339 Miles Apart, 1 Together: Running from LA to Vegas

Whose Idea Was This?

We were about an hour outside of Barstow when the gravity of what we had set out to do really took hold. We’d left the Santa Monica Pier at five in the morning and our team of six runners hadn’t stopped moving since. The sun was beginning to set and we’d covered over 140 miles, but weren’t even halfway there. We were running to Las Vegas, 340 miles from the ocean, and hoped to make it there in less than 42 hours. As the last light faded out, the runners strapped on headlamps and charged into the night.

The justification for running a six-person relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas was a race called The Speed Project. But that’s not the reason why we were doing it. The reason why we were here, leaving Barstow, Ca, population 23,000, and heading into the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert just as the cooling temperatures would lure the rattlers out to hunt, is a bit trickier. It wasn’t for the prizes – the team that made it to Vegas first would be awarded rocks stenciled with The Speed Project’s logo. It wasn’t for the fame – none of these runners would ever be recognized in the cereal aisle or even at their local track for completing this little-known race across the middle of nowhere.

Each individual had their own crazy reasons they’d decided it was a good idea to spend a weekend sleeping with strangers on an RV and running over 50 miles, but if you have to ask them why, you probably wouldn’t understand. Whatever their original motivations, the strongest force driving them forward now was that at the end of their five or six mile leg, another runner would be waiting. Another runner who they’d only met days ago, but who was counting on them to help complete this mad, monumental undertaking.

Alone, Together

I trailed one of our runners, Scott Carmichael, in a 45-foot Class A motorhome. This vehicle was our oasis in the desert, complete with a queen bed, bunk beds, three TVs, a fridge, a microwave, heating, cooling and ample storage. Its powerful headlights silhouetted Scott’s slim body against the stars and we bumped over potholes and ruts in the road. I’d gotten the hang of driving this beast over the past 18 hours, but it still didn’t like these old highways. We ran along the relegated routes of transcontinental trips past - the old Route 66. The only lights we could see on this forgotten road were the slow moving red ones on the back of another team’s caravan on the horizon. And they were getting closer.

There are no instant replays in a race that takes longer than most people could stay awake. The action unfolds slowly, our runners reeling them in, one pull at a time, like a big fish on the end of a line. And when we finally meet the team ahead of us, they celebrate as much as we do. The team is Kraft Runners Running, and they’d come all the way from Germany to be here – in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. And we’re just excited to be together, even for the brief period of the pass. Dillon Breen, our runner, glides by them. I pull our RV along-side theirs – no oncoming traffic for miles - and honk the horn to say hello. In a race that covers more distance on foot in two days than most people drive in a week, we’re not really competing against the other teams. That’s not why we’re here.

Death Valley

Running all night in the desert is the easy part. At night, every leg is a moonlit adventure and you can catch a few minutes of sleep before you set out again. The real test started at dawn, when a merciless solar hammer pounded us against the black anvil of the road. They don’t call it Death Valley to attract tourists. Even inside the RV, I was sweating, cranking the AC and turning on those little fans mounted above the driver’s seat just to get some extra breeze.

As the unforgiving sun reached its zenith overhead, and even the shadows retreated, we were beginning to climb the walls of Death Valley. From nearly sea level, the road rose to over 5,000 feet. Our runners struggled. I saw Darcy Budworth out on the road and pulled up alongside her to give out ice in a plastic cup. This is when the runners really had to dig deep to find the motivation to keep moving forward. And it’s when I could tell we needed each other most. In the hottest part of the day, no one ran alone.

Sometimes, one of the crew would ride alongside our runner on an old bicycle. Sometimes, we’d run with them. Always, we’d be carrying water so when the thought of thirst first parched lips, we would be there to quell at least that one discomfort. Our strongest runners like Megan Erspamer barely slowed down despite it all. Getting to glide side-by-side with them and pulling Vegas towards us with each stride was the highlight of my week. When I was out there I had a job: to help them maintain relentless forward progress. And I felt that nothing – not the heat or the canyons or a flash flood from the sky – could stop us when we were together.

A Second Sunset

The Speed Project was filled with ups and downs, and once we reached the summit of the canyon and began our long descent, down was a very good thing. Peter Bromka scored with a 3 mile run that dropped into the valley, and we were positive that our luck would hold out until Vegas. I watched the sun set for the second time since we’d started running. But this night wouldn’t be nearly as long as our first.

I was pacing Felix Puno at 7 p.m. when we first saw the Vegas lights. I felt a rush of emotion when I saw the city shimmering through a break in the mountains. Relief that we were almost done, that we’d be able to check into a hotel, take a shower and sleep in a real bed. But also melancholy, because once we reached Vegas the single goal that had driven us forward and bound us together would be accomplished. And then what? But first we had to finish.

With only a handful of short downhill segments remaining, every runner’s legs felt fresh, and they took great galloping strides towards the city. Once we were on Las Vegas Boulevard, the party really started. We ran the final mile all together. After over 340 of them, this last one was our celebration, and we had something you couldn’t win at any jackpot in Sin City. We sprinted down the street in the final meters. Even though there was no one to pass, it’s hard not to kick at the end of a race. We saw our finish line bright, brilliant and neon. It said to us, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.”

Together we had accomplished something that would have been impossible alone. We’d left LA with six runners and five crew members and we had arrived in Vegas as one family.

Long Distance Relationships

Our What’sApp chat kept buzzing for days after the event with runners commiserating on withdrawal symptoms and remarking on how they woke up in the middle of the night after the race, wondering when they needed to run their next leg. Even though The Speed Project took its toll on everyone involved and we were relieved when it was over, I felt that a story we’d be telling to our grandkids had come to its conclusion. We’d reached the end of something meaningful, where for a brief time we never had to ask ourselves why – we were apart of something larger than ourselves.

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