Rob Lea took an Advanced Sweat Test with PH before undertaking his ‘Ultimate World Triathlon’, which involves the small matter of swimming the English Channel, cycling across America and climbing Mount Everest in 2019!
The challenge forms part of a wider movement as Rob and his wife-to-be (as well as fellow adventurer and ski-mountaineer) Caroline Gleich, are bidding to promote gender equality through the #Climbforequality and #Triforequality hashtags.
We spoke to Rob about his unusual triathlon, dealing with altitude and his extremely salty sweat...
So Rob, how did the Ultimate World Triathlon come about?
It was about three years ago that I came into the hospital for them to have a look at bone spurs in my ankle. The doctor said I needed to have surgery and I shouldn’t be running anymore.
I was sat on the doctor’s table and thinking, ‘I need a big goal to keep me motivated’. I’ve got a background in swimming (Rob was State champion for Park City High School and competed for University of California, Davis, in College) so I immediately thought of the English Channel.
I didn’t really know anything about it at that point - I didn’t know the distance and I didn't know you couldn’t wear a wetsuit - but I literally made my mind up in the doctor’s office that I was going to do it.
I started researching it and found they call it ‘The Everest of Swimming’, which got me thinking about whether anyone had ever climbed Everest AND swum the Channel…
Since then, I believe there’s eight people who have done both of the challenges but never in the same year. Most people had a gap of about five years between the two challenges, so I thought maybe I could do it in the same year.
That’s how the process started but I’m a triathlete as well so I naturally wanted to do a ride and I’ve always wanted to bike across the country. It started as something I wanted to do for myself but the Climb For Equality came later when Caroline decided to do Everest with me, so we started brainstorming and it just fitted with what we were trying to spread the word about.
Tell us a bit more about the hashtags #Climbforequality and #Triforequality...
Whenever we go out, regardless of whether I’m the strongest in that sport or discipline, or if Caroline is stronger, people just assume I’m guiding her.
For example, I was a total novice as a backcountry skier when I met Caroline and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. She’s the professional but whenever we’d go out people would just assume I was guiding her because she was female.
I think that directly relates to what people see in everyday life and they just expect the man to be in charge.
We want to raise awareness and stimulate conversations about gender roles and equality, through both the Everest climb and the Ultimate World Triathlon.
Great stuff. Speaking of Everest, how did you prepare for the altitude and standing on top of the world?
It’s hard to know how to train for altitude because you don’t know how your own body is going to react. The biggest part of our training was going to Cho Oyu mountain in the fall and seeing how our bodies reacted.
We felt prepared with our baseline fitness and the overriding thing was doing our acclimatisation in our Hypoxico Tent.
I’d sleep in the Hypoxico Tent and I’d do my stationary bike work with a decreased level of oxygen in order to get used to exertion at altitude.
We did a couple of talks before we left for Everest and people were asking, ‘do I need to train for like six months or a year before I try and climb Everest?’
I was very reluctant to give a specific answer because it isn’t something you just sign up for next year. It’s a progression thing as you need to be fully comfortable in the mountains for years on end in my opinion.
For example, we went to Peru and did ski-mountaineering at altitude there, we climbed a 7,000m peak and we then went to an 8,000m peak.
When I was on Everest, a ‘Facebook Memory’ came up where I’d climbed Denali Mountain nine years before, so in essence I had been training for Everest my entire life.
When you were on Everest, did you suffer with any side-effects from the altitude?
Over a prolonged period your body doesn’t feel very good - you kind of feel lethargic, low in motivation and a bit like you have the flu. I think dealing with the side-effects of altitude is honestly the hardest part of climbing Everest.
My summit day wasn't the most physical day of my life, or anything close to that, but being in a tent for 40 days, feeling like crap and, shall we say, your intestines aren’t exactly on point… It makes achieving anything hard, let alone getting to the top of Mount Everest!
I had sinus infections which blocked my nose too so I’d be using nasal spray and would hock up a loogie in the morning, it would be all bloody. I was like, ‘what’s going on inside my body right now?’
I also had the ‘Khumbu Cough’, which is a respiratory irritation, so you don’t sleep very well as you keep waking up through coughing, and I had a few light headaches but they weren’t too bad as I think we acclimatised pretty well.
The other thing I should mention is that I lost 20lbs on Everest so I’m trying to gain that 20 back, plus another 10 or 20, for the Channel Swim!
Sound like some nasty effects! Just how tough is it to keep going at such heights?
Well, I was at an elevation of around 27,300ft when I ran out of oxygen for about half an hour. Caroline was in front of me and normally I can keep up but she slowly started moving ahead of me, I was just breathing really hard and I turned to the guy behind me and said ‘I feel like hell right now’.
Finally, I stopped and he checked my oxygen regulator and confirmed I was out of ‘O’s’. So I sat down until a Sherpa brought be more oxygen.
I’d say at that moment of acute elevation, I definitely felt light-headed, a little dizzy, not as precise as I should be, and almost felt slightly drunk or high.
Originally I wanted to climb Everest without oxygen because I felt it was a more pure way of doing it and out of the 5,000 or so people who have summited Everest, only about 220 have done it without oxygen.
But my doctor told me the story of Reinhold Messner, who was the first to summit Everest without oxygen, and he was supposed to spend two minutes at the top, although he ended up there for 15 minutes. He got back and told the media he was on top of the world, but he then got back to camp and didn’t remember any of it.
I thought, ‘I don’t want to climb Everest and not remember it.’
You contemplated going to the top of the world without oxygen but you definitely took your electrolytes I take it?
Oh definitely! I used Precision Hydration throughout the trip. You’re trying to drink and eat as much as possible when you’re up there but it’s not always that easy, so I was trying to supplement rather than just drink pure water.
I know I need more salt than most - Rob loses 1,781mg of sodium per litre of sweat, so he’s on the salty end of our sweat spectrum! - so the PH was great for that.
On ‘summit day’, I used two of the PH soft flasks and they were perfect - I’d boil water and put the hot water in the bottles, which I’d then tuck inside my jacket. This was great as it kept me warm and stops the water from freezing, while it was super easy to take a sip of my PH from the bottle in my jacket as and when I needed to. The PH bottles were ideal because when you’re at that altitude you can’t stop, take your pack off and fish a bottle out.
Did you have an idea that you were a very salty sweater before you took an Advanced Sweat Test with us?
It was super helpful because I didn’t know I was so salty before. It’s helped me gain that awareness that I need additional sodium, which I never had before.
It made me think back to what a difference it could have made during my triathlete days (Rob was an half-Ironman age-group World Champion in 2012) when I did use some electrolyte pills on the bike, but I never knew how many I needed, it was just a guessing game.
On the bike I used to get some serious cramping issues when I was competing in Florida, Hawaii, or hot or humid places, and looking back it was probably a salt issue.
The Sweat Test has helped raise my awareness of those issues going forward and other people will definitely benefit from taking one.
You mentioned your triathlon days there, did you feel like you had a significant advantage when racing at altitude because you’ve been brought up at altitude in Park City, Utah?
That’s a really good question, I’ve never truly thought of it in that sense. Whenever I’ve competed in a triathlon with any sort of altitude I’ve always felt like I had an advantage. The main reason being that I was born and raised in Park City so we’re at basically 7,000ft. That’s my first advantage, but it’s also a mental and placebo kind of thing.
I figure I’m living at elevation so I have an advantage.
There’s a 70.3 I did in Boise and I’m sure I went into that race thinking I had an advantage over everyone else there because I was brought up at elevation. That’s more of a mental thing than anything else.
A whole lifetime of elevation means that mentally I think no one is going to catch up to me in a race. Whether it was there physically or not is hard to tell.
I always thought my lungs were my most significant advantage as I’ve never felt particularly athletic - I’m all slow twitch - but ironically I’ve got exercise-induced asthma. I’m not sure if my lungs are good or I just think they’re good!
Thanks Rob! Congratulations to you and Caroline on summiting Everest, and best of luck with the #Triforequality!
Since Rob spoke to PH, he has completed his Channel Swim in a time of 11 hours and 47 minutes - amazing! - and he now has a wedding with Caroline to organise before his ride across America. Good luck guys!
Visit Rob’s Ultimate World Triathlon GoFundMe page for more details about how you can donate and get involved.