I did a crazy thing. What makes it crazy depends on your perspective, really. It could be the distance: 340 miles from Santa Monica pier to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign split between six runners. Or the fact that it was unsanctioned, with no course support you didn’t provide yourself. It could be running through desert dirt roads and dry river beds marked by bullet-hole ridden sign posts at 2 a.m., the dogs on the loose, the endless stretch of Death Valley Highway at high noon, cactus-side pit stops with an eye out for rattlesnakes. It could be the logistics and dynamics of 12 relative strangers crammed into a janky Cruise America RV and a Suburban for 45 hours without any real sleep.
The Speed Project, and our team “Bird Strike” was all of those things. For me, the crazy part was not running it, but taking on the role of crew boss. My entire athletic life to that point had been made possible by a traveling and remote entourage, starting from my coddled years as a high school and collegiate star, to my international racing career on the track. Less than one year into retirement Oiselle presents me with an opportunity to crew for the first all-female attempt of this bonkers relay and my first reaction was a hard yes. I was captivated.
Having been looked after so well for so many years by others, I felt pulled to the challenge of an environment that would require extreme support, a challenge that would be literally impossible without it. We had a group of six in charge of logistics, navigation, on course support, nutrition, fatigue management, communication and the blanket task of handling the giant unknowns. We had everything we needed, in theory. Now we just had to jump in.The first 24 hours, we were a group of independent individuals showing our competence and strength by how little we needed from others. “I’ve got this” was the vibe. “Excuse me, sorry” accompanied the rare event someone needed anything. It was a brand of strength I was used to seeing, and enjoyed.Then shit got real.
It started as we entered Death Valley. The athletes were compromised by the mileage run and the lack of sleep, and the highway stretched out forever ahead of us as the temperatures rose. Sarah wasn’t eating enough. Collier stopped talking. Devon couldn’t stop puking and would need to go to an emergency room. We sacrificed our Suburban for the cause and crammed into the RV. I attempted to recalculate the mileage and segments with five remaining runners instead of six and literally couldn’t do basic math. Erin looked bug-eyed behind the wheel. As heat waves radiated off the cracked asphalt, our standard 6-12 mile legs were reduced to 3 miles, then 2 miles, then one. Our veneer wore off. We got to a point where the apologies disappeared, and people asked for what they needed. They starting saying “no.” Without dressing it up. Without apology. And that’s when the magic happened.
As a crew member, all I had wanted to do the entire time was help. For so long I had to read minds, read body language and guess. That was a rewarding challenge in its own way, but this – THIS! – was pure, searing purpose. Asking for help is hard. Seeing these strong women saying what they needed, taking our help, and using it to activate their ultimate badassery, it was the best action movie I ever saw. From this point forward, we were unstoppable, runners and crew alike. I witnessed displays of pain, confidence, respect, disappointment, imperfection and kindness. I heard stories from painful pasts and wild dreams bursting out of previously locked cages. It felt like life on fire.
We know that asking for and receiving support makes difficult challenges possible. It’s easy to see it from an outcome perspective. What is harder to see is how support affects the experience of the pursuit itself. I look back on Bird Strike and see my entire athletic career differently. I look at being one half of a two-athlete marriage differently. Asking for support is not a burden. It’s not a transaction. At its heart, asking for support is an invitation. So is saying yes. Here is what support looks like in your words.
«I grew up believing I was not an athlete. I told my husband and son I thought I might like to TRY running because I can’t swim and I was afraid to try bicycling. My husband and son became MY crew. They helped me find the couch to 5k program and cheered me on at every turn. When I ran my first 5k, they were there with signs and hugs at the finish line. And when I said I thought I could try a half marathon, my husband was crazy enough to say he would run it with me. One year later, we crossed the finish line together, and we’ve been running ever since. Without that support, I would never have found my inner athlete!» – Penelope Bliss
Emily Gordon was struggling to be «the elite runner», she commented that “It was my support crew that reached out to me and asked me that hard questions in order to make me realize that my passion was poisonous to me if I kept at it in that manner. They helped me see, from the outside, what damage I was doing to myself by running myself into the ground. So my support, day in and day out, helps me accomplish the impossible feat of running happily, healthfully, and strong each day.”
«My support has always been from my Mom. She has been my biggest fan since I started competing whether it be in the grade school band to playing in the playoffs in high school. My mom couldn’t afford much, but she made sure she was at every single game I played in home or away.» «Even now that I’m forty years old she likes and comments on every post on every social media giving me encouragement and praise. She is the reason I coached and attended every sports game I could that my kids were in and will continue to do.» – Timothy Moore
«I finished my first Death Ride after two years of injuries and unmet goals, and I don’t think I would have had the confidence to go after it without the support of my buddy Jef, a truly inspiring older cyclist who I met completely randomly at a porta-potty stop in Bishop. Jef was my pen pal coach, cheerleader for the months leading up to the ride, celebrating my accomplishments, reminding me to take rest days, making sure I slept enough and ate and drank on rides. He called me the day before to wish me luck, and he was the first person I texted when I finished. The advice helped, but I think what mattered more was feeling like I was a part of a community and belonged at that event.» – Kate McShane Urban
«I made a promise to myself to make a change for the better for my health and my kids. I was 250 pounds and found myself choosing to sit on the couch or play games on the computer instead of playing with them. With the support of my wife and hundreds of other athletes on Strava who didn’t know they were helping me, I turned into a 180 pound marathon finisher!» – Todd Schmidt
«I used to think support had to come from someone you knew, had an intimate, long standing relationship with, someone who knew your paces, goals, struggles, injuries, family life, expectations, everything. Day by day, I am proven wrong during every run.. when passing runners, albeit strangers who I may never cross paths with again, can offer support via a simple wave, nod, or smile. A mutual «you’ve got this» exchange to help you lift one foot in front of the other.» – Dana Laboy
What would you dare to attempt if you knew you had the support? Go ahead, post it on Strava.