After summiting Mount Everest in April of last year, Rob Lea still had two legs of his Ultimate World Triathlon to go: swimming the English Channel and cycling across the United States. With just a month between Everest and the Channel, Lea got ready. By eating. A lot.
“All I did was eat as much as possible,” says Lea. “I had a ton of beer and a pizza sponsor. The local pizza company here was just giving me as much pizza as I wanted…I was eating pizza in bed right before I went to sleep, and just getting as many carbs as I could. I wasn’t eating whenever I was hungry. I was eating whenever I wasn’t full.”
Lea, an Ironman veteran and former half-marathon world champion, was out to accomplish not just what no individual he knows of had achieved before — conquer the world’s highest peak, navigate its most famously treacherous waterway, and ride a bike across a continent — but to do it all within six months.
The six-month window meant he had no time to spare. Lea had lost 20 pounds during the Everest climb. While on the world’s tallest mountain, a fellow climber who had swum the English Channel had said to Lea, “You know how to swim, but you’re not going to survive it if you don’t put weight on.’”
Lea already knew this. Although he’d been a multi-state swimming champ in high school and an All-American at UC Davis, a Division II university, for Lea the biggest challenge of open-water swimming was the cold. In open-water swimming, the only protection from the cold is yourself.
“You can’t wear a wetsuit,” says Lea, explaining that since the first swimmer crossed the Channel in 1875 in a pre-wetsuit era, neoprene is not considered a legitimate part of open-water swims. “I’m a pretty good swimmer, but to me the biggest crux was the cold temperature. It took a lot for me, literally years of training, to be able to withstand the temperatures.”
Many months before swimming the Channel, Lea put a large metal tub in his backyard. “In the winter I fill it up. It ices overnight, I take an axe out, chop up the ice, and sit in that. And I would do that like five days a week. I would sit in that from anywhere from five minutes to fifteen minutes, in this ice bath,” says Lea.
Beyond the mental training, Lea was working to build up brown fat, the insulating baby fat we’re all born with, which he needed more of. He also swam in Utah lakes and even in the San Francisco Bay, where the whitecaps and rough current make it “one of the best places you can train for the English Channel,” according to Lea.
Lea says he normally carries about 170 pounds on his 6’1” frame. He’d intentionally gained weight before the Everest climb, but had lost most of it during his weeks in the Himalayas.
“When I came back from Everest I was like 175, I think, and that was after losing 20 pounds. So I went into Everest at like 195. And then when I did the English Channel, I was about 205 pounds, or maybe even a little bit heavier than that,” says Lea. Not only did he eat as much as possible, feeling “bloated all the time,” Lea says he also tried not to work out too much, so he wouldn’t burn the fat he needed to build up.
Preparing for Everest had taken a different kind of discipline. If preparation for the Channel swim involved stuffing in as many calories as he could, getting ready for Everest had meant depriving himself of oxygen wherever possible.
Lea had already bagged some big mountains, among them North America’s highest peak, Denali. Seven months before Everest, he’d also climbed the world’s sixth-highest peak with his girlfriend, mountaineer and environmental advocate Caroline Gleich. At the top of 26,864-foot Mount Cho Oyu, Gleich had also dropped to one knee and proposed. Lea had naturally said yes, so he’d be fitting in a wedding in between the last two legs of his Ultimate World Triathlon as well.
Although they already lived 7,000 feet above sea level in Park City, Lea and Gleich would need to adapt to even higher altitudes if they wanted to summit Everest within their constrained time frame. After his morning ice baths, Lea rode his bike indoors throughout the winter while wearing a Hypoxico mask, which mirrors 19,000-foot oxygen levels. Lea and Gleich also slept with a tent over their bed that simulates sleeping at 17,000 feet.
In the end, that meant they could cut off the time it would take to acclimatize at base camp from two-plus months to just 40 days — although Gleich almost didn’t make the trip when she tore her ACL backcountry skiing six weeks before they were set to travel. Gleich worked hard on strengthening to get a doctor’s green light to accompany Lea.
In April, they arrived in Tibet, where the pair would approach Everest from its less-traveled, and more challenging,