photo credit: @john_doenut_foto
If you had told me in early February that just a few weeks later I’d be racing a 340-mile ultra-running-relay across Death Valley, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet, on Feb. 27, I was selected to be on a team sponsored by Strava to compete in The Speed Project (TSP) 4.0.
We had virtually no time to prepare for this specific event, so I did a couple of double-run Sundays at home in Boulder, and the next thing I knew I was in an RV in Santa Monica with nine other women I’d just met, kitted out and ready to run to Las Vegas.
TSP is an unsanctioned event. There are no rules, no finisher medals, no batons to pass, no chip timing, no mandated exchange points, no course marshals, no arrows on the ground, no med tents. There are race organizers, a start, and a finish. These minimal elements reduce the event down to just pure running in seriously tough conditions. Some of the course instructions mention stepping over barbed wire, carrying pepper spray in case of wild dogs, and watching out for rattlesnakes. These challenges are in addition to the obvious struggles that come with running a 340-mile race through the desert — sleep deprivation, sand, extreme heat and the uncertainty of the darkness at night.
The race started at 4 a.m. when runners informally crowded around the Santa Monica pier. Right out of the gate my teammates were running FAST. Like 6:30 miles fast. Everyone was amped, enjoying the challenge, chatting about running and upcoming races. I was last in the rotation, so my first leg was a six-mile segment in the heat of the day up a canyon. Despite my efforts to stay in control, “race brain” got the best of me and I overcooked it. As a result, later in the day, I was violently ill on the side of the road in the desert. Ugh. Thankfully, when the sun went down, I perked up and was able to run faster than I had in the daytime. At the end of the first 24 hours we were somewhere between 10-13th place overall. Everyone on the team was having fun and still running ridiculously fast.
At dawn on the second day, it was as if an entirely new race had started. Our wheelchair athlete, Mary Kate, knocked out a long stretch of miles to take us into the heart of Death Valley, heading north from Baker. Air temps were in the 90s but it felt even hotter as we ran with the sun reflecting off the pavement. Our strategy was to trade off runners every mile, or as long as the runner could hold a decent pace. Imagine a caravan of RVs pausing every half mile to see if the runner would signal “keep going!” or “tag out!” and the team cheering out the windows every time. My “nutrition” consisted of the red food group: strawberry PopTarts, Red Vines and Red Bull. Sprinting one mile, every hour, in extreme heat for an entire day is not something you can easily train for, but it is bizarrely exhilarating! This is how we worked our way forward for ten hours — across the valley, up and over the last pass, and down into Las Vegas.
photo credit: @katherine_m_turner
We arrived at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign in 41 hours, 31 minutes — the first all-female team and in 10th place overall. That’s 7:20/mile for 340 miles straight! But what was more incredible was that we finished with so many new friendships, relationships that could only be forged through a unique experience like TSP, through nearly two days racing together — which is so much better than any finishers medal. Cheesy, but true.
photo credit: @john_doenut_foto
After years of racing in events that offer a “consistent brand experience,” TSP was the race re-energizer I didn’t know I needed. Even in the world of long-distance triathlon, after a while what used to seem nuts is no longer crazy. TSP delivered a dose of raw sporting insanity that reminded me why I love to race, and why racing is better as a team. For that reason, I will be cheering on Team SFQ much louder this season, and may be running through Death Valley again sometime in the future.
Sarah Peltier is a SMASH-Dimond team member, ironwoman, and 2x Kona Qualifier, who is headed back to the Big Island in October. Click here for a video of the Speed Project 4.0.