In Partnership with WHOOP
In the world of running, there are endless ways to challenge yourself; Run faster. Run further. Run every day. Carry more weight on your back. That is part of the beauty. You can never ‘complete’ running. But that comes with a heavy price – there are endless ways to challenge yourself, to see what you are capable of. And as runners, we can never truly say that we have found our absolute limit.
A double-edge sword indeed. But a beautiful one at that.
So in pursuit of the answer to finding out what you are capable of, how do you fancy getting a team together for a relay that starts by the sea – in a town famed for an iconic pier and a world-famous outdoors gym – and ends in a different city, some 340 miles away, on the other side of something called Death Valley? There are no rules and no set route. You just have to work out how far and when each runner in your team will carry the baton and hope that you don’t cook in the desert heat on the way. If this sounds like your idea of fun, then The Speed Project is for you.
And indeed the Speed Project has grown fast since its inception in 2013. Dozens of teams have studied the route, picked the best kit for the job, agreed on the legs they will run and hired a van or RV to drive alongside their runners from the pier in Santa Monica, CA to the Welcome sign on the Strip in Las Vegas.
It is not a feat to be undertaken lightly. There is distance, fatigue and – of course – heat to contend with. But thanks to those who have gone before and recorded their attempts, any team who does the necessary planning and training, can finish the course.
Which inevitably leads some people to ask: what’s next? How do I make this challenge … more challenging. There is speed, of course – try to break the course record. Or a handicap could be introduced; perhaps run in fancy dress costume.
Or what about really push the boundaries. How about rejecting one of the fundamentals of the Speed Project – the team bit? Go it alone. Do the Speed Project solo. At the very least, you’ll get away with a smaller van.
Margot Fleming and David Kilgore chose this last option for the 2021 Speed Project. And we had the chance to ask them how it went. And why they took on such a gargantuan task in the first place.
Like the Wind: When it comes to running, what attracts you to pushing yourself as hard as you do?
Margot Fleming: I have always been attracted to pushing my limits. When I got into running, the idea that I could move myself through space and across the country was really interesting. I love trying to figure out how to cover vast distances like people did in the past. I’m curious to see how far I can go.
David Kilgore: I’m very intrinsically motivated to challenge myself and to do something new. The Speed Project solo came up a few years ago and at the time I said ‘no way’. But since then I have raced longer and longer distances and it really felt like the next thing to take on.
LtW: How do you prepare for something like the Speed Project solo?
MF: I think the key was being utterly focused. I just thought about the workout I had to do and nothing else. So if I had a 27 mile run or walk to do on a Saturday, that is all I thought about. No arranging to meet friends for lunch that day.
DK: My preparation involved listening to my body – I would sleep when I was tired, eat when I was hungry. Being flexible was important. I think I am pretty laid back, so structure was not right for me. I needed to be more responsive in my preparation.
LtW: What was your plan going into the race? How did that work out?
MF: The fact there were no rules meant that I had to make my own rules. So I’d start early each day and try to cover 50 miles each day – my coach and I agreed that I would start at 4:30am, run a marathon, rest, run 16 miles, rest and then run the last 10 miles. I pretty much stuck to that except for one day where I only managed 42 miles.
DK: My initial plan was to just go for it and run until I needed to stop. But I had to switch my plan up pretty quickly. At the end of the first day I need to readjust the plan and run through the night, sleeping in the RV during the height of the midday heat. In reality the RV was still too hot to sleep properly, but it was better than running.
LtW: After 48 hours the data that WHOOP was collecting for both of you showed really diminished recovery. What was that like?
MF: Actually I was really distracted by foot pain, so I was not aware of how tired I’d become. When I reached a state of complete exhaustion – which you can see from the WHOOP data – it was all-consuming. All I could do was walk the last mile of each section I was running and eat during that time so when I arrived at the RV I could simply lay down and try to sleep.
DK: My mind was pretty strong – stronger than my legs, perhaps. So I was mentally able to push on. But my body needed rest. And the WHOOP data shows that. I was definitely entering uncharted territory after 48 hours, so the data was useful. But I also knew that I could do more, so I just powered through a lot of the time.
LtW: If you could go back and change one thing, what would that be?
MF: I think that I could have planned a little more and studied the route better. And I would dial in my nutrition and hydration better, knowing what I know now. Overall, I think I would just work out how to make the whole thing a bit easier on myself.
DK: The way I pushed so hard at the start and did not think about when to sleep was a mistake and I would definitely work on the timings of that in future – run when it is cooler and sleep during the heat. I think getting that wrong cost me a day of running.
Our thanks to Margot Fleming and David Kilgore for telling us about their Speed Project solo experiences. And to WHOOP for making the interviews possible. Check out this piece for more about the race. And find out about WHOOP and the data available here.