In a matter of hours, more than 300 athletes from more than 20 countries will take off on a 340-mile relay from Santa Monica, Calif. to Las Vegas, Nev. as part of the Speed Project 4.0. Among these adventurers will be 10 strangers representing Strava’s team–one of whom will become the first wheelchair athlete to tackle the course since the Speed Project launched in 2014.
Mary Kate Callahan is known first and foremost as a professional paratriathlete, one who has in her early 20s already earned international recognition for representing the United States at the 2012 and 2014 World Triathlon Championships and winning the USA Paratriathlon National Championships in 2016. Callahan was one of several hundred athletes that applied to be part of Team Strava for this year’s Speed Project, a partnership that is now granting Callahan and her nine teammates free entry to the race and providing the support vehicle that’ll follow the team. Starting today and officially ending on April 1, Team Strava will work together day and night to tackle the distance, dividing the miles and hours of tricky terrain amongst themselves until they reach the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign along Las Vegas Boulevard. “It’s going to be an amazing adventure,” Callahan told Women’s Running earlier this week. “One of the greatest things about the Speed Project is that there are so many unknowns that will be out of our control–but the team aspect brings a really unique perspective to it.”
That’s for sure. Imagine venturing out into the desert surrounded by total strangers, nine of whom you’re depending upon to accomplish a significant athletic goal in the safest, most efficient way possible. It’s a vastly different situation than those most athletes find themselves in when they begin a race, one that Callahan views as an exciting challenge. “I’ve never met these women before, but I’ll meet them [today] when we land in L.A.,” she said. “We’ll go from being complete strangers to a very strong team in a matter of 340 miles.”
As a safety precaution, Callahan and her teammates plan to use the buddy system while traveling through the night and have familiarized themselves with the Speed Project’s course warnings (e.g. potential spots of unstable terrain and the risk of wild animal encounters). Though they’ll complete the relay together, each team member has thus far been responsible for her own training. In Callahan’s case, she’s prepared for the course’s volatile desert temperatures by blasting the heat at her indoor training facility in Chicago, planned a set of spare tires and a flat kit to bring along for her racing chair and added miles to her already robust 2018 Boston Marathon training schedule. Regardless of everyone’s unique approach to training, Callahan points to running as the unifier that brings all the puzzle pieces together. “Whether you’re using your feet or a racing chair, everyone is running for a different reason, but their love of competition and for the sport is the same,” Callahan said. “You really don’t see those differences when you’re actually running. That’s what the Speed Project brings. Not many people want to sign up and do 340 miles, but it’s the people who truly love running for what it is that are going to go out there and push their bodies, push themselves as a team to finish this adventure.”
For Callahan, who has spent her whole life testing the limits of what’s widely accepted as “possible” for disabled athletes and has declared Henry Ford’s words, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself” as her inspirational quote of choice for this particular journey, competing as the Speed Project’s first wheelchair participant is a victory in and of itself. “The greatest thing that running and sport has provided me is to be able to break down barriers or stereotypes that are put up for athletes with disabilities that are competing at an elite level, and really show this community that there’s no barrier we can’t overcome,” Callahan said. “At the same time, the running community is so inclusive. Having me face the same obstacles all these other runners are is a testament to how I’m running for the same reasons as everyone else. Hopefully my being out there, pushing right alongside every runner, will be meaningful and show the entire running community that’s following our race that we aren’t any different; we’re runners, just like everyone else.”
The Speed Project 4.0 begins tonight at 10 p.m. PST and will continue throughout the weekend, ending in Las Vegas on April 1. Click here for more information on this year’s event and visit Strava’s blog for additional information on Team Strava.