Getting into shape for an intense athletic endeavor doesn’t usually involve pizza and beer, but that’s just what endurance athlete Rob Lea turned to when preparing for the second leg of his “ultimate world triathlon.”
He dreamed up the race on his own—climbing Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel, and biking across the United States all in one year. Lea completed the first leg in May 2019, but he lost 20 pounds while on the mountain. To finish the second leg, he needed to fatten up—and do it fast. Since open-ocean swimming rules require wearing only a Speedo, he had to pack on body fat to stay warm in the cold water. He avoided exercise and scarfed down pizza, beer, white Russians, and bread. By the time he jumped into the water on July 9, 2019, he’d gained back the 20 pounds he’d lost—and 10 more.
Fifty jellyfish stings and nearly 12 hours later, Lea became the first person to swim the English Channel and climb Mount Everest in the same year. And he’s not done yet.
We caught up with Lea to discuss which feat was harder, how he created his “ultimate world triathlon,” and what he’s doing now to prepare for his cross-country cycle.
You swam the English Channel just 45 days after a successful north-side Everest summit. How did you prepare so quickly for the swim?
When I got back from Everest, the number one concern I had for the English Channel was staying warm enough. You could be the fittest person in the world, but if you get hypothermic or you’re just miserably cold the whole time, you’re not going to make it.
So my first task was to put on as much weight as possible. I prioritized that over training, because I knew that if I was swimming a couple hours a day, I wouldn’t put on the weight I needed. I did that for basically about four weeks.
How did you gain enough weight?
I always had pizza on tap. Whenever I was not full, I would eat it—or any other kind of bread. It’s not like I was chugging beers all day, but I definitely drank a lot of white Russians because they’ve got a lot of cream. I honestly got really sick of eating.
Those extra pounds don’t make me look like I’m at the epitome of my athletic life, but that’s the nature of open-water swimming. I needed that weight to keep me warm.
When did you finally start swimming?
Two weeks before I left, I really amped up my swim training. I did a six-hour swim, and afterwards I was super tired and sore in the arms. I knew I was going to be swimming probably more than double that amount of time. I went into the English Channel more unsure, with more self-doubt about finishing, than any other athletic event in my life.
When I dove into the water, I thought, “Okay, here we go! We’ll just take it feeding by feeding.” That’s how you mentally deal with 12 hours in the 60-degree water. I had feedings every hour for the first three hours and then every half hour after that.
Were the jellyfish in the Channel a problem?
In some weird, sadistic way, I was looking forward to all the jellyfish, because I thought, “Hey, I’m going to be going out of my mind out there, bored. I’ll need something else to think about and maybe that will give me like a little adrenaline rush.”
There were a couple of hours when I was just swimming through thousands of jellyfish. I got stung at least 50 times, probably more. I got two direct hits to the face by big jellyfish. Those freaking hurt.
People say swimming the English Channel is the Everest of swimming. Only 10 other people have ever done both the “peak and the pond,” but not in the same year. Which is harder?
It’s really hard to answer that question, just because they’re such different events.
If I compare swimming the English Channel to the summit day on Everest, I would say that the English Channel was harder. But on Everest, you’re just kind of living in low-grade pain all the time. You’re doing that for a month or months on end. And that’s really hard.
How did you pick the three events for your “ultimate world triathlon”?
About three and a half years ago, I was having some pretty sharp ankle pains. I went to the doctor and he told me I needed to have ankle surgery. He didn’t recommend me running anymore. Sitting there, I thought, “Okay, I need a new athletic goal. What could that be?”
I immediately thought of swimming the English Channel. When I started researching it, I found out that they called it the “Everest of swimming.” I had already climbed a lot of mountains in the world, including Denali and Aconcagua, and Everest has always been something that I wanted to do, but [it’s] controversial and there were times that I didn’t know if I wanted to go climb there. But when I saw that, I was like “Oh, I wonder if anybody has done both of those.”
I looked it up. No one had ever done both in a calendar year. I thought, “Oh, this would be a hell of a challenge, to try and do it in the same year.” But then [my mind turned] back to my triathlon days. I thought, “If Everest is my run, because I can’t run, and I’m going to do the swim, what could I do as far as a bike?”
That was a pretty easy decision, because I’ve always wanted to bike across the country. So there, all of a sudden, this idea was born, to do what I made up as my “ultimate world triathlon.”
How are you’re preparing for the coast-to-coast bike ride?
The first thing I have to do is get home and get on the bike. I literally have not been on my bike for probably four months. I’m leaving to ride across the country in about a month and a half, so that’s a little daunting—just like when I finished Everest and had to go to the swim.
But I feel pretty confident that once I start riding and get a couple hundred miles under my legs, they’ll come around. As long as I can get comfortable with 100-plus miles in a day, then I should be good.
How do you feel going into this leg?
I don’t want to underestimate the ride across America, but I also am quite looking forward to this. It’s going to be a great way to see the country. I’m not going beast mode and trying to get as many miles in every day. I want to enjoy this part of the journey, use it as a chance to reflect on the whole thing.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.