The Speed Project Atacama: The rebel race across a desert

Tom Reynolds running past a sign welcoming visitors to the Atacama desert
Image caption,The dry, desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert has been used by American space agency Nasa to replicate conditions on Mars

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The Atacama Desert, Chile.

The driest non-polar desert on earth.

Average annual rainfall? Under a millimetre, with some regions waiting decades between sparse showers.

The temperature swings from 30C in the day to below freezing at night.

It is a region so barren and devoid of life that Nasa regularly uses it to simulate and practise for their landings on Mars.

It sounds like a tricky enough place to organise a Parkrun, so where do you even begin organising a 310-mile non-stop ultra-marathon?

If your name is Nils Arend – and your race is The Speed Project – the answer is simple.

You don’t.

Short presentational grey line

It’s 4am in late November in the Chilean beach city of Iquique.

Ninety runners from all over the world are limbering up in a deserted skatepark on the beachfront, 50m from the Pacific Ocean.

The streets, other than a host of stray dogs, are deserted. Apart from the buzz of camera drones flying overhead and the nervous energy of the short-shorted runners milling about, it is strangely quiet.

Runners gather for the start of the The Speed Project
Image caption,The race’s exact start, arbitrarily chosen by organiser Nils Arend, was next to a skatepark in Iquique

Until a voice rises above the rest.

It’s the softly spoken German-American fusion accent of the man who has convinced everyone to be here.

And, more importantly, to leavehere, on foot, and run across the Atacama Desert, alongside the main highway, to the ‘finish line’ at San Pedro de Atacama, some 500km away and at an altitude of 2,400m.

Like the American version of The Speed Project (TSP) from Los Angeles to Las Vegas which made organiser Arend’s name, this race has no prize money, no rules, no set route and no website.

And, like LA-LV, there is no official way to enter.

Invitations and intros come via Arend’s WhatsApp, and the event itself is unsanctioned and entirely unsupported.

Unsupported, perhaps, but certainly not under the radar.

Among the 90 runners – broken down into 15 teams of six – are former Olympians, a high-profile American TV presenter, the so-called “real-life Forrest Gump” William Goodge, who this summer became the fastest Briton to run across America,, external and former women’s international footballer Daniela Andrade, who has run the length of Chile solo.

Tom Reynolds wearing a headtorch
Image caption,The 90 runners were drawn from all over the world by private invites to take part

When those runners left the ‘start line’ – an entirely arbitrary point on one edge of the skate park where Arend elected to stand when he got out of his pick-up truck a few minutes earlier – they had zero support from TSP organisers.

Unsupported racing is not a new phenomenon in running, or indeed in other sports like ultra-distance cycling.

For example, The Trans Continental (TCR) is infamous in the world of cycling as a brutal, yet beautiful 4,000km solo race across Europe in which accepting help of any kind means disqualification.

But even in races like TCR each rider has a tracking device and there are checkpoints to ride through and monitor the welfare of the field.

Arend already adamantly shied away from any such checks and balances for The Speed Project.

With TSP Atacama, he pushed the boundaries and runners’ comfort zones even further.

In the pre-race briefing he readily admitted that if his US and Chilean races were compared to cats then “LA-LV would be a domestic cat, while Atacama would definitely be a tiger”.

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