Showing the way

TR's Paul Halford spoke to prolific adventurer and OS Maps ambassador Sean Conway about the importance of navigation

Sean Conway (right)

by Paul Halford |

Just south of stunning Moel Famau in Flintshire, endurance adventurer extraordinaire Sean Conway is passing on his navigation tips in between the pair of us doing some running and posing for the camera.

Who better to learn about compasses and maps from? He says he’s never been lost. Not even when he cycled nearly 4000 miles across Europe in record time. Nor when he ran, swam and cycled his way the 4200 miles around the coast of Britain. Nor on his self-supported run from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Not even when he kayaked the Thames. (Yes, I can vouch it is possible to end up running the wrong way when following the Thames. If he can teach me how to navigate, he’s done well.)

Sean has an advantage: he has an internal compass – or so he claims. If direction really is a sense rather than a collection of senses, most of us would say God forgot to add our magnets. Some of us have been so confused on a run at times that we’ve had to get home and look at our watch’s GPS trail to believe we weren’t teleported from one place to another.

Born in Zimbabwe and now living in north Wales, Sean admits that his natural compass is a little slow to kick in when he’s in the northern hemisphere. But, he says: “When I’m in the southern hemisphere, spin me around and turn me upside-down, put me in a dark room and I’ll still know where north is.”

We are spoiled, in this country at least, by having such good road signage so, when it comes to leaving behind our cars and that voice on Google Maps, we may come unstuck.

“When you grow up in Africa, or certainly with my dad and my mum, learning how to navigate was just as important as riding a bicycle; it was just part of your upbringing,” Sean explains as to how he first learned navigation. “It’s just always been there. I’ve always been interested in it, I’ve loved maps. And then when I moved to the UK I realised just how lucky we are in the UK to have OS Maps. You go anywhere else in the world and the maps are terrible. So all of a sudden I was like, ‘wow this is what real mapping is all about’ and then I’ve just used them all the time.”

The ability to navigate has served him well on his current path in life, even if he became a little lost in his twenties. He had wanted to be a globetrotting travel photographer but ended up shooting school portrait photos in London instead. Although it was good money, at the age of 30 he realised he was heading in the wrong direction.

So, not so much steering his way back on course as completing a high-speed U-turn, 10 years ago he decided – without previously demonstrating any endurance ability – that he would try to get sponsored in breaking the world record for cycling around the world. What on Earth made him think he could do it?, I enquire.

“Nothing. Naivety. I needed to try,” he says. “I just thought I’d rather fail having a bash at it than doing something I knew I could break and succeed in that. I’d rather fail at originality than succeed in mediocrity.”

In the end, he did fail, after being hit by a driver and suffering serious injuries. But, several challenges later, he has turned that audacious-seeming dream into a career. As well as being sponsored to complete challenge after challenge, he has authored seven books and also supplements his income with public speaking.

Sean Conway
©Tom Bailey

Away from the journey of life and back to the route for our early autumn run, we stumble across an intriguing-looking geographical feature. A later look at a map reveals it’s the Roman fort of Foel Fenlli. It shows that maps have their uses, and are not just there for our safety.

His first response to whether runners should learn basic navigation tips is not related to safety. He says: “It just changes your enjoyment of being outdoors when you can look over the horizon – for example, there is a hill there behind us, and without looking at the map you would never know there was an old Roman fort up there so it’s not only just like a safety thing.”

Of course, safety is a consideration. For runners as well as hikers, navigation can be a matter of life or death. Obviously, only in rare cases and even then in remote locations, will you be so lost that you need rescuing, but it’s worth knowing the basics. Even just heading down the wrong path of a mountain into the wrong valley can be a major inconvenience that we’d want to avoid at all costs.

It’s important to bear in mind the circumstances, points out Sean. “People say you should take a map for safety, which is true for maybe 10% of the places you’re going to go and run because, a lot of the time, there’s going to be other people around, there’s going to be a well-trodden footpath and you’ve got your phone as a back-up, but don’t rely on it. If you’re going somewhere where the weather’s going to be bad, you’re going up high, you’ve not been there before and it’s likely you’re not going to see someone else, then of course take a paper map for your own safety.”

When it comes to the practical tips, Sean has one neat trick up his sleeve to show us. Line up your compass string on the map with the route you’re planning to take. Then you can measure that against the map, bearing in mind that each square is 1km in length. Sean’s trail turns out to be around 4km but a quick glance from looking at the map as the crow flies would have only estimated about 2.5km. You could be a considerable way out on a long run.

Of course, nowadays technology such as the OS Maps app means measuring routes is usually a lot easier than that. You can use the phone for navigation but also have a printed map as back-up. Sean says he will usually plot out a trail at home in advance and then download it so, when it comes to actually doing the run, he can switch to ‘flight mode’ and save power. Even then, depending on the remoteness, weather and length of your run, as well as other factors, it might be necessary to make sure your phone battery is at 100% at the start of the run, and to take a power pack.

Sean points out another reason it’s important to know how to read a map: “There are hundreds of thousands of miles of footpaths in the UK and not all of them get used, so every now and then you’ll run on a footpath that is no longer a footpath and that’s when you need to have a head on you saying, ‘am I lost?’ You feel lost because there’s no footpath here but then you look at the map and you think, ‘I’m in the place I think I am’ and it’s having that confidence to know you’re on the right path – it’s just that it’s no longer a footpath!”

Sean’s extraordinary adventures have just taken another slight navigational twist – he’s now trying to focus on running, having previously mixed up cycling, swimming and sailing.

He began last year with the ‘496 Challenge’ in January – running 1km on the first day, 2km on the second and so on until he ran 31km on the 31st, to accumulate 496km. He also ran 15 marathons in 15 days in the UK’s 15 national parks.

“I turned 40 this year and I thought it would be a good age to start running,” he says. “Cycling was my first love and I did it for 10 years, covering at least 60,000 miles in that time. The next progression in the world of ultra-distance cycling for me would have involved taking part in more risky races; races where you just don’t sleep and you’re on public roads and you’re cycling through the night... it’s dangerous. When I became a dad I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m up for that.’ With trail running and ultra-running, there’s zero risk of dying really, at least compared to the world of ultra-cycling on public roads.”

So perhaps running-only records beckon for Sean next. As he has amply demonstrated, where there’s a will, there’s a way. You just have to know which way.

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