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April 3, 2018

The Speed Project 2018: A Photo Essay of a 340-Mile Journey From Los Angeles to Las Vegas

photo by Sarah Cotton

 

We took to the roads from Los Angeles to Las Vegas last weekend to witness 40+ teams take on the harsh task of running a 340-miles relay race through some of the most intense terrain in the country. A herculean effort no doubt, but what’s even more impressive is our journey through hunger, sleep depravation, and limited LTE signal. Check out our photo essay below.

RYAN STERNER (blogger, idiot)

The first time I heard about The Speed Project was probably two weeks before the start of the race. Stephen asked me if I was going to be in town, and if I wanted to help him shoot some photos and videos for this relay race from Santa Monica to Las Vegas.

I tried looking it up but found very little information about it. They don’t have a website. They have a defunct Twitter account, and I guess I didn’t even bother trying to look them up on any other platform. The only thing I learned from my research was that it was a 340-mile relay with “no rules.”

STEPHEN KERSH (idiot, blogger)

I think it’s worth pointing out that Ryan was planning on being in Tokyo during the Speed Project but after a misplaced passport foiled his trip, he was now in a vulnerable enough position to be convinced it was a good and fun idea to ride along in a minivan with me and my girlfriend for 60 hours.

Like an idiot, he fucking agreed to it.

We were now committed to following along an unsanctioned relay race from Santa Monica to Las Vegas.

photo by Sarah Cotton

RYAN

I feel the need to say that I would have much rather been in Tokyo. But alas, things very rarely work out the way you hope.

Moving on.

Words like “unsanctioned” really meant nothing to me. It wasn’t until the day before the start of the race, which was at 4 AM, that I realized a lot of it was going to take place in some bleak, desolate, nearly uninhabitable parts of California and Nevada. And that we would also have to be awake the whole time because our job was to follow two teams and document their journey. It’s not like they were going to pull over at a Motel 6 in the middle of the night to get some shut-eye. This was a race, after all.

But like Stephen said, I had already agreed and there was no backing out. Stephen and his girlfriend Sarah– the heavy lifter in terms of talent and photography skill–picked me up in Los Angeles the day before the race, where we loosely formulated a plan before the Friday morning start.

STEPHEN

The plan was less a plan than a vague idea. We didn’t have a map. We had a Strava segment from 2017 we were following for directions. This would obviously be of no use when we didn’t have service. We didn’t have a plan. It felt so liberating.

There were 40 teams in this race with 40 trailing RVs. Following the start as it weaved through Los Angeles in the early hours of the morning was incredible. The Speed Project owned the streets that morning. A woman was shouting various, quasi-encouraging vulgarities at passing runners, a French man on rollerskates held onto our van to get up a hill so he could catch a friend, people were peeing in bushes. It was beautiful. It was ugly. It was raw.

Once the initial “WOW” factor wore off, I began acting like a baby. I got cranky and I tried to catch an hour or two of sleep before the long, stupid days ahead of us.

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Stephen Kersh

RYAN

Yeah, I’d say the adrenaline of the start wore off somewhere around noon that first day when we realized that we had already been awake for ten hours. That, and that getting from Los Angeles to Las Vegas moving between 5-10 MPH was going to take a long, long time.

The first truly eventful thing I remember was hearing a bunch of coyotes sometime in the morning. I don’t mean one coyote, either. This was a pack of coyotes. It was so loud that we thought some sort of crime had been committed and that an entire fire department was roaring down the highway towards us. That was probably about 50 miles into the race.

This was also about the time that I started to witness the runners realize the full scale of what they were doing. After getting our shots, we would drive ahead to the next handoff point and sit around with the team RVs for a while. The vibe was kind of like a NASCAR race. People were standing on the roofs of their RVs screaming, waving flags, generally being inconsiderate of other people in the strip mall parking lots, but also just kind of looking anxious waiting for their next leg.

STEPHEN

The first strip mall we stopped at was my low point. (I will continue to make this all about me). I woke up from my nap alone, sweating my ass off in the van. Ryan and Sarah were in Starbucks editing photos, and I was doing nothing except sweating. I felt worthless.

RYAN

Sarah and I were actually talking exclusively about how worthless you were.

STEPHEN

After I tracked down some kale, my demeanor markedly improved; however, it was at this point I realized food was going to be a major issue. We were venturing into the wasteland of California with nothing but almonds, bottled water, and a debit card surely to be declined at any moment. I savored that kale knowing it may be my last for a good while.

The two teams we were following began to gap one another by a considerable margin. We wrongly assumed they would only ever be about 20 miles away from one another, but it became apparent that number could easily balloon to 100 miles. Initially, I was freaking out about this logistical nightmare. Frantically trying to use the Pythagorean theorem to decipher where the teams would be at any given moment over the next 48 hours.

But then, Sarah told me I was being an idiot and you can’t plan for these sorts of things so I just kind of leaned into the mayhem and let me tell you what: it’s much easier that way. Allow yourself to be totally absorbed in the chaos. Accept you’ll only be eating trash for the next few days. Welcome clarity into your life.

photo by Stephen Kersh

RYAN

Yeah, I think watching Stephen descend into, and then return from, his dark place helped us out a lot. We all kind of agreed that it was going to be miserable and that we should let each other kind of ebb and flow in our own moodiness, sleep deprivation, and hunger.

There was a dissonance associated with this, though. Because here we were, a few idiots with cameras just following along as other people ran between 30-40 miles AND were hungry, sleep deprived and moody.

Those feelings, however, are a luxury. A few times out on the course stuff like hunger and sleep were put on the back burner as the sheer will to not get skulled by some desert punk or mauled by a dog took over.

I’m talking almost exclusively about a stretch of the race between a town called Adelanto and Barstow.

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

STEPHEN

In between Adelanto and Barstow, there’s a plane graveyard. This is where planes go to die. Once they land on this airstrip, they are condemned to never move again and be salvaged for parts. This was not the weirdest part of this stretch of land.

A long, washed out dirt road separated the two towns and featured an eclectic mix of litter. Toy dolls. Strollers. Small shoes. Yep. I’m talking about TOY JUNK. The creepiest kind of junk. Neither of our teams were on this road, so we tried to get through it as quickly as possible while cooking up ideas about the local mafiosos who used this particular stretch of land as their own, personal graveyards.

As we rolled into Barstow, Ryan reminded us we hadn’t fed him in a few hours. I think he will now tell you about our dinner.

RYAN

When Stephen says hours he actually means that I hadn’t eaten a single meal all day. Just popcorn and almonds and bottled water. This was no way to live.

We made it through the Trash Alley unscathed and I begged them to find the first establishment that served food. This is where I learned that Stephen and Sarah were capital “y” Yuppies. It had been nearly 24 hours since any of us had eaten anything substantial, and I was ready to eat literal trash, but Stephen and Sarah seemed intent on finding a restaurant that served VEGAN food. Any place that even served a sandwich containing mayonnaise was immediately nixed. I died a little on the inside.

I had to remind them that we just drove through a town where stray dogs outnumbered people 2-to-1 and that we would need to settle on an establishment that had neither Wifi nor non-canned vegetables.

They cowed slightly, and we ended up at a Chinese restaurant called The Village. The highlight of our meal was the cabbage soup and also finding out that the bathrooms didn’t have sinks in them. This raised a few concerns about overall restaurant sanitation, but we emerged with our bowels mostly intact.

The sun was now about to set, and we had to figure out what to do for content purposes. Because the two teams we were following were now hours apart.

photo by Sarah Cotton

STEPHEN

After our second dinner at In-N-Out, the sun set and Sarah’s circadian rhythm kicked in. Ryan and I were now left to own devices and terrible ideas. We decided we would backtrack towards Trash Alley in an attempt to catch some footage of the slower team we were following.

The bobbing of runner’s headlamps guided our quest until we figured out the team was in the actual worst part of Trash Alley–an area we looked into that has an “abnormally high” crime rate–and the blood pact we made at the Village was to never return to that area of the world. We turned around and headed to a truck stop to catch some sleep.

Sarah was deep into REM and Ryan had on a goddamn eye mask and earplugs. I was in the front seat, eyes wide open, protecting our lives as tweakers began hanging out at this truck stop.  

photo by Ryan Sterner

RYAN

I actually vaguely remember you starting up the car and feeling like you were doing donuts in a Fast and Furious style escape.

STEPHEN

I guided us to a truck stop free of delinquents but, before you knew it, we were back on the road chasing down these teams.

The way out of Barstow was up and over some jeep trails and this is where we caught up with one of our teams. They were actually lost and we guided them back on path. This was one of countless selfless acts we would contribute to the Speed Project during the weekend.

Sunrise broke with the realization that this team would have to endure another day running through the desert. I was barely hanging on, but these people were high fiving each other and keeping up an even pace. If I hadn’t been so distracted by my own personal needs (shelter, food, general safety) I may have shed a tear.

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

RYAN

Right. We actually managed to get some footage in the morning of the second day before I made an executive decision to find a parking lot to take another mid-morning nap. What was supposed to be a 20-minute power nap, ended up being close to an hour.

It was at this moment that Stephen and Sarah again flexed their Yup and began whining for coffee, debating where they could get it, and bemoaning the perceived lack of quality of the coffee they would get at any of these desert establishments. They settled on drinking canned Starbucks while I wept openly and audibly.

We then entered the most picturesque portion of the course. Normally if you were driving to Vegas, you would take the shortest route which is down the 15. But once we hit Baker, we veered off towards Death Valley and onto the Old Spanish Trail Highway.

We eventually passed the two teams that were winning (a team from the luxury clothing outfitters, Tracksmith, followed then by a French team named the Sunchasers).

Stephen eventually pulled over and convinced me this would be a good time to get some exercise.

photo by Ryan Sterner

photo by Sarah Cotton

STEPHEN

After not moving more than 30-meters from the van over the previous day, it was the 90-degree heat in Death Valley that made me believe it was the perfect time for an hour jog. Ryan and I ran two miles down the course and flipped because Ryan’s breathing intervals were becoming shockingly short and panicked. I dropped him at the van before shagging a few more miles along the course. When I was out there, running alone on hot pavement in the middle of nowhere, I decided I would never run the Speed Project. I was immediately sunburned after my run.

Without any sustenance, we decided to spend the rest of the day setting up for some truly incredible shots along the Old Spanish Trail Highway as it entered into Nevada. Once again, we were refusing to feed Ryan and he was becoming enraged like a baby being denied a bottle.

photo by Stephen Kersh

RYAN

The landscape really was incredible, but it was probably also the most grueling part of the entire race. Over the course of 50 miles, you gain about 4,000ft of elevation. Once the athletes crest this pass, though, it’s literally all downhill. This segment also starts at about mile 260, so you’re pretty far into the race, haven’t slept more than a couple hours, and are probably getting pretty annoyed with the closed quarters of an RV.

I haven’t seen the Strava data for this year, but I know last year there were a couple of teams that cracked off a handful of sub-5 miles after cresting the hill.

photo by Sarah Cotton

STEPHEN

It seems apropos that our energy also crested atop the pass and began to deflate as we rolled into ol’ Sin City. Once again, I was behind the wheel, basically falling asleep as I swerved our way towards the motherfucking Mandalay Bay. I was ready to sleep in the middle of the strip, content to be run over by the gluttonous lunatics Vegas attracts. But I wasn’t even allowed that small luxury because we had to watch the first team we were following finish the race.

photo by Stephen Kersh

As they stormed towards the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, it was obvious these guys were dead set on destroying all the bottles of clear alcohol in Las Vegas. They were yipping like hyenas. They hadn’t slept in days. They were probably on drugs. At one point, celebratory champagne lightly sprinkled Sarah and I’ve never seen someone so upset to be doused in celebratory champagne. It was clearly our bedtime.

I was pretty useless that entire evening. I had become drunk with sleep deprivation. I was a blubbering fool.

We reacted to this truly cathartic moment for one of these teams as if we were seeing a Golden Retriever catch a frisbee out the air for the hundredth time that afternoon.

“Mmm. Good boy.”

We slept for 12 hours.

photo by Sarah Cotton

RYAN

The next morning I woke up in a panic and realized that the second team we were following was probably set to finish soon. Stephen and Sarah shared no such feeling of urgency. The original plan was to wake up early and drive out to follow them for the final 15 miles.

This is the point where we found out we had a flat tire. I will not speculate as to how we got the flat tire, as I imagine it’s a good way to get slapped with some extra charges if someone from Enterprise Rental Car ever stumbles upon this blog.

ANWAY. We missed the team finishing by about ten seconds but still made it with enough time to watch a second round of champagne dousing, confetti blowing, and a lot of happy tears.

Over the course of nearly 60 hours, we had gotten to know both of these teams pretty well. If not by first name, then at least by general facial recognition and the sense of camaraderie that accompanies doing anything that’s miserable. I can’t speak for Stephen and his small, erratically beating heart, but I was proud of them goddammit.

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

STEPHEN

This trip was a testament to our collective journey as humans. As I grew to care for these strangers pounding their will against concrete, asphalt, and dirt for the last 350 miles, I had grown to resent Ryan and Sarah. People come and go in your life.

photo by Sarah Cotton

photo by Sarah Cotton

The best part of all of this was once the race was over, the racers turned into absolute animals. They got the Mandalay Bay security team to shut down their party. They drank beers out of shoes. They put large sums of money on red. They were terrible and it was perfect. They reveled in their pain and triumph, and celebrated the only way they knew how: put yourself in an even more uncomfortable position the next morning after drinking a few of those giant, plastic, bong-shaped alcohol containers.

As for us, we ate a fantastic Thai meal and seemingly created a life-long gambler out of Sarah.

RYAN

Ultimately, the three of us had no excuse for partying as hard as the athletes did. We did not earn that kind of revelry.

Did we earn anything? I’m not sure. No one is handing out awards for “Best Van Companion” (me) or “Best Food Suggestions While On Road” (also me). But I think we took some pretty nice pictures and edited some pretty neat video. That’s cool, right? And I guess at the end of the day, in about three months or so, I’ll be ready to again make eye contact with Sarah and Stephen.

When that happens I think we can have an honest conversation about whether or not we would do something like this again and if, at the end of it all, it was worth it.

What do you think, Stephen?

STEPHEN

I couldn’t care less.

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