The Driest Place On Earth: The Speed Project Pushes Runners To New Heights Across Atacama

Rob Perez says it was the biggest challenge he's ever faced

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Equal parts grueling and exhilarating, The Speed Project is an annual unsanctioned event that tests ultra runners‘ physical and mental limits.

Surrounded by mystery and secrecy, The Speed Project draws some of the world’s fastest athletes to one of the hardest annual relay races in the world. 

The concept of The Speed Project is simple: get from point A to point B first. However, accomplishing that is much more challenging.

The annual relay race has teams of up to six cover a 340-mile route, starting at the Santa Monica pier and finishing at the iconic Las Vegas welcome sign. 

The route provided, however, is not necessarily the route teams will take. The famous tagline from the race is “No Rules. No Spectators.” meaning teams can take whatever route they want to get from point A to point B, as long as they stay off the freeway.

The Speed Project also offers the race to a select few daring ultra-runners who want to complete all 340 miles across Death Valley solo.

Most recently, The Speed Project brought together a select group of athletes to race across the Atacama Desert in Chile. The terrain and climate runners would face are significantly more challenging than the original route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

We sat down with Rob Perez, winner of the solo race of The Speed Project Atacama, to talk about his experiences with The Speed Project and ultra-running.

Getting Involved With The Speed Project

This wasn’t Perez’s first time being involved with The Speed Project.

A runner for his local Northeast Track Club, Perez took part in the team relay of The Speed Project for two years. In November 2022, a member of his track community reached out to the founder of The Speed Project and personally recommended Perez for the solo competition in 2023.

Perez said he then had to fill out an application, which was more of a formality to ensure he would be completing it safely and had his own support, since it is an unsanctioned and unsupported event.

He was accepted into the event, which took place in March 2023, and was the first time he had done anything like it.

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Learning About Himself

It’s the Burning Man of races. Yes, it’s a race, but at the end of the day, it’s a journey,” Perez said when asked what The Speed Project is genuinely about.

Perez said completing the 2023 edition of The Speed Project allowed him to learn so much about himself. 

“I learned so much about myself, but the biggest takeaway was knowing it is possible.”

Perez says that his focus during his first crack at completing The Speed Project solo was to have fun and make sure he could actually complete a multi-day race.

Perez and his support team of six enjoyed what he calls a “luxurious ride,” sleeping 5-6 hours per night and even staying in a hotel for two nights rather than sleeping in the camper.

“We ran 100k each day the first three days. I wanted to know: can I go further? Can I go faster?”

The Speed Project Atacama

The Speed Project Atacama was the ultimate challenge for Perez.

Before completing The Speed Project from Los Angeles to Las Vegas solo, Perez took comfort in knowing it was possible, as other people have completed it solo before.

The Atacama Crossing was entering into the unknown, as no one had raced it solo before.

“Everything I’ve done before, I knew it was possible because someone else had done it. This was something completely new that no one had done before.”

The Speed Project Atacama would have runners complete nearly 300 miles across the Chilean desert, following the same concept as the original event: No Rules. No Spectators.

Perez spent most of the time in the lead, passing the first and second-place runners in the last miles of day one. 

On day two, Perez started out in second place, as one runner woke up before him to start running. Eventually, Perez passed the first-place runner once again, and after day two, he maintained his lead and was never passed again.

Perez credits much of his success at Atacama to his friend and pacer Parley Hannan.

Perez and Hannan met at the Boston Marathon when she was helping out at ASICS. The two crossed paths, and eventually, she chimed in when Perez was searching for crew support for Atacama.

Hannan ran about 230 miles out of 290 miles of the Atacama Crossing with Perez. He says she continued to push his limits every day, whether it was going a bit faster, a bit longer, or waking up a bit earlier.

She was there by his side every step of the way.

Perez completed The Speed Project Atacama after four days, totaling around 80 hours, and only getting about 7 hours of sleep.

Takeaways And Advice

Completing The Speed Project Atacama solo, something no one had done before, gave Perez a major boost in confidence. 

“I can be the first to do something and succeed at it and go faster than I initially intended. This has opened up a new mental idea of what is possible.”

Perez spoke about the piece of advice that drove him through Atacama, “When you can no longer run with your legs, run with your heart.”

“The race goes beyond physical and is mostly mental as opposed to physical. You know you’re going to slow down, and you know you’re going to hurt, but you have to have the mental power and passion to keep going forward.”

Perez also spoke about his goal with his social media presence and ultra-running adventures.

“I don’t want to get everyone to run 300 miles. I just want to bridge the gap for people and get people running.”

Looking forward to the future, Perez will continue to seek new adventures and will go into challenges with confidence, even if he is the first one to do it.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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