How we broke the women's record at The Speed Project
Behind all the hype and the awe-inducing headlines of The Speed Project, it’s really quite simple. LA to Vegas, on foot. No rules.
Obviously there’s a lot more to it – strategy, runner selection, support vehicles, and even the route you choose to take.
The 2018 edition changed the way people approached it; a team from Tracksmith was the first to alter the course to their advantage, while the team that ultimately beat them employed a novel strategy of running incredibly short legs, with the next runner riding alongside on a bicycle.
When we decided to enter a female team in the 2019 race, our goal was simple - to set a new women’s record. At 10:30pm on the first night of the race, I wasn’t even sure we would finish.
How could this all go so wrong? Had we turned ourselves into the laughing stock of the running world by making one bad decision? Were our runners safe? Could we even get out of here?
We made three critical decisions during the race, but the foundation was laid 36 hours before the start, over dinner in Venice. There were whispers that some teams had found new routes to get out of LA, with suggestions that it was possible to turn right off the start line instead of left, and save up to 15 miles. Ultimately that route didn’t eventuate for us based on runner safety and a lack of time to scout our ideas, but we did stumble across a route that we thought could save us up to 6 miles in the first 3 hours. The downside was that it had significantly more climbing than the main route.
We knew adidas Runners had said they could do the race in 32 hours, an absurd prediction on the original course. Each year, TSP becomes more of an arms race, and after the events of 2018 and with teams representing adidas and Nike Los Angeles (Blue Ribbon Sports is part of Nike), we knew the race was going to be unlike anything we’d seen before.
The night before the race, 3 of us stayed up past midnight, poring over maps and data and trying to come up with a plan. As Nils pointed out during the compulsory briefing and in the months leading up to the race - the supplied map was a guide only. There is no set course.
At 3am on the morning of the race, we gathered our team inside our RV on Ocean Drive, Santa Monica. “Guys - we’ve found a quicker way out of the city. It’s hillier, but if you run to effort and not pace, we’re still going to re-join the main course 20-30 minutes quicker and you shouldn’t tire yourself out. All that time you spent on maps and studying the legs you were going to do - forget about it. Just run, we’ll tell you where to go and when to stop.”
And that was it.
"I had no idea where I was going. When we took a different turn within a few km's from the start line it was exhilarating and bold. I believed in my team and trusted we were on the right path."
As we ran up Santa Monica Boulevard, our captain Lydia O’Donnell neck-and-neck with Blue Ribbon Sports’ Becs Gentry, the excitement was palpable. There was a cluster of 4-5 teams in our vicinity until we cut a hard left a few miles into the race. From here, we knew we would be alone for the next couple of hours, with no way to gauge our position or whether the effort we were putting in was enough. As we climbed and climbed, we were joined by Blue Benadum, co-creator of The Speed Project. Blue’s wife, Cassidy, was on our team - despite crewing the first ever TSP, this was Cass’s first time racing the event. Blue ran some early miles with our team; keeping us company and escorting our runners through some sketchy neighbourhoods.
By the time we got back onto the original course just after dawn, we knew the risk had paid off. We also heard a few other teams took slightly different routes - the race was on. We knew BRS were ahead of us, and assumed adidas Runners were too.
The first day seemed to follow a familiar pattern - high energy levels, seemingly endless adrenaline, and a desire to put more and more time on our rivals. Occasionally we would see other support crews - the nature of TSP has RV’s leapfrogging each other throughout the first morning. There’s a camaraderie with your competitors at TSP - beeps of encouragement and fist bumps are the norm when passing other support crews.
By mid-morning, news of our fast start to the race had got out. The support we received from fellow competitors and everyone watching the race was incredible. People wanted to see this team break the record.
Cassidy Benadum was central to our new race strategy.
"As we climbed out of LA and into the desert, we knew we had a solid lead on the other teams. Phase one of our route “hack” only saved us a few miles, but it kicked us into high gear - though I’m not sure if it was from the excitement of finding a faster route, or purely a natural response from our competitive and fierce group of women."
"The first morning was incredible - we knew we were shaking up the status quo and we knew it had potential to completely change the game...
...but I don’t think it really hit us until we completed the first phase of our route and connected back to the original course. It was then that it sank in for me...I remember thinking 'Wow. We’re really doing this'."
We spent the bulk of the day alternating between 2km and 5km legs - meaning rest was not an option. It’s the same strategy Sunchasers took in 2018, but not to the extremes they took it to. I’ve got no doubt that shorter legs produce a faster time, but for our team, with several first-timers, we weren’t prepared to risk an early burn out by rotating every km for the whole race. Other teams did, and I believe this is the way to take more time off the record.
Everyone’s having fun on the first day. We were joined at different stages by guest runners, such as Molly’s fiancé Scotty (who you might recognise from the @thespeedproject IG as the host of their live stories) who logged multiple legs on the road and in the van, keeping the energy high as the day got hotter.
Even segments like Dog Town, a small town renowned for aggressive dogs being left to roam, brought some excitement and energy. Crew Leader Noel was eager to get out and log his first miles of the day. The left turn at the end of Dog Town and past the plane graveyard marked the beginning of a sandy slog.
“Long before the race started, I felt a high-level of responsibility for the safety of the women on the team. I was ready to do whatever it took to make sure none of them were ever in jeopardy during the race.
As one could probably imagine, I volunteered to run through Dog Town with Hannah. Thankfully we made it out without issue.”
As we approached the evening, we had held our position in the race, with no-one in our group of teams seeming to gain any time on our position. We were comfortably in 3rd place overall behind Blue Ribbon Sports and adidas Runners, and were sitting as 1st women’s team.
Around sunset, we had to start planning for the critical stage of the race. Undoubtedly the second hardest part of the race is the sections of rugged off-road that fall anywhere between 9pm and 1am for the quicker teams. Through some collaboration with the Blue Ribbon Sports team, we knew there was an option to avoid these trails by taking a different route. It was a high risk, high reward situation; take on some roads that hadn’t been scouted, without your RV, and if you get through it, you build an unassailable lead.
The equation? At the point we took the new route, we believed we could cut out something like 30 miles from the original route. The new route looked hillier, and on less sure footing for at least 47 miles, with the added complication that the RV wouldn’t be with us for at least 6 hours.
In some ways this was the easiest decision to make. Buoyed by our earlier decision to go an alternate route out of LA, we felt bulletproof. On top of that, we knew BRS were ahead of us, their scout Peter Bromka keeping us updated with progress through the route. We took the chance.
The plan was to use our van to send 3 runners approximately 25 miles ahead, and let them sleep in the van for 2 hours. I trailed behind in another car as we skidded and bounced along roads that didn’t seem like they had been driven in years. In the rear view mirror I could occasionally see the faint head lamp of our runner, or the headlights from our other support van.
Around 10 miles into this road, I saw the van up ahead come to a complete stop. The road had been a rollercoaster to this point - steep climbs, skidding down hills, and spending increasing amounts of time with no control of where the car went. As one of our runners got out of the van up ahead, I said to our video guys “Aw man, is the van stuck? Might be time to give it a push here, boys.”
As Michaela approached the car, I put the window down.
“We have to turn back! Tell the runners to turn back now!”
“What? Why, what’s going on?”
“The road is fucked. Cass just got a call from Blue. The BRS team are all stuck, their vans are stuck on this road and he’s having to try and get them out in his 4wd”.
I sprinted up to the van to find Cass on a call with Blue. I had to relay the information to our runners, so I called Andy, TEMPO's co-founder but more importantly right now, the driver of our other car. Knowing that this would break the spirit of the girls that were trudging through this terrain, I had to try and convey calm, even though my heart was sinking for them.
“Hey mate, got some big news from up the road here. Um, I think we might be best to turn around. Turns out the road isn’t drivable, and we can’t have them unsupported for 50 miles. We gotta go back.”
“Huh, that is big news. Ok, I’ll get onto that and come back to you”.
At this point I checked my WhatsApp messages. Bromka had just sent updates from their team, and their situation looked bad. All their vans were stuck, and they were way further up the road than us. Things looked dire for them.
Our team turned straight around. Bec was the one who had to stop her run, get the bad news, and then start running back the way she came, for what had to be the hardest mile of the race.
The next couple of hours were low. All I could think about was that I had ruined this race for our team, had embarrassed our entire TEMPO business, and had let down all the people who were cheering us on at home. They didn’t know yet, but in time they would find out that we had wasted almost two hours, and had gone from doing something to inspire, to maybe finishing the race if our girls could muster the mental and physical strength to continue.
When we finally got back on the trail, taking the risky route seemed even more stupid. We’d strategically built a team around being able to crush the trail section. Our crew leader, Noel, had run the trail segments the previous weekend so he could escort the runners in the race. We had Michaela McDonald, an ultra runner from Sydney, on our team. We had Bec Wilcock, a starter at the 2016 Barkley Marathons, on our team. The trails were nothing for our team to fear. Even our video team were ultra runners.
There’s rarely a truly accurate leaderboard during the race, but it looked like we had slipped from 3rd to anywhere as low as 10th (later reports had us in 13th, but that’s largely because we weren’t on the original route and no one could accurately judge our position).
"All I could think about was that I had ruined this race for our team, had embarrassed our entire TEMPO business, and had let down all the people who were cheering us on at home."
Early in the trail section, as Andy and I sat in the van waiting for our runner changeover, we saw Eric Sunde from Citius RC. Surprised to see us, Eric said “what happened to you guys?” I didn’t quite know how to explain it at that point, and was still embarrassed by what happened. “Ah, yeah not much…we’ll be right. Just The Speed Project, you know how it goes.” This was my worst nightmare about TSP coming true. I sunk further into my seat.
While I was feeling sorry for myself, our girls were ripping. We came to the longest segment, a 9 mile off road. We sent Michaela out; she regularly competes in 100k trail races, this was a warm up jog for her. We sent her with one of our video crew, Stephen Kersch, a respected ultra runner in his own right. While Michaela was on this segment, we looked at what lay ahead. Michaela would swap with Molly for the next leg, but the leg after this was the most technically challenging leg of the entire race. We went back and forth on the right approach before ultimately telling Michaela she would be going straight back out. We knew this would likely ruin her for the next 6-8 hours afterwards, possibly longer, but we had to get some rest for our fast road runners, and we were scrambling for positions.
"I approached the 9 mile leg with the mindset that it was the same distance I run every Wednesday morning and that calmed my nerves. I was also fortunate to have Stephen Kersh ready to jump out of his role as videographer and into pacer.
We set out into the darkness ready to build into this section and hopefully catch a few teams in the process. I was willing away the miles reminding myself that I would have earned myself a decent rest once I’d finished this section.
We finished the leg in about 70 minutes and had caught three teams in the process. I tagged Molly, got back into the van and asked Jen (one member of our incredible crew) where the RV was so I could grab some sleep. She looked at me blankly and said, you’re actually running the next trail section.
"I read Riley’s message which was something along the lines of ‘we are asking her to do the longest trail leg followed by the hardest almost back to back. She is going to need to rest after this”. I read that and thought, pull it together, you’ll only have to hurt for a short period, get it done. So I had a 10 minute sleep in the van and got ready to jump out into the darkness again."
I was tagged by Molly and joined by Noel who was incredible. He took care of all the directions and all I had to do was follow his lead. We finished that section and tagged our next runner and pacer and I then took a moment to take it in.
Lydia came to me with tears in her eyes. She was so grateful that I had done those two legs. And that’s when it hit me. Despite me not feeling like rolling back to back trail legs, this is what I’m here for. I was able to do something that made a difference to our team and for that opportunity, I’m thankful."
If we were in 10th at the start of the trail section, we were no lower than 6th by the time we got to Baker. Between trying to get an hour or two of sleep in the RV, I had been texting with Bromka.
“Do you think it’s worthwhile to do the hack from Baker given the first 16 miles of that section is quite hard? We need to know how much time it saves so we can make a decision”
“Okay, sorry team. My team is fucked. If you have vans then you can save a lot of miles.”
“Okay. Did you drive that section to make sure it’s drivable?”
“I did not. It’s a risk, but it looks drivable.”
As we approached Baker and the time for a yes/no on the route adjustment, others weighed in. People from the race came into our RV at stops and tried to dissuade us from taking it, ‘it’s too much of a risk’, or ‘trust me, Nils has spent weeks in the desert trying to find a faster way, it doesn’t exist’. The team at this point was convinced. We were just going to run the normal route and see what happened. We had tried to find a quicker route and been burned.
At this point I got some grainy images through from Bromka. They looked like any other stretch of dirt. It had been hours since I last heard from him, and patience was low.
“When will you get to the section that hasn’t been driven?”
“That’s what I’m sending you images of. Super runnable!”
At this point, we had about 10 minutes before we had to make a decision. I knew if I spoke to Cass and Andy, we could get the rest of the team on board. The natural response to this risk was to shy away from it based on the last time we took a risk. But that’s an emotional response. This route had nothing to do with the last one, it had to be judged on its own.
“After our first hack failed massively, it cast doubt on the rest of our route...but it was our only option to get back in the game.
After a quick chat with Riley, Andy and Lydia, we made the decision to once again take a big risk."
Fuck it, let’s do it.
Sunrise brought a renewed energy from the team. Everyone was rested, except for Michaela. Hannah and Lydia were rolling out 3:50 pace per kilometre seemingly endlessly. Molly was laughing, and Bec was Bec - there’s not a pessimistic bone in her body. We were hunting down miles on Death Valley Road…until we weren’t.
The RV had to leave us and wait at a point a few hours up the road. All runners in the van. We were about to go through the toughest 16 miles of the race. Back at it with the feeling of a van sliding out every 30 seconds. The girls were finding it tough; we had gone from 2k repeats to 1k repeats, to 2 minute repeats to 200m repeats.
Somehow, those 200m repeats made the group stronger. The energy in the team was rising with every hand slap and each completed turn. The challenge on this road was getting the van past the runner for the next changeover. Soft sand and rocky sections made hitting our runner a very real possibility. Still, time was money. There was a sense that we were back in the game, and after 16 miles of climbing we were rewarded with a stunning descent.
“The energy was intense and without saying it, we all knew we had work to do. We revolved through the van like clockwork. One athlete in, one athlete out.
The grimace of pain and the heavy breathing from the athlete who had just ran made us all understand the commitment each and every one of us had to this team. It made us all give that little bit more.”
By 10am we were through the worst of it. We were close enough that we could start counting down the miles, but still far enough away that we knew we had at least 6 more hours ahead of us. The leaderboard still had us in 13th, but we knew we had to be back in the top 5, and probably in 3rd.
We were hearing rumours about teams running on the freeways, teams getting picked up, and more - if people had the gall to say this about other teams, I can only imagine what they were saying about us. I wish we had someone from the race in our van with us, then they’d see exactly what we had done. That said, one advantage of taking a different route is not getting caught up in the bullshit - we had no choice but to focus on our race.
We were still getting crazy support on social media, and after a long blackout overnight we were glad to update our progress for the people following our journey.
WIth 50 miles to go, 40 miles to go, it was just us. We knew we wouldn’t even re-join the original route until around 1 mile from the finish. This would be the only time anyone would truly know our position in the race, even us.
We did know that we would have a new record to our name - as Blue put it late on day one 'The only thing chasing you now is the ghosts of the future - how fast a time can you set and how long can you make your record last?'
Still, we kept rolling 1km turns; Hannah especially was in a groove, ticking off 3:50 kilometres without even acknowledging her Garmin. Bec’s watch had gone flat hours ago, but the Garmin’s in the car kept showing the same set of numbers.
Word filtered through that BRS had taken the win and shaved hours from the old record. After everything they endured in the night, it was a remarkable comeback. While it’s their story to tell, they had one runner alone in the desert for an hour through the night. Forget about the strategic disadvantages of that, the psychological stress alone could break someone.
With less than 20 miles to go, I went ahead to the finish line to wait for my team. It was the first time I had a chance to reflect on the entirety of our TSP journey; deciding to enter a women’s team, getting some support from Nike, choosing our team members, and all the usual logistics. Standing there near the Welcome to Las Vegas sign amongst the Elvis impersonators and the holiday makers, I allowed myself a couple of minutes to be emotional about it all, before the butterflies and the anticipation built for the finish.
After what felt like an eternity, our team came into sight. All 6 girls, plus some of our crew, streaking down the sidewalk in those last 500 metres. In that moment, for the first time since we started at 4am the day before, the race seems simple. Point A to Point B, bite it off into chunks, and take turns. Don’t stop running. That’s all it is. It shouldn’t be a life defining moment. It was for me in 2018 when I raced it, and I know all of our team are different women having completed this race. They’ve grown; not into different or better people, but into who they already were - they just didn’t know what they were capable of before this.
The 24 hours after the race descended into a shit show. There were a lot of teams who hacked the route, but perhaps because of the magnitude of our performances, only ourselves and BRS seemed to be highlighted for this. It’s impossible for the organisers to know which route each team takes, and that’s not really the point of the race. LA to LV on foot. That’s the race. Do it however you like.
I’m immensely proud of our team and the decisions we made. We took risks. We took them again. We fought every damn inch of that race. I wouldn’t change a single thing we did, even the wrong turn we took. Without the lows, the highs wouldn’t be so sweet.
37:02:01. I’m looking forward to tuning in next year and watching a women’s team beat our record - times won’t last forever, but we left Vegas with so much more than that.
Our crew were amazing; we didn’t even know Jen and Jenna before the week started, but their sacrifice and dedication to our team helped make this whole thing possible.
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who followed along and supported our team during the race. I hope we made you proud.
Editor's Note: You can also watch our short film from The Speed Project here