What Makes The Speed Project Special
On finding a racing distance that sparks joy.
Let the good times roll
The premise seems oxymoronic: an ultra-distance sprint. For post-collegiate runners, both professional and amateur alike, the racing landscape is comprised primarily of two worlds: road races1 focused on speed and trail races focused on distance and elevation. Your two main options when looking for a race to train for are:
1. A reasonable distance that is still pretty far and uncomfortable (5k, 10k, the half, and marathon), where you push your pace chasing your physical limits
2. An absurd distance that is near torture by the end (50km, 50 milers, 100km, and up), where you push your mind—chasing your mental limits and end up finding your physical limits along the way
In road race world, the winners are outfitted in state-of-the-art spandex and top-of-the-line gear, fueled by energy gels designed by scientists. In trail race world, there is a non-zero chance the winner will be wearing jorts and ate pancakes and burritos at the last aid station. In road race world, there isn’t a lot of margin for things to go wrong—any issue will have an immediate impact on your time and finish. In trail race world, there is room for the unexpected and setbacks can be worked through without completely derailing a race effort. The differences between, and stereotypes of, these two groups are rich fodder for parody videos that have kept me and the rest of the internet entertained (and distracted from actually writing this).
But there is a not-secret third thing! The ultra relay. The relay format allows for these two modes to meet. And ultimately, regardless of style, all runners are unified: they’re all after good times—pun unapologetically intended.
The more I learn about ultra-running and take on other distance events, the cooler The Speed Project, in all its unwieldy glory, gets. The real selling point for any running relay race is the team aspect. Running is a solitary endeavor. Relays are an opportunity to enjoy real camaraderie by sharing a challenging experience with friends who hold common goals and values. Being in community has a multiplying effect, the highs and lows seem richer. There is an added layer of meaning that can be found in pursuing an objective or purpose with others who share a mutual trust and depend on each other.
This holds true for more than just running, and it is not exclusive to the relay format—bigger races and events where you’re in a crowd can have a similarly profound and gratifying sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. Relays just have a certain competitive edge when it comes to accountability and companionship. If you have ever felt lonely while running I highly recommend checking them out for yourself.
There are a number of reputable distance relay races:
Relay Iowa (which has dubbed itself “the world’s longest relay” at 339 miles)
and almost three dozen different Ragnar Relays to choose from if the spirit moves you.
The most well-known though is the “Mother of All Relays” The Providence Hood & Portland To Coast Relays, Hood-to-Coast (HTC). If TSP is Burning Man, HTC is Coachella. It’s shorter—under 200 miles—and you can have up to twice as many runners on your relay team than the OG-style Speed Project’s six. HTC also boasts major corporate sponsors and backers ranging from Pepsi to Alaska Airlines. Over 1,000 teams enter.
There is a big jump from HTC to TSP when it comes to the total mileage per runner. If you take advantage of a full 12-person team and do the full 196-mile route, each runner is only looking at around 16 or 17 miles for which they’re responsible. Versus TSP where six runners each bite off 50 miles or more, depending on the route you choose. HTC is inclusive, extremely popular, and has a large participant field that is recognized with standard medals instead of the belt buckles (or poker chips) hardcore distance runners like to collect.
HTC is a well-run production. By design, TSP is barely controlled chaos.
I don’t mean to belabor the point or single out HTC negatively (I think it looks fun!), but I think the comparison helps put The Speed Project a little more in perspective. TSP is a true combination of opposing modes of running and not just a well-formatted race that covers a lot of distance. It is what you make it.
And that’s to say nothing of the few who run it solo.
I feel like I should add one of those silly engagement bait incentives like ~if I reach a certain number of paid subscribers the funds will go towards registering for Cocodona~ Sign up to support me suffering in the desert!!!
Baby’s first 50k race recap!
To kick off the year and relaunch this newsletter, I decided to go full Florida woman and ran my first 50k down in Jacksonville last week. This was entirely on a lark. I typed in “hellcat” on a new phone and this race popped up as a suggested auto-fill url, so it seemed like a sign from God or the ghost in the machine or whatever. Plus the belt buckle looked sick. The F6F Hellcat fighter is not the origin of this newsletter’s name, but it has a storied legacy boasting a 19:1 kill ratio, earning it the nickname “Zero Killer” in the Pacific theater against the Japanese. (I have not done myself any favors SEO-wise since Dodge named one of their muscle cars after the WWII plane.)
Looking at this race on paper I made a lot of dumb assumptions. The course description is as follows:
Historic Lee Field in Green Cove Springs. Home of the US Navy's F6F Hellcat fighter of WWII fame. The course is a loop course around the perimeter of the old base…. The course is a combination of pavement and dirt roads. No roots or rocks. Runners will go thru scenic cypress swamps with an abundance of wild life to include gators, deer, bear.
Based off this I figured I could get away with wearing road shoes instead of trail shoes, how bad could dirt roads be? It’s a military base, presumably those roads were good enough to support heavy vehicles right? Wrong! The key word I neglected to fully appreciate here is “swamps.” As Murphy’s Law would have it, the regular course was flooded from rain and had to be rerouted. The new route could not totally avoid sections where the dirt was still wet and, as a result, basically a pit of mud.
Before the race, I eavesdropped on the race director laughing with one of the veteran runners about how, unavoidably, everyone’s shoes would be brown and caked with mud by the end of the day. And they were right! This turned out not to be that bad, though, despite how it might seem. My feet got completely soaked with sludge and muddy water seeping through the fine pink mesh of my shoe’s upper toe box. The fear of trench foot flashed through my mind on at least one occasion. But there was something funny about it and I felt a deep appreciation for the Navy SEAL mantra: “Embrace the suck.”
No, the worst part of the course was the unforeseen stretch of sand before entering the swamp section. I would have traded mud for the whole course, all 31 blessed miles if I could have avoided having to run on sand. The only thing I anticipated that turned out to be correct is how much easier it is to run a flat course—not dealing with any elevation change felt like a cheat code. Florida has its perks even if I didn’t see any alligators.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with the running part, even if it was a little slower than I had planned in my preceding mud-free dreams. Still getting my feet under me again (covid really sucks, illness is such a thief) and navigating some weight gain (happy relationship/beating bulimia tax). I came in 5th overall and was 2nd place female. It was a very small field, so this is a bit irrelevant, but still a fun little ego boost.
It was also a nice chance to test out nutrition, which ended up being a moot point because I spent way more time in the port-o-potties than I care to admit. For whatever reason—could not possibly have anything to do with eating utter garbage from gas stations and fast food joints on the drive down the previous day—my stomach refused to cooperate. I ended up not being able to eat much of any of the fuel I had packed. So there’s lots of room for improvement going forward!
We’re officially 10 weeks out from the desert, see you next week!
Redbull has a helpful guide to the benefits to each type of running for those trying to figure out which would be a better fit for their goals, lifestyle, and desires: https://www.redbull.com/us-en/short-distance-long-distance-running
In June, 100 women came together to set a new 100x1 Mile Relay World Record:
“In addition to a record-breaking time, the relay featured a diverse array of women and a 50-year age difference, with 63-year-old Nancy Simmons splitting a time of 6:05 as the oldest runner. Racers ranged from Olympic Trials qualifiers to those who had never raced a mile on the track before. Many of the runners were mothers, and the race also included pregnant and postpartum women. Sarah Swanger, who was five months pregnant at the time of the race, ran a 6:18 mile.”
I am ignoring track events, but they are a sub-category here