Dubai resident completes 50-hour rowing challenge without sleep

Sean Burgess took on the gruelling test of endurance to raise funds for a Tanzanian school

Snatching just six minutes of sleep over two nights, a Dubai resident rowed for a staggering 50 hours and 17 minutes to break a world record for the longest continual row.

Sean Burgess battled exhaustion, brain fog and hallucination to raise funds for a primary school in northern Tanzania.

The distance of 421,954 metres he travelled on Friday at 8.30am is equivalent to 10 back-to-back marathons.

Friends clapped and cheered when Mr Burgess successfully completed the challenge on Sunday at 10.47am at The Physical Training Company in Al Quoz.

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I was worried about falling asleep on the rower. There were times I was closing my eyes and rowing because it was the only way I could rest
Sean Burgess

The exhilaration of going past the 50-hour mark was quickly replaced by extreme fatigue after a three-day effort.

“In the last hour, my body was running on adrenalin because I knew I was finishing. I was laughing and talking when I finished, so a lot of people thought I was fine,” said Mr Burgess, challenge director at Gulf For Good, a UAE-based registered non-profit that runs adventure challenges around the world.

“But five minutes later, I just crashed. I couldn’t really speak properly, my mind was foggy.

"I remember just thinking, 'I have to get home'.”

After much deserved rest and sleep, he is still sore but elated to have reached close to his target of Dh25,000 for better facilities for 800 pupils of Enjoro Primary School.

Throughout the challenge sleep deprivation was the main obstacle faced, with Mr Burgess catching two minutes on the first night and four on the second.

As per the official requirements by Concept 2, the American rowing equipment manufacturer which ran the challenge, athletes must log in at least 50 minutes of rowing every hour. They are then allowed 10 minutes to eat, stretch and have a bathroom break.

Sean Burgess had to complete at least 50 minutes of rowing every hour and was then allowed 10 minutes to eat, stretch and have a bathroom break. All photos: Sean Burgess

“My body hurt and it was tough but it was not sleeping that was so difficult,” he told The National.

“The rowing action is such a monotonous one, it became really difficult in the early hours of the second night. My mind was becoming less lucid, I was starting to ― not quite hallucinate ― but I was definitely losing grasp of reality.

“I had to keep telling myself why I was sitting on the rower because my mind was starting not to understand what I was doing.”

At one point, Mr Burgess rolled off the rower on to the mat below and fell asleep for four minutes before his brother woke him up to get back on.

Friends and family stopped by and tried to keep pace on rowers set up to support him.

“I was worried about falling asleep on the rower,” the 34-year-old said.

“There were times I was closing my eyes and rowing because it was the only way I could rest."

The 50-hour and 10-minute record in the 30-39 age group has been unbeaten since 2012.

His effort was in preparation for a 1 million-metre row Guinness World Record that stands at five days and eight hours that he will attempt later this year.

Mr Burgess broke a Guinness record last year when he crossed all seven UAE emirates in as many days on foot to support underprivileged children in Uganda.

The aim now is to focus on raising money for better infrastructure in the Tanzanian school, where the ratio of classrooms to children is 1:165.

Mr Burgess is Dh3,500 short of his target and a quiz night is being held at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club on Tuesday night as part of the drive.

It is part of a bigger fundraising programme for Dh200,000 for the school undertaken by Gulf for Good, the Physical Training Company and Mr Burgess's company, Summit Expeditions.

“The school wants to build special-needs infrastructure so they can support more children of determination, and that is something close to my heart," he said.

More challenges will be announced to raise funds, including a ‘Kilimanjaro stair climb’ in a Dubai hotel stairwell.

Other adventures Mr Burgess has taken up include the Bosporus Intercontinental Swim between Asia and Europe in 2019; Mt Kilimanjaro in 2018; and swimming as part of a relay team across the English Channel in 2009.

He said there was just one thing that stops him from quitting.

“Stubbornness keeps me going,” he said.

“I don’t let myself quit because I’m in some pain. Only if I was physically unable to carry on then I would stop.

“The thought of failing if I just gave up is worse than persevering, building that grit and resilience to get to the end.”

Updated: April 26, 2022, 6:23 AM