Photo by Michael Nicholas | Words by Sarah Gearhart

The Blazing Trip

British ultrarunner Lydia Oldham unwraps The Speed Project – the 550-kilometer pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Las Vegas – in a self-provoked dare to run it on her own.

By Sarah Gearhart

Mental Athletic media

Lydia Oldham grips a canister of pepper spray as her feet lumber across an empty dirt road. Though a full moon beams from above, she can barely see the surrounding barbed wire fences, but the faint echoes of barking keep her weary eyes from closing. The past two days are a blur, and she has lost count of the hours she’s been awake. But Oldham must keep going, especially away from this area known for drug trafficking and an ongoing opioid crisis. The finish line is still 200 kilometers away. Her breathing steady, she cautiously continues her journey on foot through rocky rolling hills on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California.

A cotton sensation coats her mouth, and her stomach rumbles. She is craving a cheese and lettuce sandwich smeared with tangy ranch dressing. The three liters of water in her hydration vest and 1,000 calories worth of oat bars and caffeinated Maurten gels stuffed inside are not enough to sustain her for 16 hours on this desolate path. If she can hold out for 20 more kilometers, Oldham will see her three-person support crew waiting in an RV, ready to offer her favorite sandwich, a bowl of granola, and a dose of encouragement.

Stiffness arrests Oldham’s legs, and a fiery sensation stings her ankles. “Accept that this is happening,” she tells herself. Quitting doesn’t enter her mind. “You get to do this. You get to make the decision to run.” This pain is a privilege.

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Oldham had already traversed 280 kilometers over two and a half days. She had started from the Santa Monica Pier west of downtown Los Angeles and continued through the suburb Claremont, then to Daggett, population 200, before she arrived at Powerline Road in the Mojave Desert. But she is only halfway to her final destination: Las Vegas. For months, Oldham has envisioned running to the city’s iconic neon blue and red welcome sign. It is the finish line for an extreme race she is enduring: The Speed Project (TSP).

TSP, described as “Burning Man for Runners,” is an annual invite-only unsanctioned event incepted by Nils Arend, a former rave organizer from Germany. The race comprises 40 groups of six-person relay teams that attempt to complete 500 kilometers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as fast as possible on an unfixed route. Each team must figure out which way to navigate on mostly isolated roads, winding through Antelope Valley, before traversing part of the Mojave Desert and eventually the edge of Death Valley National Park—the driest place in North America and among the hottest on earth. The race culminates on Route 160, leading to Las Vegas, the most renowned nightlife quarter in the United States, nicknamed “Sin City.”

TSP has no rules, other than to stay off the freeway. As a relay, each runner averages 80 kilometers over the course of two days. Oldham, however, is among a dozen runners brave enough to endure the race solo. She is aiming to complete 500 kilometers in five consecutive days.

“I don’t think speed is something that excites me,” says Oldham, a 29-year-old digital designer and amateur ultrarunner from London. “It’s more about how far I can push myself.”

The brief reset is just enough to push her forward. “I want this so badly,” Oldham says. She stands up and continues walking as if in an uninterrupted dream. By 10 a.m., this segment of the race is complete. She sees her fiance Oli Grant, the captain of her support crew.

“I don’t know if I can do another 50K,” Oldham blurts, as tears glide down her cheeks. When she sits, Oli begins to massage her ankles, gently stroking her skin to move the lymphatic fluid. When he is done, he straps black therapeutic tape on her right shin. Oldham soaks her left foot in a plastic container of ice water. She has never seen her ankles this swollen. “So gross,” she says. “They look like muffin tops.” She will need to swallow her daily dose of Ibuprofen. But first, she crawls into the RV and takes a nap.

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The desert is hot, barren and cruel on her body. At the moment, 160 kilometers remain, but Oldham isn’t tracking any numbers. “I don’t want to know,” she says. “I just want to keep going.”

Prior to TSP, Oldham had never run more than 100 kilometers. In fact, she had completed only one ultra, Race to the Stones in the U.K., less than a year ago. Oldham had hoped that running twice a day, coaching herself through 150 kilometers a week for three months, would prepare her for the mental and physical demands of this extreme pursuit.

The wide barren landscape is hauntingly beautiful and distracts from thinking about the achiness coursing through in her legs. As she looks up at the unstained azul sky, she is overwhelmed by a feeling of uncharted freedom. “Surreal,” Oldham says. “Nothing else matters.”

Relief washes over her when her distance tallies 417 kilometers. But the next day, the final 90-kilometer stage of the journey, is not so smooth. At first, Oldham is relatively at ease for the first 70K. But in her elation of inching closer to Las Vegas, she is inattentive of eating enough. Her body, deprived of carbs and sugar, begins to rebel in pain. Oldham oscillates between vomiting and shitting for the last 20 kilometers. This wasn’t part of her grand vision to the finish line.

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Extreme weariness leaves Oldham no other option but to alternate between walking and running every two minutes, a rhythm she maintains until the sun begins to smudge the sky with magenta hues. “I’ll get my mind there no matter what,” she says.

It is nearly sunset by the time Oldham reaches the end of her journey, 514.85 kilometers and 112 hours later. She hugs the famous metal “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” landmark, grinning as her fiance sprays her with prosecco.

Oldham bursts out laughing, “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”