The Speed Project: in conversation with Nils Arend
We sat down with The Speed Project founder Nils Arend and rapped about going from organizing ragers in a Hamburg bordel subtly titled "The Fuck Shop" to eventually being at the helm of something as coveted in the running community as The Speed Project. From raves to races, the man is in a constant state of reinvention, seeking new ways to push outside of his comfort zone and curate unique experiences.
Adam: Can you introduce yourself?
Adam: Yes, you. I know Travis pretty well already.
Travis: That's the first question.
I'm Nils Arend.
Adam: Cool. Can you give us a short bio?
How long or short should that be?
Adam: Totally up to you, man. Can be as long or as short as you want.
Cool, yeah... for sure. I was born in Germany years ago and grew up with my parents moving around a ton — lived in Africa, lived in France, lived in Switzerland. Went to boarding school — went to nine schools in eleven years all over Germany. Quit school, traveled around windsurfing for a year. Got into nightlife and started organizing raves which then led into a proper career in advertising.
When I got into my mid-20's, I felt kinda trapped in Germany and was looking to alter my lifestyle a little bit and was sitting in front of a globe and was like, okay where should I move? What do I want? I was like, I want ocean, I want an English-speaking country, I want a city which kind of has some sort of influence on the world. I identified a couple of options but one of them was Los Angeles.
So I convinced my boss at the time that I should get four weeks vacation and flew to LA. I literally didn't know anybody. I rented a room which I found on Craigslist, a car, bought a shitty foam board. My goal was like, I'm going to network the shit out of the city and see if I can get a job. I got lucky, I guess, and got a job after a few weeks of being in LA — totally overwhelmed with the scale, the hectic-ness.
I flew back with a job offer in my pocket and basically quit my pretty comfortable job in Germany and jumped headfirst into discomfort and learned very quickly that making $30,000 a year in LA before taxes is not enough.
My English was so bad I was afraid to pick up the phone. And I didn't know anybody. It was very uncomfortable. But luckily I thrive in discomfort and kind of like, got my feet on the ground and met the right people. Running played a big role in creating some kind of balance in my life and exploring the city.
Fast forward, I started my own agency and did that for 10 years and left that agency world. Within all that, I also started The Speed Project as a passion project.
And yeah, fast forward again, I'm currently in Mexico City, I've been nomadic for two years now and kind of figuring out what the next move is to get uncomfortable again.
Travis: What do you mean by you've been nomadic?
I don't have a residence, I don't have a home [laughs].
Adam: That is pretty nomadic, yeah.
Travis: Where was the last place you had a home? What was the reason you made this lifestyle change?
Yeah so, I do own a house and that was my last home. It's still mine but it's rented out, in Venice, CA. I guess I felt a little bit like the agency I started and then also left was very demanding. We had 150 employees, 8 offices. I kind of put 10 years of my life into that and it was dictating my lifestyle. After leaving that agency I felt like I needed to break off anything that felt restrictive or was holding me back. So I rented out my house, spent some time in Berlin and Germany, went to Africa for a month, spent quite some time in Costa Rica, and spent time in Mexico and Mexico City and different parts of Mexico.
It's been living out of a bag again and appreciating the minimalism and realizing all the material things everyone sees as milestones in life aren't that important, actually.
Travis: Wow, that sounds cool. I'm sure it's hard to narrow it down but what are some things you've learned over the course of your travels since making this lifestyle change?
That's a difficult question. I guess not having certain things you take for granted. Like, I was in the middle of the pandemic in full lockdown in the jungle of Costa Rica and I decided to — with Scottie, who is my creative sparring partner — we decided to alter the Speed Project concept and introduce a decentralized version of it because we wanted to be there for the running community. So we made that decision and the next morning I wake up and I remember — I made some coffee, it was still dark, and I was really enthusiastically sitting down at my laptop and I popped it open because I was like, okay we have a vision and we're going to make this happen, and I get surprised by bright red stripes on my laptop screen.
Adam: The screen of death?
The screen of death, exactly. And I was in the middle of the jungle in Costa Rica, you know? It's not like, "Hey, just walk down the path and the third palm tree on the left, that's Home Depot and when you pass Home Depot, there's the Apple Store."
So I basically only had my phone to do work for three months, I didn't have a computer. You kind of get recalibrated due to moments like this, you know? It's important to check and basically pull your system down and reboot at certain points in your life.
Adam: Totally. And speaking of recalibration and pivoting, earlier did you say in Germany you were organizing raves?
Adam: It's really funny because the letters "C" and "V" are right next to each other on the keyboard, so it's almost like, with a typo, you could say you went from organizing "raves" to organizing "races"...
Adam: Are there any similarities between those two things? How did you get into both of those things? What's your history with them?
Totally. It's kind of like you tell a story, right? You create an experience. I had, with two friends of mine, we had a traveling club. We had this first concept which was called Super Fly — we played old soul music and it was totally not the thing to do, we were going completely against the norm. We did that as a series in this backroom in this kind of weird club. It was like the back pool room, with pool tables and we decked it out. Nobody had thrown a party there before and it became kind of a thing. But it didn't really take off or anything.
Then we met this woman. I lived in the red light district in Hamburg. And me and my buddies were having a beer, it's Friday evening, and we met this older woman, she sits at the bar — she's in her 60's — she's chatty, she asks us what we do, we tell her we're in advertising and we ask her what she does, and she's like, "I run a hotel," and we're like, run a hotel... okay, cool.
If someone in the red light district tells you that they run a hotel, and they're female, she's definitely the Madame, right? So we start talking to her and I was like, "Wait, it's Friday night, shouldn't you be at work? It's like, the thing right now!" And she's like, "No, we cater to the older gentlemen and they're with their families on the weekends so we're closed." And we're like, okay, tell us more about your hotel...
She explains it — it's in this fucking hot location, it has red velvet walls, chandeliers, oil paintings of naked women, it's like from the 70's, it's cool.
Travis: That's awesome.
And it's like, closed on the weekends! You know?!
So fast forward to us making a deal with her that we could get her bordel once a month for a party which we then named, "The Fuck Shop." We invited this young, art, advertising, media crowd to go into this weird, catering-to-the-older-gentlemen, bordel and we threw parties which were called The Fuck Shop, which had a logo written in old German letters.
We created this contrast of playing with bringing this crowd into a space they wouldn't normally find themselves, you know? Telling those stories. When you think about it, it's similar to us bringing hundreds of runners to show up into Las Vegas where people usually fly into to get fucked up and gamble and eat shitty food and all of a sudden you find hundreds of superhuman and fit athletes at this pool party where they just appear as aliens.
Bottom line, it's taking things which usually don't fit and giving them a twist so that they actually attract each other and create a good moment and a very unique story to tell at the end of the day.
Travis: What was your introduction to running? How did you initially get the bug?
So my initial relationship with running was a little odd. As I mentioned before, I went to boarding school from 12 to 18 years old. And a couple things about boarding school: you hang out with older guys and girls very quickly because all ages are in the same facilities, and it's not like in [regular] school where you only hang out with your classmates, so you basically are exposed to all the bad things very early.
We always snuck out of the housing facilities to go party at night. The thing to do amongst me and my homies was to pack a bag of running clothes and then sneak out at night, jump off the balcony, hide the running clothes in the bushes, go partying, and then in the morning come back and change into the running gear and pretend like we went on a run.
So we weren't actually running much, but it helped us have a rad life.
That was kind of my introduction to running. And then later on, it just became a little bit of a social thing. When I actually decided to move to the US, me and my roommates — besides having a bunch of absolute ragers as going-away parties — decided to run a marathon together as part of my going-away celebration. So we ran the Hamburg Marathon and I definitely remember the feeling of it, and how empowered I felt, how wild it was to travel on foot that far. It kind of released all these feelings and emotions in me.
And then when I found myself being in LA, having a hard time speaking the language, not knowing anybody and being broke, running was definitely my safe place where I didn't have to talk to anybody, it didn't cost any money, and I got to explore the city I just moved to. It naturally became a really important piece of my lifestyle and it grew and took up more space as I got more into it, I guess.Tobin Yelland
Adam: How did this lead to running 344 miles with 5 other people? How did you end up creating The Speed Project?
None of my friends were actually runners. All my friends were surfers and creatives, and I was the odd runner. One of my friends was a soccer player so he and I ran here and there on occasion. I remember he called me — and it was like right around late-December — and was like, "Nils, are you here for the holiday?" I told him I was, and then he was like, "Let's do a cool run." And I was like, what in the world does that mean? He's like, "You come up with it," and then hangs up on me.
So I call him back, and was like, yo, I didn't come up with anything "cool" but let's run from your house to my house. He lived in Long Beach, which is south of LA, and I lived in Manhattan Beach at the time. The obvious first question, he was like, "Oh shit, how far is that?" And I had no idea. But what I liked about it was the idea of starting at Long Beach in the beach area, and then moving through the harbor and industrial parts, then a little fishing town called San Pedro, and you get into Palos Verdes which is like nature and cliffs and beauty, and then it dips into the beach cities like Redondo and Manhattan and so on. I kind of love the idea of traveling through those different parts because they were so different and beautiful in their own way.
So we did that, it ended up being 35 miles, it took us forever but it was a rad thing to do. It was all about the actual experience of actually doing it, not about telling the story via social media or anything like that. At the finish, my British neighbor was waiting with a ton of beers and we just got shitfaced.
And we were like, well, that was fucking rad. And my friend was like, "What's going to be next?!" I was like well, shit, let's run from the beach to the Hollywood sign! I didn't come up with anything better [laughs] but it was still kind of cool! So we did that and — I remember on the run from Long Beach to Manhattan Beach, we hid bags and drinks all along the way for ourselves — on the run from the beach to the Hollywood sign there were liquor stores. I remember finding myself sitting on the sidewalk in West Hollywood drinking a Gatorade and my friend comes out with four $1 vodka shots and a cab driver drives by and honks, "I SAW YOU IN SANTA MONICA!!" while we were drinking vodka shots. Those kinds of moments kind of introduced the idea of running from one place to another.
My friend ended up moving so I wound up brainstorming by myself, what would come next? And in my head, I was like, it would be so rad to run to Vegas. I told my friends about it, and them being the creatives and surfers or whatever, they were like, yeah dude, you can't run to Vegas, that's stupid. And I was like, whatever, you know?
At some point, I met another runner, which happened to be at the Malibu Marathon — one of the odd moments I decided to run in a race, for whatever reason — and I got to hang out with this guy at the finish. I run one or two races a year and my homies come out and we drink beers at the finish line. That day, nobody came out because we had an absolute rager the night before and everyone was hungover in bed. I happened to run this race and ended up getting 2nd or 3rd, which NEVER happened, you know? It was a little shitty marathon, it wasn't because I was such a good runner and place top 3, I just got lucky. So I finished and it was totally anticlimactic because nobody was there and I was like, well, that was cool I guess. And then this guy approaches me and was like, "Yo, you're done already?" And he went and got me a beer. He happened to be the race director but he was not the typical race director you picture of a marathon. He was this surfer guy who happened to fall into this role of directing the Malibu Marathon.
He and I became friends and started running together. And then I told him about my idea of wanting to run to Vegas. He thought it was dope and asked when and wanted to add trying to do it as fast as possible. And I was like, okay, I guess we're doing this shit. That was my friend Blue, who obviously became a big part of what is now known as The Speed Project.
Travis: What does the race look like now? It started with you and some friends running to Vegas but what has it been like to watch it blossom into what it is now?
It was pretty interesting. We did it, you know? We had a friend film and created this short documentary and screened it with a bunch of run crews around the world. Then we put it online and I was like, cool, I wonder what's going to happen — I was kind of excited, really curious what was going to happen. You guys being the space of creating content, you know that when you create mediocre content and put it online, one thing which happens is: nothing.
When we put our documentary online, nothing happened. I was kind of disappointed on one hand but then reminded myself of why we did it and what the motivation was behind all of it, which was to be living rad experiences and living in the moment and doing things that make you uncomfortable and excited.
Then fast forward to two instances after. So, The Speed Project, the way it works, if you do it "OG style," it's 6 runners — two female athletes and four male athletes and you have an RV. We had that setup and my friend who drove and created the map pulled me aside and told me, "Yo, The Speed Project was the coolest thing I've done in my life." And I was like, wait, what? You drove a fucking RV for two days at 5mph and you're telling me that was the coolest thing you've done in your life? And he's like an adventurous dude — he races, started a bike company, he's not someone who just sits on his couch. That was really surprising to me, that it had that level of impact.
My friend Leigh and I had a late night out in New York, we got drunk and decided that this might be something that wasn't simply to be watched in a video but had to be experienced. That's when we decided, alright screw it, we're going to invite folks to run this with us instead of just watching us do it. That's how we kind of introduced the idea of it being a "race," if you want to call it that.
Fast forward to now, we created a framework around it by questions asked to the participants. In 2019, the last year we did it before COVID, we had 200 team applications; we allow 50 teams, we don't have an official website where you can just register. The process — and I'm going back to the club culture and how I approached nightlife — is about curating an audience or a field of participants. It's similar to how the person who runs a club is responsible for organizing a fucking rager, which is contingent on how they curate and pick the people out of line outside. And we're doing something similar with all The Speed Project applications. You go through a questionnaire then we curate the field of participating teams, who are fast, have interesting motivations to run the race, who come from all over the world — all of this basically unfolds in a very different way than other races.Devin L'Amoreaux
Travis: What would you say it takes to win The Speed Project? What are the elements?
Do you have your pencils out, guys?
Travis: I'm taking notes, yeah.
Um, well, the interesting part is when we first did it, we ran like, 10km intervals and at some point we broke it into 5km intervals and then we made it progressively shorter the longer we were on the road.
We were surprised a few years back by a French team who was made out of half pro runners and the other half were triathletes. They started riding bicycles when they weren't running and were running really short intervals. They basically introduced the idea of 90-second intervals for the entire fucking time. So the commitment to running really short intervals and being able to logistically coordinate that... and also from the athletes' point of view, to manage that, that's one of the key factors. The second one is to have a dialed crew who knows what they're doing. Because if you have the RV driver get lost, you can have the fastest runners and it's not going to help. So the crew is as important in the strategy as the athletes.
And you just need good vibes because you're in this for awhile. If you have negative energy or unnecessary friction, that can be a dealbreaker.
Travis: So it takes a little bit of strategy as well, as opposed to just straight skill?
Yeah, for sure. Because that's the thing...
I don't vibe with authorities, shockingly [laughs]...
Travis: Neither do I.
And like, when we started TSP, it was like okay, screw it, there won't be any rules.Olaf Heine
Travis: Yeah that was going to be my next question. What does "no rules" mean? Does it really mean no rules?
It means you can't break the law. That's kind of one aspect which we say because you put the entire event at risk for example if you run on the freeway. You're not allowed to run on the freeway so if you do that, they might shut the entire thing down. This is obviously — well, I don't know if it's obvious — an unsanctioned event, which means we don't have fucking permits because they'd just be impossible to get and that's not our thing. If you get pulled over by the cops, you just got to be like, me and my homies here decided to run to Vegas and that's it, we're not doing anything illegal, don't stop us doing this.
Adam: Is that something that happens frequently? Do teams get pulled over by the police and stuff?
Oh yeah, all the time.
Adam: Because you're driving so damn slow, I guess, huh?
You drive slow... I mean, there are a lot of factors. At the start of The Speed Project, there are a few hundred people at the Santa Monica pier and 40-50 RVs tour bus sized, it feels like a town is moving, you know?!
So we're definitely pushing the limits. Luckily, there's not much going on at 4 a.m. on a random Friday morning but the cops are definitely nosey and are like, "Hey, what's going on?!"
We've had it happen in Vegas before. We threw a rager in a suite and they sent the cops, security, dogs... so we all just walked out. And nobody claimed the suite. We were just like, I don't know, shit just happened, there's nobody you can talk to!
And that's part of why we screen all the participants, because it's like, hey, we're in this together and we're pushing what is possible and legal, so don't be an idiot and put the event at risk, you know? If you actually run on the street or run a red light, I don't give a fuck. But if you run on the freeway or if you're doing obvious bullshit...
For example, and this actually happened, I was running with some friends and hopped into the bike lane in LA. A cop got on his megaphone and told me I needed to get on the sidewalk but being the anti-authority guy that I am, I was like fuck that and kept running in the bike lane. But if it was for The Speed Project, and that happened, I would get back onto the sidewalk, you know?
There are aspects such as don't break the fucking law, and there's the obvious fact you're on foot going to Vegas. You can choose how many runners you have, you can choose the route you take, you can choose how long or how short you want people to run — it's all up to you to decide how the experience unfolds. There's a lot of freedom there.
Adam: How does changing the number of people you have on your team and also changing the route you take from LA to Vegas affect competitive standing?
The competitive nature of the race is really important to us. It was important from the get-go, it was never just like, hey we're going on this trip and happened to run. No, it was all about seeing how fast we could do it. So the competitive nature of The Speed Project is one of the key elements of what we do.
So, the way we are framing this or channeling this is in a couple ways. The competitive teams are "OG style" or six-person all-women teams. So if you applied with a ten-person, all male fast team, we wouldn't let you in, you know? Like, it just isn't in the spirit of our event.
So, as I just mentioned, in the spirit of our event, there are two competitive categories: six-person all women or "OG," which is two women and four male runners.
And what we're introducing this year is the solo category, where you do the entire thing by yourself.
But then the strategy around the route and finding shortcuts is totally part of what makes our race interesting and unique and keeps everyone on their toes. Even if a certain team decides, "Hey we're going the OG route" and potentially having handshake deals with other teams, like, "Hey, let's race each other" and someone decides to go rogue on a different route, they can face logistical challenges and parts that their vehicles can't handle. It keeps the event interesting and makes it so that you never know what you're going to get one year to the next.
Adam: It's true — I guess finding different routes presents other logistical challenges.
Yeah, and also, to be totally honest, we never thought someone would actually put in more work to find a shorter route because it took so much to find this original route [laughs]. I was like, who would ever care about our thing that much that someone would drive into the desert to find a shorter route?
Travis: [Laughs] That's so cool.
I just couldn't imagine that this would actually ever happen. And sure enough, we're here now and it became a thing and people started caring. People got so mad at us for certain things.
The first time it happened in a significant way people were like, "Oh, you have to disqualify them!" or "You have to do this" and "You have to do that." But I think the good news is that if people get mad at us, they care about what we're doing and we're doing the right thing.
Travis: Yeah, always. What will you be doing during the race? I saw that sometimes you cruise around in a limo, is that happening this year?
Yeah, so...Christian Brecheis
Travis: And please explain that, too, a little bit.
We do own a 1990 Lincoln stretch limo, which is off-road-y. Basically, what we started to do over the past years, we're reporting on the event. We ran the first 3 years of TSP, we always ran ourselves. But when it became bigger, there was a larger responsibility and it felt unfair for folks who traveled from afar to then invite them to do this but not be there for them if something should happen. Instead, we decided to participate in a new form and introduced this hourly "news show" where we go live on Instagram throughout the entire weekend. It's my friend Scotty, myself and a couple other folks who come out, we just go on a road trip to Vegas in our limo wearing suits and short running shorts and have a blast.
Travis: That's so cool. Is that the best way for people to follow along?
Yeah. From Friday morning at 4 a.m. to Sunday morning, every full hour we basically go live and interview athletes along the way, have guests come in and out, shoot the shit, give you a tour of the limo and its features [laughs]. We have fun with it but also make sure it's informative with what's actually happening in the race, you know? Who's in the front, is someone cutting the course, and what's happening. It's pretty much just like a news show centered around the event.
Adam: Will that happen this year too?
Yeah, awesome. Well, let's cross our fingers. The limo is getting serviced as we speak.
Travis: I was going to say, does the limo ever have problems?
I'm very surprised. I started it the other day and it fired back up right away. There are no major concerns.
On our last trip, we broke the suspensions in the desert and became really good friends with the Adelanto Auto Repair shop.
Adam: To wrap it up here, I want to ask — since so much of what you do comes out of actually experiencing it yourself, such as The Speed Project itself, will you ever do the solo run from LA to Las Vegas?
I really am super intrigued. And I've thought about doing it on a separate occasion from when the race is actually happening. Because, to go back to what I was saying earlier about the responsibility we have as the race directors to the participants, I can't do it when our race is happening. But I think the idea of exploring and doing things and then introducing them to the running community and subcultures, I think I will be running certain other routes and doing other things which then might be available for other folks to do.
So in closing, I doubt I will do the solo run myself but I will be exploring other things that I will then introduce to the community to do also.Olaf Heine