Nils Arend, founder of The Speed Project, talks about his vision for running and the remarkable new Chilean chapter of his event

NO RULES. NO SPECTATORS. The Speed Project is not a race; it’s a collective radical experience, exquisite fatigue applied to a natural context, a taxing journey within and without yourself. Born out of an impromptu epiphany by Nils Arend, this extreme event is celebrating its 10th year. For the occasion, it left Death Valley, the scorching desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that has become home to its runners. Instead, this edition’s new, symbolic finish line was located in exotic South America, along Chile’s scenic Atacama route. Nils Arend introduces the essence of this unique race and tells us about this innovative and peculiar chapter of The Speed Project.

How did your passion for running come about? And how did The Speed Project get started?

My first experiences running were lost in time. I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, and studying at a boarding school in Germany. I would sneak out at night to play in a punk rock band, and we always brought running shoes. When we came back early the next morning, we would change our shoes and clothes, pretending we had just gone on an early morning run…. At that time, I was more interested in things like snowboarding and wakeboarding; it wasn’t until my early 20s, when I decided to move to the U.S., that running started to play a big role in my life. To celebrate my move overseas, my roommate and I decided to run the Hamburg Marathon, and, for the first time, I felt truly involved in the sport. When I got to LA, I knew no one, had no money, and my language skills were pretty rudimentary. I used running to explore the city. After a couple of years, I participated in my first big event, a marathon, and realized how regulated it was. The race culture in running was at the opposite end of the spectrum from what I had experienced in other sports. So, I decided to start my own kind of running adventures.

How does Death Valley fit into this process?

The first idea was to run from point A to point B. I used to do it with a colleague of mine during lunch breaks. Then, during vacations, I decided to run from my place to his place, crossing the whole city of Los Angeles. I started from Venice, destination: Long Beach. As I ran, I would pass through ports and fishing villages. I loved the juxtapositions, the contrasts of that run. And during those hours I began to develop The Speed Project idea. At first, I organized some wild runs with my friends, we even shot a film, and I recognized the impact this kind of experience could have on people. So, I started to invite other people to share these runs with us. I wasn’t promising them huge personal transformations; I was just guaranteeing a radical experience, which I then connected with Death Valley. So, community and its expansion are the main reasons that The Speed Project exists.

Did you ever imagine you would be able to engage crews and runners from all over the world?

No way. I’m amazed at how many people have been drawn to this event over the years. It is extremely beautiful and fulfilling. And it’s just as great to see the creative work they are doing. I can’t deny that I wasn’t nervous the first time we invited runners from outside the community. People were flying in from different parts of the world, taking vacation time and spending money just to be part of The Speed Project…. Sometimes I still get that feeling in my stomach. The thing that excites me the most is the creative involvement of these runners and those who join them. So many different perspectives and stories come out of each edition…. I think it’s a kind of home for the evolution of running, which we can no longer define as just a sports movement. And the concept of radical participation really demonstrates our willingness to go beyond simple athletics and physical limitations.

Speaking of evolution, this time, you decided to move to a new country, Chile….

We were there because we like to communicate with our community. We listen to each and every idea, even if we can’t actually realize it. During the pandemic, we created a photo contest with Leica, involving runners from 50 different countries. A Chilean photographer won and was invited to Las Vegas with his team. He told us about this Chilean route and we decided to try it. This experience struck as the ideal next step for The Speed Project. And the 10th anniversary seemed like the best time to introduce an alternative version in Atacama. The event was definitely more difficult and radical, and we have chosen a small group of participants that we had the utmost confidence in to tackle this experience. It was a real experiment. Of course, our journey wasn’t just about running. During last year, we tried to understand the local culture and the problems facing that region. The nature near Iquique is severely damaged by the influx of clothes coming in from other countries that get disposed of in the desert dunes…. This is why we decided to collaborate with a local brand, raising awareness among our community about this issue, and creating special merchandise by reusing these garments. It’s a small gesture but it makes us proud to have brought The Speed Project to Chile.

 

In the coming days you’ll also be able to discover testimonies from the protagonists of this special The Speed Project – Chilean edition, and enjoy another evocative photo gallery. Be ready. 

Photo credits:

Rafa Rivero

Text by Gianmarco Pacione