In the scorching heat of the American Southwest, several runners make their way steadily through the arid desert of Death Valley. Some are professional athletes, others are amateurs who have set out to accept a challenge they will never forget. All of them are doing The Speed Project, a 560-kilometer marathon between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that has no rules, public or sponsors. But, above all: it is very dangerous.
This competition has earned the reputation of being one of the toughest and most secret races in the world. You can’t sign up on any web page, and no one knows the start date until a week before. The marathon usually starts on any given day at 04:00 in the morning at the Santa Monica Pier (Los Angeles County) and the rest is pure adventure.
One of the main characteristics of the race is that the participants are responsible for finding their own route, nutrition, hydration and places to rest. And that becomes a gigantic obstacle: there are sections in which for eight and 10 hours there are no nearby options to resupply with food or water, so runners often have to get strength from where they can.
Being in Death Valley National Park could also be called “being in the middle of nowhere”. In some areas there is nothing for 30 kilometers around and the terrain is always the same: sand and gravel. As we mentioned before, this is a very arid route from Santa Monica to Las Vegas that winds up through Hollywood and Antelope Valley, past a Mojave desert airplane graveyard and the Inland Empire city of Barstow, already along the edge of Death Valley National Park until you reach Route 160 toward Las Vegas.
Heat and dehydration: the runner’s enemies
Its participants have to face not only more than 500 kilometers, but also the harsh and extreme weather conditions. This area of the US is considered one of the warmest places on the planet. During the day the thermometer reaches 50ºC and when the sun goes down the temperature plummets below 10ºC. In summer it is a blazing hell and there are not many places to get in the shade.
The high temperatures make dehydration one of the biggest dangers for the participants, in addition to constant exhaustion. Upon arrival at the finish line, the runners can barely walk and many of them withdraw when they see that their bodies are reaching the limit. Not even drinking water or cooling yourself with ice is enough, you have to have an iron mental resistance.
“When the police stop you, be super nice. And when they ask you what you’re doing, just say, ‘We’re a bunch of friends running to Vegas.” They don’t have to know anything more or anything less,” he explains to the runners Nils Arend, creator of the competition. Arend did this route for the first time in 2013 relaying with five friends, three men and two women. And since then it is this relay format that is used to carry out the marathon.
The future of competition
Although now there are more categories, which include a solo modality, one of the most dangerous. The famous British athlete James Poole has competed in this modality for the last two years and a few months ago he completed the race in less than 119 hourscamping in abandoned buildings and feeding only on food and drink from gas stations throughout the entire journey.
“You run for six hours and you’re on the same road. You run another six and you’re still there. If you’re running 120 kilometers a day, like I did, then you spend the whole day on the same road without turning once,” he explains. Poole in this BBC article, where he talks about how the route led him to a straight road of more than 120 kilometers of pavement. “The TSP route is somehow beautiful in its brutal style. There is beauty everywhere. It all depends on how you look at it. Gas stations are the ugliest thing around, but they are beautiful when you get to them,” he adds.
However, and despite that mysterious and clandestine aura of the competition, many of the fastest athletes in the world and a multitude of brands (such as Nike or New Balance) have shown their interest in participating in The Speed Project, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. The creators are debating whether to bring the event to Latin America, in this case to Chile, where the runners will have to face the extreme conditions of the Atacama desert. Undoubtedly, there are human beings who know no limit.
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