TSP-Ride the Lightning

TSP-Ride the Lightning

I hope you never have to rush while learning the basics of driving an RV. I hope you never have to question if you completely wiped feces off your limbs. I can tell you firsthand that neither of these experiences is fun.

We were blasting west from Baker towards Barstow, the opposite direction of the race’s finish line, and it was my fault that we weren’t in the right place. A missed leg of the course had me thinking that I had pulled into a truck stop for my first rest of the day when in fact, we needed to be 30 miles back to connect with the rest of the relay team.

“However fast this thing can go, that’s what we need it at, Eli,” a voice from behind me said. 

On board was a 2:17 marathoner and a two-time national 50k champion – their accolades and speed worthless unless I could undo my blunder and get them to the segment’s start.

***

In some ways, The Speed Project, a somewhat annual but completely unsanctioned footrace from the Santa Monica Pier to The Las Vegas Sign, makes perfect sense for runners. Those who purposely make themselves uncomfortable for sport, hobby, or addiction are always looking for a new way to do so.

It tests the limits of friendship, the human body, and rental insurance policies. There is only one rule: don’t do anything illegal, including running on main highways. Other than that, you can choose your routes and running shifts on the way to Sin City. Fueled by camaraderie and competition, this year’s event drew 50 relay teams from around the world.

On, the running shoe and apparel company that employs me, sponsored a team of four men and two women, which is the required roster if you want your record to count. There is no limit for support crews or drivers.

My job as one of the drivers seemed simple enough when I was asked to fly from Portland to LA six days before the race’s start. The runners were connected through mutual friends in the running world and vaguely knew of each other. The drivers, three On employees plus another acquaintance, were responsible for ensuring the athletes were stocked with resources and in the correct places for their segments.

This wasn’t the Spring Break I had envisioned, but I figured a change from my day-to-day work would be nice, and I could use a few days of sunshine before turning 29.

From the first hour I landed in LA I was driving. I drove a rented sprinter van, a Denali, and a Uhaul. In 24 hours, I went to LAX 5 times, picking up athletes and crew coming into town. There’s no way to pull exact stats, but I’d guess I drove more miles those days than I had the rest of the year combined.

Because of team duties and race planning, none of the other drivers could make the RV pick up, and after watching a 15-minute instructional video, I was thrown the keys to a 42-foot monster. “It will be fine; just watch turns because it swings wide,” the kind woman at the rental place told me. She showed me the electronic controls and briefly described how to empty the septic tank. Great, good to go.

As race day drew closer and the athletes trickled in from across the US, I realized just how fast they were and how they planned to break the course record by finishing in under 30 hours. Thinking about the mounting responsibility for the RV and this team’s success, I felt the weight of anxiety like never before. 

I may not have been responsible for running, but prerace nerves hit me harder than in any event I’ve run myself. This was no longer a sunny break in my work-from-home life. I lay awake thinking of all the worst-case scenarios that could happen. “Customer Service Representative Ruins Team’s Chances at Course Record” was one of the less graphic headlines I imagined.

Would On pay for damage incurred from my driving? If I got a ticket, would our lawyers in Switzerland fight it for me?

I thought about how comfortable I’d be in my usual routine back home. Taking calls for customers’ shipping issues, going for a jog, and making half a turkey sandwich on my lunch break. I didn’t have a Commercial Drivers License. Why do these people trust me?

Friday, 4 AM: After my nearly sleepless night, the start of the race went off without a hitch, and by that I mean I took off the RV’s antenna on a low-hanging branch 30 minutes into the event. As I watched one of the runners hop out and grab the dome-shaped plastic piece in the residential street, I knew that any blind faith they’d had in me to drive would surely be gone.

Even the angriest customer calls seemed enviable now.

***

Because you can choose your own route, tactics and variables are essential to a successful race. No one loves crunching numbers and adjusting variables like distance runners.

On the outskirts of LA, we were rotating the six runners between three vehicles. The RV served as an HQ with food, water, and various massage and stretching devices on hand. There was also a sprinter van and a Nissan 4×4 with a bike strapped to the roof for pacing on a desert stretch to come. 

As each runner finished their segment, they’d slap the hand of the next teammate and quickly reach to click off their watch. Strava or it doesn’t count, obviously. The plan was to run longer segments at the beginning of the race, covering more ground while the weather was still cool.

Despite running longer legs – five and six miles at a sub-6-minute pace per mile – they smiled as they got into the RV. Endorphins were high from their run and they happily grabbed a spoonful of peanut butter, banana, or a shot of cold brew coffee. My initial adrenaline after swiping the tree branch had disappeared, and as we headed out of LA, I was almost able to appreciate the sunrise over the hills and desert. It hit me then how long I would be awake, and if we were to run the goal time of 30 hours, that meant I would see another sunrise from behind the wheel. Sweet.

Driving the massive machine became easier. I learned the RV’s brakes and how to take wide turns. Cars were also quick to pass and speed away. Adios. We are only going as fast as the runner on the road. And I enjoyed the role of being in charge of the HQ. Runners switched in and out of the passenger seat and the couches in the back. After sending water bottles and granola bars flying across the vehicle once or twice, I learned to make a habit of yelling, “Everybody ready?” before pulling back onto the road. As the miles were ticked off and the smell in the RV got worse, the team chemistry was building.

Runners kept track of other teams’ Instagrams and the race leaderboards – both sources of positioning that we learned were not dependable because of reception and delayed posting.

Between my fourth and fifth cup of coffee, the lonesome road turned to dirt, and I remembered every horror movie and murder story about a desert. While driving through pothole-filled paths, we passed plots of land fenced off with barbed wire that surrounded houses made of pallets. I saw children’s toys strewn about “yards” with no child, or human for that matter, to be seen. I would have been terrified if it wasn’t 10 in the morning.

There were a few miscues, missed roads, and delayed exchanges, but the team persisted at the blistering pace, and as far as we could tell, we were in first place. Some of the teams we met before the race were groups of friends, former college teammates, or coworkers getting together for a laugh-filled adventure through the desert. Others, like ours, had been put together for competition. There were even a few Olympians and celebrities in the distance running world on some sponsored rosters. 

Once we were out of pallet town, I finally embraced the absurdity of the experience and began feeding off the team’s energy. Though they were accomplished runners, a trip like this sponsored by a large brand was out of the ordinary. They all had day jobs, families, and life commitments waiting for them back in the real world.

At some point, one of them yelled, “Ride the lightning,” which promptly became our team motto.

In the afternoon heat, we pulled off so someone could pee along the road, and I heard a roar upon us. I searched the sky, as we were close to Area 51, but instead spotted two bright Lamborghinis approaching. They slowed down to make a turn onto another county road, got side by side in both lanes, and let it rip. The runners on board loved it, and I realized they, too, had their foot on the gas. Though not as shiny as some of the other sponsored teams, our crew was ready to blow the doors off of the competition. Ride the lightning.

***

The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a blur. Segments were completed, hats and buffs were thrown in the freezer, and the team hopped in and out of vehicles with few complaints about the desert heat. 

I pulled into a town that exists solely for truck stops and fast food where I was to make the dreaded sewage dump. Two runners were on board, resting after long segments while the other runners and drivers completed the route behind us. 

This is when things went downhill. I paid the $10 drop fee and queued up a “How to” YouTube video. I put on the gloves, unfurled the plastic hose, and stuck one end in the designated hole in the ground. Hesitantly and while holding my breath, I moved the lever ever so slightly to the open position and, to my horror, heard a small *splat* on the pavement near my leg. In a panic, I rushed to close the valve and instead, knocked it slightly more open. I felt something hit my leg.

I ripped off the gloves and charged into the RV. With legs propped in a recovery boot machine, one of the runners was eating a burrito. He understood my dilemma in just a few rushed words and threw me a sanitizing body wipe. I couldn’t scrub myself hard enough.

A fellow RV driver pulled up next to me and kindly confirmed that the hose we were given was the wrong model. Feeling validated and disgusted, I enforced a no-more-bathroom rule. The team would understand. 

Thinking about shit, thinking about staying awake, and thinking about Area 51, I drove on to Baker while the two runners on board slept. As the sun set, we pulled into another truck stop, and the runners got out to use the facilities. While on board, I called another driver to tell him we’d arrived and that I was finally going to sleep. 

“Baker? No, Barstow!” My heart dropped as I realize I’d skipped a step on the plan and brought two of the team 30 miles past where we were supposed to be.

We pulled out of the truck stop and blasted back through the desert. I could not have felt worse and began imagining our team losing the race by mere minutes, all because of my error. The graphic headlines played through my head again as I white-knuckled the steering wheel. I was equally as fearful of our speed as I was of letting the team down.

Thankfully, the runners on board connected with the team ahead and told them just to go once they got to the location. I pushed the RV as fast as it would go. My fatigue was replaced with adrenaline and guilt, and we rolled into the trailhead only a few minutes after the rest of the team arrived. The runner at the stop had taken off, and the two in the RV jumped into the idling 4×4 to catch up to him. I felt so ashamed that I almost couldn’t look at the rest of the runners as they boarded, but they assured me we hadn’t lost much time. I just hoped the 4×4 would find the runner out on the dark trail.

For the third time that evening, I pulled onto Highway 15, past the lame alien signs, and now very, very eager to rest. 

We filled up on gas at the familiar truck stop and parked in a gravel lot. Three runners were on the dirt road with a driver and the 4X4. The rest of the team, including other On employees who had helped behind the scenes for the race, convened at the gas station. Someone brought me fries from Carl’s Jr.

Runners and drivers curled up where they could, in the back of vans, in passenger seats and makeshift beds. I pulled my buff over my eyes and tried to calm my heart rate that’d been elevated since the septic incident. Sleep finally arrived between the noise of trucks pulling out of the lot and compressed air hissing from the recovery boots. 

What felt like an eternity was three and a half hours. Another driver handed me a canned cold brew coffee, and I was reborn.

The next rendevous was at yet another truck stop, this one just over the Nevada border alongside Whiskey Pete’s Hotel & Casino. 

I had to go through the casino to get to the 24/7 IHOP. Friends from Nevada have since told me that Whiskey Pete’s is a fun place to frequent, but my experience was sub-par. There were only a few gamblers at 5:00 am, some having late nights and others, early mornings. I saw a man racing to smoke a cigarette while violently pulling down a slot machine arm, a puff of smoke rising with each tug. Another guy ran into the bathroom stall next to mine and vomited for roughly two minutes. I left him a water bottle on the counter and went to pick up my order at IHOP. 

***

When the 4×4 pulled up at the meeting spot, two runners hopped out, looking tired but smiling. The third was pale white and shaking. Also, the bike appeared to be missing from the top of the vehicle, and the license plate was crooked.

The road was so bumpy that while the runners waited for their turn, they got motion sick from the dips and potholes. The shaking had been so bad that the entire bike rack snapped off the roof, and one of the runners looked like he was on his deathbed. I thought of all the scenarios I’d faced so far but hadn’t considered that I might be needed to provide medical attention.

We threw the runner in the back of the RV, and I asked him if I could help him.

“If you can make the world stop spinning, that’d be great,” he mumbled.

The team was in rough shape. The vehicles had taken damage, and we didn’t know if the gamble to go through the treacherous dirt road would pay off. The morning seemed as bleak for us as it was for the characters back in Whiskey Pete’s. And then we got onto South Vegas Boulevard, the road between the freeway and desert mountains that was a straight shot to the strip. Back within cell phone reception, someone checked the leaderboard, showing us sitting in first place.

This gave the runners, banged up and tired, the renewed strength they needed to close out the race. One of them was sitting in the sprinter van, hood up, blaring classical music. Like a boxer headed out for his title fight, he looked through me and said, more so to himself, “I’m going to run low sixes.”  

I was startled when the runner, whom I thought needed medical attention, asked me for some pancakes. Thankful that he was alive, I handed him a stack which he rolled one at a time like tortillas and ate without any toppings. There was no prize money for winning and not even a trophy waiting in Vegas, but the team was determined to close this out in first place. Dealing with pains and tiredness, each of them rotated miles and half miles to blast through the final stretch. 

We brought the RV ahead to park near the Welcome To Las Vegas sign and greet the winners. The world-famous landmark was much smaller than I thought it would be, but maybe my dramatic entrance had built up the finale in my mind. There was a long line of people waiting to get their photos taken in front of it: families with bored kids, excited couples fixing their hair, and a group of what I assume was a bachelorette party dressed as tacky cowgirls, tapping their boots impatiently. I stood off to the side with the other On employees, the ones who had worked behind the scenes all week. I don’t know where they went after they slept at the gas station, but they had brought cases of champagne and told me to start shaking bottles. 

Our runners approached the sign together as one, and we sprayed the champagne. It was a strange thought that they raced the whole way as a team but, up until that point, hadn’t run together. It had been 29 hours and 26 minutes since the start in Santa Monica, a course record, and about 30 minutes before the next crew would finish. They wiped sweat, tears, and champagne from their faces and posed for the obligatory sign photo. The families waiting for their pictures were confused, but they and the cowgirls could wait a little longer.

***

The following 36 hours felt like a fever dream. I stayed in the most excellent hotel room I’ve ever been in and sleepwalked under the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip. I shuffled amongst crowds of men carrying golf clubs, past imitation Elvises, through the mazes of slots and tables that stretch the casino floors. I went to a pool party where I saw Diplo perform and bought a $65 rum and coke. Then I got a lightning bolt tattoo with my teammates to commemorate the victory. 

Ride the lightning.

Photo by Aisha McAdams

On the day of my departure, it was back to business, dropping off a Uhaul across town, a sprinter van at the airport economy parking lot, and finally, the RV. 30 minutes before they closed, I wheeled the beast in, finally feeling acquainted with the vehicle’s dimensions and almost like I knew what I was doing. I apologized to the woman at the front desk about the antenna and the full septic tank. She laughed and said that our RV was actually in better shape than most that were returned from the race. 

I went to the airport right from the rental lot to catch an evening flight back to Portland. Settling into my seat on the plane, I felt dirty and exhausted but also strangely accomplished. It would only take a couple of hours to get home, and I chuckled, thinking about all the vehicles and miles it had taken to get me to that point.

What would have been another monotonous work week turned into one of the toughest tests I’d come across. We won, and I didn’t kill anyone.

I guess I passed.

Photo by Caroline Slawson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: