When Rob Lea arrived in Nantucket on October 8, he had been cycling across the country for nearly forty days straight, covering 3,608 miles and a staggering 118,853 feet of elevation gain. It would be a bucket list item for most two-wheel aficionados (and it was for him), but it was actually the third such dream trip in a turbocharged six months of adventure. In mid-July, Lea spent 11 hours and 47 minutes tangling with jellyfish while swimming across the English Channel, only 43 days after he stood on the summit of Mount Everest. Oh, and in the middle of all that, he married pro ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich, who dropped to one down-clad knee and proposed to Lea the previous fall while the two stood atop Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world.
Before he set out last spring, friends suggested to Lea that the bike journey would be smooth sailing, by far the easiest part of what he dubbed the Ultimate World Triathlon. But those long hours in the saddle were actually the toughest of the entire endeavor as he pedaled a century ride every day, committed entirely to stretching the outer limits of his mind and body. Once deposited at the edge of the Atlantic, an utterly depleted Lea waded in, his neon pink Specialized steed thrust overhead in a victory pose as his eyes filled with tears.
“It’s hard to kind of put into words what it felt like. There were definitely times that I questioned my own sanity,” says Lea. “It was a super emotional moment when I finally finished.”
Lea has always dabbled in athletic excess. As a kid in Park City, Utah, where he still lives, he backpacked, swam, ran cross-country, and tooled around on a mountain bike. “I distinctly recall, when I was six years old or something, my folks telling me I had to quit one sport cause I was in, like, eight different sports,” he laughs.
His varied interests all but guaranteed Lea would become enamored with triathlon. In fact, during one of his first races as a teenager, he snagged first place, single-handedly edging out every relay team in the lineup. Lea went on to swim at the University of California Davis, and logged his first Ironman at 19 years old. By 2012, he’d become the Men’s World Champion in the Half Ironman for his age group.
Lea would have gone pro if not for a duo of injuries—one to his knee, another to his ankle. When his doctor told Lea to quit running, at least competitively, a thought flashed through his mind: I need a new goal. And just as quickly, one arrived—swim the English Channel. The endeavor is often referred to as the “Everest of swimming,” and there’s endless debate over which of the two is more punishing. Lea, who added mountaineering and backcountry skiing to his repertoire after meeting Gleich, thought that perhaps he’d attempt both—and finish the feat within a year, which no one had ever done. Ever the triathlete, he couldn’t leave his bike by the wayside.
In addition to joining him for the Everest climb and supporting the other two legs of the Ultimate World Triathlon, Gleich inspired Lea to dedicate his efforts toward promoting gender equity not only in the outdoors, but far beyond. Through their Big Mountain Dreams Foundation, the two would share anti-bias materials and launch a social campaign promoting their endeavors as #climbforequality and #triforequality, hopefully sparking conversation about how to improve the dismal statistics surrounding women’s participation in adventure sports, and their representation at the highest levels of the outdoor industry.
But first, Lea needed to plan. Two-and-a-half years before he’d don a Speedo on the British shore, he hired an officially sanctioned boat pilot for the Channel swim to reserve his slot, but he didn’t truly commit to the Ultimate World Triathlon until after the Cho Oyu climb, less than a year out from his eventual start date. He skied and climbed, notched countless workouts, and spent a lot of time shivering through ice baths, building his cold tolerance for the Channel. Once he returned from Everest, however, Lea’s training derailed, consisting mostly of stuffing his face to gain weight—and insulation—after the punishing climb. By the time he straddled his bike on August 30 in Anacortes, Washington, Lea had only taken it out a handful of times.
“I have a pretty short term memory of the pain, so that’s why I think I like some of these types of adventures,” says Lea. “I think there’s probably also a part where even though I tell you it was really hard, I kind of wanted it to be hard in some weird way. I wanted to keep testing myself.”
We spoke with Lea about his Ultimate World Tri, his drive for testing personal boundaries, and the importance of men joining the conversation about gender equity.
What were some of the most challenging situations you faced during those six months?
It was mostly low-grade suffering. Caroline wasn’t feeling well initially [on Everest], and it was hard to have her sick and wonder how the rest of the trip was going to play out. Then, when we got high on the mountain, we were kind of skunked with the weather. When we got to Camp Two, we were going to do a quick push to the summit and back; then we decided that it wasn’t time for us to go, so we had to spend an extra day at 25,000’ sitting in the tent. Even though we knew that it was the right call, it was a really tough decision for us to make. Ultimately, I would have much rather done that than be stuck in the crowds that happened on May 23rd, but that day at Camp Two was probably one of the toughest days mentally, watching everyone else go and wondering if we were going to get our window the next day or not.
The highlight from the swim was definitely the jellyfish. I knew that I was going to get some, and in some weird, sadistic way, I was looking forward to it. I thought—well, this will wake me up, give me something to think about. I mean, it’s kind of like getting stung by a bee or something; it gives you a little zing and an adrenaline rush—and I did get that for a couple of them. But I think there were more jellyfish than usual on my swim, so I probably got stung over a hundred times. I got two direct blows to the face. Those were super painful and you can’t even tell someone about it, because you can’t really talk—you’re in the water. So you’re going through all this pain and then just have to keep swimming, doing your thing, and pushing through it.
You talk about wanting to “test” yourself—what does that mean on a deeper level?
I one hundred percent enjoy doing all of these things, like, I enjoy the beauty of being out on my bike, but I also enjoy testing my body’s and mind’s limits on what’s actually possible; that’s kind of the whole essence of this triathlon in the first place. I could have done [the legs] in three consecutive years and it would’ve been a totally different challenge for me.
There’s something about how I like to bring myself to the adventure, to the challenge; it’s usually not at full bore, but I want to make sure that I’m pushing my body and mind as much as I can along the way. I think that’s what makes it rewarding, when at the end, you knew that you laid everything down.
What were some of the most rewarding moments of the whole project?
It was such a roller coaster ride that every time I had a low moment, I kind of had a high moment coming. Getting to the top of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier [National Park] on the bike was probably one of those moments, because I knew that I was through the North Cascades and basically through the Rockies, and really looking forward to some flatter terrain where I thought my legs would recover—even though they never really did.
I would also say, just sharing the experiences along the way with Caroline; she was there for pretty much all of it. My mom was with me for the middle part of the bike ride and to share part of the ride with her was really special, as well. On the ride, we stayed with a couple of the people that we climbed Cho Oyu and Everest with. You always do these expeditions and get super close to people over, like, a 40-day period, and you feel like they’re almost your best friend—and then sometimes you never see them again. So it was really nice, less than six months after, to not only see them, but stay in their homes and kind of go back to Everest in a sense, and relive some of those memories as I was finishing up the bike.
Why did you adopt a message of gender equity for the Ultimate World Triathlon?
In the three years I was planning this whole thing, I saw a lot of times when Caroline would run across these gender equality issues. It was right in front of my face, so it was just kind of natural for me to talk about it.
I’d been skiing my whole life and I’d done some mountain climbing, but when we first started dating, the backcountry skiing thing was pretty new, and Caroline’s obviously a professional ski mountaineer. When we would go out into the mountains and other people would approach us, they would automatically come to me and ask questions about what we were doing, about conditions, and those kinds of things where she is obviously the expert—I mean, to me, she’s obviously the expert, but not to other people; they’re just coming to me because I’m a tall, white male. I don’t think people mean to do that, but it’s kind of this implicit bias that exists.
On the bike, I’d have either a good day or bad day. Typically the good days would be when I had some sort of tailwind; then the next day, I’d have this horrible headwind. I thought a lot about how that’s a good metaphor for life for women that generally have this kind of headwind that they have to work against; as a white male, I probably have that tailwind kind of pushing me through life a little bit. It’s not fair to expect a woman to achieve the same things, yet give her a headwind entire time—and it could be a little headwind or a massive hurricane.
I think that guys need to be part of this conversation and be advocates for women. I’ve had a little bit of backlash, like “This isn’t your fight to fight,” but I also think it’s my responsibility, if I have a voice, to talk about it.
Looking at the big picture, how would you like to see gender equity manifest in the outdoor industry and adventure sports?
I think the number one thing we need to see is more women as role models. That means you have to put dollars into female athletes, you have to invest in women, making it so that women can make a living in the outdoor space the same way men can. Obviously that’s not always easy for men, as well, but there’s a huge disparity in the amount of money that goes into women’s outdoor adventure and men’s.
You’ve said that your big takeaway was realizing that we’re all capable of more than we think; what do you hope other people take away from the Ultimate World Triathlon?
This might sound funny, but I think that to a certain extent, the Ultimate World Triathlon part might get kind of lost or forgotten, but what I want people to go forward thinking about and having conversations about is the gender equality part. That’s something that can live on. And that’s something that actually makes a difference.