interview by: romain bourven with the secret race series team
photos: romain bourven

On the 5th and 6th of September, with most races in the world canceled, The Speed Project (TSP) team launched a decentralized version of their yearly unsanctioned relay: TSP DIY. In the race’s original format, runners relayed between Los Angeles and Las Vegas following one single rule: there must always be a runner on the road.

This year, due to the exceptional conditions we all know of, teams had to run the longest possible distance within 31 hours and 15 minutes, the official course record of TSP. There was no official route, everyone was free to choose their own playground, anywhere in the world. The final rankings were calculated using data collected from runners’ GPS watches. In the end, over 40 countries were represented, with over 2000 runners taking the roads.

Among them was a group of frenchies, repping the colors of the Parisian label Secret Race Series. Made up of non-professional Parisian athletes, the team had one clear goal: beat the TSP record.

Who are they? Did they succeed? We sat down with them to relive the event:

Hey guys! You’re the founders of the Secret Race Series, a series of unsanctioned “wild” races in Paris. Can you share a bit more on SRS?

Mathieu: The Secret Race Series is a label of independent unsanctioned races founded in 2018. Every race has its own rules and a starting location that is communicated only 24h in advance of race day. As a monthly happening, these races are usually sold-out within 2h, since registration is always on a first-come-first-served basis.

How did the idea come to mind?

Mathieu: We built the Secret Race Series on the basis of a simple observation: 10k, halfs, and marathons are great, but once the challenge is over, with a good or not-so-good time, what is left? It rapidly gets boring! So, inspired with what already exists in cycling (alleycat, criteriums and other crazy formats), we created fun races that broke the routine of “normal” running.

Where did you get the inspiration for all those new race concepts?

Jean: Yeah, inspiration does not come in and of itself. More often than not, we just meet up, and after one or a few beers and discussions on what we enjoy in running, we find a concept, and push it to its limit to see if it holds up. It can be a success, or not. But every time, we learn something!

What motivated you to rise up to the TSP DIY challenge, and what were the main difficulties?

Mathieu: We knew we could make up a fast team that could win. Honestly, we would have never accepted to get to the start line with a team of hay sleighs. It would have been suicide. We knew our runners would come out of it with tendinitis or other injuries, so might as well perform!

Let’s get some perspectives from the athletes. TSP DIY is now two months past. Physically, mentally, how were the days and months after?

Samantha: It’s no surprise that the days after were a little complicated, physically speaking. Stiff legs, sore from head to toe, general incapacity to have a normal stride. But, mentally and emotionally, I was floating. It was a truly exceptional experience, a feeling that we actually were carried through those 31 hours by our team. The following days, we tried to digest the experience, to put words on what had just happened. But, caught up in the excitement of the race and aching for the race results to be released, it was difficult to concentrate on other things!

Alice: Physically, the week that followed was complicated, to say the least, especially for our blocky stiff ischios. I wasn’t even able to extend my legs. Sam and I went jogging the day after TSP, and we looked like two old ladies that could barely run. However, in our minds, it was something else: I was euphoric and could only think of what had just happened. I was having visions of the race in my head day in, day out.

Nicolas: Completely disconnected from reality. I was still going through the race in my head during the days that followed. Physically, it took me 5 days to fully recover and get back to training, but my urge for it was multiplied. TSP DIY was a true catalyst for motivation on my side!

Duncan: The week that followed, I fell sick, but like for real, glued to my bed. Was it because of the race? Hard to say, but it for sure left me weak.

Gatien: Mentally, I was going through a panoply of emotions, from pride of running those 31h15 non-stop, to the joy of having survived this crazy experience, and the general fatigue of running a lot and sleeping very little. Physically, I was broken! I ran on one leg for around 10h. Noé and Lauren (our physios) worked miracles! I had to cut down on running for some time to give my body the time to recover from this extreme effort.

Ghislain: Day 1: I couldn’t walk anymore, and the verdict came: I had runner’s knee (Iliotibial stress syndrome) on both sides. It took me a good week after the race to be able to walk again.

How do you get ready for such an effort, and how do you manage it?

Samantha: Since we learned that we were on the team only ten days in advance, let’s say that we did not really have any specific training for the race, although we trained really hard throughout the year. Our preparation mostly revolved around logistics and strategy – which were managed masterfully by Jean, Gatien and Mathieu. A lot of elements come into play in such a long effort that is sequenced on a high number of transitions.  We have to think about recuperation, sleep, nutrition, gear, bathroom stops, and very importantly, how to manage relays and transitions without losing time. It requires colossal organization.

Duncan: I had already ran over 6000k since January, and not at a low intensity. I was ready. I had apprehensions about the lack of sleep and the overnight (but in the end it was fine). On a more tactical level, I started hard as if I was going for a 3k, thinking I would cross the river when it would come. Since our relays were very short, we had enough time to recover. On the second day, we thankfully decided to shorten our relays because it was starting to be really tough. But only an injury could stop me.

Taking a step back, what do you feel was right/could have been improved?

Alice: Most of it was right on point to be honest, personally, I feel that nothing was lacking in both nutrition and comfort. I would maybe change up the Sunday morning strategy, since all of us were really tired, and we could have switched back to 3s (2 bikes, 1 runner) instead of 2s (1 bike, 1 runner).

Nicolas: There’s always room for improvement, such as using the bikes a little less, or moving on to 6 person rotations earlier, but in the end, would it really have improved our performance? I’m not really convinced, so I would say that nothing would have changed this already out-of-the-ordinary adventure, and I have zero regrets, even with our performance and results.

Gatien: I would not change a thing! The great benefit of this DIY edition was that we could run the race in our own environment. We happened to be in Paris, so we decided to live through this amazing experience there. With its advantages and difficulties. The plan was to stick to the Vincennes area to keep the runners safe, and to run into Paris only at night.

Before TSP, what had been your toughest race or challenge?

Samantha: TSP 2019! I had the opportunity to participate in the 5.0 edition last year, with an international team put together by Adidas. We ran the 550k from LA to Vegas in 34h, finishing in second place, but claiming the course record on the original route. It was by far one of the most amazing experiences of my life, while being one of the most demanding physically.

Alice: The GR20, a 5-days stage race, my legs still remember.

Nicolas: Is the original TSP harder than the virtual edition? I’m not sure!

Duncan: That would be when I cycled from Grenoble to Marseille (280k) in a single day, on an old bike, with a huge backpack and after a sleepless night, coming back from the US. I was almost sleeping while pedalling, it was horrible.

Gatien: More than during a challenge per se, I think the most difficult are those experiences in which you have to literally push back against your limits. Such as that time when I suffered from hypoglycaemia on the XC ski trails of Vercours with my brother. It was freezing and snowing, I blacked out. I woke up in a refuge, under a warm heavy blanket.

Ghislain: Probably those 4 weeks in the Pyrenees at some point between 2006-2010, on a holiday with my parents. 10h hikes, hail, refuges…

What did you get to appreciate the most during this challenge?

Nicolas: 1/ Our team spirit and the mutual support we showed towards one another, both staff and runners, when, 2 days before, we did not even know each other. 2/ The atmosphere at the end of the race, with our supporters and everyone on the team giving all they had left to claim a few extra kilometers. At that time, I had the impression we could still go for another 5h at this rhythm. Our pace was not slowing down, endorphins were still kicking in. 3/ The nocturnal run and bike in the empty streets of Paris, the perfect playground.

Gatien: The energy of the team throughout the whole weekend. It was really incredible to be able to gather up this team of athletes and support for a race that sits out of the regular calendars, for the sole purpose of literally destroying ourselves with happiness as our only motivation! And that hour and a half spent in Paris with Ghislain, my little brother. It was a dream to be able to do this together. When you think about it, it’s weird that we never really thought about going out for a run on the empty streets of Paris at 3 in the morning. Maybe we only needed a reason! It was really cool!

It appears to have been complicated and it took quite some time for the rankings to come out, how did you deal with the anticipation of the wait, and, finally, with that second place behind Tracksmith?

Alice: Yeah it took a long time, I kept on refreshing their Instagram page to see if any news would come out. When they announced the results, of course there was a little disappointment, especially because we really believed that we were there, so we do have this feeling of unfinished business. But, taking a step back, what I will remember is not that second place, but rather all the moments and the incredible emotions we went through during those 31h15. Until next time 😉

Nicolas: Impatience, of course, but we had already celebrated our victory at 8:15 PM on the Sunday night! The rest is only technological detail with GPS incertitude and issues with Strava. In the end, Tracksmith might have gone a few more kilometers, and we congratulate them for that. But two months later, it does not really change the adventure we lived together!

Duncan: That second place was tough to swallow: firstly, because I’m a bad loser, and second because I had been a little presumptuous in loudly claiming our victory (which I feel a bit of shame about…)

Would you do it again?

Samantha: Anytime! 🙂

Alice: With my eyes closed: yes!

Nicolas: Things come in threes, and you can’t refuse something like TSP! Moreover, I am at 1/1 with the Tracksmith team, are we really going to leave it at that?

Duncan: I think it really was the most amazing sports experience I have ever had, so of course, sign me up!

Gatien: For a second round with Tracksmith between LA and Las Vegas, without hesitation! It’s only the beginning of a long story!

Ghislain: Absolutely!

What are your next challenges?

Samantha: Anything to spice-up this long period devoid of races really!

Alice: Tough to say, considering the lockdown, but the goal is to stick to the roads to lower my times on the 10k and half.

Nicolas: I was supposed to leave for Nepal this weekend to participate in the Grand Tour des Annapurnas, a 10-day high-altitude stage-race. But it was pushed back to 2021. Will we be able to travel then? If not, my next challenge will be the Corbeil-Essonne 10k, just as beautiful and exciting!

Duncan: Since we don’t really have any visibility on what competitions will be like in the coming months, I can’t really have any objectives. But lowering my 10k time to 28’30 before 2021 would make me happy.

Gatien: The 2021 Buttes Chaumont marathon.

Ghislain: An epic battle with myself within 1k of my place…