Racing through the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas
The Speed Project will change you. Whether you think it will or not, and whether you let it or not, it will change you. Every single runner, support crew member, photographer, and organiser learned things about themselves and the human spirit during that event. Whether you finished first or last, you get the same reward for completing TSP, and it’s far more valuable than anything a major race can give you.
My team, Hunter Athletics and Recreation, went into TSP with some idea of what to expect, after several of our members completed a longer relay event in mid-2017 (approx. 800km versus 540km for TSP - read about it here). But TSP offers a set of challenges we hadn’t dealt with; dry heat, a lot of variable terrain, and no idea of how strong the rest of the field were. We were going to TSP to simply do our best; to empty the tank and if we did that we knew we would walk away happy. In the back of our minds we thought we could probably sneak into the Top 10 if it all went well.
Enjoy this recap of the race, beautifully brought to life by photographer Jason Suarez.
Admittedly some teams took the race more seriously than others. I probably didn’t expect to see a couple of teams blazing up at the pre-race briefing the day before, but I guess we all have our own fitness regime, right?
The briefing was a strange mix of elite running talent (several sub 2:20 marathoners and a couple of national champions over shorter distances were racing) and those that were undoubtedly there for the social media opps. At first I was dismissive of the latter group, but if you’re prepared to run to Las Vegas for the ‘gram, then you deserve those likes. Go get ‘em.
Starting at Santa Monica Pier at 4am on Good Friday, by 3am Ocean Avenue was lined with nearly 40 RV’s, plus support vehicles, photographers, and excited runners and crew.
I had never had the opportunity to see Santa Monica before, and this would not be that chance, instead I was bouncing around inside the RV as we hustled to get ahead of the race and position ourselves at the 3rd changeover. Hopefully by then our team would be somewhere near the front.
We led off with Lydia O’Donnell on the start line, who pushed the fastest guys right to the end, holding sub 3:40 p/km for her first 10km.
We had some strong runners up front, and while we knew everyone on our team could handle themselves, we all felt protective over the 21 year old Alana Lythe.
Alana was a late call up to the team, and apart from one athletics trip to Australia when she was 12, she hadn't travelled outside of New Zealand.
We all got an early lift out of seeing her hold onto the heels of the runners from Tracksmith and The Sunchasers during her first leg through LA.
"After the build-up of the last few months, finally Alana slapped my hand and it was my turn to run.
Finally it was just me and the road.
If everything was going smoothly on the road (quick hand overs and no missed turns), it was chaos in the RV. It looked like someone blew up a running store and a Whole Foods in there. There were sweaty shorts hanging off every hook and handle, half eaten bags of sugary snacks, and every seat and surface was covered in a layer of sweat. We were in for a sticky, smelly couple of days.
"Each individual on this team was born to run. Their faces, their dedication, their vigor for life said it all.
They reminded me that running is not a solo sport"
Lizeth Aparicio, crew member
"Late on the first morning during my 3rd leg we hit the desert. The heat was oppressive and the pace brutal.
I knew then we were all about to hurt, but we were ready"
By the time we climbed over the hills out of Los Angeles, the sun was baking hot and complemented by a block headwind. Running along the side of a major road gave you two options: run on the white line and risk filling your shorts every time an American sized SUV flew past, or run a metre to the right and do the whole run on loose gravel.
"My form felt good but I was finding myself going from the road to the gravel in order to avoid the traffic that was gunning it past on my left.
Sore spots on my heels and feet were starting to reveal themselves and I was hanging out for the Wolff waiting with his extended arm at the changeover"
The mid afternoon presented a unique opportunity for any tourists to the USA, and that was the chance to run through the small town of Adelante. Haven’t heard of it? Unless you’re into aggressive, wild dogs and the stinging glare of unfriendly locals, it might not be on the top of your list. At the recommendation of TSP organisers, myself and team mate Kieran Ryan ran that stretch with pepper spray in hand.
On runs like this, it’s not so much the running that gets you. It’s everything else around you. It’s getting back into the RV and trying to find your compression gear, or skipping that nap in favour of helping get hydration ready for another runner. It’s a constantly upset stomach from a mix of nerves, exertion, the heat, and a cocktail of sugar, protein and carbs.
It's also the stuff you don't expect to encounter. Like a railway crossing in the middle of nowhere.
"I remember getting a little frustrated when the train came but kept my distance so I wouldn’t pass that on to her...A few minutes earlier Lydia ran an extra 1k off route because we gave her the wrong directions. All I kept thinking was I hope this isn’t one of those long trains that take over 5 minutes to cross. I also remember thinking to myself I hope another team doesn’t catch up to us in this moment".
Jason Suarez, Photographer
"I felt like Sharky (Alana) and I were thinking that exact same thing without talking to each other or making any eye contact.
She stayed focused, stayed loose and as soon as the train passed before the gates even raised she was already on the other side of the tracks"
Jason Suarez, photographer
By late afternoon we started switching from 10km legs to 5km bursts, the heat grinding us down on those longer efforts. The terrain too had changed; there were long stretches of sand that put an extra layer of fatigue on tired legs.
We had been waiting for nightfall. We knew from experience that however many hours we had before sunrise, it felt like double. The night shift feels like a full 24 hours, as you rest crew members for the following day, and energy levels hit rock bottom. The only advantage to nightfall in the desert is the respite from the searing heat.
Personally, I’d run my first 3 legs at threshold, unable to get my heart rate below that feeling where you think it’s going to explode out of your chest and run away from you.
Nightfall also brought the most challenging segments of the race, several stretches in a row where runners would be sent off into the night solo, with no form of support from the team as they jumped fences and navigated barely-there trails. The runners have to concentrate so much harder as your mind starts playing tricks on you and doubt creeps in. Am I going the right way? It said right at the fork, but did it mean hard right? What’s that sound? Who’s behind me?
We were warned about the prevalence of wild dogs and rattle snakes, the latter making any nature breaks a little more courageous.
"On that lonely desert road, my physical strength was failing me. My body was falling to pieces, but my competitive mental strength, my commitment to my Hunter family, and my incredible sidekick Liz, is what pulled me through the 10km"
I spent a few hours navigating the mini van with our photographer Jason Suarez. Suarez, a New Yorker, and me born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, bonded over bad roadhouse snacks, stale pizza, and strategies for saving our runners from wild dogs (one of us may have even mentioned how epic it would be to see a wild dog charge side on at our runner and bring them down, but I don’t want to incriminate either of us…especially me).
Seeing the sun rise in the famous Death Valley, we knew we had this thing beaten. But we were also heading towards our limits. For many of us, this was unchartered territory, and with each slap of hands we started shuffling on down the road, amazed that our bodies still worked, and still let us run at around 4:15 p/km pace.
"When morning rolled round I thought you fucking beauty we’re on here, by the time the sun sets we’ll have tins in our hands celebrating beating the beast in Sin City.
I may have peaked with the party shirt right here"
I never knew much about the name Death Valley. Much like a chihuahua named Killer, I thought the name had a sprinkling of irony, a cute way to describe a pocket of barren land. I now have a much better appreciation for the area. It’s brutal, especially for running. Seemingly all uphill, the area is devoid of life, the unnerving silence allowing you to hear the three things no runner wants to hear when they’re tired and facing a seemingly impossible challenge; a sloppy footfall, dry, heavy breathing, and the voices in your head that tell you to quit.
In Death Valley, every step is earned. Every 100m feels like a small victory, the kilometre notification on your watch becomes reason to smile. Only you can’t smile, because you’re up to your eyeballs in dry heat, even though you were passed a drink less than 5 minutes ago. The mind starts to wander. ‘Am I done?’ ‘Can I keep going or should I quit this whole thing?’ ‘I can’t run up hill anymore’ ‘why is the support car still driving away? I only have 80m left to run and they’re at least 90m away’.
"As I approached the end of this leg, our photographer Suarez said to me 'do anything, just do anything!'.
This was both the maximum and minimum I could muster at this point"
As we get into the early afternoon of Saturday, when we’re not running we are glued to our phones. Tracksmith and The SunChasers are locked in an amazing battle about 3 hours ahead of us, swapping runners every 500m and comfortably holding a pace around 3:40, despite being nearly at the 500km mark. It would be our turn to hit the 500km mark soon, but first we have to shake this Canadian team that are now leapfrogging us.
Approaching the final 15km climb of the race, we have to break it up into 1km legs to stay fresh and create a gap to the Canadians. When we finally break the back of the climb, we’re treated to a view of the city and more than 15km of fast downhills. The mood is lifted, we know we are home. We start time trialling down hill.
3:24 for a km. 3:10. 3:05. Dave Fletcher ends the game by running a 2:45 kilometre.
Those few hours of swapping out every kilometre were some of my favourite memories of the race. All of our runners were together in a mini van, shuffling seats every few minutes to give the previous runner as much rest as we could. Each time you sat in one of the leather seats, you sat in layers upon layers of everyone’s sweat. Every breath brought with it the past 36 hours worth of desert running. We all had sore throats from the dust, sore stomachs, but surprisingly the one thing we couldn’t complain about was our legs.
“I’m cooked...It’s currently a battle between the body and mind. I can feel that my body has now weakened badly.
Physically, I’m in a terrible place. Although the mind is still strong.
The finish line is getting closer. I must push on"
"I should have sat on the roof of the RV from the beginning and not wait until the last few hours. The perspective from up there passing through the different neighborhoods would’ve been sick"
Jason Suarez, photographer
I have the pleasure of being the runner that takes the left turn to put us on The Strip. Impatient, and irrationally worried that someone would catch us, I dodge traffic and run about 300m along a median strip.
When I cross back to the sidewalk I take a quiet moment to think about the enormity of what we’ve achieved, and I feel a lump in my throat. I’m immensely proud of our team and everyone who stands behind us, and I can’t quite believe we’ve done it. Deep down I knew our runners would never ever let us fail, but it’s still an overwhelming flood of emotion as we see the finish.
I honestly could have sat there alone and cried when I thought about it all, but there would be time for that in the weeks and months that followed. Right now it was about getting to that Las Vegas sign.
Regrouping and running the last few hundred metres together, we roll into Vegas as the 5th team across the line in a time of 38 hours and 55 minutes. 4:15 pace for 540km.
With a few days to reflect on the race, the main thing I walk away with is belief. There are very few times in life and especially in running where we truly test ourselves. Where we get out of that comfort zone and put it all on the line. We follow training plans meticulously, scared to over-extend ourselves or push ourselves too hard. We avoid double-days or running on tired legs.
A number of our team have never run a marathon, yet all ran well over 60km in hostile conditions at a 4:15 average.
I’m not saying we should throw those training plans out the window. But occasionally it’s good to empty the tank and see just what you can do. I guarantee you’ll surprise yourself.
Absolutely none of this would have been possible without the support of our crew. To Nate Shron, Lizeth Aparicio, and Amber Ross, thank you. Thank you from all of us. We'll never forget your helping hands, your kind words, and your complete selflessness to help our entire team reach our goal.