Meet Rob Lea, the Man Who Wants to Climb Everest, Swim the English Channel, and Bike Across America

Rob Lea stands on the summit of Mount Everest
Rob Lea stands on the summit of Mount EverestCaroline Gleich

Rob Lea is breaking records. And he’s doing it on a diet of pizza, beer, and heavy whipping cream.

In July, the 38-year-old Park City resident became the first person to ever stand atop Mount Everest and swim the English Channel within a calendar year, completing his water crossing a mere 47 days after his summit. Both endurance feats are the first two legs of his self-dubbed 2019 Ultimate World Triathlon that concludes in September when Lea cycles across the country.

So how does one man go from summit to sea in two of the most inhospitable environments on the planet? Years of work… and lots of calories.

“You don’t train for these things in a month or two, or with a particular dumbbell rep scheme,” Lea says. “This type of fitness comes from a lifetime of training.”

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As the 2012 Men’s 30-34 Age Group World Champion in the Half-Ironman triathlon distance, Lea has a strong fitness background and even contemplated going pro. But a serious ankle injury ended those dreams when a doctor advised him to cut back on running. He needed a new goal.

First, he used his triathlon-level fitness to climb some big mountains. He summited Aconcagua (the tallest peak in South America at 22,841 feet) in 2009, followed by North America’s Denali (20,308 feet) in 2011. In 2018, Lea and his now-wife, pro skier Caroline Gleich, began chatting about Everest. (Soon after, Lea started entertaining the idea of swimming the English Channel then biking across America to complete the trifecta.)

Rob Lea drinking Fat Tire beer at Everest camp
Rob Lea drinking Fat Tire beer at Everest camp Caroline Gleich

“The difference between a 7,000-meter peak like Aconcagua and an 8,000-meter peak like Everest is comparing apples and oranges,” Lea says. “Going to those elevations is so different, so we used it as a training ground to see how we fared.”

The duo set their sights on Cho Oyu in the Himalayas. Dubbed the ‘Turquoise Goddess’ in Tibetan, Cho Oyu is the sixth tallest peak in the world at 26,906 feet. After successfully summiting in September 2018, Lea felt nervous yet confident about Everest.

The proceeding eight months were filled with long days in Utah’s mountains. Lea became a bonafide uphill athlete, meaning he spent hundreds of hours climbing mountains in various capacities. Instead of resort skiing where you catch a chairlift, he’d go backcountry skiing and ski uphill for most of the day. Time on his feet was the ultimate goal, and Lea says his bigger days amounted to 10-12 hours of outdoor adventuring.

Weighted hikes were also a key component of his strength training. Lea used full water bladders to carry upwards of 50 pounds in his backpack on hike and ski ascents.

“The added weight is great for strength, but I preferred saving my joints on the downhills,” he explains.

And the mountains were only a portion of his workout regime. During an average training week, he spent three or four days in the hills along with another three to six days in the pool to prep for the English Channel. His biggest week amounted to 30-35 miles of swimming with another 20 hours of hiking. Why? Personal safety and self-preservation.

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“I love being outside, but if you spend most of your time flirting with avalanche danger, eventually the mountains will catch up to you—and they will win,” he says. “You certainly need that experience, but I also try to get a lot of my fitness from swimming and biking.”

Lea also utilized a Hypoxico tent. The science to date doesn’t show a marked impact on performance, but the theory is these sealed tents allow users to simulate various altitudes in preparation for big peaks. According to Lea, training or living at altitude allows the body to pre-acclimate by adapting to the lower oxygen content. In the months leading up to Everest, Lea slept and rode his stationary bike inside the tent.

“I’d sit on my bike, in my living room, in Park City, going for a leisurely bike ride at 19,000 feet,” he laughs.

On May 24, 2019, Lea and Gleich stood atop Everest, achieving a lifelong dream. Shortly after returning to Park City, Lea’s training took a dramatic turn. Instead of focusing on his fitness, he turned his attention to his diet.

Thanks to spending 40 days on the mountain for a rapid ascent, Lea lost a whopping 20 pounds, whittling down from 195 to 175 pounds. For many athletes, a slim body is desirable, but not when you’re gearing up to swim the English Channel. Open-water swimming rules dictate athletes only wear a Speedo—no wetsuit. With average July water temps hovering near 60 degrees, Lea could be the fittest individual out there but end up with hypothermia. He needed to pack on blubber to keep him warm enough for his 12-hour journey.

Rob Lea prepring to swim in English Channel
Rob Lea prepring to swim in English Channel Caroline Gleich

“I broke every rule in the dieting handbook,” Lea laughs. “I’d eat a ton of carbs, but I went so far as to eat pizza while I was literally in bed, getting ready to go to sleep.”

Lea wanted to gain 30 pounds—the 20 he lost on Everest along with 10 more for added fat. To do so, he acquired two of the coolest sponsors on the planet: Fat Tire Amber Ale and Red Banjo Pizza in Park City. On average, he inhaled four to five pizzas per week, rotating through toppings to add variety. He also consumed heavy whipping cream on a regular basis, blowing through seven quarts in 35 days. His calorie-laden concoction of choice: White Russians.

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At his peak, Lea estimates he was consuming anywhere from 8-10,000 calories per day. Near the end of his 47-day window between Everest and the Channel, he even cut back on his swimming, because it was burning up too much of his body fat. “I wasn’t going to lose my fitness in a month,” he says. And while he admits this initially sounded like a dream diet post-Everest, it eventually made him nauseous.

“It sounds weird, but I was basically training to get fatter,” Lea says. “Instead of eating when I was hungry, I ate anytime I wasn’t full.”

According to Charmaine Jones, a registered dietician nutritionist and founder of Food Jonezi, a diet like this is not recommended.

Rob Lea using NormaTec sleeves on arms
Rob Lea using NormaTec sleeves on arms Caroline Gleich

“Yo-yo dieting can cause emotional distress and have a physical toll on your body,” Jones says. “Continuous dieting may lead to frustration about body appearance, deprivation of foods, and short famines.”

She notes that while Lea obviously is a unique case, she would still recommend that any athlete attempting something like this do so only under a doctor’s direct supervision.

Lea admits that the fatty diet made him feel bloated and unwell, but he kept with it. “I just had to stick to the plan and trust that it would get me through the swim,” he explains.

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It worked. On July 10 at 4 p.m., a 205-pound Lea left the English shoreline behind and began the arduous journey across the Channel. After 28 miles, 11 hours and 47 minutes of swimming— and more than 50 jelly fish stings—his fingertips brushed French soil.

The first thing he wanted once on the boat? A beer, of course.

Stay tuned for Lea’s last leg, biking across America. Follow him on Instagram for updates.

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