Running 300 miles alone across Death Valley is an undertaking most people wouldn’t dare on their feet — or psyche. Good thing this Bronx native isn’t most people.
It’s 3 a.m. and Malcolm Ebanks is sipping hot chocolate, eating potato bread, and watching Cowboy Bebop at home in the South Bronx. He wakes up naturally, no later than 4 a.m. every day. It’s a routine going on three decades. Within the hour, he loads a small backpack with salt tablets, water, more bread, and extra running clothes. He tucks his feet into a pair of adidas, then he’s out the door of his co-op to run upwards of 22 miles, alone.
Ebanks, 51 years young and a father of two, moves with the fluidity of a man unaffected by time and the toll of heavy mileage. He finds solitude in these early-morning hours—a moment of stillness as he moves his body through space before the sun harkens the city to life.
“I don’t want to call it freedom,” Ebanks says, but it’s something like it—more ritual than routine. He talks to himself, contemplates life, often musing on forgiveness and lost love. And as he runs, he figures out his world a little more.
On March 21, Ebanks will take part in the unsanctioned, invite-only ultramarathon known as The Speed Project (TSP). Ideated in 2014 by Nils Arend, a former rave organizer turned creative agency founder, TSP has been described as “Burning Man for Runners.”
The pilgrimage starts at the Santa Monica Pier hours before sunrise and unfurls for ~340 miles across the California Desert, where temperatures average 90 degrees. Runners not only contend with high mileage and baking heat, but also sleep deprivation, the occasional rattlesnake, and packs of wild dogs. Par for the course at TSP.
PICK YOUR POISON
Two races occur simultaneously during TSP week. Most participants partake in option one: a six-person relay that tag-teams the distance over the course of two days, culminating at the Las Vegas Strip.
Ebanks prefers option two: to cover the distance himself.
He’s not motivated by a prize or money. In fact, there’s no financial reward for spending six grueling days running through Death Valley—the driest place in North America—just warm celebratory sprays of cheap Champagne.
For many of the relay teams, the agenda is to win. But for Ebanks and the dozen or so who’ll endure TSP solo, the mission is to simply finish. While he’s running alone, this isn’t a one-man mission. Ebanks is supported by Bandit and a seven-person crew; among them: pacers, an RV captain, and someone to pump him with enough fuel to keep him going steady throughout.
BRICK BY BRICK
Up until 2020, Ebanks had never run beyond a half-marathon. Yet he’s not questioning why, now, he’s putting himself through the mental turmoil and physical anguish of ultra-running.
The only thing he’s considering is how: How to find harmony between his psyche and physical being; how to course-correct if part of his body rejects the effort; how to stifle the inner monologue if it doesn’t serve the end goal.
He grooms his mind with positive self-talk—Take it mile by mile, day by day—as he primes his body for a quest his muscles and heart have never known.
“I want to feel the experience,” Ebanks says, seemingly unintimidated by the distance. “It’ll make me own my body more.”
Preparing for TSP has been a journey in and of itself. Sometimes he’s out running for five hours straight; sometimes longer, like when 50 miles “or so” is on the calendar.
“They don’t get it,” Ebanks says. “They,” as in people in his circle who don’t run. They don’t see what he sees—a version of the city that’s calm and unfussy. And they don’t comprehend the elevated sense of awareness that comes with running. It’s a transcendent experience that lets him approach the day with greater humility and focus on his role as a guidance counselor at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. He describes mentoring young adults as a daily practice of devotion.
“I’m committed to the social capital of it all.” That is, using relationships to improve society. Ebanks is also looking to complete a dissertation program at St. John’s University in Queens to earn a doctorate in educational administration and supervision. Right now, it’s on hold: Logging over 100 miles of training each week for TSP is, as you’d imagine, an all-consuming endeavor.
When Ebanks runs through his neighborhood, sometimes lapping his half-mile block 40 times like a race track, he thinks back to when he immigrated to the Bronx in the mid-80s with his mother. Life was in stark contrast to where he grew up in West Bromwich, a small town outside of Birmingham, England, an area safe enough for parents to leave their kids outside unattended.
At the time, life in the Bronx was typified by “people trying to make the best life they could for their families” despite the harsh realities of poverty.
Ebanks found the beauty of running as a teen. He participated in cross country and track at James Monroe High School, specializing in the mile, taking a brief hiatus to pursue higher education. By the time he started up again, his neighborhood had undergone its own transformation.
“The Bronx had exploded with run groups,” he prides.
He’ll join in on the fun occasionally, but Ebanks savors his alone time, finding peace in the rhythm of his breath as he unboxes his thoughts. One of them being the transportive nature of running, both literally and figuratively.
So how does Ebanks feel about going where he’s never been before?
“This is one big experiment,” he claims. “I’m not overconfident. Let’s see what happens.”
We’re all rooting for you, Malcolm. Keep going.
Follow Malcolm's IG for TSP updates.