By Brian McManus
Images Ryan Valasek
The Speed Project is an ultramarathon race that takes runners on a grueling 340-mile journey from the Santa Monica Pier in California to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign in Nevada—a route that snakes through Hollywood and the Antelope Valley, past a massive airplane graveyard at the edge of the Mojave Desert, along the edge of Death Valley National Park. and many other touchstones. The race attracts runners from all over the world, who compete in relay teams or as solo runners.
First organized in 2014 by Blue Benadum, a filmmaker and avid runner, the event quickly gained popularity among the ultra-running community, and in just a few years, it has become one of the most challenging and prestigious ultramarathons in the world.
But there’s a catch.
The Speed Project is an unsanctioned race, meaning it is not regulated or recognized by any official governing body. The race is organized entirely by volunteers and relies on the participants to ensure their own safety and wellbeing throughout.
Roark Run Amok placed fourth out of nearly 75 teams competing in the Speed Project.
Waves caught up with Nash Mader, Team Captain and Roark Run Amok Category Specialist to talk about the experience.
First question: Why? Why do this?
The impact the Speed Project has on the runners and crew is transformative. It’s a team effort (solo runners included). It’s selfless. It creates eternal relationships and breeds love and kinship in the community of running. I wouldn’t say that we do it for the glory, or even the story, as it is such a unique and personal experience. We do it for the people, the relationships, and the personal growth that we find deep in the desert.
How long has Roark been a participant in the Speed Project, nd what inspired you to take on this challenge?
This was Roark Run Amok’s second year participating in the race. Initially, the race simply intrigued us. What was all of the hype about? We would hear our friends talk about the race and their experiences like it was some kind of spiritual enlightenment, so we had to go get a taste of it ourselves. The connection that we felt with each other and the running community turned out to be just that. It is addicting. We didn’t even ask each other if we wanted to do it again. We all just knew.
Meet Roark Run Amok
What does it take to run on foot from the Santa Monica Pier to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign that greets visitors to Sin City’s famed strip? Grit. Determination. Possibly a few loose screws. Definitely a village. Meet the team and crew from Roark Run Amok.
Rio Lakeshore (35) – Los Angeles, CA
Travis Weller (41) – San Rafael, CA
Brandon Johnson – Oxnard, CA
Laura Cortez (28) – Denver, CO
Leah Lange (24)- Park City, UT
TJ Bottom (40)- Salt Lake City, UT
Ryan Hitzel – Laguna Beach, CA
Ryan Sirianni – Laguna Beach, CA
Corey Brindley (36) – Laguna Beach, CA
Luke Jay (42) – Denver, CO
Nash Mader (25) – Oceanside, CA
Ryan Valasek (29)- Oceanside, CA
What kind of prep is done to train for a race like this?
Training looks different for each athlete. Due to the nature of the race (high mileage, but really fast) you see a wide array of types of runners. All the way from speedy track athletes, to elite ultrarunners (those who specialize in distances greater than a marathon). Because of this, the approaches to training typically differ. Roark’s team consisted primarily of ultrarunners, so they all maintain a rather large mileage base year round. They are averaging 50-plus miles a week, so their job before this race was to hone in their muscle groups for speed. Mile repeats and tempo runs were on tap weekly so that they were able to average 6:30 miles all the way to Vegas.
Beyond this, some of the most intensive prep came in the manner of route finding and logistics. Getting six runners through the desert is no joke. Days on end were spent poring over maps and aerial views of the desert, prepping meals, and prerunning sections of the course.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during the race, and how did you overcome them?
Those 34 hours saw humans working to be the best version of themselves. There were moments of exhaustion and frustration, but the moments of beauty and overcoming were the ones that outshine all others. The team tapped into something deeper and more meaningful that can only come from within.
Explain the feeling of reaching the destination of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
Overwhelming gratitude. Gratitude for each other, the experience, the capabilities of our bodies, and the intensely deep emotion and connection. It’s hard to explain, but tears were a part of the equation for everyone.
Do you encounter any law enforcement during a race like this? Does its being “unsanctioned” make it more dangerous?
We ran by a few police officers near Cajon Pass. They were incredibly helpful and intrigued as to what we were trying to accomplish.
There is an inherent danger whenever you set out to test your mind and body to such an extreme. The thing about this race is that the roads are all open. Semi trucks flying by at 90 mph and trucks rolling coal in your face in the high desert keeps you on edge, and focused for the entirety of the race. In short, this race is significantly more dangerous than your typical running race. It’s the factors you can’t control.
How did you stay motivated and focused during the race, especially in the long stretches?
That’s the power of a team. When you are feeling down, there’s always someone there to lift you up and inspire you to run a few more miles. We’re a family at this point.
Will you do it again? Anything else to add?
We haven’t talked about it, but I have a feeling what the answer will be. TSP is a wildly difficult, transformative and spiritual experience. That’s a tough thing to turn down.
Long Runs and Good Fun
Interested in running long distances or otherwise? There are more than a few options in Santa Monica and on the westside of Los Angeles.
LA Leggers is one of the largest run clubs in the city. Originally the first and only training program for the Los Angeles Marathon, membership grew and grew beyond training and now they’re showing off their legs weekly, with runs starting at Santa Monica High School (601 Pico Blvd) and 1450 Ocean Ave on Wednesdays and Saturdays respectively. laleggers.org
Venice Run Club started in June of 2020 by friends Justin and Tyler, who vowed to run four miles every four hours for a stretch of 48 hours in an attempt to raise money to combat racial injustice. From those noble seeds a massive 400-plus member run club has sprung, and now the team runs together every Tuesday (Santa Monica High School track), Wednesday and Saturday (parking lot at 2150 Dell Ave. in Venice). venicerunclub.co