By Jacque Wilson
(CNN) — The first time I spoke to Norma Bastidas, she was having a rough couple of days.
Thirty miles into her attempt to set the record for the world’s longest triathlon, Bastidas, 47, had to start over due to a GPS malfunction. The saltwater off Cancun, Mexico, was eating away at her gums and throat. Her face was sunburned. She’d been stung several times by sea creatures, so her lips were swollen.
“I wanted to look like Angelina Jolie, but I probably look like Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler,’ ” she joked.
Her laid-back sense of humor belies an ambitious drive. A year ago, Bastidas didn’t even know how to swim. But on March 20, she finished swimming 95 miles in the Caribbean to complete that leg of her triathlon challenge. On April 4, she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, averaging about 130 miles a day on her bike.
In 1998, Australian David Holleran completed a triathlon consisting of a 26-mile swim, 1,242-mile bike ride and a 310-mile run. He holds the record for the longest triathlon, according to Guinness World Records.
Bastidas will more than double that distance, swimming 95 miles, biking 2,932 miles and running 735 miles for a total of 3,762 miles before reaching Washington near the end of April.
It’s a grueling journey, even for someone used to tackling ultra races. But there’s something driving Bastidas other than the desire to break a world record: She’s determined to raise awareness about human trafficking and stop it.
“I’m prepared to do whatever it takes,” Bastidas said after a particularly rough patch of riding in Mexico. “If you don’t risk everything, that’s not courage.”
Just a few days ago, the triathlete hopped off her bike and laced up her sneakers to begin her run into the U.S. capital.
“Her triathlon route covered major human trafficking routes,” team member Alexis Rhyner said when I asked why Bastidas was traveling so far. “It was also important to her that the route pass through both countries and both capitals, to unify both nations to fight the issue together and take responsibility for what is happening in and between our two borders.”
Thousands of children are sold for sex every day in Mexico and the United States, according to iEmpathsize, a child advocacy group Bastidas has teamed with to film a documentary of her journey.
“We all know it’s wrong,” Bastidas said. “It’s still happening. And it’s preventable.”
She was sexually abused, first by a family member, she said, then again later in life. At 17, she said she was kidnapped in Mexico City by men who intended to sell her into slavery. She escaped only with the help of the brother of one of her captors.
Some days, when Bastidas finishes her mileage, survivors wait to thank her.
“You can’t meet someone who’s said, ‘I’ve been raped, too’ and go home and not care about it,” she said. “What I do is that just remind people it’s not just a cause. We’re your family, your sisters, your daughters, your mothers.”
She tells anyone who will listen that what she’s doing is a metaphor for life. If she can do this — break the world record for the longest triathlon — then human trafficking can be eradicated forever.
“This is the best way I can illustrate that nothing is impossible,” she said.
Bastidas first started running in 2006 when her oldest son, Karl, was diagnosed with an incurable eye condition called cone rod dystrophy. Soon after she signed up for the Canadian Death Race — and made it 56 miles before having to pull out due to hypothermia.
Since then she’s run hundreds of races and even climbed the world’s seven highest peaks on seven continents to raise money to find a cure for genetic blindness.
With this triathlon, she’s supporting a new cause. Anywhere from 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. State Department. Those lucky enough to be rescued are left with permanent physical and emotional scars.
Bastidas wants the “Be Relentless” documentary to change people’s perceptions of true strength. It’s not the strength it’s taken her to attempt the world’s longest triathlon. It’s the inner strength found in women and children who survive years of unimaginable abuse.
“It’s only 3,500 miles,” she told me emphatically, at the beginning of her journey in Cancun. “It’s so worth it. Think about it! It’s a child’s life. It’s a human being’s life. (This is) nothing — it’s nothing compared to that.”