Human trafficking survivor who smashed triathlon world record

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Story highlights

  • Norma Bastidas was lured into slavery with promise of modeling job in Japan
  • Escaped traffickers with the help of a convent, set up new life in Canada
  • Began running to cope with trauma, completed world's longest triathlon in 2014

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(CNN)What does it sound like inside Norma Bastidas' head?

The 49-year-old mother-of-two is a celebrated ultra-marathoner, known to have trekked 150 miles across the scorched deserts of Namibia or run double-marathons over an icy tundra in Antarctica.
On these extreme endurance competitions, often the only sound accompanying the silent lyrics of her thoughts is the percussive beat of rubber soles on dirt trails or ancient ice.
    Norma Bastidas.
    "I try to be as kind to myself as possible," says Bastidas, of what she thinks about on these unyielding journeys. "Because the world hasn't always been that kind."
    Any running enthusiast can rattle off the sport's many benefits -- cardiovascular health, stress relief, weight control.
    But for Bastidas, running is mainly a release, the opportunity to clear her mind of past judgments and negative emotions.
    "It will drain me if I evoke those feelings all the time," says Bastidas. "Being able to master the emotions comes from the knowledge of Taoism."
    Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu developed Taoism, which encourages followers to flow with the natural ups and downs of life, roughly around the 5th century BCE.
    A fitting philosophy, given that Bastidas has experienced higher altitudes and lower depths than just about anyone can imagine.

    Mexico and a death in the family

    Bastidas was born on November 1, 1967, in Mazatlan, Mexico.
    When she was 11 years old her father passed away -- and that's when the trouble began, she says.
    "Things went bad really really fast. My mom was a single parent with five kids," says Bastidas.
    "We all worked, there was no safety net for us."
    Rather than help a struggling family, Bastidas says some family members took advantage of her vulnerability.
    "My uncle who was blind, and I was caring for, actually raped me," she says.
    The abuse Bastidas endured would continue affecting her in profound ways.

    The modeling offer that wasn't

    Several years later, a local woman noticed Bastidas, by then a pretty 19 year old, and offered her a modeling job in Japan.
    "I remember my mom saying 'I'm afraid, but I can't stop you,'" says Bastidas.
    "Because this is the only chance (for a better life). And we desperately wanted it to be true."
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    It wasn't. Bastidas says once she arrived in Japan the agency took her passport and set her up in an apartment. They then informed her she owed them for airfare, the apartment, and food.
    Thinking she'd soon be earning good money as a model, she complied.
    But no modeling jobs ever materialized, no auditions were set up, and she was instead informed she must report to a member's club in Tokyo.
    "What I didn't know is that I was being sold to the highest bidder," recalls Bastidas.
    "I was bought by a very prominent person and I became his property."
    Normas Bastidas was lured to Japan with the offer of a modeling job -- which turned out to be fake.
    Unable to speak Japanese, Bastidas was effectively trapped.
    "They take away your ability to look after yourself. I did not even see the person who brought me there," she says.
    Asked why she didn't try to escape to the police or call home, Bastidas explains: "I have a debt that I have to pay. And my family has no ability to send money for me.
    "I can't go to the police. Because I am there (in Japan) and I do not have my passport. I had already been marked as a prostitute."
    But she says after a particularly violent encounter, she did try going to the police.
    "I was drugged, beaten," says Bastidas of her attackers.
    "I went to the police and the police did not do anything. They said 'you were a bad girl. You work in a bar.'"

    Escape to Canada

    After several years, Bastidas finally managed to escape her traffickers through help from a nearby convent.
    She later married and relocated to Vancouver, Canada.
    Beset by shame, Bastidas had developed a drinking problem in Japan as a way to numb the pain. Her marriage failed and she had trouble holding down a steady job.
    But Bastidas' breaking point came, she says, after learning her oldest son was diagnosed with cone-rod retinal dystrophy -- a degenerative disease of the eye which leads to impaired vision.
    "Here I am, vulnerable, a single parent, I just lost my job. I have a child who is 11," she says.
    "And the first person to ever rape me, when I was 11, was a blind relative. It was too much for me. It was almost like I cannot escape my past."
    But Bastidas says instead of handling the situation like she always had, with alcohol, she decided to break the cycle.
    "I knew I was putting my kids at risk not being present. And I needed to be present to find a solution," she says.
    "So I started running at night. Because I didn't want them to hear me crying.

    Why I run

    Within six months of putting on her first pair of running shoes, Bastidas qualified for one of the world's most high-profile races -- the Boston Marathon.
    "I just became an incredible runner because of the incredible amount of stress that I had to manage," she says.
    "It gave me something that I can control. I couldn't control the rate of progression of my son. I couldn't control whether they were going to fire me again. But I could lace up and train."
    Soon after, Bastidas climbed the seven highest peaks on each continent, to raise money to find a cure for childhood genetic blindness.
    Then in 2013, she had another big idea and called a friend, Brad Riley, who runs the anti-trafficking group, iEmpathize.
    "She's on the phone saying 'I want to do something big for human trafficking. And to face this in my own life and to make it an anthem for other survivors," says Riley.
    "The next thing you know we're dreaming up the world's longest triathlon."
    Their idea was to have Bastidas set the world record by following a known route of human traffickers.
    Over the course of 65 days in 2014, Bastidas ran, biked, and swam from Cancun, Mexico, to Washington DC.
    "When we looked at the distances of what it was going to take to swim, bike, and run from Cancun to DC, the numbers were immediately there. She was going to almost triple the men's record," says Riley.
    "She would do six to 10 miles in the water, day after day. Then when it switched to the bike she would do anywhere from 100 to 120 miles, day after day. And then she would run anywhere from 30 to 40 miles, up to even 100 miles straight."
    At the time, CNN chronicled Bastidas' harrowing 3,762 mile journey, which was beset by malfunctioning technology, wildlife attacks, and roadside accidents.
    iEmpathize filmed the entire trip, which is the subject of a feature-length documentary called "Be Relentless."
    An Indiegogo campaign is now hoping to raise a total $50,000 to complete the project.
    "Human trafficking is what happened to you. It's not who you are," Bastidas says.
    "Every single time we doubt human trafficking victims have potential we are quietly and ignorantly saying 'it's your fault.' And that's so wrong."

    Running to inspire

    And while Bastidas tries to keep her mind clear during those long runs, she refuses to forget what she went through as a victim of human trafficking.
    "To be effective as an activist I have to be able to feel the pain and humiliation I experienced, especially when so many people still blame victims," she says.
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    "Feeling everything is a curse, but so is numbness."
    The greatest moment came at the end of her Guinness World Record run, when she was met by cheering crowds of trafficking survivors, who ran alongside her in the final miles to Washington, DC.
    Perhaps the most fitting message for everything Norma Bastidas has gone through, comes from the one quote attributed to Lao Tzu many people know by heart: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
    As much as setting the record was about gaining recognition for the problem of human trafficking, Bastidas says it was also about proving to other survivors that circumstances, and self-perceptions, can change.
    "It's an incredibly long journey. I wish I could tell them it takes only one or two steps, but it is a commitment. I cannot undo what has been done," she says.
    "[But] by living large, I'm empowering every single victim. Somebody who was once living in a nightmare is now living out her dreams. Because that's what a world record is -- it's a dream."