The Speed Project 2019 (TSP5)

I write this from the confinement of a crowded plane from Las Vegas to Heathrow. I’ve attempted sleep but it appears that after a brief 30 minute power nap, my mind and body are now ready to get moving again. The Speed Project did this to me. A 2-4 mile run right now would actually be grand.

I wanted to start writing about TSP experience sooner, but I had too many thoughts to process on it all, and I was quite frankly still exhausted from the experience when I arrived in LV that I needed to delay putting it all together.

The build-up

It was a mental, uplifting, challenging and unexpectedly affirming experience from the moment I got to Heathrow. I met with Ria and Roshni and in the brief time we had in Heathrow airport, it quickly became apparent to us all that we were carrying the same “baggage” when it came to race anxiety and concerns about group formations (and distances) that we’d set out for the race.

I feel like the lead-up to TSP ought to be explained further, to really give a picture of what was going on.

The Whatsapp “group chat” of us running crazies had been going since about July 2018… that’s a long time for us to get to know each other prior to the race beginning when you consider that we were messaging and updating on training progress almost daily.

Ria & Allie

On a personal level, I tried to distance myself from this chat in a lot of ways because I found the whole thing ridiculously anxiety inducing. I began comparing my own training to that of my team mates (comparison is the thief of joy people, we all know that) and I shied away from some of the bigger personalities in the group. I’m the kind of person who would rather observe than engage at times and it was noted how quiet I was. I explained it away with “busy”, but that was only part of the story.

Some people in the team, particularly one lady, was able to offer a LOT of time and energy to the planning and preparations for TSP, and it was thanks to this lady that we ended up with the following plan.

Group 1:

Runner 1 – Roshni

Runner 2 – Bethan

Runner 3 – Allie

Runner 4 – Ria

Group 2:

Runner 5 – Megan

Runner 6 – Mara

Runner 7 – Corey

Runner 8 – ME (Jess)

TEAM 2 CREW – Mara, Me, Megan, Corey

Whilst Group 1 were running the first 4 segments, group 2 would be in the RV, resting. Then we would swap, on rotation, for a total of 4.5 rounds… after which, we were to arrive in the desert where we were just going to do 2 mile legs per person.

Though the distances changed and segments were shared, we actually successfully stuck to that above runner formation and it did thankfully offer us the kind of structure we needed, going into the challenge.

LA pre-race prep

There was SO much more that needed to be organized amongst us all than I’d anticipated.

A few “team meetings” saw us pull together plans for collecting the RV, arranging for food to be bought (and prepped…), for arranging a team of people to attend the pre-race briefing. I can’t help but feel that these little gatherings we held were handled rather emotionally and chaotically.

We were a group of women who had all invested a hell of a lot into TSP and on more than one occasion our pre-conceived ideas of what we expected our running journey would “look like” turned things a little sour. The mini meetings we held caused tension, (dare I admit) arguments, drama, and tears.

Any moment that we were able to pull away from the massive air bnb were treasured moments of calm that we all needed. The breakfasts filled with laugher and brief moments of letting go of the heaviness that we were inflicting on ourselves were really treasured.

5/8 arrows

And oh my, did I fall in love with LA.

(someone please help me find an excuse to go back asap?!)

The pre race briefing was held at 4pm on the Thursday prior to the race kicking off. It was a windy and hot day and I was already cautious of burning before we’d even set off! It was held in a carpark near the airport in true TSP style – kinda secretive… a very exclusive “party” reserved for only the cool kids of the running community. (I’m allowed to say that now I’ve run TSP, right?). It was ridiculously special and moving to see all of the teams in one place with an insane atmosphere that words would never do justice.

The remainder of the evening before TSP was spent frantically pulling together our kit bags for the weekend, collectively stressing over how many pairs of socks we’d need (with hindsight this was such wasted energy), cutting up cold pizza for the journey, that kinda thing. We all took very fondly to putting EVERYTHING in zip lock bags. I never quite appreciated just how I could compartmentalise my life into multiple zip locks and I won’t be surprised if some of us end up taking the organizational wonders back home with us.

Friday – Round 1

Having only got to bed at 10.30pm the night previous, 7 out of 8 of us runners were up and getting ready at 2am… ready to make that 4am start at Santa Monica pier!  

The vibe was electric… a throb of energy from all the teams running through us all. The crowds started to thicken from around 3.30am, with music blasting and runners dancing, and an inexplicable expression on people’s faces – a mix of wide-eyed excitement and nerves combined with lack of sleep. Quite a sight really.

After all teams had their obligatory picture taken under the Santa Monica Pier neon signs it was time to see off the race. Our first runner was Rosh, and she kicked off our journey magically.

Myself and Megan were to share all of our segments (so that we were running more frequent 5km’s as opposed to the fewer 10kms that our teammates were pulling off), so my first run was 5km taking us fully out of LA.

It was a flat road and mostly straight, which offered not a lot of opportunity for getting lost. It was a great way for me to see off my own running and I was just so thankful to finally be doing what I had indeed gone to do. All of the angst and arguments and tension held about the race kind of just melted away when I began moving. I found myself running past quirky little suburban shops, gyms, cafes. It all just felt so very… American!

About to set off on that first leg… I look nervous!

My second 5km of Round 1 was much tougher, much hotter, and much more scenic than the first run. Given the hill training and the strength work that I do, I kind of felt myself come into my own on this leg as I climbed the most gorgeous green hills. The roads were winding and there was a point at which I was tailed by the SUV through a tunnel that cut into the mountain. There was something that made me feel like a VIR (Very Important Runner) to have the car tail me in such a way through that tunnel.

Friday – Round 2

These were my debrief notes I managed to get down in the RV following the two runs for round 2!

1 – had a headache before the run despite being very well hydrated (good wee!). had an ibuprofen which kicked in about 10 mins to running and I completely found my stride. I felt like I was running strong. Was on a long straight road with vehicles passing at speed. Combination of perfect temps, no risk of getting lost, feeling relief of being pain free… I had “flow” with running and it made me quite emotional. Those long straight roads were what I dreamed of and here I was doing it.

Jon checking in with me halfway!

2 – Temps dropped quick with sun so was on similar roads to before but under darkness. Felt SO badass. Pepper spray in hand and SUV trailing meant I felt safe. Listened to hardcore grime and only time  I felt fear was when hearing barks. Approached RV to such a beautiful welcoming, felt strong on such little sleep.

Setting off on my first dark run!

Saturday – Round 3

More notes from my scribbles in my notepad!

1 – I was EXHAUSTED for this run at 2am… so tired. Kept falling asleep in the SUV as we tailed Megan for the handover. Quite a dull route and struggled to find my stride. Came back even more exhausted. Crashed in car for 20 mins then proceeded to have spirits raised by helping Jon navigate and sharing 90s classics for a singalong!

Spirits still high

2 – about 4am this time… better than the last. Still boring. Listened to LP (linkin park, obvs) all the way and reminisced a lot. Felt good to be by myself in thought. Quads really hurt by the end.

Saturday – Round 4

This round we had to rejiggle slightly between us. It was an off-road adventure that prohibited the SUV from being anywhere near us for a good 10km! that being said, Megan and I decided to share the route between us hopping between the bike and our legs. Gosh this one absolutely killed me. It was a LONG. ASS. HILL. But having Megans company was beautiful. To be able to absorb the beauty of our surroundings as a shared experience just compounded the sights we were seeing. Fuck I sound so corny – apologies, reader.

sharing segments with this beaut!

These were my notes:

1.5miles bike w/ Megan. 5.8 miles run uphill. SO TOUGH but so good to have M for company + share the experience. Really felt “gritty” getting up that hill, quads hurt a lot and I walked a fair bit.

the hill that broke me

Saturday night through to our finish on Sunday afternoon

From this point onwards, my post-run debrief notes end. Exhaustion was having an impact and I had no desire to sit with a pen and paper… my focus was more centred around sleeping, eating, and trying to squeeze in 10 minutes of Mike’s time to see to my calves.

Typical RV scenes

Just before hitting death valley on the next stretch, Megan, Mara and I went to a roadside Greek restaurant and had the most AMAZING greek salad. We were all pretty fed up of bagels and cold pizza by this point, so a pile of leaves was so so appreciated. I tried Dolmades for the first time. We went back to the RV very full and very happy.

What I remember from the rest of the runs that took place…

Saturday night saw us running through Death Valley in pure blackness. A darkness that felt like running into ink, and the only visibility offered was from the small patch that the headtorch allowed. Every now and then I pulled my head away from the ground in front of me to look up to the stars. Pure silence. I paused my music a lot to just absorb the immensity of that silence.

roadside poos under the stars in this inky blackness…

We ran 2 miles each on rotation throughout this stint, which was plenty long enough by this point. We decided on the shorter distances as this would allow us to continue at a better pace than running any farther. It made sense for us all!

I found being in the car really hard work on this part of the journey though. There was one team member who I recall being particularly chaotic – TSP affecting us all in different ways of course – but it was that complete and utter loud chaos that actually spun me into my own little web of anxiety. I held back from saying anything to this team member, afraid of rocking her little boat any further… very much aware that in her own way, she was experiencing panic too. So I stuffed my words and reactions back down my throat and consoled myself with the thought that I would soon be running in the blackness again. Just wait 10 more minutes, Jess, and you’ll be out of this car and this chaos. So I waited.

BUT. That was a mistake. Because on my second 2 mile leg, the second I started running, my throat closed up and I experienced what I can only describe as the onset of a panic attack. I kept moving my legs, determined to keep running desperately trying to get air back into my lungs. I realise now that through holding back my words and emotions in the car, I had simply been suppressing them to a point where I was now convulsing in panic. NOT GOOD. As soon as my breathing was under control on the road, the tears came. I slowed myself to a walk and flagged to the guys in the SUV that I needed to stop. Mara got out the car and she just started walking with me by my side… not asking what was wrong, but just being with me. Before I knew it, we were jogging together, talking together. My breathing was getting more regular, my tears were drying up. So I told her to get back in the SUV, and I completed the remaining mile alone. This is what teamwork looks like, this is what supporting your peers looks like. Mara didn’t exactly do much, but she gave up her tired legs to give me half a mile of support and company.

moving through the desert

I then had just one more 2 mile leg to go on this round, and I used it as an opportunity to drop my Run Talk Run gang a voicenote to explain what had happened on the previous round. Words cannot describe just how good it felt to be connecting with “home” and my supportive community in that way. I wanted to show them that despite all the happy smiley insta-stories they were witnessing… anxiety can still show up in the desert!

I didn’t run again until 6am, which offered the most stunning sunrise! These were easy miles (despite some very painful quads and calves)… but I had NOT anticipated just quite how crazy the hill was going to be that followed.

sun rising on the sunday

We took on the hill out of death valley in 0.5 mile rotations. It was steep, it was tough, and it was gritty. But what was incredible was that our spirits were just so damn HIGH… we stopped for lots of gorgeous sunrise photos and we laughed our tired heads off at Jon who had touched a cactus because it looked “soft” (LOL) and I think this was possibly the most happy I’d been on the whole trip. And getting to the top of that hill was pure magic.

taking over from Corey

Finally we had caught up with the remaining 4 other runners who were to take over, and we got the very first picture of all 8 of us!

From there, it was a 1-mile-rotation-blur. We were FLYING down the highway to Vegas… all of us picking up pace as we were traveling downhill. On one of these 1 mile downhill runs I reached the SUV where the team had assembled themselves in a ‘love tunnel’ for me to run through… I honestly could have cried with happiness. It brought me so much joy. I think this is one of my favourite images from the trip because it really just captures the joy that I experienced in this moment.

And then that was it… we were at our final 0.5 mile to the Las Vegas sign… ALL of us ladies clambered out of the SUV to finish our journey together. Cue the champagne bottles and the tears, the smiles, the selfies, the hugs, the disbelief. We had made it.

What now!?…

Now, I process where I go from here. I am going to have to ponder very long and very hard about what on earth would even come close to an experience such as TSP. I’m not sure any other ultra relay would even come close to how incredible this experience was… so part of me feels that it needs to be a different challenge entirely.

all of us!

I will be eternally grateful to have met, and become such close friends with, such a gorgeous bunch of strong, admirable runners. So you can expect a lot more pictures on the gram of me adventuring and racing with this crazy bunch!

I never want the adventuring and exploring to end. I never thought that running would bring me so much… yet here we are, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

(Most photos taken were by the BRILLIANT Kaye @fordtography

If you would like to donate to Run Talk Run to congratulate me and the team on this crazy feat, you can do so here.

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