Creative producer & creator of the craziest running race in history: The Speed Project.
The Speed Project is a 550km race from LA to Las Vegas. It has been going for 5 years, amassing a following of 22k+ people. It's still unofficial, there's still no website, and there’s still no rules.
I meet Nils for the first time at Mile 21. This is the London Marathon cheer spot of the formidable London running clubs. He’s a Berlin born LA resident, and he happens to be in London for a few days. He agrees to speak to me on one condition: “come to mile 21 tomorrow, and bring a beer”.
Mile 21 is where most runners start to flag, and Nils knows this more than most. He’s a serial marathon runner and the creator of one of the craziest running events in history — The Speed Project. It is a 340 mile relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas through the Death Valley. And it started as a side project.
“The Speed Project was never meant to become a race. I just thought it could be cool to run to Vegas. I was never really around runners, I was always around surfers.”
Things changed when he met Blue.
Nils was running the Malibu marathon the day after hosting a big party. Somehow he still managed to finish in third place (he laughs, “one of my strengths is that I’m a very good beer drinker”).
At the finish line he was approached by a guy, who wa impressed by his time. It turns out this man is the Race Director, Blue, and in the weeks that follow he and Nils become good friends often going on runs together.
Nils still remembers what Blue’s response was when he first told him about the idea for The Speed Project. “F**k Yeah”.
“I was surprised. I was not expecting it. Everyone else was telling me how crazy it was”.
Together they began assembling a team, and soon all his friends had jumped on board. “They still thought it was crazy. But they saw an opportunity to bring something to the table with their skills. This group of friends suddenly had a mission, and everyone wanted to contribute to us doing it.”
“It was always a passion project. There wasn’t a clear plan, but I had always created other things to be fulfilled.
“When there is no financial motivation behind a project you can really stick to what you want to put out there. Otherwise you might think ‘if I pick this logo or name it might upset people’, but with this, it doesn’t matter if it upsets people. We can totally go rogue on the system. It’s important to stay independent”.
After running the route, they decided their next move would be to shoot a film about it. They filmed it, produced it, released it, did screenings around the world with international directors, and put it online.
And then they waited. They were all curious about what would happen next.
“And nothing happens.”
There was no mass reaction, no crazy PR storm, no phone-lines going off the hook.
“I was like, ‘that’s OK, we did it’ and that’s what I wanted to do”.
They moved on.
Until something else happened. The guy who drove the SUV saw Nils a while later and told him it was the coolest thing he’d done in his life. This was a guy who hadn’t even run. “I was surprised. When all of a sudden the SUV driver said how cool it was for him, I realised that maybe the film didn’t really do anything, but the life experience did. And I thought, maybe we should invite people to do this with us, instead of having people watch us do it.”
“So we put the word out. ‘We are doing it again, if anyone wants to come.’ And people started asking all these questions: how many runners can I have? How much does it cost? And we were like ‘oh… those are good questions’. People were asking what the rules were. There were no rules. You can’t break the law. But no rules.” (For the record, the only rules are that you do it in a team of 6 people — their original team structure — and that you get from LA to Las Vegas all on foot. You can have an SUV, but it’s a relay, so someone has to be running at all points. This usually amounts to about 10 x 10km per person, but this will vary depending on injury, exhaustion and dehydration).
Finding the time
At the time, Nils was running the creative agency he has now — Optimist Studios. He made time around it. “It filled every free minute. Especially now. It’s always on. It never stops. But there are moments, especially afterwards when I am exhausted, where I always take a break. I need a social media detox.”
He’s not making money from The Speed Project, but there’s no doubt that he could if he wanted to. They’ve got +35k Instagram followers between them, and an increasing number of people applying to take part. But Nils isn’t one to tread the beaten path. “I’ve always leaned towards radical roots. We are trying to structure the registration process, but it takes the flair away. We don’t want to make it an official process because we want to maintain the attitude of the event.”
Cultivating radical inclusion
Since it started, there have been 20 different countries represented in the race. “It’s all about the other people who contribute. It’s such a worldly event. People from all over are coming. There’s even someone running something based off The Speed Project in Korea.”
To be admitted to The Speed Project, you answer a series of questions. The most important one being “What motivates you?” He’s a big Burning Man fan, and takes a lot of inspiration from them, especially on nurturing radical inclusion. “You don’t have to come from a certain place, or run a certain pace. People just need to hit us up, and have the extra motivation to get into it.”
“We have a pretty good track record of people walking away feeling energised and feeling empowered to do the stuff they want to do. They’re always like ‘I don’t know if I can run across the West’ but… you’re gonna find out, and the answer is most likely yes.”
Waiting for the hate to pass
“The competitive running scene were very challenged by our approach. We had a lot of people upset, trying to wrap their head around the concept. Four years ago people laughed at it. At the beginning, in the more elite running scene, they’d say ‘oh that’s cute what you guys are doing.’ But with the race, and with Tracksmith, all of a sudden we are so on the map. All of a sudden we are respected.”
He’s not wrong. A few days later I meet a Designer, based in New York. We have no mutual connections, but I mention to him that I recently met with Nils. He replied “Oh I know that guy! Someone was talking about him the other day.” He’d heard about the Speed Project. They may have not made a website yet, but it looks like The Speed Project have already made quite an entrance.
The Speed Project can be found on Instagram