Together - How Birdstrike Beat The Speed Project
What follows is less of a race recap, and more of a manifesto for how I want to live the rest of my life. It's important to note that words cannot capture the magic of this experience. The 12 women, 6 racers and 6 crew, who became team #Birdstrike left a dent in the universe. Whether our mark was a now-open door for female teams to take on the unsanctioned 340 mile Speed Project, or an unbreakable bond connecting us all to each other and what happened that weekend in the desert. This recap may offer a glimpse of what we saw, felt, and made out there in those miles, but these are just a few pages from the book of that story.
Nora Bird wants to be on the starting line at 4:15am. It's almost midnight and we have an RV to load, an Airbnb to vacate, and almost 50 sweet potatoes to take out of the oven and wrap in tiny foil blankets. There is gear, everywhere. Clothes, cameras, food, medical supplies, headlamps, maps, shoes, foam rollers, and more. And bags. There are so many bags. We look like we're preparing to climb Everest. Racers work through a restless sleep as the crew does a final walk through of our supplies. As the clock pushes past twelve 'Twerd and I look at each other knowingly. We may not be ready (who could be for something like this), but it's time.
It's 3am. Our alarms sound simultaneously and the crew is live. Supplies are sorted and bags are loaded - the immediate needs of the active racers in the Blackbird (Suburban #1), the immediate needs of the resting racers in Big Bird (the RV), cameras and our film crew in the Bro-burban (Suburban #2). Everything else goes under the RV. Our communication is clumsy. A combination of sleepiness, stress, and the extra words we put in sentences to be polite around new people. We are not yet a machine, but we are working through it. There is urgency and cooperation around our first goal - get Nora to the start. Sixteen humans and a mountain of supplies are in cars and on the road by 4:00am.
The starting line at the Santa Monica Pier looks like a scene out of The Fast and Furious movie franchise. Teams pose for photos like a posse on the cover of their latest mixtape. The heavy baseline of blaring rap music vibrates through our bodies. A voice comes over the speakers and the racers begin to organize. Nora Bird is focused. She doesn't notice that despite there being three all-female teams in the race this year, and even more co-ed teams racing the course, she's the only woman to walk to the front of the pack and toe the line. The countdown begins "10, 9, 8..." and above the noise we hear the roar of Lauren Fleshman "GIVE 'EM HELL...". The crew, racers, and volée members lining the start answer "OISELLE" before we're drowned out by the chaos around us. "...3, 2, 1" and Nora is through the gate. She isn't smiling, but she's flying.
Mile 0 - Friday 5:00am, The Santa Monica Pier
While Nora's on the course, our caravan parts ways, following the direction of an insanely smart race and crew strategy devised by Lauren Fleshman.
The racers work in two groups. Group A: Nora Bird (1), Collier Lawrence (2), and Cathleen Knutson (3), run shorter legs in more frequent intervals. Group B: Sarah Overpeck (4), Sarah Bard (5), and Devon Yanko (6), run longer legs and have fewer reps on the course.
1/2/3/1/2/3/4/5/6 is written on the front page of every Birdstrike member’s map.
Our crew strategy rotates crew pairs across 3 shifts and 2 vehicles.
Lauren Fleshman + Erin Ward (Jungle Chicken)
Meghan Manaois + Robyn Hefner
Meg Murray + Claire Wallace
Each pair moves through an active shift in the RV, an active shift in the suburban, and a sleeping shift in the RV. One crew member drives while the other tends to our racers and navigates the course.
While one group races, the other group drives ahead and rests, giving people a window of time to recharge and refuel. We plan out exchange points on the course to swap out racers and rotate crew members. We have a plan.
Claire and I were scheduled in the first crew rest shift. I battled back adrenaline and tried to exercise the same discipline as our runners. I told myself they needed me to sleep. I briefly closed my eyes, moments later roused by voices outside the RV window.
Mile 18 - 7:18am, Sunrise Ford, Downtown Los Angeles
"She should be here by now."
"She's not here."
"I'm calling Robyn. Robyn - where's Cathleen? … What do you mean you don't know? … Is she lost? … What about the film crew? … When did the last see her? … What do we do…."
I knew we’d get lost. But I imagined we'd be lost in the desert trails of California. Or maybe in a highway drainage ditch closer to Nevada. We're in downtown LA. Horns are blaring as cars speed by. There are pedestrians everywhere. We’re standing in the middle of the city's morning commute. There are thousands of people in the streets, and we can’t find Cathleen.
Eleven of us shuffle around a street corner nervously, heads on a swivel, looking for our lost bird. Ten minutes later we see Cathleen, bombing around a corner full speed. Cathleen races fast, her movements calculated. Every stride stronger than the last. She tags in Nora and stops one of the three Garmin watches that are tracking our team across the course. She’s laughing and throws her hands onto her head.
“I got lost!"
We all exhale and hop back into our caravan. All birds accounted for, cars in formation, we head out.
Mile 96, Friday 5:09pm, Adelanto Highway
Ten hours later and Group A is nearing the close of their second rotation on the course. The air is cool, the highway is calm, and the sunset casts colorful layers across the horizon. Collier finishes a fast, flat six and hops back into the suburban. We all breathe in the sunset as we move to our next location. One of us opens WhatsApp (the messaging thread where teams are in communication about their placement / surroundings on the course) and mentions the many teams that are dealing with dogs along the route. Collier breaks her silence.
“I got bit by one on my last segment."
We all sit silently, frozen in disbelief while she tells the story. Chased and bit by a dog who moments later, was hit by a car right in front of her eyes. She wraps the injured animal in her reflective layer and attempts to return it to a confused and defensive owner. Gently placing the dog back in his arms, urging him to take the animal to a vet, she puts her vest back on and finishes her mileage. In a small town, on an unknown street, Collier saves an animal’s life in the presence of strangers, and keeps running. This is the insanity of The Speed Project.
Mile 187 (near leg 30), Friday 11:39pm, Arrowhead Trailhead
The RV is parked at Arrowhead Trailhead at Mile 187, waiting. A few of us tune into The Speed Project’s hourly update to hear the latest ranking and placement of teams on the course. We all hear the news simultaneously - Nike’s Team Global (one of the three all-female teams racing the course) - is hot on our tails. Sarah Overpeck, Sarah Bard, and Devon have just finished the first half of the night shift, and Nora, Collier, and Cathleen are just beginning their own. We have abandoned open highway roads for seedy neighborhoods and complicated trails. The Blackbird is following the active runner at all times, and when the trail gets too tough, we trade the SUV for a mountain bike and ride beside the racer on the course. Davis from the Bro-burban trades his camera for crew duties and guides the team through the night - driving the suburban through dangerous off-road conditions and mountain biking beside racers when the trails get too technical (he later won the crew-hero award for this incredible act of support). When I asked him why, his answer was simple.
“I’m in. We’re doing this.”
Meanwhile, at the Arrowhead trailhead, the RV waits with the sleeping Sarahs and Devon. Trips outside for a desert bathroom break reveal a breathtaking, star-flooded night sky. We set alarms for our next exchange at 4:10am and finally succumb to our sleepiness. But by 3:45am, the whole team is awake and moving.
At 3:57am, after running 24 miles, Devon Yanko has rough news. Her injured ankle’s been through too much on the course, and she’s sidelined for the rest of the race. Devon's news moves like a wave across the team. Crew members confer via text between the two locations. Exhausted runners begin to show signs of defeat.
And in an instant, we no longer have a plan. The team is too tired to think, let alone contribute to the race strategy. We need a new plan, and if it’s wrong, they won't have options to offer. I hear the words "hard no" uttered in the RV. There are discussions of fairness. Lauren is tired, trying to do math, and I notice she’s having trouble focusing on the page. Racers need to hear the right strategy – an approach they believe they can execute - and get some sleep. I am very tired, and I’m beginning to feel scared.
I call Sarah Lesko — doctor, colleague at the Nest, running expert, wise woman. She is the person I call when I don’t know what to do. She answers, and we talk about the psychology of a race like this. That our racers can complete the mileage, but they need to be able to wrap their heads around the task at hand. We devise a plan: divide the remaining mileage of the course between 6 runners (despite there only being 5 to run it), and cycle runners through it in an even 1/2/3/4/5. No more Group A and Group B - one team, running the rest of the race, together. The leftover mileage (from a missing #6) is left at the end of the course — The ‘Woman-Up' segment. Those 25 or so miles go to the bird who wants it most. The ones who find their legs and choose to bring us home. The women, who woman-up.
There is silence. And then nodding. And then conversation. And then, I hear it. Nora Bird laughs.
Chicken (aka crew member Erin Ward, aka Jungle Chicken) normally known for her comedic relief, comes in with something else - hope.
“Dudes - we can do this. We're DOING this."
And then I feel it. The energy. An undeniable electricity coursing between the members of the team. In that moment, we evolved from many, to one, and we would never go back. Together, we were going to finish this race.
Moments later I realize the time and quickly mobilize the next group into the Blackbird. We speed off to bring Sarah Bard to the next drop. As the sun begins to rise, our spirits rise too. Not optimism, but a sense of choice, and control. We chose each other. And we were choosing to continue.
Mile 200 - Saturday 5:30 am, Mojave Freeway
With a car parked on the side of the highway, we hop a barbed wire fence and climb down into a drainage ditch for the next exchange. An activity that maybe at one point in my life would’ve felt dangerous or rebellious, now feels functional, even mundane. We wave in Sarah Overpeck – a mileage machine who’s been burning through tough segments at an aggressive pace. And we send out Sarah Bard, into the light of the morning. To watch Sarah Bard race is to see a swan skim the water mid-flight. Calm, elegant, fast, and strong. Her sub 7 minute pace to outsiders looks effortless. But those that know her can recognize that velocity is fueled by a fire within. On and off the course, Sarah quietly tends to her own fire.
Mile 250 - 1:10pm, Death Valley
I've seen and lived mile 18 of a marathon. I know what hurt looks like, and feels like. This is something else.
Doubt. Fear. An emptiness that can't be filled with food, water, or rest. We move through Death Valley one mile at a time. We run through our 1/2/3/4/5 sequence, with most runners only able to stand one or two miles on the 95 degree highway. When a mile is too long, we move meter by meter. The crew rides bikes and runs alongside our racers. We try cold towels and distractions and mind games. We are alone, together. Fighting in the vast expanse of the desert.
Death Valley broke us all, even our stoic leader Collier. After finishing a particularly challenging climb, I watched Collier return to the RV and immediately climb into a small nook with a banana and some Gatorade. She is staring at the ceiling, quietly crying. Nothing I can offer can remedy her hurt. It is hers, and hers alone.
But then Nora steps off the course early to give Collier a taste of a downhill. Collier cranks out 4 miles instead of 2 to finish a hill for Cathleen. Cathleen stays on the course longer to give Sarah a little more rest. It’s magical to witness this momentum. Self-generated. Unforced. Born from camaraderie.
This is what teamwork looks like - unselfish harmony. Operating as a single organism, in concert. The crew is dialed too. Eye contact is all we need to mobilize as a group. In the worst leg of the race, and for many, the most treacherous conditions in which they'll ever run, we are churning out mileage. Together, in the hardest leg of the course, we transform a 5 mile lead to a 15 mile advantage on Nike’s Team Global. We are in hell, and we keep going. We even widen the gap.
Mile 310 - Saturday 5pm, Old Spanish Trail
Lauren leaves the suburban and walks to the window of Big Bird. Her face is still. She is calm, but something is wrong. I quickly, instinctively, tally the runners in the RV and find Cathleen running strong in the rear view mirror on the course. One, two, three, four, five...
"Devon is throwing up."
“We need to take her to the emergency room, now."
Our runners are ruined, but the crew is hurting too. No one is resting. It’s all hands on deck. Every exchange feels an emergency - sprinting to cool a runner down and replace their fluids. Fighting off your own fatigue to get a racer hyped before they step onto the course. And now, there’s a need to pull a vehicle, and a body, off the course to make the 45 minute trip to the closest hospital. One less set of hands, on an increasingly dangerous deck.
Before it can register as another obstacle to the five fighting their way down the highway, we load up the Blackbird and get Devon off the course. I have never driven so fast in my life. Four hours, an IV, and a stabilized body later I am sprinting through a hospital parking lot to head back out toward to desert. I give myself 5 minutes to grab a box of Birdstrike champagne (La Croix) and some donuts for the team. As I work my way back down the highway I start scouring the road for our crew. I notice I’m murmuring the same phrase over and over again on the drive.
They’re doing it.
They’re doing it.
They’re doing it.
I send the familiar "drop a pin" text to the Birdstrike crew but it's not needed. I see the swaying lightning layer from miles away. It looks like we’re dancing in the dark from a distance. I can’t stop smiling. I pull up behind the Bro-burban, now the second crew car, and jump out of the driver’s seat into Nora’s arms. I’m crying.
“We’re winning!” she exclaims. “We’re doing it!"
Every one of the 5 racers ran a portion of the Woman-Up segment. With calm confidence, we steadily worked our way toward the shining lights of Las Vegas.
Mile 341 - Sunday 1:13 am, Las Vegas
The 5 racers and 6 crew members of team Birdstrike ran the final stretch of the 341 mile course, together. We finished as the first female team, and seventh team overall in The Speed Project 3.0. with a time of 44:27:11. Today, we hold the fastest known time (FKT) for a female team racing that route.
We did it.
So as I walk away from this experience, filled with gratitude for all that I’ve learned, and become, I wish one thing for you all. When adventure comes knocking on your door - disguised as adversity, uncertainty, or risk - say yes. And make sure to invite your people. Turns out they’ll be on your team, forever.
Team Birdstrike till I die,
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