Ultra-Running with The Speed Project Champ

The Speed Project starts at the Santa Monica Pier, and finishes at the famous Las Vegas sign. The premise of this race is simple. There is no route, there are no rules, the fastest person/team wins. Having had this ultra-running race on her bucket list for some time, Shelby Farrell wanted to maximize her performance and test her limits. Below is a story of what it takes to complete this race, and what was required to become the Female Solo Champion.

Logistics and Wearable Technology

Going into The Speed Project, Shelby knew she would be running for 100-110 hours. With this comes the understanding that she needed a tool that would have enough battery life and provide her with the guidance needed. Shelby utilized the COROS VERTIX 2 for all of her routing and tracking needs. With 140 hours of standard GPS use, Shelby knew her equipment would last throughout the race. With this peace of mind, she spent far more time planning her route, pace, and strategy.

Creating Her Own Route
Shelby’s Route from Santa Monica to Las Vegas

With no official route, racers have the opportunity to find the fastest route possible to get from Santa Monica to Las Vegas. For Shelby, this ended up being 289.3 miles. “I pulled two all nighters creating the plan for running The Speed Project Solo. So many hours mapping on Strava”. Shelby would essentially go into Strava, create routes, and then upload them to her VERTIX 2. Part of this planning was for her actual running, but another part was for identifying feasible sleeping spots, “zooming in on the satellite map to see if there was a safe spot to park a vehicle and pop-up our rooftop tent.” With a race lasting over 100 hours for solo runners, its critical that you not only plan your running, but your rest as well. “The plan for this race was to move forward for ten hours and then rest for two hours, repeat.” For any individual looking to tackle an ultra-running event in the future, these are key items you’ll want to prepare ahead of time.

Crew, Pacers, and Spreadsheets

When preparing for an ultra-running event, you’ll need to find some loyal friends to pace and crew for you along the way. To help with this, Shelby put together a google sheets for her entire crew to ensure they stayed on track. The level of planning is impressive to say the least. “In the end I created a five-tab spreadsheet, broken out by days, with as many drop pins as I could muster up. I repeatedly told myself to stick to the schedule.” To identify her pacers, she shared this sheet with friends and had them fill in their names when they may be available to help. “I felt really guilty asking people to miss work and drive out to the desert to support me, so I used my spreadsheet as a signup sheet and opened up the opportunity to everyone!”. Shelby ultimately had a few local friends along with her Los Angelas Adidas Running Crew that signed up for the journey!

Nutrition Planning

When getting into ultra-running events, nutrition is often the item that makes or breaks the journey. Can your stomach handle the food while running for multiple days? Shelby wanted to target a 50/50 approach between real foods, and sport gels, “The Maurten hydrogel mix is really powerful stuff! French fries, Starbucks Frappuccinos, croissants, and straight up avocado…I’m often thinking, how can I get the most calories the fastest?”. Shelby noted this mix was fantastic and held her steady all the way to the finish line! For those looking to find their own nutrition plan, the best bet is to try different items during long training runs or ultra-running events and note the outcome for future success.

Race Recap and Data Analysis

With logistics in place, the next part of the equation is nailing your racing strategy. As you can see from the google sheets above, Shelby had her pacing in place for her optimal finishing time. Whats impressive here is that she was able to stick to this pacing throughout the entire race. While there were some deviations due to crew mishaps (getting car stuck in a ditch), she conserved energy throughout to ensure she could finish strong when needed. As any athlete knows, it is easy to start running at tempo or even a threshold pace when first starting out. Within ultra-running events however, its best to maintain a low heart rate to ensure fatigue is minimized.

Heart Rate
Heart Rate captured via the COROS App

Average: 108 beats per minute

Time spent at fat burn or below intensities: 88 hours 2 minutes

Time spent above aerobic endurance: 13 hours 51 min

You can see from the heart rate graph above that Shelby was able to keep her heart rate relatively low throughout the majority of the race. A small spike around mile 179 as she helped push a friends car out of the ditch, and then the final 24 mile kick at the end to chase down her competition and pass her within the final mile!

Pace data captured via the COROS App

Average pace: 21:08/mile

Best Mile: 6:55/mile (Last mile)

From the data above, you can see that Shelby was able to keep her pace (and heart rate) in check the entire race. This is a sign of a well-designed plan and knowing how hard you can push your body. “Physically preparing meant getting strong and confident. I PR’d my marathon during an 80-mile training week. Having that effort under my belt gave me full confidence that I would be able to sustain a serious pace through the finish”. With Shelby’s training consisting of big volume weeks and a few 50 mile ultra-running events throughout the spring, she was confident she would have the energy and fitness needed to finish strong.

Shelby received an update the final morning that she was in 2nd place and the leader was several miles ahead of her. Due to her conservative pacing, she knew this was the time to go for it…”I was able to go full send several times within the last 50 miles, taking it to the next level for the final 24 miles, which is exactly what needed to happen if I wanted to win.”

In an incredible display of stamina and fitness, Shelby ran her fastest 24 miles to finish the race. By doing so, Shelby was able to catch first place within a mile of the finish line. After a 289 miles of going solo, she went into the lead in the final mile of The Speed Project.

Average pace of final 24 miles: 8:37/mile

The Experience

When preparing for an ultra-running event, there are countless hours of planning that go into a successful race. As seen above, Shelby spent sleepless nights planning the logistics, and even more time training for this physical feat. While all of the planning helped Shelby finish first, there were still some crazy experiences along the way that made the journey what it was.

Most Challenging Parts

As any ultra-runner can attest, rest and sleep are wonderful and needed. When you’ve been on your feet running/walking/moving forward for 100 miles, and finally get to lay down, its not easy to leave that comfortable place. “Getting out of bed after a rest break was rough. Your body temperature shifts, the tent is cozy, and you need to get up, figure out what to wear for the day, eat, and move out, as quickly as possible.”

While getting out of bed was tough, there was one other setback on Shelby’s journey that she didn’t have in the plan. At mile 179 their crew vehicle became stuck. “I hit a low around mile 179 after helping push a crew vehicle out of a sandy ditch. It was nearing my 2am naptime, but I had fallen 12 miles behind my plan. I was starting to worry about my crew and it felt like it was taking forever to get to the next stop.” While these difficulties were potential race killers, Shelby was able to maintain her motivation and keep moving through these un-planned challenges.

Best Parts

For anyone that knows Shelby, she has a love for running that is apparent upon first meeting her. She loves the community, the challenge, and seeing how far she can push her body. A testament to her attitude around ultra-running, Shelby only noted two bad sections of the entire 290 mile journey. Everything else was pure bliss to her! “There were a lot of parts that I loved. Overall, it was as close to perfect as a race this distance and nature could get. I loved spending time with the Adidas Runners Los Angeles community, I enjoyed running through the desert sunrises and sunsets.”

There is something to be said about having a positive mindset during these long races. Things are going to go wrong, that is a given. However, when you have a positive mindset and truly love what you’re doing, you quickly forget about the bad and remember everything that you love about the challenge. Shelby falls into this category of ultra-runner and because of that, she was able to maximize her race at The Speed Project.

Whats Next?

For Shelby, this was a massive accomplishment that took several years of training and multiple weeks of planning. A well deserved rest is on tap for the next few months. Once rested, you’ll see Shelby doing what many successful ultra-runners do. Cross-train. “I love CrossFit/strength training, cycling, spin class, hot yoga… the list goes on. I find having variety in life is really important physically and mentally. And definitely key for injury prevention!”

Following her cross-training phase, Shelby will be working on “speed” as she finds a few local trail runs. Her ultimate goal is to target an October 100 mile PR and see where that takes her into the future. If we know anything about Shelby, she will have a solid plan in place and love every part of of the journey getting there!

Coaching Comments & Conclusion

Control The Controllables

For those reading this article and either getting into ultra-running or aiming to improve your ability, there are a few key take-aways that you can learn from Shelby’s winning run. First, planning your training, routes, logistics is the number one item all athletes should do. In the coaching world there is a saying, “control the controllables.” With so many items being outside of your control, let’s make sure that we do our best to control what we can. By having a plan in place, it gives you the peace of mind needed and a sense that you can turn things around if something goes wrong.

Physical Fitness and Pacing Tactics

From a physical standpoint, you should note that Shelby was able to limit her exposure to higher intensities early on. This helped conserve her muscular recruitment/force and cardiovascular systems. Shelby was aware of her heart rate and pacing zones through training, and then used these zones to help plan her pacing goals. By having a sound nutritional and pacing strategy, she still had the energy needed to kick when it was necessary. Many ultra-runners start out with an unrealistic pace and fade. Be true to yourself and know your early pacing so you can maximize your final kick when needed.

What Is Your “Why”

Finally, you need to know your “why”. Why do you run 50-100-150-290 miles? For Shelby it’s easy, she loves the challenge and the community. Things will get tough for you out there. Some may say that’s the beauty of it. When things turn bad, what is your motivating factor. Be sure you understand this before you get into those situations. Having this in the back of your head is the difference between sleeping in that cozy tent, or waking up on time, running, and winning The Speed Project!

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