20 hours in. We’ve been running straight since 4:00AM. After baking in the 90°F+ heat all day as we ran our way out of LA, nightfall was welcome. But the sun went down ages ago. Team Take The Bridge has been hammering miles in the dark. I look down at our map; we’re just clearing the halfway point. 171 miles behind us, 169 to go.
A little background for context. The Speed Project is an unsanctioned ultra team relay that starts at the Santa Monica Pier and continues straight through Death Valley racing full send to Las Vegas. 340 miles, 6 runners, and 1 crazy adventure. What makes someone want to do this? In a race with no rules and no prize for winning, it’s just about diving headfirst and giving yourself to the challenge. To take the mind and body to their limits and continue to #BeatYesterday.
With stiff legs, I step out into the dark. I’ve got a 5 mile unsupported segment out on the trails. Instructions are as follows: walk away from the highway, step through barbed wire fence, and use my Garmin to walk straight for 0.25 miles. Standing out there in the middle of the dark, the trepidation starts to settle in. After this long without sleep, the mind tends to get a little fuzzy.
All I can hear is my own breath and the loose rock underfoot. A little light shines in the distance, Katie is on her way in. She closes the gap, reaches out for the handoff, we slap and I’m off. “Be safe Matt, it’s getting weird out there.”
With my headlamp I can only see about five feet in front of me. The washed out dirt path keeps me on my toes. My shoes are kicking little bits of gravel behind me and it sounds like someone is right on my heels. The instructions were vague, as excepted, all I knew was I had to run 4.5 miles NE, till I hit Afton Road. Everything in the middle was unknown. I keep looking down at my Garmin; I can see my heart rate climbing as my mind keeps playing tricks on me.
Then off in the distance, I see what looks like our white support SUV with its lights on, it seems strange but head toward it anyway. As I get closer I see people milling around, they notice me, lights immediately go off. Heart rate continues to climb. Then, a huge light is pointed right at me, “What are you doing out here!? You shouldn’t be here!” Smooth NE direction went straight out the window right then. I bolted away from the car, trying to not break an ankle in the process. I can’t tell if the footsteps I hear are my own or someone chasing me, so I just go faster. No part of me wanted to look back, so I didn’t.
Here is where I think I hit the bottom mentally; my friend Gretchen calls it “getting dark and twisty”. You’re seeing things that aren’t there, doubt creeps in, your body is giving you every reason to stop (I found out later that I ran the whole thing on a tibial stress fracture). I kept willing my legs to go faster, but the longer I was out there, the slower it got. Going into that dark place is rough, but not a loss. I had one job, put one foot in front of the other. I started talking to myself; eventually it became a mantra that helped me rein my mind back in. “It’s only miles. You’ve got this.” And I did. The road was there, just like it said. I made the turn and there was Colby, about to go out into the same darkness. I reached out, slapped his hand and told him the same thing. “Be safe Colby, its getting weird out there.”
26 hours in. I’m standing in a gas station with two of my teammates, Francisco and Katie. We’re waiting for our other runner, Jess, to come in. We’re exhausted, mind and body. Up next, we’re heading right into the heart of Death Valley. But as we’re standing there, looking East toward Vegas, the sun starts to crawl up over the horizon. I don’t know what happened right then, but something changed. We were ready to rip.
Later Fran would thank all the others for “never quitting on yourself and pushing until it broke you, and digging deeper until it broke you some more.” I think something broke right there. All the miles we had grinded out stayed there, yesterday was behind us. I felt that same electricity that was there at the starting line. Jess came cruising in, handed off to Katie and she was off. The rest of us pile into the support SUV, drive next to her, roll the windows down and crank the music. We kept knocking down miles, we felt powerful. Every single leg I would finish, my eyes would dart to my watch, and the times just kept getting faster. Bouncing back from when we were at our lowest, once you shift your mental state, its incredible what the body can do.
Everyone says the same thing about The Speed Project: It will change you. My entire context for what my own personal best is can’t go back to where it was before. The well is deep, y’all. You’ve just got to have the will to dig deep into it.
41 hours and 10 minutes. Team TTB came into the Welcome to Las Vegas after leaving from Santa Monica, finding our finish line together. 340 miles on foot never felt so good. Here’s to adventures, and those willing to chase them.
Photos are from Jody Bailey