“then the voice in my head said / WHETHER YOU LOVE WHAT YOU LOVE / OR LIVE IN DIVIDED CEASELESS / REVOLT AGAINST IT / WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE” ― Frank Bidart
1. No Rules, No Spectators
How fast can you go from point A to point B is the guiding principle of all racing. In 2014, LA-based runners Nils Arend and Blue Benadum wanted to know how fast they could run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. So they took off from the Santa Monica Pier and ran, relay-style, to the Vegas Strip.
They ran 340 miles through the Mojave. Straight through the night. With a 13,000-foot elevation gain as they approached Vegas. There was no set course. No spectators. No support waypoints or water stations. Arend and Benadum named their challenge the Speed Project. It’s been called “Burning man for runners” and has more “rebel-style” than some other infamous long foot races. And while it wasn’t a race in the official sense, it was very much a race in the fundamental sense. They were doing it for time.
How does anyone train for something that extreme? What about wild animals in the desert? What goes through your mind when you’ve been running for 50 hours straight?
Hellcat will try to answer these questions between now and March 25th.
The Speed Project is a relay race for a team of six runners—four men, two women. The OG team alternated 10k segments, but as fatigue set in, they scaled it down to 5k pieces. While the runner is on the road, the rest of the team rides along in an RV until it’s time to swap out. Arend and Benadum, now the ringleaders of this gonzo race, track the competing teams from a vintage limousine.
It’s still a pretty outlaw operation. There is no official website and only limited media coverage of the event. Last year, Tanner Garrity wrote the most thorough chronicle of what it’s like to actually be a part of the mission:
The Speed Project can be considered, to invoke Henry James, a “large, loose, baggy monster.” It expands and contracts at the whims of its participants. It invites invention. There are no rules, other than don’t break the law.
I’m not new to distance races: I originally applied to join the GRIT team for triathlon development after missing a couple of my race goals last year. But also because after being isolated for so long during the pandemic, I wanted to be part of a community and was already working out with a couple of the guys on the team periodically.
When the team first posted a notice saying they needed another woman for a relay ultra race in March, I did not exactly jump at the chance. It was early December. Everyone was coming down with Omicron.
And, also, it sounded insane.
But I kept thinking about it. The truth is, I read Born to Run the year it came out and haven’t known a day's peace since.
The second time our coach Marcus posted about needing a sixth, I was on the mend from COVID. I talked over the details about TSP with him and watched a documentary about the first race. And then I volunteered as tribute.
So far this year I have logged a little over 40 miles running after a slow start because I caught Omicron and it sucked. Am I going to be in race shape—is there even such a thing as “race shape” when you’re talking about running 340 miles in under 50 hours?
One unofficial TSP training guide advises: “At a minimum, you should be able to run your total expected distance for The Speed Project over a one week period—For instance, if you have a team of 6 you should be able to run at least 60 miles in one week.”
Which means that I have some catching up to do.
Follow the Hellcat! It’s free! (And only for 10 weeks!)
2. Lycra on the Drying Rack
In 2013, Mark Parent responded to the perennial question “when do you know you’re a runner?” or “when can you call yourself a runner?” with the best and most decisive answer I’ve read: look at your laundry.
The problem with authenticating yourself as a "real runner" is that the distinction is a moving target. If a real runner is someone who goes long or fast, then almost any measure pales in comparison to the person who goes longer and faster. When I finally trained for and finished a half-marathon, I felt an undeniable sense of accomplishment, but even in that bright shining moment I thought, Man—those people who do full marathons are the runners.
Then one morning, a small pile of laundry spoke to me. Some people listen to the mysterious whisper of forest pines, the wordless echo of misty mountaintops; I listen to smaller things like laundry. I suddenly realized I had been a runner from the moment I began producing little mounds of sweaty clothes in the corner of the bedroom. Before I ran, there was no mound; now there was. Laundry is not a moving target. It stays right there until you deal with it. Every runner is different, but every runner's little mound of laundry in the corner of the bedroom is the same. If you've got one, then call yourself a runner.
We reveal ourselves in the prosaic. A sentiment reiterated in idiom after idiom: “We are what we repeatedly do.” “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.” “How we spend our days is ultimately how we spend our lives.” On and on. And yet having confidence in a sense of identity remains elusive enough that people continue to question themselves, am I a runner? Can I really call myself a writer? Am I a real photographer? It is our behavior and habits that define us even if we don’t feel ready to claim them.
The idea of laundry as evidence helped me embrace seeing myself as a runner. It didn’t settle the question for me—self-doubt isn’t a stain that washes out overnight—so I’ve shored up my sense of being a runner with lots of races and medals on ribbons that imparted a fleeting sense of accomplishment. But there are only so many commercially-hyped, over-crowded events one can do before getting the ick.
No matter what brings you to running, whether it be a New Years resolution, bouncing back after a break-up, weight-loss goals, trying to avoid paying for therapy, striving for a sense of purpose, or just plain good old-fashioned mania—after you get past all the hand wringing of feeling like a fake or phony, after you get over feeling like you’re too slow or too fat or too weak, after you’ve done all the races and different distances and feel like you’ve finally figured it out—as soon as you start to make peace with where you’re at as a runner, a still small voice will come into the back of your head with questions:
How far could I really go? For how long? What if I just kept going? What if I didn’t hold back? What if the road was clear and I wasn’t afraid?
Then, instead, you watch Forrest Gump, again, and order a silkscreen shirt with a smiley face on it to quiet that little voice that is obviously the Devil tempting you to go and hurt yourself.
Reader, the Devil has ground me down. I want answers to those questions and the desert seems like a good place to go look.
3. Bonus Links!
Check out JVL’s recent podcast on winter camping! My quarter-life crisis came down to either The Speed Project or thru-hiking the AT.
I made a reading list for this project. Because, of course I did. Feel free to comment and/or send along suggestions of things I should add.
This week’s running playlist is on Spotify. Send me your favorite music!
And also, here’s my Strava profile, for the die-hards and sickos who want to see my current slug-pace splits.