A year or so ago, a young woman from Mentor, Ohio, swam the entire length of the Allegheny River. Katie Spotz, an endurance athlete, felt compelled to raise awareness of the global problem of lack of access to clean drinking water. Her epic swim, according to her charity Blue Planet Run, represents the four-mile hikes women and children in developing nations often take each day just to collect drinking water. After her river swim, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she wasn't done there. Her next feat would be a solo row across the Atlantic Ocean. If she succeeds, she will, at 22, become the youngest person and the first American to cross an ocean in a rowboat. She will also have raised enough funds to secure fresh water for at least 1,000 people in developing nations.

Rowing across oceans is the new "it" ultra-endurance challenge. The New York Times likens it to climbing Mount Everest and, so far, 109 rowboats have succeeded since 2000. As with a climb up Mount Everest, many athletes have failed due to health, technical, or weather problems. Spotz joins this elite athletic club as an unlikely contender: she was the slow kid on her high school swim team and has only been rowing for two years.

But when it comes to endurance athletics, Spotz seems to find her stride. She has run numerous marathons, ultramarathons and even cycled across the United States. After her river swim, she told the Times, "Once I finished one challenge, I realized maybe I could do something even bigger.” Motivated and consumed by her cause of fresh water for all, Spotz views her athletic endeavors as acts of meditation. Believing the challenge to be as much a mental one as a physical one, Spotz works with a sports psychologist as part of her training.

On New Year's Day, weather permitting, she'll shove off the coast of Africa in her one-woman rowboat, prepared to cruise 2,500 miles over nearly 100 days alone at sea, hoping to set shore in Guyana in South America later this spring. From the Rotary Club in Dakar, Senegal, she blogs that even there, she must avoid tap water and ice cubes — another reminder of the widespread problem she hopes to help fight. She awaits the arrival of her boat by freighter on Christmas Day and spends her remaining days ashore preparing her gear: freeze-dried foods she'll cook with a jetboil stove (like backpackers use). Because she'll consume 5,000 calories a day, Spotz plans to pack lightweight, high-energy foods like trail mix, beef jerky and energy bars to sustain herself. All of this goes into the hull of the 440-pound boat, meaning Spotz will be propelling about 1,000 pounds.

Spotz will have water as ballast, a cabin to duck into for sleeping, and an anchor to use when fighting strong headwinds. The Times reports that, "In the small but growing sport of ocean rowing, even the smallest sail is considered cheating." Thus, Spotz will row without even a tarp to block the sun, "lest she be tempted to use it to catch the wind." Instead, she'll be lug solar-powered electronics like a water desalination machine, a GPS unit, radios, a satellite phone (to text and update her Twitter feed), and a laptop to update her blog.

Spotz told the Cleveland Plain Dealer she won't see another human being for the entire three months she is at sea, but that Google Earth will update her website with her location every 20 minutes. Thanks to her satellite phone, she can conduct media interviews while resting along her daily, 30-mile rowing stretches.

When she's not out to sea, Spotz works for a nonprofit group in Cleveland, so she knows her way around raising funds and awareness. Her trip, with a price tag of $100,000, seeks to raise an additional $30,000 for Blue Planet Run, a charity that partners with endurance athletes to serve as "megaphones to the world," and NGOs to fund and implement clean water projects around the world.

Woman rows alone across the Atlantic
Endurance athlete Katie Spotz trying to raise awareness about clean drinking water.