Record triathlon brings awareness

The first leg of Norma Bastidas' journey turned out to be surprisingly painful. iEmpathize

Before starting an attempt at a 3,762-mile triathlon on March 1, Norma Bastidas knew there would be obstacles.

Her body would take a pounding. The weather would no doubt be harsh. She'd get sick or have equipment failures.

As a veteran ultra-distance athlete, Bastidas often has overcome challenges, but this time she didn't account for one thing: salt water.

The first leg of what would be the world's longest triathlon would be a 122-mile swim in the Caribbean. Almost immediately after starting, she wondered if she'd have to stop.

"It was so painful," Bastidas recalls. "Within two days my lips were so swollen, my tongue was so swollen, and it started eroding the inside of my mouth, the salt water. It was incredibly painful."

Every time she put her face in the water, it felt as if it were burning. As the days wore on, her support crew would pour buckets of fresh water over her head every mile or so just for relief. One member of her support crew, Jim Marek, called the swim "brutal."

"Her tongue was covered in a callus from the salt water," he says. "Her lips were kind of peeling off and swollen. Her eyes got real swollen. The salt water was something we didn't expect would be a huge issue going in. But that kind of turned out to be the main obstacle."

Bastidas' skin also was ravaged by exposure to the sun, jellyfish stings and jellyfish larvae that lodged under her suit and caused an incessant itch. She said the urge to scratch all night was "like having chicken pox." Yet Bastidas kept going.

She finished her swim in Cancun, Mexico, then rode her bike 2,932 miles through Mexico and the southern U.S. before running 735 miles to finish in Washington, D.C., on May 5. Along the way she survived two dangerous traffic incidents on the bike and serious foot problems on the run. To Bastidas, the pain was for gain.

Today, Bastidas, 46, is a physical trainer, actress, athlete and single mother of two in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a young woman in Mexico, she was a victim of sexual abuse and kidnapping. Bastidas in recent years has been an outspoken advocate for raising awareness about human trafficking. Her goal was to shatter the long-held Guinness world record for a longest triathlon and attract attention and raise funds for the cause in the process.

She would follow a known trafficking route through Mexico and try to inspire younger victims with her message: She survived and thrived, and they can, too.

"I wanted people to watch me have a hard time, yet continue to move forward," Bastidas says. "That was really the goal."

The woman and her quest

Bastidas only began to run in 2006 to relieve stress after one of her sons developed an eye condition that can lead to blindness. She fell in love with the way running made her feel, then decided to enter races to aid the charities and organizations that were helping her son.

By 2008, she was doing marathons and then ultra races. In 2009, she completed seven ultras over seven continents in seven months in support of the visually impaired. In 2012, she ran 2,600 miles from Vancouver to her former home in Mexico, with little support, for the cause against human trafficking, then wrote a book about her experiences called "Running Home: A Journey to End Violence."

About a year-and-a-half ago Bastidas -- who says she's always "looking for the next adventure" -- decided to go after the Guinness record for longest triathlon set by David Holleran of Australia in 1998. Holleran's 1,578-mile tri was set over nearly 18 days in 1998.

Bastidas had one problem: She could hardly swim.

Over about 18 months she honed her swim skills and improved her cycling. She also partnered with iEmpathize, a non-profit that campaigns against human trafficking that would help spread her message and raise donations for her journey.

In addition, iEmpathize would follow her to create a documentary film about trafficking that would include interviews with survivors from around the world and the story of Bastidas' mega triathlon (the film, "Be Relentless," is due to be released in 2015).

She went into the triathlon excited about her new challenge, but with doubts about her swimming ability. Bastidas compared swimming to her Japanese. She's trilingual (Spanish, English, Japanese), but when she's in Japanese mode, "I'm not fluent, but I can kind of do it," she said.

"Same thing with swimming. Swimming was the [discipline] I was most intimidated by."

The swim

Bastidas intended to swim 122 miles on a course about half a mile offshore from Cancun. She would swim around two buoys set a mile apart and measured for accuracy. And, as she did for the entire triathlon, she would wear a GPS device so her movements could be documented for later submission to Guinness for authentication. Her volunteer crew also would keep detailed logs and take photos along the route.

After Bastidas swam 27 miles, however, her crew discovered the GPS wasn't working. So, though she went on to swim 122 total miles over about three weeks -- sometimes in the water for seven to 10 hours -- only 95 miles would count.

The hours were uncomfortable and monotonous -- she had a constant soundtrack in her mind of Rihanna songs that she couldn't mute -- but over time she became proud her swimming abilities.

"I went from being incompetent and a beginner to doing incredibly well," she says.

When she later saw videos of herself, she remembers thinking, "I look awesome!"

"When you hate something, it's only because you're a beginner," she says.

Her message: Keep going and never give up. Near the end of her swim, Bastidas was buoyed by visits from children and women from local shelters who'd heard about her cause and efforts. At the same time, area swim teams came out, with some members swimming alongside her.

After hours alone in the water, the sight of arms and legs splashing nearby gave her new energy to finish.

The bike

When Bastidas left Cancun on her bike, she was accompanied by her support crew and the iEmpathize team. They cut across the Yucatan peninsula, along the coast and toward Veracruz, then inland toward Mexico City and north to Monterrey and the border into Texas.

While she was relieved to be cycling rather than swimming, Leg 2 of the triathlon brought its own challenges. She had planned to cycle 16 to 18 hours per day, but cut it back to about 11 hours because of the dangers of being on roads with cars and trucks.

Just before crossing into the U.S., the trailing support van was rear-ended, with the van spinning out of control and crashing. Some crew members received minor injuries that needed medical attention. About a week into the U.S., the van was hit again.

To Marek, who was on a bike riding with Bastidas before crossing the border, the first accident was a shock. The entire team was shaken up. He thought the trip might be over.

"But then Norma right away kind of rallied everybody after it happened and a couple of hours later we were back on the road, riding the bike," he says.

That was just like her, Marek says.

"One thing that really impressed me about her was her focus and her almost tunnel vision. She had her eye on the goal and all the adversity and stuff that would come up, she hardly recognized it. She kept going forward."

The run

After reaching LaGrange, Georgia, Bastidas got off the bike. She settled into a pace of running about 40 miles per day, but soon her body rebelled. She developed blisters and, with rain almost every day, they became infected. She also had trouble eating.

"I just couldn't tolerate food anymore," she says. She would lose about 20 pounds before finishing, dropping to 103.

Still, despite the problems, Bastidas was more comfortable running than swimming or cycling, and her progress was good. As the team neared Washington, D.C., she decided to put on a final push, and ran the last 96 miles nonstop over two days.

When she finally finished on the National Mall, it was her 65th day. Bastidas had chosen Washington to bring the most attention possible to her cause. Several women -- survivors of trafficking in South America and Mexico -- ran the last two miles with her.

Seeing them and others waiting for her at the finish made her entire effort worth it.

"This is about helping teach everybody that nobody deserves this," she says. "[Showing] who we really are but, more than anything, empowering survivors."

Adds Bastida: "I could have turned around and done [the route] backward when I saw the girls. They deserve so much more."

What's next?

The determination of the exact mileage of the triathlon, and certification by Guinness, is still to come. No matter the number, Bastidas will have more than doubled the previous record.

After returning to Vancouver three days after finishing, Bastidas said her body felt fine, but it took a while to get back to normal.

"You can't just go full-on and come home and look at laundry," she says, laughing.

She's made a deal with her family that she'll only do an ultra quest such as her record triathlon, her run to Mexico or her seven-continents ultras every couple of years. In the interim, as she ponders her next quest, she has decided she wants to do some Ultraman Triathlons (double Ironman distance), with the hope of getting to the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii.

But just as she took on a new challenge (swimming) for her recent adventure, she's sure she'll take on something new again for her next big thing.

"I'll completely surprise myself," she says. "Ocean-crossing kayaking ... that's the beauty of somebody who's in love with adventure. Maybe a record. Records are great. There's so many places on Earth I want to be."

And so many causes to champion.