Anya Culling: Racing (and Surviving) The Speed Project


, by Anya Culling

The Speed Project pits individuals and teams against 341 miles / 550km of California towns and deserts. With no specific course (other than to start at Santa Monica Pier and finish in Las Vegas), teams can choose their route - and how to divide up the legs. Anya Culling took on the challenge with five other powerhouse women, and here she recounts her experiences in 'the hardest relay' race in the world.

It’s 3am in the Mojave Desert. The wind whips the sand against my ankles, and a strange chill makes my hair stand on end. My skin prickles as if I am brushing past the cacti that line the nondescript path ahead. My headtorch is the only source of light, illuminating only the steps in front of me, which I am quite grateful for given I don’t want to see much further into the abyss - I’m regretting my research into the unsolved crimes of the Mojave Desert. I have a solo 14km (8.6 mile) stint to run until I am in the confines of the RV that has taken the highway route around the undrivable paths. I haven’t slept for 24 hours and we are 215 miles / 346 km into our race from LA to Las Vegas.

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The Speed Project (TSP) is an unsanctioned ultra marathon coined ‘the hardest relay’ in the world. 48 hours earlier we were in a warehouse listening to a safety briefing where the key takeaway was that it's not safe. TSP attracts some of the world’s gnarliest athletes; those up for a unique and relentless running challenge, where the only goal is to finish in one piece.

TSP attracts some of the world’s gnarliest athletes; those up for a unique and relentless running challenge, where the only goal is to finish in one piece.

We entered an all-female team of six powerhouse women - Mary, Savannah, Laura, Jess, Amy, and me. There is no one else I’d rather tackle this challenge with. A test of physical exertion, speed and camaraderie along a self-determined route from Santa Monica Pier through Hollywood, along Death Valley, and finally Route 160 into Vegas. Our mission was simple: to celebrate human possibility and demonstrate how far women can go in a world of existing sex and gender data gaps in endurance performance. We partnered with sports data specialist Anthony Fletcher to look into how our physiological, psychological, and neurological states were affected by this challenge. The aim: to create a data piece that we hope to publish to encourage further research to be done on females in endurance sports.

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The Speed Project begins…

The race began at 4am the morning before. Seventy-seven teams and crew members swarmed Santa Monica Pier, all projecting nervous energy and all completely naive to the challenges that lay ahead. I proudly took the first leg for our team, a 3.7 mile / 6km sprint through LA out of the cosmopolitan sprawl of dreams. Our race tactics were to split the team into two groups of three. Each group would cover almost a marathon between them and run towards the parked RV that would wait approximately 25 miles / 40 km ahead with the other group allowing them to rest and refuel. The support car would help the running group allowing us to switch in and out for each leg.

Team Lemonade at the start (L) and finish (R) of The Speed Project. Photography courtesy of: Anya Culling / @unscriptedcreative

It felt only right to full send the first leg, leading all other teams out of the last city we’d see until we made it to the Welcome to Vegas sign some 340 miles away. The LA suburbs quickly became a labyrinth of RVs on every intersection making it hard to find our little support car for the first changeover. It was a chaotic business, with all teams knowing that they were soon going to follow individual routes and different race strategies. Some teams chose the infamous ‘powerline route’ rather than the ‘OG route’. Some teams opted for changeovers every kilometer, others every 90 minutes. The only 'known' variable was that every team thought that they had the strongest game plan.

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Morale was high during that first day on the road. We ticked off kilometers like clicks on a bike gear. I had an unhealthy dependence on pretzels and had played ‘Whatever It Takes’ a gross amount of times.

Sleep deprivation kicks in

However, as the miles increased, so did our sleep deprivation and delusion. We were running away from reality and rational thoughts, and towards unstable delirium on unsafe terrain.

There are warnings coming in from the TSP group chat of runners ahead being approached by an unstable person in a white sheet and desert wolves stalking crews.

There were times in the night when I’d scream just to keep myself awake mid-run. This brings me back to 3am in the Mojave Desert. A signpost lit up by the headlights from the RV reads Calico Ghost Town, thankfully I am not headed that way but on par in terms of comforting place names I am heading to Death Valley.

There are warnings coming in from the TSP group chat of runners ahead being approached by an unstable person in a white sheet and desert wolves stalking crews. I can hear their howls through the silence of the night, every rustle in the bushes raising my heart rate by a couple of beats. Returning to the safe haven of the support vehicles at the end of each leg was motivation to get through, each time I’d audibly sigh a relief that we were back safe and sound.

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This solo 14km leg was the hardest of the challenge, my only instruction was to run until you see the RV on your left and mount the barbed wire fence. I phoned my boyfriend for the entirety of this leg, he listened to my waffle and kept me sane and rational - I knew I had a job to do for the team and couldn’t afford to get emotional. As I neared the end of the leg, the sun started to rise over the Cajon Summit, the sky transformed into a palette of fiery reds, pinks, and oranges. It didn’t just mark the dawn of the day but the stat of our last 24hrs of the challenge. A renewal of energy and positivism.

Team Lemonade followed a route through Death Valley. Photography courtesy of: Anya Culling / unscriptedcreative

Welcome to Las Vegas

We passed towns that looked like they had been untouched for decades, abandoned houses with forgotten kids’ toys left out, bleached in the sun. We passed through dust-covered landscapes that felt almost extraterrestrial with their unexplained remote land art installations - a stark reminder just how close to Area 51 we were and along hard shoulders of major highways with lorries inching far too close to our pumping arms. It was pure animalistic running, we were alert, focused, and hungry to finish this challenge.

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The other group climbed the Spring Mountains towards Blue Diamond - the final climb before the descent into Las Vegas. This is inhospitable terrain at the best of times, but uncharacteristic weather added a snow storm to our list of challenges to overcome.

We embraced each other under the lights of the Welcome To Las Vegas sign as the third female team in a time of just over 50 hours. I could feel my eyes burning with tears and my heart ready to burst with immense pride for what we achieved. We couldn’t have done it without each other or without the crew who drove tirelessly, kept us sane and safe - Kieran who helped us with logistics, Fletch who was the brains behind the data and Tristan who captured the memories to last a lifetime.

Anya Culling in Las Vegas

The Speed Project is powerful. It will alter your brain chemistry by the challenging the limitations you put on yourself. It forces you to confront self doubt, and is a testament to untapped human potential. Every single person in every single team comes out with a deeper understanding of themselves. This is the real reward of TSP, no matter where you finish on the leaderboard, and it’s a prize far more valuable than any medal.

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