the speed project

“We should have done a running interview.”

A chime came in through the jazz set, as a boyish giggle and German accent fired up a suggestion. I sat under the sun, laughing at the possibility of keeping up with a guy who was days out from running across Death Valley, for fun. Nils Arend is the co-founder and madman behind a 340-mile relay race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas called the Speed Project. Shocking right? When you finally rest your eyebrows back into place, you can begin to imagine the idea of doing something so impossible that it becomes your mission to solve. For Arend, it was as simple as not wanting to let down a peer who depended on him to provide the cool.

“Around nine years ago, a childhood friend pinged me during the holidays and asked me to do a cool run, and I was like “what is a cool run?” He told me that I would figure out something and all I could come up with was for us to run towards each other. He was living in Long Beach and I was in Manhattan Beach. When he asked me how far it was, I told him I had no clue. It ended up being 35 miles in total and he had never run a marathon before.”

The energy from this one “cool” race resurfaced a year later when the two friends decided to run from the beach to the Hollywood Sign.

“We stopped at the liquor store with two water bottles and two one-dollar vodka shots. With had 12 miles left and secretly, behind a car,  took our vodka shots and kept going.”


Arend puts a Tarantino twist to racing with only one rule in the Speed Project, there are no rules. Birthed from a community of surfers and adventurists, Nils saw the idea of running from one landmark to another as any other idea that needed to be flushed out. As the Chief Experience Officer at Optimist, he leads a 45-person production team, executing over 300 projects per year. You will often find Nils running extraordinary distances, windsurfing in Africa, sailing Hawaiian canoes in Kauai, climbing 10,000 ft. mountains and – on nights where he has trouble sleeping – riding his fix-gear bike through the city.

“I’m running so much that my brain doesn’t stop,” say Arend.

“Society caters to make your life more comfortable. A car manufacturer is doing the best when they have the most comfortable seat. A mall ensures that they have enough escalators so you can shovel your ass from one store to another. Our youth and kids growing up in that environment and are being taught to put forth very little efforts in life. I think it’s so important to be physically challenged and getting out there and doing something where you think, ‘Oh shit, I’m not capable of doing that,’ and then you get to the edge and experience something where you physically get so far out of your comfort zone which benefits your mental strength. It teaches you depth. Society is so big on making things easier that they forget that we get softer through that, not only physically but also mentally.”

The Speed Project does not have a registration site. Nils likes to think of The Speed Project as a trip, instead of a race. He individually curates and consults with each team to make sure their intentions for the race are aligned.

“I want to make sure that I maintain the original fundamentals of what the speed project is.

The history

Annoyed by the race series on the market, Nils is aware of the boom in marketed races like Color Run, Tough Mudder, and Disney that boost a fun appeal with little emphasis on performance. He doesn’t align. He appreciates the energy from localized races with top performers battling it out for 5K titles but does not resonate with them either. Even the new rise of more adventurous races like Ragnar and Hood to Coast left him wanting more.

“There is that feeling when you’re forced to put on a headlamp at 3 pm and move your bus. It turns into this corporate and regulated adventure that loses its fun. Folks who are hungry for a new form of event. We created a surf trip for running. It has the right amount of adventure, community, performance, and team support.”

Arend grew an affinity towards running while at boarding school in Europe. He used running as his alibi and escape, finding solace on solo expeditions. Upon moving to the states he longed to find a community of other runners who held the same desires for adventure and performance yet only found those traits in surfers. That was until he met his training partner and race Director, Blue. Nils posed the idea of the Speed Project over beers and the two began planning their adventure soon after. Blue, an experienced runner and Malibu race director, has helped to unlock performance gains in Nils while keeping it zen.

The first Speed Project record of 36:53:00 was set with two girls and four guys. It debuted as a 17min film that drew unexpected responses. In Arend’s opinion, the film does not translate how abstract and out of the norm the adventure is.

“I’m trying to not give too much away while preparing everyone for the challenge. It’s an adventure race and the number one challenge is to finish. So much crewing is needed. From driving a 35′ RV, to preparing the next runner, checking nutrition … it turns running into a team sport that provides an equally rewarding experience for everyone involved. When the RV driver says that it is the coolest thing that he has done in his life, you know you have something.”

Arend is not trying to create something for the masses, he is making something for those in need of more. He encourages the idea of there being no winners. Everyone is on the course to create their own history. He does recommend that runners adopt an intense three-month marathon training to handle the conditions. Because, as he so lightly put it,

“There are rattlesnakes.”

Follow more on this story and what’s unfolding with the Speed Project on UNDO’s IG Stories.

Photo: Phil Dauria 


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