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The Speed Project: An unsupported, unsanctioned, 500km relay running race across the world's toughest environments.

12 March 2024

The Speed Project: A Race like No Other

A 500km Desert Relay Run, with No Route and No Rules

Running

Tom Reynolds isn't your average sports journalist. As a hardened ultra-runner, leader of multiple running communities, and co-founder of The Peak Divide, a running challenge from Manchester to Sheffield, running is what gets Tom out of bed in the morning. A lover of big runs and bigger adventures, Tom faced up to one of his toughest challenges yet in the form of The Speed Project.

The Speed Project is one of world's most elusive and exclusive ultramarathons. With no route and no rules, it turns the traditional concept of organised racing on its head.

As Tom prepares for the 2024 edition of TSP later this month, he reflects on his experiences of the 2023 race. Read on to hear how Tom went head-to-head with this unsanctioned, unsupported relay race across the Atacama desert, in his own words.

Contents:

The Speed Project: What's it all about?

Tom: "The original Speed Project is an unsanctioned, unsupported six-person relay race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It has no rules, no route and no website. It's the brainchild of Nils Arend, a German-born maverick who switched to organising ultra-marathons, having originally spent his spare time organising underground raves in Hamburg." 

"The LA-LV version of the event celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2023 so Arend decided to create something new: The Speed Project, Atacama Desert, Chile. Same principle (ocean to desert), same distance (500km) and same ethos (unsupported and unsanctioned)."

"The only difference? The difficulty was ramped up because unlike LA-LV, there were zero options to resupply - we carried all our food and water in the back of our flat-bed truck. There was also a significant amount of altitude gain – 6000m of climbing in total for runners, beginning at sea level in Iquique and ending at 2,500m at the finish in San Pedro de Atacama. Arend’s analogy basically sums up the contrast, saying: "If LA-LV were compared to a cat it would be a domestic cat. Atacama? Definitely a tiger." "

“If Los Angeles-Las Vegas were compared to a cat it would be a domestic cat. Atacama? Definitely a tiger.”

— Nils Arend , TSP founder

The Motivation: "He offered me a spot in his new, secret race, and I instinctively said yes."

"I wanted to run TSP for so many reasons. In 2023 I’ve basically been saying yes to everything and anything, so when I met Arend in April to interview him for this BBC Sport article and he offered me a spot in his new, secret race, I instinctively said yes. I also love any time I get the chance to run as part of a team. The Peak Divide channels that team experience of running as a bit of a convoy, and generally, I find running with friends is always so much more rewarding."

"I also loved the idea of the unsanctioned, unsupported element to the race. I figured that would bring with it an elevated state of camaraderie with my teammates, which is exactly what happened. I also heard the post-race pool party was going to be pretty mega... and who doesn’t want to go to a pool party in the middle of the Atacama Desert?!"

The Highlight: "A great moment of camaraderie"

"Midway through, the whole race was getting a lot of interest from the police, and not in a positive way. Long story short, the Chilean truck drivers were not mad keen on a load of short-shorted skinny runners running alongside the main road from the ocean across the desert. To be fair, they had a point….."

"The Chilean truck drivers were not mad keen on a load of short-shorted skinny runners running alongside the main road..."

— Tom Reynolds

"There was talk of the whole event needing to be shut down. Approaching midnight in the total middle of nowhere, there was a team meeting where we all decided what we wanted to do. Keep running or stop there and then. Unequivocally my team of six’s response was to keep going. It was a great moment of camaraderie and just amped up the team spirit."

Crossing the Finish Line: "A mega feeling of accomplishment. And pain."

"Just after we’d finished at San Pedro de Atacama – and necked half a bottle of champagne – I sat down quietly and took a moment to take it all in. It was a completely clear night. The stars were unbelievable and it felt, in a word, incredible. It was just a mega feeling of accomplishment. And pain."

"By that point, we were running one-mile sections each on repeat, so you’d have to run every hour or so. My left knee was really starting to complain but on the way down to the finish line I ran past the Valle de la Luna, the Valley of the Moon, which was some of the most awesome scenery of the entire route."

"By then, we'd reached that amazing part of a big adventure when you know you are 100 percent going to finish. So you can relax for perhaps the first time in over 40 hours."

"A few minutes later I was drinking champagne, and a few minutes after that necking Pisco Sour and pizza with five people who had been complete strangers two days earlier, and were now lifelong friends. It was a beautiful moment."

Choosing the right eyewear

"I chose the SunGod range for two reasons. Firstly in the daytime, I chose the Ultras™ because the sun was coming at me from every angle possible. There was literally nowhere to hide in the desert – bouncing off the road, the sand, everywhere. So having the Ultras™, with their spherical wraparound lens, meant the sun stayed out of my eyes; plus, their size helped protect my cheeks from the direct sunlight."

"The nature of The Speed Project meant I needed more than one of everything. Lightweight running top in the day, down jacket at night when it got super cold. Sunglasses were the same – in dusk and in the hours before sunrise the Ultras™ with the Iris™ HV Smoke photochromic lenses and 8KO® Clear lenses made a massive difference to spotting potholes in the road, and just generally seeing where I was going in low light. Plus, I needed some Sierras™ for the pool party. As you know, that was an important moment to look good too!"

And finally...Advice for newcomers?

"Ha. One piece of advice. I’ve only got one TSP under my belt so I’m not quite a veteran yet! Aside from making sure you’ve got your eyewear game covered, I’d say the biggest thing is stretching. I ran 25-30 separate legs across the 40 hours we were racing, give or take, and I just didn’t take my recovery in between each leg seriously enough. As a result, by the time I reached the end I was ridiculously stiff. Not ideal."

"And will I be joining the newcomers?! Short answer, yes. I'm heading out next week for the 2024 Los Angeles-Las Vegas Speed Project, with myself and my Peak Divide co-founders."

"I can’t wait. Sort of..."

Feeling inspired? Get kitted out ahead of your 2024 running challenges with our first running-specific sunglasses, the Ultras™.

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Matte Grey with 8KO® Green