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K a m C a s e y : I n t o t h e V o i d

Kam Casey: Into the Void

Perspective from a runner in the deep, dark, depths of The Speed Project.

For the last year, I've dyed my hair bright red and hot pink. I was just having fun with it, no deeper meaning, no existential crisis the year before I turned 30. Then last week, almost a year later to the day, I decided to schedule an appointment at an overpriced barbershop to cut the previous color out. I'm not sure why; maybe I'm applying for a more "serious" job, and I subconsciously thought I should look the part. Perhaps I thought losing some of the hair would be nice when running through the desert later that week. Whatever it was, I left the barbershop feeling less like myself.

I kept looking in the mirror and thinking, 'I hate it. I don't feel like me.' I told my friends the same. But that all changed Wednesday evening when I walked into the Bandit Running Airbnb to meet my 2022 Speed Project team.

Quick aside if you're not in the know: The Speed Project is a race that starts on the pier in Santa Monica, California, and ends at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign in Nevada. There's no set route you need to take; just be the first team to make it there on foot, and you win. The only rule is you can't break the law to get there (e.g. running on the highway, egregious trespassing, etc.).

Everyone's smiling. You can feel the good energy flowing. The Bandit team greets us with open arms and blesses us with a ton of gear. After poking around the Airbnb for a bit, it's time to get down to business.

Bandit invited myself, Allison Lynch, Sean Grossman, Evan Schwartz, John Rice, and Alexandraia Iaccarino, to test their brand new performance prototypes. And what better way to do that than with 30+ hours of arguably the most brutal race in the world.

We each change into our respective kits for photos and a FaceTime with Ardith Singh, chief design officer at Bandit. The first thing Ardith says to me is, 'You look much cleaner than I imagined; I was picturing you with the dyed hair.'

Someone who didn't even know me knew I didn't look like ME! And I didn't feel it either. So, after a nice dinner and some meetings with the team, I went home and buzzed it all off. My thinking was that running is a meditative, sometimes transcendental experience—and if I'm going into the unknown of the desert, I'm going in with a clean slate.

I've just begun reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. Early on in the book, he talks about "running into the void" and how he actually runs to CREATE a void. That hit me pretty hard because I've felt the same way for years. I run for many reasons, but the most integral part of the process is the time.

Every day, I get a set amount of time to fall into a hypnotic rhythm and shed everything in my life. Stress, grief, work, you name it—running is an opportunity to create a black hole around me, even if just for an hour.

And that's not to say that when I'm running in my personal void I think of nothing; it's more of the ability to think about everything and nothing all at once. That's what the void is, after all, isn't it? A space we fill—or don't—with our own thoughts and emotions.

You have set parameters when running: pace, distance, effort, location. And all the things that happen within those parameters don't exist anywhere else in your life, which is how the void gets created. Am I making sense? I'm making sense to me, so I'll keep going; it'll all come together, eventually, I think.

So anyway, I buzzed my hair Wednesday night. I got up early Thursday morning, cleaned up the buzz, then went out for a shake-out with my teammates. This is our first time all being together without the Bandit team (minus Tim Rossi, Bandit's head of experiences; he tagged along for the run, but all of us know him well, so he didn't change the vibe at all).

Y'know how you can kind of tell if you're going to like people before you really know them? I never felt the connective tissue of a group of individuals start to multiply quite like this before. After 30 minutes of running, I knew we would make it through the desert, regardless of the obstacles ahead. The rest of the day is a blur, to be completely honest. Some meetings, dinner, and an unnecessary trip to Erewhon. We have lights out at 8 p.m. 

At this point, I still didn't know Sean Grossman, my roommate for the trip. I was having trouble remembering if he was Sean, Evan, or John, honestly. But as the lights went out, I could feel the anticipation in the air. And I can say from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. my eyes were closed, but I'm not sure how much sleep I actually got. I've never had to wake up at 2 in the morning to be ready to lead off a race that begins at 4 a.m. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve—full of nervous anticipation.

There's no real guide for how to eat and fuel for a race like this. Even when we knew we needed to eat in the middle of it, we were so full of Maurten (#ad) that the thought of trying to get a meal in our bodies was a bit repulsive. Most of the time in the RV is spent trying to get yourself to eat an un-toasted bagel in the 15 to 30 minutes you're sitting in Normatech recovery boots. But when I felt hungry, I used it as an opportunity to put whatever was lying around into my body, mainly spinach-herb wraps with rice and tuna; potato chips; Oreos; and bananas. 

When we woke up the morning of the race, we groggily roamed the Airbnb trying to decide if we should even attempt to eat. Most of us chose not to, which proved to be a rookie mistake for the reasons listed above. I opted to stick with just water, changed into my Bandit gear, laced up my shoes, and hopped into the RV. None of us said much on the short drive to the pier. But nerves quickly turned to excitement. I was the lead-off leg for the team, handing off to Sean, whose hand I slapped so many times over 300 miles I'm pretty sure our fingerprints have fused. 

Hundreds of people surrounded the Santa Monica Pier at 3 o'clock in the morning. Cameras flashed non-stop, friends embraced each other, strangers wished one another good luck. There was so much love in the air. Love for our fellow athletes and this insane sport that had somehow brought 47 teams from all over the world together. After we got a little press out of the way, I embraced my teammates as they retreated to the RV and headed three miles ahead to meet me.

A lot of the actual running is cloudy, but I remember all of the stillness: the scenery, the conditions, the feeling of seeing my teammate inch closer and closer to me with each handoff. I don't recall how my body was feeling or how, without fail, I took a handoff and dashed forward never doubting whether I could go just as fast as my last rep, if not faster.

Our race plan was fairly simple. For the first 70 miles or so, we would make our way out of Los Angeles as a whole team of six. Then, as we left the city and started to make our way into the mountains, Allison, Ale, and John would take over for 90 minutes so me, Sean, and Evan could rest and refuel. And that was the cadence almost the entire time. Evan started out absolutely CRUSHING segments. Uphill, downhill, rocks, road, whatever—he put mile after mile behind him in effortless fashion. Initially, Sean and I shouldered less of the difficult sections and mainly focused on maintaining pace. While Evan took on some of the gnarlier climbs, we took more of the long, gradual uphills and, in the end, it actually evened out pretty well. 

Even as Allison battled a knee issue, she consistently put up mileage faster than she imagined she'd be able to in the beginning, let alone 20 miles into the race. Every time we exchanged teams, we had confidence our other three teammates were putting in just as much work as we were.

Steve Finley, our captain and coach for the race, assured us the team exceeded his expectations. I don't think I've ever had anyone instil confidence in me the same way Finley did throughout the 60+ miles I ran. It wasn't overstated; instead, he'd calmly explain the section ahead, the terrain, what shoes you should wear, and what to look out for. Then I'd hop out of the car, take the exchange, and watch as he gave the car horn two honks and rode ahead to the next checkpoint.

And that's where the Void was cultivated. Finley had an uncanny ability to help shed any doubt or adversity we were perceiving at the moment. He assured us every section was manageable, otherwise he wouldn't be sending us out there.

And each time we got back in the Jeep for a short rest, he gave us a quick, "Nice job!" and advanced to the following exchange zone.

I can't remember many thoughts other than: “One foot in front of the other; avoid the rocks; look out for uneven footing; take nice, even breaths; the Jeep's just ahead; keep pace; don't let Sean and Evan down; bake lights are getting closer; touch hands; get in, extend your legs; refuel.” Finley created that space for us.

It sounds simple, underwhelming even. But when you have to assure six runners—five of which don't even have 10 marathons between them—that they possess the ability to sustain marathon pace for 60 hours on no sleep, you need cool, calm, collected confidence. Reserve the hype and shouting for a shorter race.

That was the pace of life for the first half of the race. Kam, Sean Evan, Kam, Sean Evan, Kam, Sean…Rest for a bit in the RV, close your eyes, try to sleep, eat what you can, hydrate, and get ready to go again.

It wasn't until late in the first day, ahead of sunset, that we encountered a real problem. Evan—our strongest runner, an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, who lives at altitude in Denver, and has the most trail- and ultra-running experience—began to experience severe issues with his quads.

Those gruelling sections of steep uphills and sharp downhills greatly affected his ability to hold pace. I noticed he walked more gingerly with each leg. I specifically remember him straining to climb up the stairs to the RV after a long haul. I realized how much pain he was pushing through. And yet, he never complained. I'd have to ask him, but in my head, I'm sure it was similar to my thinking: Running was creating a void in which he was able to push through the pain. It wasn't until he physically couldn't continue, after over 47 intense miles himself, that he had to pull out.

Around the same time we lost Evan, Allison began to fade, as well. We were in the middle of what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half-hour rest period when we were abruptly woken by Dave Hashim, who had been captaining the RV most of the way, telling us we needed to be ready in less than 20 minutes. The look in my, Sean, and Evan's eyes was disdain. It was directed at Dave at the moment, but in reality, it was 4 a.m., and we were dead tired. This was supposed to be the leg that the teams came back together to finish the last 70 or so miles in a full six-person rotation. But Dave explained Allison could barely run, and it would be sadistic to ask John and Ale to finish the rest of the 90 minutes alone.

We spent about 30 seconds sitting in disbelief, looking at each other with dread, complaining to Dave while we got our shoes on and tried to wake ourselves up. This was the first time any of us had gone into the RV and actually gotten to fall asleep. Up until this point, we'd all just rested our eyes for an hour or two max without actually falling asleep.

But we got up, got ready, put our headlamps on, and stepped out into the cold desert. When the Jeep came around, I cheered my teammates in, took the handoff, and started climbing. This was precisely the last section Evan was in the rotation. He helped us climb the mountain on dead legs until, finally, as the sun was rising, we reached the crest.

With the shape his quads were in, Evan couldn't have even physically attempted the seven-mile downhill ahead. So Sean and I agreed to take it on alone and, strangely, a sense of serenity washed over me. I looked out at the mountains, the sun just behind them, and told Rossi, "I'm about to rip this downhill."

And I did just that.

After a grueling climb, struggling to keep miles under 6:30, I threw down at 5:40. Excitedly, as I approached the Jeep, I yelled to Sean, "I just dropped a 5:40, and I was holding back!" His eyes lit up as he sped off. New life had somehow breathed into us. "I just went 4:55!" He said excitedly as he came in.

For seven miles, it was a constant flow of sub-5:30-5:40 miles for me and 5:00-5:10 miles for him. Our legs had, by some miracle, experienced a revival.

After the entire 20-mile section was complete, it was agreed that John, Allison, and Ale would climb a short but steep six-mile section (with an 8% grade), where Sean and I would meet them at the crest, and we would finish the last 40 or more so miles together. Somehow, Allison made it to the top in the rotation, but she had nothing left after this, so it was up to the four of us—me, Sean, Ale, and John—to bring it home. There were 40 miles to the Las Vegas sign.

We decided that, in our current state, 800-meter segments would serve us best. And we were flying. And I mean really flying. John and I were averaging close to 5:20 pace, Sean close to 5:10, and Ale under 6:00 for most of it. Without fail, the four of us rotated in and out of that Jeep for four hours. There was a point when John began to cramp in his shoulders, arms, back, and legs, but he still didn't quit. Instead, he started chugging orange juice and pounding his legs with the Theragun (LMAO, John, please chime in with the logic here).

In hindsight, I don't think the four of us had any doubt we'd be able to get the team across that line when that section started. It was exciting, to start. Sean and I hadn't run with Ale and John since the start of the race, over 200 miles ago, but as the excitement wore off, that connective tissue I mentioned earlier began to show.

Everyone was checking in on one another, passing waters around, shuffling the order to give one another just a bit more rest. We were constantly finding new ways to make sure we made it. And Finley was right there in the front seat, assuring us there were downhills ahead, even though it felt like there were points the rolling hills wouldn't end.

I think few feelings in my life will match the feeling of seeing Las Vegas from the Boulevard. It felt so close. Even with two hours to go, just seeing it was enough.

John kept up his antics and high spirit, Ale kept crushing half-miles like a stone-face killer, and Sean kept the 5:10 pace while making it look effortless. And in time, we were there. I ran the last three-quarter miles while the rest of the team met me to run the last two-tenths of a mile together, as we had started.

The rest of what happened at the finish line was a blur. There was a lot of champagne being sprayed, a lot of hugs and thank yous, some photos and, just like that, it was over. We spent the rest of the weekend reminiscing, asking how the hell we just did that, getting to know each other, sharing stories, eating, drinking, and solidifying the bond we had made in the desert. There was no better feeling than floating around Las Vegas with the Bandit team.

People often talk about Las Vegas like it isn't a real place, and I think I understand that now. Everything that happened after the race definitely felt like a dream. The Bandit team took care of us all. Love was pouring out of each of us as we moved from dinner to drinks to pool parties to dive bars to the back of a van giving out free tattoos. I couldn't think of a better place to exit the Void—a (neon) light at the end of the tunnel.

The last time I wrote one of these, I was in the process of reframing what I thought, at the time, was a massive failure at the Chicago Marathon. I came back three weeks later at the Indianapolis Monumental half and put up a PR in the half marathon, which felt great, but since then, I've thought a lot about what I want to do with running. I definitely want to keep running marathons and races, but I realized that a lot of the way I approached the Chicago Marathon took the fun out of running. So I came into 2022 with that intention: Have fun with it. I still want to compete and work hard, but I've got to have more fun with it.

So When Finley and Rossi approached me to do The Speed Project, it kind of felt like fate. A new challenge, with no real expectations beyond finishing the damn thing. And I'm grateful for every mile and every step (86,025, according to my watch). It gave me a chance to make sense of it all—an opportunity to shed my ego, lace my shoes up, and fall into the Void.

I'm coming out with a new family and fresh perspective (and sore legs and an insatiable appetite). Running is beautiful, and I hope everyone can find their own Void—a safe place to go to make sense of everything. If you see me rolling through the streets of LA soon, join me for a mile or two!

See you out there. 

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