The Great Adventure: Rob Lea's World Triathlon

Photo of UC Davis alumnus Rob Lea mountain climbing.
After a doctor advised him to stop running, Rob Lea climbed Mount Everest, swam the English Channel and biked across the United States.

Rob Lea has had a big year. Actually, he packed his adventures into an eventful six months.

In October, he completed what he’s calling a world triathlon: summiting Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel and biking across the United States. The idea came to him after ankle problems prompted a doctor to tell him not to run anymore.

“After leaving the doctor’s office I thought, ‘I need a new goal,’ and I immediately thought of swimming and the English Channel,” said the Utah-based real estate agent. “Once I started researching the English Channel I found out that they call it the Everest of swimming, and I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if anyone has ever done both?’”

Photo of swimmer in the English channel, ship in the background going opposite direction.
Rob Lea swam the English Channel in 11 hours and 47 minutes. (Photo: Caroline Gleich)

Lea (B.A., international relations, ’03) completed both, becoming the first person to do so in a single year.

Already an experienced mountain climber, Lea took on major training to prepare, including weighted hikes and backcountry skiing, for Mount Everest, which he tackled in May. He and now-wife Caroline Gleich summited the north side of the mountain via Tibet. It was a conscious decision because that route sees fewer people each year and proved important as dangerous “traffic jams” on the mountain made news around the world.

To avoid the crowds, Lea’s group waited an extra day to go to the top.

“Our summit was beautiful, barely any wind,” he said. “It felt pretty good, but you have a long way to go from there. It’s hard to enjoy it too much because you’re still in harm’s way.”

Preparation for the swim in July was entirely different. He had dropped about 20 pounds and worried about withstanding the cold water. “I had to put blubber on for the English Channel because you can’t wear a wetsuit,” said Lea, who was on the swim team at UC Davis.

And this swim offered a new experience for Lea: open-air swimming at night. “Because you can’t really see where you’re going, you kind of just put your head down and get into this zone.” Another challenge? The jellyfish. Lea estimated he was stung 50 to 100 times.

Lea’s time was 11 hours and 47 minutes, about an hour faster than the average.

After the swim Lea took a timeout to marry Gleich, a professional ski mountaineer. “In a sense, it’s a quadrathlon, because that was another big life event that happened within the six months,” Lea said.

He quickly set out again, taking on the bike part of the triathlon in September and October. Lea traveled from north of Seattle to Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 39 days.

Looking back, Lea said the experience was harder than he anticipated, especially the biking. He added that he feels accomplished and proud that he used the experience to spread the word about gender equality. Throughout each journey, he has advocated on social media, aiming to raise awareness about implicit gender biases.

Now, he’s due for a break.

“I would say there is definitely a bit of home time that is in order,” he said. “There will be other adventures, I just don’t have anything planned at this point.”

— Jocelyn Anderson wrote this article for UC Davis Magazine

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