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Is It Heaven or Las Vegas? An Inside Look at the Speed Project

On Running assembled a relay team of six women from six different countries for the Speed Project, a race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The team set out to be the fastest all-women team to ever complete the trek, but a set of unexpected challenges derailed their aspirations.

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A disco ball hangs from a Joshua tree. A sign says three miles to Calico Ghost Town. A stray black dog follows for a mile, always just a few steps behind, never closer, never farther away.

As the hours spent running through the desert stack on top of one another, it’s difficult to discern between reality and delusion. What seemed like a good idea—exciting, even thrilling—just a day before now seems absurd, a misguided decision, like you could have never understood what you might encounter, how heavy your legs would become, how badly you’d want to be done even when the finish line was nowhere near. But you continue moving forward because that’s what The Speed Project requires. That’s the spirit at its core.

The Speed Project is an unsanctioned footrace from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It begins at the Santa Monica Pier and finishes at the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign at the edge of the city, right next to the airport. It’s standard to form a team of six: While one person runs, the other five rest, changing in and out intermittently over the 340-mile course. This year was the seventh iteration with 52 teams and more than 400 participants. Six of those participants were the members of an all-women’s team assembled by On Running.

The six women each came from different countries: Maïli Burnichon (France), Nina Manso (Spain), Anna Kosova (USA), Nina Sieh (Canada), Alex Roudayna (Mexico), Marina Cugnetto (Italy). Trina Bills served as their coach. They had never met each other before arriving in L.A. two days before the race. “I wanted to understand them, and running is the universal language,” says Roudayna, 32.

All six women were also Speed Project first-timers. “But we’d all heard rumors,” says Sieh, 30. The rumors were simultaneously exhilarating and daunting: Sieh had heard of state troopers interfering, nighttime traverses through sketchy towns, violent barking dogs, drunk men running out of bars and harassing women—stuff that nobody feels safe around. Her friends told her, “I know it’s kind of scary, but it’s the best experience ever.” Sieh had to try it for herself.

The original iteration of The Speed Project wasn’t a race at all, it was more of a stunt. A group of six friends, four men and two women, all semi-serious distance runners, wondered, “Could we actually do this? Could we actually run from LA to Las Vegas?”

The OGs (“Original Gangsters”—a term that has persisted as a race division, referencing the gender split of the original team of six) valued grit and “badassery.” They worshiped the late Steve Prefontaine, famous for glorifying the process of testing one’s limits and for celebrating how much distance running sucks.

The OGs documented their journey on Instagram; the first post got 21 likes. They filmed the whole thing and even made a movie from their footage, which apparently nobody watched. “When you create mediocre content and put it online, one thing which happens is: nothing,” Nils Arend, one of The Speed Project’s founders, said in an interview. But over the years, The Speed Project has gained a lot of attention. They now have more than 37,000 Instagram followers and hundreds of people who want to achieve what the OG six did in 2013.

Now in the seventh year of the event, they have to turn people away, and getting in is famously elusive: You have to know somebody to enter in the race; there are no online registrations. Arend said, “It’s similar to how the person who runs a club is responsible for organizing a f—king rager, which is contingent on how they curate and pick the people out of line outside.” They want people who are going to commit to what they committed to in 2013: a serious test of their limits, to continue moving forward no matter what.

The OG members of The Speed Project had a motto: “No Spectators. No Rules.” The tradition has been preserved: Nearly a decade later, the organizers honor the same autonomy and exploration they had on their initial journey. There is no fixed course the participants are required to run. They could run straight through the desert if they want to, as the crow flies. The No Rules mantra comes with an asterisk, because there’s actually one rule: Don’t run on the highway. The event is unsanctioned. They didn’t apply for event permits (on some level to maintain the lawlessness vibe). A single person caught running on the highway could risk the entire operation shutting down. Other than that though, everybody takes ownership over their own Speed Project experience.

Mysterious Roads to Bizarre Places

At 4 a.m., 50 RVs were parked outside the Santa Monica Pier. The morning was mostly silent until the horn blew and runners took their first steps, amid the chaos of a large pack, part of a mass of bodies propelling forward. But the chaos didn’t last long. The runners quickly splintered, heading in different directions. The teams were all taking different routes.

On’s all-women team started by running 10-kilometer legs. Their coach, Bills, designated specific paces for each of the women to run so they could be the fastest all-women’s team ever to complete the trip. They’d have to run from L.A. to Las Vegas in less than 37 hours and 2 minutes to break the record.

Oiselle put together the first all-women’s team in 2017 for The Speed Project 3.0. It took those six women 44 hours and 27 minutes, averaging just under 8 minutes per mile.

one woman hands a baton to another running the spreed project in the desert
(Photo: Vasily Samoylov)

“The Speed Project was a gender-driven cultural divide, not just in that an all-women’s team had never raced it, but in the type of race itself,” said Sally Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle. “Men’s competitions have always allowed and even encouraged a sense of lawlessness and the ability to take a run at something not only difficult, but dangerous as well.”

The On all-women’s team took their turn at lawlessness and danger 161 miles into the race.

Bills had heard rumors of an old service road that runs along a power line for 94 miles. Apparently some teams had run it in the past and it would cut 50 miles off the original route. None of them had ever seen the road in person. They didn’t know what it would be like, if it even existed. It was a total mystery. They decided it was a risk worth taking.

They got to the start of the service road at midnight and immediately knew their RV couldn’t handle the terrain, so they split up: Three runners would make the overnight trip with the GMC Denali, and the other three would sleep in the RV and wait for them at the end of the service road.

“It was more of a trail. It wasn’t really maintained,” Bills said. “You can kind of tell where the road is but the whole thing is covered with these rolling sand dunes. You’re bumping around, side to side, pretty much off-roading.”

a GMC Denali and a lone runner on a service road in the desert during the speed project
(Photo: Vasily Samoylov)

The runners were outrunning the car. The car spun out, bumped around. The two runners in the car waiting to run their leg banged into each other, and into the ceiling. It was like riding a roller coaster in desperate need of repair, unbearably bumpy.

“It was delirious drivers, delirious runners, and four hours of bumpy technical road to go,” Bills said. The uneven road created a fragmented view from the driver’s seat of the Denali: a runner alone in the distance, sometimes in the light, sometimes in the darkness. That lone runner for a lot of the night was Roudayna.

“You start feeling and seeing things that aren’t there,” she says. “I felt like I was being chased at times. You feel like someone is just going to jump out of the bushes.” Resisting paranoia may be a unique element to The Speed Project as compared to more conventional ultra running. The women barely had any idea where they were or when they’d be done. They just had to keep going.

They projected four hours for the first 50 miles of the service road. It took seven. By the time they reached the RV at the end of the sandy road, the other members of the team were thrilled to see that they’d made it safely. “The best moment for me was the relief I felt when I saw they made it out,” Sieh says. They were no longer on record pace, but nobody was mad. They ditched the second section of the service road and instead opted to take the roads back to the recommended route. From that point, the nature of the race changed. Their new goal was to finish and to push their own limits in good faith while doing it.

“I’ve always enjoyed the part where everything goes out the window. Eventually something is gonna go south, and you have to free yourself,” Roudayna says. “If you manage to accept it and roll with it and overcome it. You’re free to make mistakes. You’re free overall. You can go ‘full send’ regardless of if you’re gonna be perfect or not. It’s very peaceful and happy.”

The women oriented themselves back toward an appreciation for where they were and what they were doing. “Everybody has those moments where you’re running and you turn your headlamp off and you see the stars. That’s your moment in the desert. Even if the car is a half-mile up the road. They’re not sharing that with you,” Bills said. “When you can really feel that you’re in the middle of nowhere, you get this sinking sensation. Just seeing that expanse of the desert kind of hits you in the stomach.”

Their relationship with the bizarre continued: An unattended juice stand stocked with fresh fruit in the middle of a sandy parking lot, a 134-foot tall thermometer, a lone DJ playing a set in the desert.

“How many more miles?” Sieh asked at one point. “I have no idea,” someone replied.

After running a combined 300 miles they could see the lights in the distance. Was it heaven or Las Vegas? The Denali got a flat, and they left it on the side of the road. They kept running. Now everybody was awake and they were changing off every mile. They cheered at every handoff. It was the first time they all felt intimately involved. They had their momentum back, fueled by adrenaline they’d been missing for half a day.

Eventually, they arrived. They took a selfie in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and sent it in The Speed Project WhatsApp group-chat, which serves as official proof of finishing. Their time was 42 hours and 49 minutes. Roudayna said they couldn’t muster the energy to participate in the conventional Vegas debauchery like many of the other teams. She went straight to bed, too tired to even eat dinner.

The On team was the second all-women’s team to finish. The South Bay Coffee Club, a group from Manhattan Beach, California, won the race and broke the record. The new time to beat is 35 hours and 21 minutes. Their winning strategy involved skipping the first half of the service road and picking it up where the On team abandoned it. Instead of a car, the women of the South Bay Coffee Club also strategically opted for ATVs, which proved to be much better suited for the inconsistent off-road terrain. Running fast is part of being successful at The Speed Project, but savviness is much more important.

All the finishers received medals: a poker chip attached to a plastic beaded necklace. The On women joked that they’d also won an award for being exceptionally masochistic. “I keep telling the girls we get the award for the hardest route,” said Bills.

The next day Sieh had a bunch of blisters and bruised toes and couldn’t walk. Another member of the team had an injured hip. Roudayna went for a run.

“At some point I wanted it to end—like please make this stop—but as soon as it actually ended I wanted more,” Roudayna said, admitting that she’s thinking about running it solo next year, all 350 miles by herself. “I want to see how I handle that moment where you go into your deepest, darkest hole. You don’t get to rest. You don’t have teammates to take a turn. You just have to keep going. Your demons come out, and everything’s f—ked up, and you should stop, but you have to fight and keep going. For me that’s the chance to grow.”

This was the second year there was a solo division. Eight people attempted to run the entire way themselves. Five finished, two of which were women. It took them both four days and five hours.

Four days and five hours; 44 hours and 27 minutes; 35 hours and 21 minutes—the specific duration doesn’t matter. It’s a long time to run through the desert, and by the time Las Vegas’s bright lights finally arrived, everybody was glad to trade heavy legs for rules and spectators.