When Everything Isn't Enough
WORDS BY PETER BROMKA
LAS VEGAS, 3PM
Relieved to see the nurse entering, I sit up against the crinkly paper hospital bedding. Let’s get this thing going.
“So you’re not feeling well.”
“No,” I sigh, not so much in discomfort as desperate for a solution to the suffering that has now extended well over 24 hours.
“Have you slept much?”
“A few naps,” I murmur, seeing where this is headed.
“And food, have you been eating?”
“Snacking” I lament, “Some pasta, chips and bananas.”
A side-eye glance, the medical professional eye roll.
“And how far did you say you ran?”
“Somewhere between 30 and 40 miles,” I say ashamed.
I know she won’t know why someone would put himself in this position. I’m embarrassed, not by how far the distance is, but how short it falls of what I promised the team.
30 miles hardly helped at all.
It’s dawning on me that things are worse than I expected, and we’re not going to get out of here in time to see our team finish. Closing my eyes I rest my head back against the paper as the world continues to drift and wobble.
48 HOURS EARLIER
The essence of running is simple, natural, human. We’re the ones who make it complex. Races, relays, timing, rules & regulations.
“The Speed Project” aims to simplify through extremes. A team relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. As fast as possible. No Map. No Rules. 6 runners trading off however they want.
Originated not on a dare, but on a challenge, “Come up with a fun run!” one masochist asked another. Running to Vegas is the epitome of burning the body at both ends. Submitting yourself to two days of struggle only to reward with excess. It’s so LA; it’s so Vegas.
“I just want to pour on the miles and see what happens,” Jason Ayr chuckles in cruel sadistic satisfaction. The man loves mileage, often averaging over 100 per week for months at a time. Having run and won marathons many times before, he’s seeking a new challenge.
“That’s what I’m excited about, just going and going.”
He will get his chance.
Leading into the 4th running of The Speed Project our team is representing the running apparel brand Tracksmith. We’re feeling confidence bordering on arrogance, with a dose of respect for the unknown.
The 340 mile ultra-relay allows for as much running as each of the 6 runners (4 men, 2 women) want and more. But a team with an average marathon PR of 2:29 doesn’t fear much. We’ve run relays all our life. 4x400 as kids led to 4xMile in college, even winning teams at the 199 mile Hood-to-Coast in Oregon.
We’re excited, if slightly nervous. All we really know is the next two days will demand an eternity of running. But endless running is what we have in common, the shared desire to run too fast for too long is what brought us together.
We’re here to win a race and set a record. The previous record is 36 hours 20 minutes—an average of 6:24 per mile. Though no one will say it aloud, this doesn’t feel like much of a challenge.
Our plan calls for Jason, David Kilgore and Mike Carlone to take upwards of 75 miles apiece. Rachel Coogan, a late addition to the team, will cover 40 miles while Sam Roecker, coming off injury, is penciled in for 25.
Having been recruited last minute, I’m scheduled for 50 miles. Being on the team is an opportunity I’ve wanted but never thought I’d get. I’ve wished to see what a team of traditionally fast runners could do at The Speed Project for years. Having dropped my marathon best from 2:56 to 2:23 I’ve earned a spot on this seasoned team.
Careful what you ask for…
As a runner and accountant Jason lives and breathes numbers, but even he admits this “plan” will be fluid once we’re under duress. What’s Mike Tyson’s saying? “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.”
Every runner has a perfect pace—somewhere between sprinting and jogging—a stride that feels boundless, like you could go forever. We’re aiming to find this zone and ride it as long as possible.
“How long could you run 6s?” Jason asks, though the answer is implied.
“Forever,” we all agree.
“Yeah, that’s what I think too. So we’ll start out there, give ourselves a cushion during the night miles, and see how much we can pour on during Day 2. See how fast we can go.”
The Plan is simple, executable, and entirely unproven.
SANTA MONICA PIER
Nils, the mohawked German race director, in a ragged tuxedo, cackles wildly, “SEE YOU ALL IN VEGAS!!”
And we are off.
As the pack turns left, I decide to run straight, to go my own way. Google told me that it’s the shorter way, and how often do you get to make your own route during a race?!
I’m off solo, sprinting into the early morning darkness. We’re racing 39 other teams over 340 miles, but for the next two I’m all alone, receiving stares from locals at the bus stop heading to work, and cheers from kids headed home from the bar.
Soon I pop back on course into the lead with a bolt of adrenaline and a wide eyed grin. I am immediately passed by a runner from The Sun Chasers, an unknown team from France.
“Do they know we’re going all the way to Vegas?!” I holler arrogantly at the race producers. This event might be underground, but it’s anything but inconspicuous. The race is live streamed on Instagram to a growing global audience.
We’re 1% complete and the games have already begun.
“I don’t know why you keep telling him to slow down. You know Mike only has one pace,” Emily Maye, Tracksmith’s longtime photographer, mocks our futile attempts to coax Mike into a more conservative pace. He’s traditionally a miler, always focused on speed. Apparently as his race distances lengthen his mindset remains the same.
Emily is a documentarian of endurance sport suffering around the world, and she’s right. An insider with an outsider’s eye, she sees the sport clearly, and recognizes that The Speed Project is about to unfurl an ass-kicking on our team of traditional distance runners.
Out of LA and onto twisting rural roads, the heat is picking up as we unsuccessfully attempt to cool our pace. Jason, who set the spreadsheet calling for 6s, gives us 7 miles at 5:30 pace and hands off to Sam.
Sam charges as she glides with a beautiful stride. Having run 2:38 for the marathon, she’s a new force on the running scene, but is coming back from injury and being held to conservative 2-mile segments.
“There goes Sam!” Lee Glandorf, our crew chief and driver, screams as she revs the engine of the RV. We’ve nearly missed a hand-off because Sam is ahead of schedule. “Good thing there aren’t relay exchange zones!” we joke, referencing our classic track & field relay heritage. We’re a long way from the safety of the athletic stadium. The road rolls and arcs ahead of me as adrenaline begins to fade. We have a long way to go, and a mysterious French team to track down.
Questions abound. How are they ahead of us? And who are they?!
As we gain on them it appears something is off.
Their runner is constantly accompanied by someone on bike, but what is this? They’re switching! They’re trading off at intervals less than a mile. In an awkward routine our team can barely believe, the biker jumps off, hands the handlebars to the runner, who jumps on, and off they go again, never running for more than a few minutes at a time. We’d heard this team had a triathlon background, but this is perplexing.
“I guess whatever works,” we chuckle nervously.
Unsure whether their strategy is genius or foolish, it’s unconventional, which we are not.
Sam smacks my hand with authority. She’s clearly ready to roll, but will wait till tomorrow to test herself. Bursting out into Leg 3 I’m hovering at the prescribed 6 minute pace when…something…boils over.
It’s not that hot, but the sun is hitting me directly and feels like I’m being scorched. Though I thought I prepared for this, I’m suddenly broiling.
My body is revolting. Muscles cramping, my breath is now a stabbing pain.
“Remain calm!” I insist.
My mind and body are clashing: though rationally I should be fine, only 17 miles into 50 or more, my body is in full alert. Like a fighter jet sinking and spinning wildly, my dashboard is flashing and beeping out of control.
“Hang on. Keep it together.”
I fight with every mental trick in my arsenal, things typically reserved for the final stages of a marathon.
“Just get to the RV,” I demand. Coasting in on fumes I crash down in the van.
“I’m. Too. Hot.” I gasp.
Concerned, they give me a bag of ice and comforting words. Though worried, there is no time for panic, I’m due for another 6 miles in only 2 hours.
Passing through towns of decreasing size and economic outlook, we’re coming up on the Speed Project X-factor: off-road miles in the dark. Given that it’s illegal and dangerous, there actually is one rule: No running on the highway. Relay teams are forced to navigate sandy side trails paralleling the interstate with paper directions and headlamp. That 6:24/mile average is beginning to feel much more daunting.
Waking in a pool of sweat, I’m terrified. Sweating, dizzy and too light-headed to stand. My body is cashed and my mind is losing control.
I can’t keep going. But I can’t stop.
But I cannot keep going! But I cannot stop!
Asking a teammate for help is terribly hard. Though rationally it makes sense to state that you’re depleted and ask for a break, you’re requesting the one thing that’s in shortest supply: rest.
David steps onto the RV and flicks off his headlamp grinning. A former D1 runner from Florida, the man somehow looks invigorated from his seven mile trail run. What I would give to have his strength. He is where I thought I would be, gaining momentum as the miles begin to build. Instead I am fading.
Declining into a dreamlike state where my legs will move but the engine won’t start. It turns out this is what heat exhaustion feels like. I’ve heard of it, even consoled friends with sympathy when they’ve suffered, but never personally appreciated the depths of its depletion.
The essence of racing is sustained discomfort, which leaves a runner without much vocabulary to describe when something is amiss.
As an endurance athlete, I trust my body implicitly. I do these things because I can. Growing up as a child I’d run my fingers carefully across the old track spikes from my father’s youth. I could run because he could
run. I was raised to run. Able because… I am. But not today.
Staring blankly at Jason, he gets the message without
“David is going back out,” he reassures.
“THANK GOD,” I think to myself.
“But, what about my shift?” I reflexively feign protest.
“You rest, see if you can give us 6 miles in an hour.” Crashing onto the bed I’m relieved and panicked.
I’ve momentarily dodged a bullet. No matter how many 10 milers I’ve banged out without a thought over decades of training, I simply don’t have one right now. But I must come up with 6 miles for the team in an hour. No idea where I’ll find the energy, I decide to worry about that in 45 minutes.
Meanwhile… the team has found its stride. The sandy trail has forced the French to pause their runner/biker strategy, making them run these 6–9 mile segments similar to every other team, giving us, the more experienced runners, an advantage.We begin to gain.
The competition is currently a pure footrace, not a situation anyone would wish for against David, a man who takes joy in brutal “vision quest” trail journeys around the world. From the soggy grasslands of Florida, now floating through the deep sandy trails of California at sub-7 minute pace. He relentlessly pursues the headlamp of the French runner and breaks into the lead.
Under the cover of darkness we’ve turned the race our way.
12 HOURS TO GO...
Shifting onto the exquisite desolation of Death Valley highway, we’ve split into two teams of three, rotating through three 2-mile segments at a time. Rafa Oliveira, lead designer for Tracksmith by day, is our sage guide by night. Calmly orchestrating handoffs, sips of water and bits of encouragement.
“Just remain calm, find your rhythm, settle into your pace. Don’t worry about the record or the other teams, we’re leading and doing great!” he reassures.
Trailing Rachel in the van, I begin fading, staring blankly at the rhythm of her stride illuminated by our headlights. Each step her knee dips inward, nearly grazing her opposite knee before it pops away at the last moment. A marathoner’s marathoner, she races all distances but excels as the spans grow. She’s a metronome, a steady rock of consistency.
Darkness simplifies and focuses. We must run our race, we can only control our own steps.
The team is ripping along sub-6 minutes per mile pace. We are flowing. We will be difficult to beat.
Except for me.
I’m faltering for all to see. But it’s alright, they understand. As I continue to mash down the accelerator my pace fades from 6s, to 7s, to 8 minute miles. They will bench me soon and that’ll be fine. I’ll have run myself off the team, simply by the fact that everyone else is faster.
“Do you need anything?” Brenda Greene asks. She has now kindly and consistently supported us for over 24 hours. I don’t need anything except to crash. I flop down in the back, ice pack on my head, and attempt to pass out as the watercolor sunrise creeps up from the east.
Nauseous and woozy, I lie, staring out the back window. My skin warm to the touch and my head pounding, I trust my team to deliver while I cannot.
The road rolls on behind us endlessly, not a creature in sight.
What is that..?
It can’t be.
No, my eyes are bleary, it’s not possible.
Through the faint pastel shades of a desert morning I think I see the roof of the French RV rising and falling beyond the crest of the last hill.
But it can’t be.
We haven’t seen them for hours; even in the pitch black there were no headlights.
Like the soundtrack from Jaws, the terrifying base track builds as, sure enough, the Sun Chasers are charging at daybreak.
“Stay steady when they reach us!” Someone yells out, as though aboard a ship about to come under fire. Our team has switched from two-miles, to mile, to half mile segments. Given we have only 5 runners, not 6, each athlete is getting only 12 minute breaks between reps.
12 minutes if you don’t count getting on and off the RV. Or grabbing a drink, or wiping your brow. Or taking a breath.
We’re about to commence a full-tilt battle, still 8 hours from Vegas.
THE FINAL FIGHT
The next day over drinks with the Sun Chasers, we would learn that they had been too far back, too slow and unable to match our pace. Until they went for broke. With over 10 hours till the finish, the Sun Chasers had switched to 1 kilometer legs, swapping back and forth with the bike rider, again and again.
In the desert they could see our red RV tail lights miles in the distance, giving them hope. Continuing to push, they shorted again to quarter-mile segments at a faster tempo, granting them a handful of seconds on us per kilometer. They were gaining, if ever so slightly.
Unable to read their emotions behind their blackout shades, I begin to despise them for what they’re doing. Call it arrogance, call it weakness, I call it sanity. I resent that they’ve turned the final 6 hours of this event into an endless, reckless match of torture.
Standing, I swivel toward the front of the RV about to scream, “WE CANNOT DO THIS, WE CANNOT RACE THEM LIKE THIS FOR 6 HOURS!!!” But
for some reason I stop. I don’t lend a voice to logic because this is no longer my battle to fight. It’s not up to me to say what my teammates can or cannot do.
It can’t last.
Many words are wasted on this cliche of competition: the moment when championships are won. This is the clip in the highlight reel when the running back breaks from the huddle, the boxer improbably emerges again from his corner, or the point guard inbounds the ball as the shot clock winds down.
But in our case this won’t last a moment.
It won’t even last an hour.
Unthinkably, we’re commencing a 6 hour test of physical and psychological endurance, proven one quarter mile at a time.
No clue if this is even possible.
With segments lasting between 200 and 500 meters, our two RV drivers are embattled in a parking match through the desert, swapping and re - swapping leads endlessly.
They push, we respond.
We sit, they surge.
When Jason, our strongest runner, steps from the van to run, they respond with their strongest runner sprinting for 30 seconds then handing off to another runner to continue at a sprint.
They’re attempting to break him in order to break us. Like a screaming match between children, we’re each escalating the fight without consideration for what we’ll do next.
Dumbfounded, I stare out at this surreal nightmare of suffering. I can barely stand without gagging, and with relay handoffs every 90–100 seconds, every time I lift my head there’s a different runner sprinting by
the tinted beige windows of the RV.
We are well beyond etiquette or decency—mostly naked, sweat stained and beyond exhaustion, the team is rummaging around hopelessly for scraps of energy.
As Lee guns the ignition once again, we’re approaching the peak of the mountain pass to Vegas, beyond which lies just a 24 mile descent to The Strip.
THIS IS IT
The Sun Chasers have pulled ahead. Their lead is both relatively minor and seemingly insurmountable. Jason, whose primary intent for this weekend was to bathe in a tidal wave of mileage and fatigue, is finally succumbing to his dream. Approaching 100 miles total, he stumbles into the RV, crashes into the makeshift sofa and closes his eyes. The team covers him in bags of ice to cool his core body temp and agrees that he won’t run again until he can fully open his bloodshot eyes.
Staring out of the RV, I’m both inspired and repulsed. It didn’t have to be this way! For all the audacious talk of “Extremes” and “No Rules,” either we or the Sun Chasers alone were capable of prancing off to victory, setting the record relatively unscathed and celebrating in a shower of champagne orchestrated for Instagram. Instead we’ve created a bloodbath of exhaustion and suffering.
Though a student of the sport, I’m too dizzy to truly make sense of what is happening. In the history of relays I can’t imagine there’s ever been a face-off this brutal, for this long, for this little: There is no prize but pride for winning the Speed Project.
No gold medal, no wristwatch or wooden wheel, no reward but self respect. Nothing to gain except everything we live for as endurance athletes.
The Speed Project founders, who have been broadcasting the event for nearly 36 hours, are hovering close enough to document while maintaining distance to respect the competition. They’re dressed in full Vegas regalia, but have lost all pretense. Not even they, makers of this devilish event, could have dreamt of a competition taken to such cruel extremes. They
stare on, mouths agape, shocked by the wicked outcome of their creation.
Brenda, bless her heart, braces herself against the jolting motion of the RV and scrambles towards the back to ask me again, “Peter, do you…”
“No, no thank you,” I wave her off instinctively, thanking her yet again for checking on me, but insisting I don’t need anything. I’m the last one she should be worrying about.
But I’m mistaken. She’s not here for compassion or comfort.
She stammers, “Peter…do you…have any more miles to give?”
We lock eyes and the desperation of our team’s hopes channel through her inconsolable stare hitting me in the chest.
I’m speechless. My eyes welling with tears of fatigue and heartbreak, I shake her off. I have nothing to give.
We’re down to four runners. This is it. This is where the battle ends.
Devastated, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I step off the miserable RV and vomit all over myself. I look up through eyes filled with pain, frustration and tears from retching, to see the Speed Project limousine is live streaming our final collapse.
Sam whisks past yet again, well beyond her 40th mile, handing off to David who simply will not stop. Even winning second place will require two more
mind numbing hours of their effort. I stumble to the support van and crash into the back seat as Matt Taylor, our team lead and Tracksmith CEO, inspects me through the rearview mirror.
“We’re taking you to the hospital,” he states definitively. Immediately punching the gas.
“What? Me? No, don’t worry about me,” I declare deliriously.
Unfazed by my protest, he drives on, Googling “Vegas Emergency Room”
After two days of baking in a jostling vehicle there’s a calming stillness and finality to accelerating downhill at 60 miles an hour.
We’re all exhausted.
We’re all in pain.
We’re all in shock, attempting to accept our defeat and process what we’ve just done.
The final push to the finish is a bittersweet cocktail: an equal parts mixture of intense frustration and pride. Our defeat is offset by amazement of the intense effort we’ve just collectively wrung from our weary bodies.
Who knew this was possible?
$405 ON RED
Of the few Speed Project traditions, one is The Side Bet: a wager of $5 per person who ventures to guess the finishing time of the winning team. The closest guess wins the pot, and tradition demands that the victor walks to the nearest roulette table and places all the winnings on black or red.
When all the crumpled bills were counted Emily, our sage photographer, had guessed the Sun Chaser’s final record time of 35 hours 49 minutes exactly to the minute, winning the $405 pot. A faint silver lining to the bitter ten minutes by which they beat us to the neon Welcome to Vegas sign.
While tradition of the creative renegade type is typically a bet on black, Emily is governed by no such expectation. She leads a mass of ragged runners toward the wheel.
“All of it on Red,” she requests confidently as the crowd swells with anticipation. Ball popping, bopping and bouncing around, it finally settles, as if as exhausted as we are, into a red gutter that doubles her money.
Screams let out, high fives all around.
The Speed Project 4.0 is complete, but for one final gesture.
“This is for you. You deserve it. You won, you beat us, and you showed us what was possible,” Emily states poignantly, handing the $810 roll of cash to the French.
Speechless, they accept. Still speechless, we embrace. Our teams are now bonded by an experience that none of us could have imagined or will forget. They appear in shock, as if still unable to believe that their wild strategy was a success.
Two relay teams collided, together forcing each other to explore a terrifying and painful space beyond the threshold of our perceived ability.
Most of modern life is composed of safety and reason within bounds that’ve been certified, ensured, and guaranteed. Someone sets the speed limit, checks the ingredients and builds the bumpers to keep us secure.
Teams battling for every inch over 30 hours is fully beyond the perimeter of safety. No one checked to see if this made any sense at all.
The outcome of Speed Project 4.0 was horrible and wonderful, entirely accidental and completely by design. A collection of strangers assembled from across the globe to destroy themselves together for little more than to see how they would break.
Sometimes the point isn’t to finish unscathed, it’s to sprint together into guaranteed destruction just to discover where you will fail.