and he messaged me saying he wanted to run his first ever marathon with me,’ tells Sean. ‘Brecon was his closest which was a tough one. The big climb up Pen Y Fan really hurt him but he soldiered on. He’s a machine and very stubborn.’
I felt unstoppable. So I used the fitness to then go and run across Iceland
From here, it was on to the coastal paths of Pembrokeshire (which turned out to be the hilliest route of all with nearly 2000m of climbing) before facing Snowdonia – one of the wildest and most mountainous National Parks in the UK. But by this point, in the form of his life, there was nothing that could be done to stop the animal that Sean Conway had become.
‘It felt like I was on the home straight once I got to Wales,’ he says. ‘Heading north on home turf, that’s when the marathons started getting easier. I actually felt a lot better towards the end. My body was getting into the swing of things. I almost needed to run 15 marathon in 15 days just to prepare to run 15 marathon in 15 days.’
While 15 marathons back-to-back isn’t likely to be on the agenda of any normal person in the first place, Sean’s recovery strategy matched up with logic even less. Seemingly dissatisfied with the achievement, or perhaps just eager to cash in on this newly found form, Sean barely stopped to take off his trainers.
My legs were starting to feel really robust,’ he says. ‘I recovered for a week, went for a deep tissue massage and then I felt unstoppable. So I used the fitness to then go and run across Iceland, which I did without any niggles.’
With 520 square miles of wild open spaces, the Brecon Beacons is a national park defined by its mountains, castles and waterfalls as well as its remarkable night skies which has earned recognition as an International Dark Sky Reserve.
Location: From Taf Fechan Forest and head north up Pen Y Fan then back down the other Sid and south to Merthyr Tydfil
Start point: Pont Cwm y fedwen Car Park
Terrain: Mostly trail with some road sections
Food/Water: First resupply is at around 25km in Merthyr Tydfil
One of the UK’s smallest nation parks, no part of the Pembrokeshire Coast lies more than 10 miles from the shoreline. Its golden sands, for which it’s famed for, are backed by varied landscapes of estuaries, hills, valleys and woodlands, meaning there’s more to this small national park than the beach.
Location: Starting from Newport and head west around Dinas Head and back to Newport. Then head east for an out and back
Its 823 square miles make Snowdonia Wales’ largest national park. It also boasts its wildest and most impressive landscapes, including its highest mountain and largest natural lake. It’s a region steeped in history and tradition with more than half of its 26,000 population speaking Welsh.
Location: From Trawsfynydd and do three laps run-in around Llyn Trawsfynydd
Start point: The statue of Head Wyn in Trawsfynydd