This story originally ran in our September/October 2016 issue.
Norma Bastidas pulled herself towards her support boat off the coast of Cancun, overwhelmed with physical fatigue and searing pain. The ocean salt water had burned the insides of her mouth so badly that she struggled to eat or drink. There were second-degree burns on her face and ears from a combination of the salt, sun and multiple jellyfish attacks. Her neck ached from hours spent sighting in the water and never in her years of ultra marathon running had she suffered from such painful cramps.
A member of her support team told her she had to get out of the water. Bastidas had put in four full days of swimming towards the world’s longest swim, bike and run distance record she was trying to complete. But, due to a GPS malfunction, none of it had recorded properly. She would have to start over.
In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to leave and go home. She refused to quit. In reality, the pain she was felt now was nothing in comparison to the decades of poverty, rape and abuse she faced as a girl growing up in Mexico who was forced into human trafficking at age 19.
“Things took a turn after my father died when I was 11,” Bastidas recalls. “My mother became a single parent with five children to care for. We were poor and vulnerable.”
It began while caring for her blind grandfather, who sexually assaulted her. Bastidas never spoke about what happened – this became the first of several burdens she would carry with her for decades.
It was a few years later she thought was finally getting her break when a local woman scouted her for an overseas modelling job.
“I thought this was my chance at a better life,” she says. “My mother was scared for me, but she let me go. We wanted to believe this was it.”
Bastidas was flown to Japan and soon realized she had been scammed. She was stripped of her passport and told by her captors she must work to pay back the debt of airfare and accommodation as a sex slave. Without her passport, unable to speak Japanese and labelled a prostitute by authorities, no one was willing to help her. It was by sheer luck that she managed to escape years later.
Bastidas decided to start her life over in Canada. Things finally seemed to settle down a bit, but not for long.
“I got married, had two children and moved to Vancouver,” she says. “But I developed a drinking problem to numb the pain I was feeling from my past and soon my marriage failed and I lost my job.”
On top of everything, her oldest son, Karl, started losing his sight and was soon diagnosed with an incurable eye condition called cone rod dystrophy. Bastidas felt like she had lost control of everything. For some, it would be the breaking point. But, for Bastidas, ever the optimist, it was a turning point. That’s when she found endurance sport.
“Sport had never been a part of my life growing up. I decided to start running to escape the stress in my life. I’d run at night so no one would see me crying.
“I had no experience, but it was something I could control. I couldn’t control my son’s vision, or if I was fired from my job again, but I could always control lacing up my running shoes and going for a run.”
Within six months, she had qualified for the Boston Marathon and was inspired to do more. “I ran seven of the world’s hardest ultramarathons in seven months as an ambassador for my son and the millions of other people in the world living with eye diseases. I raised money for three foundations that are working to cure conditions like my son’s,” she says.
Her cause gained international attention and soon she found it thrust into the public eye. The experience never sat right with her, though, because she felt like she wasn’t telling the whole truth.
“I was propelled into this position of public leader,” she recalls. “Oprah included me in her Extraordinary Moms documentary. People wanted to know who I was. I earned awards. But, deep down, I felt uncomfortable accepting them.”
Bastidas didn’t feel like her ultramarathon challenge was deserving of the attention.
“I was just a mom doing something for my own kids. I just wanted to remind the world there are people like my son Karl who are suffering from these incurable conditions and we need to help.”
When she’d hear people use the word “courage” to describe her story, she felt undeserving of the praise and was reminded of her past.
“Deep down, I was struggling. I was seeing so many parallels in my life. My son had this eye condition and I was abused by my grandfather who was blind. My son was fine, but there are millions of women and children out there who are not. A health issue is so much easier for the world to talk about than something like human trafficking. What I was doing wasn’t courageous, but I knew that if I came forward with my whole story I could do something that would really help people, something that would really take courage.”
Bastidas decided she wouldn’t accept a single other award until she broke her silence as a human trafficking victim and raised awareness for the human rights issue that people don’t want to talk about.
The idea for the world’s longest swim, bike and run distance completed over the course of a well-travelled human trafficking route was born.
Bastidas called her friend Brad Riley, who runs iEmpathize, a nonprofit initiative that combats exploitive crimes against children.
“Norma told me she wanted to do something big for human trafficking,” Riley says. “The next thing I knew we were talking about breaking the Guinness world record for the world’s longest triathlon.”
“Sport gives people a reason to come together,” Bastidas explains. “I wanted to reach as many survivors as I could and, through framing my mission around the triathlon, it would give people a reason to come talk to me. Instead of us feeling bad for each other we could celebrate.”
The course would cross the U.S.-Mexico border as a symbol of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked between the two countries each year.
“It was important to her that the route pass through both countries and both national capitals to unify the nations to fight the issue together and take responsibility for what is happening in, and between, our two borders,” explained Alexis Rhyner, a member of the 12-person support team that documented the feat.
Bastidas hoped to meet survivors along the way to prove to them that life can get better.
“This was something big for human trafficking and could empower survivors,” she says.
Over the course of 65 days, Bastidas would swim, bike and run from Cancun to Washington on a course that covered more than 5,600 km. Brad Riley and his support team would film the entire experience for a documentary. A separate group from Guinness World Records monitored her progress.
Though Bastidas was confident in her ability to run long distances, she had no experience riding a bike and didn’t know how to swim. She knew she would have to hire a coach to not only turn her into a triathlete, but teach her to swim.
“I spoke to many prospective coaches,” she recalls. “Every time I spoke to someone about the record they would persuade me not to do it. I wouldn’t try to change their mind because I knew they weren’t the right person.”
Eventually, Bastidas found Judy Baker, a former nationally-ranked swimmer with decades of coaching experience behind her.
“Judy was the only coach who didn’t tell me what I was trying to do was impossible.”
Baker coaches a masters swim program near Bastidas’s B.C. home. “Norma contacted me and told me she wanted to learn how to swim.
When she walked on the pool deck, she was clearly in great shape and looked like a swimmer. I thought this was going to be easy.”
She was wrong. It took Bastidas nearly a month to be able to swim 25 m without stopping. Baker helped her learn one thing at a time, from simply getting in the water one day to breathing the next.
“Those months learning to swim were the toughest,” Bastidas says. “It was demoralizing when I’d look at how much work was ahead of me.”
Baker soon realized that if anyone was going to go from zero swimming ability to swimming every day for a month, some days for as much as 16 km, it was Bastidas.
“Never in my life have I met someone as mentally strong as Norma,” she says. “I didn’t think she’d be ready for the triathlon in time, but she is so determined, her mental fortitude is unbelievable. She was diligent in her training, she never missed a practice. All she needed was to believe in herself and her cause.”
In February 2014, Bastidas set out on her world-record attempt. Through the GPS malfunction, salt burns and jellyfish stings she came out of the water confidently on March 20 and had successfully swam 152 km, completing the first leg of her triathlon. She was greeted by human trafficking survivors who were eager to hear her story and share their own. It gave her strength to continue.
Bastidas and her team tackled gruelling hills from northern Mexico to Atlanta, Ga. by bike, a challenge made more difficult by the weather. Some days they’d face searing heat. Others, violent storms.
“I started to realize I needed to stay strong, not just for myself, but for my support team,” she says. “Positivity is contagious, so I’d remember to stay positive when we had a bad day.”
Bastidas finished her 4,691 km bike leg without any major obstacles. By the time she reached the run leg, she was excited to finally be in her comfort zone.
“Running is where I feel at home,” she says.
Her 1,176 km run to Washington, D.C. was the highlight of her record attempt.
“At this point, the cause had really gained momentum. Survivors would come out and speak to me. They could see first-hand what I was doing and that it wasn’t impossible. I could say to them, ‘I’ve been where you are and it gets better.’ When you can see something, it’s that much more real.”
Her last two miles of the run led her to the White House. Bastidas was joined by a large group of survivors who crossed the finish line with her.
“It wasn’t even about the record at that point,” she explains. “The celebration was for everyone who is a survivor.”
As much as her swim, bike, run distance was about raising awareness for human trafficking, it was more about proving that survivors of these crimes aren’t stuck in a bad place forever.
“It took one small step at a time for me to complete my triathlon. That’s how anyone struggling needs to look at the rest of their life. Healing isn’t a quick process, but you can live a great life in the end. The triathlon was simply a way for me to show this to the world and prove that nothing is impossible.”