Two days and one night nonstop through the mountains, woodlands and desert – and no rules: The Speed Project is one of the toughest long-distance runs in the world. In the relay marathon from Los Angeles to Las Vegas runners are tested to the limit time and again, but it also gives them the adrenaline rush of their life.
The night is cold and dark. Till Harnos is all alone in the middle of nowhere. Only his breath and the tap-tap of his steps on the asphalt break the silence. The light from his headlamp dances over the street to the rhythm of his movements. It reaches just far enough for Harnos to be able to scan the ground for rattlesnakes. He pulls out his cellphone and records a voice message: “Desert is super! It’s all just SUPER!!” His voice echoes through the night. He has just set out on his fourth run in 24 hours and still has three ahead of him. Harnos is enjoying every step. A voice message comes back from his team: “You are super! Give it all, rock on!”
Harnos is here with the 340 Miles Club from Berlin, running one of the toughest long-distance races in the world: The Speed Project, or TSP for short, covers the 340 miles – that’s around 550 kilometers – from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the “Welcome” sign in Las Vegas. The teams of six – women’s or mixed – run through cities, mountains and desert, over highways and dirt roads without any checkpoints, fluid stations or course marshals. Winner’s rostrum? Prize money? Not on this run. “The TSP is not the right race for people who already want to know when they register if there’s a medal at the end of it,” says organizer Nils Arend.
The 39-year-old with the mohawk and a pair of brilliant blue eyes dreamed up the extreme race in 2013 as a challenge for himself and five of his running pals. Today, the race has an international fan community. Arend himself stopped participating two years ago because he had his hands full organizing the whole thing with his event agency. From his own experience, he knows how strictly regimented many races are – even telling the athletes exactly what time they have to start wearing lamps. In direct contrast, the motto of the TSP is “No rules.” The teams are given a booklet containing hospital emergency numbers and maps of the 39 legs of the race – shortcuts are permitted. The TSP is all about the experience of running, about freedom and adventure, about focusing on extreme physical exertion, and about team spirit.
More than 100 teams applied to enter the race in 2019; Arend invited 43. At four in the morning on a Friday in March, their camper vans line Ocean Avenue in Los Angeles. There’s very little traffic at this time, but the odd reveler can be seen shuffling along the sidewalk. More and more runners arrive by the minute at the entrance to Santa Monica Pier and start to warm up. At some point, the babble of voices drowns out the rush of the waves on the beach a few hundred meters away.
Standing in the middle of the crowd is Dominique Oberdieck, team captain of the 340 Miles Club. She wasn’t particularly interested in running until she saw videos of Arend’s first race back in 2013. He was visibly toiling through the rugged landscape of the U.S. southwest – but he still had a huge smile on his face. “I found it touching to see the runners test their limits – and all that amazing nature. That’s when I got hooked,” says Oberdieck. She downloaded a training app and started running. Three months later, she struggled through her first ten-kilometer run in Berlin. When her job got too stressful, she put running on a back burner, but found new motivation in early 2018. Now, after a year of planning and training, the 39-year-old is on the start line beside the Pacific. Despite the long-sleeved shirt and leggings she’s wearing to keep out the cool morning air, she’s still shivering a bit. And suddenly, she is beset by doubts: Has she really prepared well enough? Does she have the necessary strength? Will the heat be too much for her? Arend turns up in running shorts and shoes, a white shirt and suit jacket, raises a megaphone to his lips and starts the countdown: “Three, two, one – go!“ The runners set off at a sprint down Ocean Boulevard, bystanders cheering them on. Oberdieck feels as though she has strayed into a herd of wild horses. For the first two blocks, she’s just trying to find her pace, then she turns right onto Santa Monica Boulevard and relaxes the moment she spots her teammate Uli Krebs. He’s cycling on ahead to warn her of any potholes and guide her across intersections. In the support vehicle behind them, their other teammates are studying the route map and keeping water at the ready.
This year is the first in which professionally organized teams have also entered the TSP. The Blue Ribbon Sports team fielded by the sportswear and equipment corporation Nike uses the company’s original name, while rival Adidas has recruited six runners from its international community for its Adidas Runners. Both teams want to break the current track record of 35 hours and 49 minutes. The six women on the team of the Australian online magazine Tempo, also seasoned long-distance runners, plan to improve on the best time for women’s teams, which stands at 44 hours and 27 minutes.
The 340 Miles Club has eleven runners, so it’s too big to count in the overall ranking. What’s more, because of their varying levels of experience and training, the Berlin team’s runners aim to complete the race with a time of 50 hours. Learning more about their own physical and mental limits, enjoying every moment along the way and seeing every runner cross the finish line at the end is what matters to them. This last goal could prove difficult to attain, though, as the group never once managed to train all together at home. “This here is going to be an experiment,” says Oberdieck, describing the TSP mission in a nutshell. But right now, she’s concentrating on her own performance. “Good morning!” she calls out to bewildered passersby.
Ten kilometers down the road, she climbs back into the bus with a huge smile plastered across her face – adrenaline! Krebs has taken over from her. He runs past the legendary record shop Amoeba Music and down Sunset Boulevard toward the edge of town. Oberdieck meanwhile slips into jogging pants and hoodie, stuffs her sweat-soaked running kit in a deodorizing garbage bag and flops onto a seat. “That was so fantastic out there!” Teammate Stephan Pelster passes her a massage stick, and she works her thigh and calf muscles with it while the crew members discuss the Adidas team’s remarkable strategy: Their runners switch places every 500 meters to put in sprints enabling them to maintain a high speed over the entire distance. It evidently works: Adidas is hard on the heels of the leaders, the Nike team.
The morning rush hour is now in full swing in Los Angeles. Commuters honk their horns to fire on the Berlin team’s Till Harnos when he high-fives his teammate Ben Fuchs at an intersection. The apartment blocks have given way to strip malls, tire dealers and tile warehouses. A poetically inclined lawyer advertises his services on a billboard proclaiming “Guns and dope? Don’t lose hope.” Harnos puts on a spurt as he passes a FedEx distribution center as the workers arrive for the morning shift. After 50 kilometers, the teams reach the Los Angeles city boundary and suddenly: nature! As the sun rises, the runners head through the northwestern foothills of the Angeles National Park past Douglas firs and pines and on into the Soledad Canyon. The runners toil along beside lush green slopes and up to an altitude of 1000 meters above sea level, where they are rewarded with the sight of yellow and white wild flowers lining the road, which is straight as a die. Away in the distance, snow gleams on the mountaintops. Then the landscape levels out again, the vegetation grows sparser – the desert beckons!
Toward noon, the Tempo women – all pros – are in third place overall. Lydia O’Donnell, for instance, regularly runs half-marathons and marathons, and her teammate Hannah Wells is a successful triathlete. They are less concerned about the physical strain of running in the desert than about the conditions along the route: “Unsafe neighborhood, dogs on the loose!” is the warning the TSP handbook offers about a small town at kilometer 183 – last year, a dog bit a runner here. Two support vehicles shield Wells on the poorly asphalted main street and a crew member runs alongside her holding a club. After five tense minutes, they’ve reached the end of town and the whole team breathes a sigh of relief.
Then the asphalt comes to an end and the van bumps over the dirt track. Wells is shrouded in a cloud of dust; her footsteps crunch on the sand. Behind wire-mesh fencing, metal shimmers in the sunshine: Hundreds of decommissioned airplanes are parked here, the only witnesses to civilization out here in the wilderness. Thorn bushes cover the ground and there’s no shade – except perhaps behind the scattered Joshua trees stretching their thorny arms skyward. Like a mirage, a handful of vans and jeeps suddenly come into view, beside them a folding table and camping chairs. Antoine and Guy normally work in restaurants in Los Angeles, but today they are running a desert BBQ, grilling burgers for Arend and his crew, who are driving back and forth between the teams to cheer them on, check their status and collect stories for their live feed that’s keeping the world informed about the race via the Internet. Antoine hands over a burger as an airplane comes in to land behind him.
As the sun sinks, and with it the temperature, the Nike and Adidas teams are going head to head for the lead. Then suddenly the Nike runners’ GPS signal disappears. A rumor now makes the rounds among participants and organizers that the team has taken a shortcut through the mountains between Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. The 340 Miles Club meanwhile is having trouble enough with the regular route – and the darkness. According to the map, runner Steffen Stoltmann needs to slip through a hole in the fence at kilometer 290. But the crew in the support vehicle can’t find the spot, and the thorny bushes provide no clues. Stoltmann stumbles through the night without any pointers from the van. He had paced himself for the planned six kilometers and stepped on the gas – each extra kilometer is now agony. “I’m the runner, you’re supposed to be following me, not the other way around. Where are you? Maann!!!” he grouches into his cell. Then he receives a message from the van: “Stay where you are. We’ve gone wrong somewhere.”
The following morning, just before sunrise, frustration is rife with the Tempo team, too. O’Donnell and Wells are shifting from leg to leg outside a filling station in Baker. They had taken the same shortcut as the Nike team, but the ground was too sandy and their support vehicle kept getting bogged down. In the end, they had to turn back. The women ran 26 miles for nothing and lost 90 minutes and four places in the ranking. Disappointment is written all over the two women’s faces. “Keep going, you can do it,” says a member of the support team in an attempt to cheer them up. “They say there are no shortcuts in life, after all.” The pair force a smile, but soon after, O’Donnell is already filled with fresh energy and sprinting across the parking lot.
Two thirds of the race has been run, but now overtiredness and exhaustion are telling on the German team. Stoltmann sends Dominique Oberdieck down the wrong track, and to make matters worse, the driver of the support vehicle mistakenly turns onto the highway. While he’s driving full speed to the next exit, Oberdieck is losing her way in the heat. Almost wiped out, she finally climbs back into the van. After being cooped up in a tiny space for over 24 hours and plagued with lack of sleep and fatigue, emotions are running high and end up boiling over into a loud argument – especially since the group’s gasoline is now running low due to detour on the highway.
Luckily, the magnificent natural scenery all around them soon soothes the little community: The lunar landscape appears to stretch away endlessly into the half-light, and on the horizon, sand dunes are just visible – no wonder George Lucas chose to film his Star Wars movies in this surreal stretch of country. His leg muscles burning, Fuchs again works his way up an endless slope, with Stoltmann running beside him for moral support, both of them panting in unison. At last, the road curves left around the mountain to reveal a wide valley. Relieved, the two Berliners raise their arms above their heads: It’s downhill from here on in, and Las Vegas is just 60 kilometers away. Hey, what are another 60 kilometers now?
The victors have already arrived in the casino city. Tourists and wedding couples are standing in line in front of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, waiting to take souvenir photos; long lines of cars crawl along the Strip.
In the flickering heat, a lonesome figure in white shirt and blue shorts comes into view: the last Nike runner. A bus stops by the roadside and the other team members leap out and join him. To cheers from Nils Arend and his crew, the sextet reaches the neon sign. Corks pop and champagne sprays in all directions. The attempted shortcut almost forced the team to give up altogether, but now it has actually set a new TSP record at 31 hours, 15 minutes. Adidas comes in three hours later, followed by Tempo. The women fought their way back to third from seventh place – and broke the all-female team record.
It’s already past midnight by the time the 340 Miles Club also makes it to Las Vegas. Things have grown quiet around the Las Vegas sign now that the tourists have moved on to the casinos. The Berliners fall into each other’s arms and they, too, take Champagne showers – the exertions of the past two days are forgotten. Also, they completed the race in four hours less than their proposed time. Relieved and exuberant, they pose with their club flag for a souvenir photo: eleven runners, four support crew members – all winners.