On July 23, 2007, Valmir Nunes, of Brazil, runs through Death Valley, California, in Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon. The Speed Project is another long-distance running event that cuts through the sun-beaten Mojave Desert. AP photo by Chris Carlson, file.
For Kevin Shears, separating from the military left a “do hard shit”-shaped hole in his life. Only months into becoming a civilian, he plugged that gap with running — the kind that leaves you sleep-deprived, blistered, and with black-and-blue toenails. The former airman wanted long, hard miles, not the local Turkey Trot.
Shears signed up for the next ultramarathon near his home in Oklahoma City. Then he phoned some other vets to join him. In turn, they texted and called their friends and siblings. In the end, a handful of runners signed up for the race. On Nov. 5, 2022, they met up to run solo 50Ks in Austin, Texas. But all those miles through Hill Country was only the beginning.
Less than a year later, Shears and the eight other runners on the Bolt & Dagger team eagerly await the 4 a.m. start of an invite-only ultra this Friday. The relay race is an event of almost mythological status with speakeasy vibes. There isn’t an online application or an audience. (“No spectators,” a sort of call-to-action for radical participation, serves as one of the event’s taglines.) Yet, every year, big-name brands field teams, ranging from Nike and Adidas to On and Tracksmith.
The Speed Project, TSP for short, is a 340-mile relay race that stretches from the Santa Monica Pier on the California coast through the sun-beaten Mojave Desert to the twinkling lights of the Las Vegas Strip. The unsanctioned ultramarathon boasts no rules, but Shears told Coffee or Die that it actually has three: no freeways, no cutting fences, and no running through Fort Irwin in San Bernardino County.
Oklahoma Air National Guard TACP Kevin Shears is ready for picture day — at least his top half. Photo courtesy of Kevin Shears.
With the Bolt & Dagger team’s entry into the mysterious race, 2023 will be the first year a team comprised almost entirely of veterans has gained entry. This week, Shears, six other vets and active-duty service members, one sister, and “that crazy person in every friend group who is unshaven and danky” will take on The Speed Project, starting on Friday, March 24.
TSP was conceived in 2013 when six friends decided to run the route relay-style. A decade later, the stunt-turned-race has nearly 40,000 Instagram followers. Race after race, roughly 50 teams from around the world fly into California to participate. Organizers now turn teams away, and good ones at that. According to Shears, participants don’t gain entry based on time standards but their “why.”
“Teams with a really authentic and engaging story make it,” Shears told Coffee or Die.
A good story is what the Bolt & Dagger team has, and it all starts with Shears. The former tech sergeant and the race team’s captain separated from the military after 17 years. The nexus of an unlucky selection tryout, work-life imbalance, and a booming side hustle made 2022 right for an exit. (Shears co-owns Snake Farm, a veteran-owned skateboard company.) Just over a year out of uniform, the former TACP has swapped dropping bombs for entrepreneurial pursuits, a work-from-home tech job, and more free time with his wife and their tween-age boys.
Bolt & Dagger team member and active-duty airman Adam Malson runs in the American West. Photo courtesy of Adam Malson.
“It’s fantastic,” Shears said. “I feel like I’ve been able to let go of the military trappings, really discover who I am, and just be a better and more present father and husband.”
But the drive to face challenges didn’t fade when the uniform came off. For Shears, hitting the gym wasn’t doing it for him anymore, not without a team or the next-gen airman to show up.
“If I ever do a clean-and-jerk again,” Shears said, “I’m going to clean-and-jerk myself out the window. I’ve always felt better when I’ve had adversity or something to train for.
“For the longest time, that was just being a TACP.”
When Shears wanted to switch from air crew to tactical air party control, a friend gave him advice: “Don’t be a baby” (but in more explicit language). That advice got Shears through the TACP pipeline and still motivates him today. But he isn’t the only vet driven to do difficult things shoulder-to-shoulder with other vets. Active-duty TACP Joey Hauser — another member of the race team and the founder of its sponsor, running gear company Bolt & Dagger — feels the same.
“We want to get the veteran community running again and doing hard things together,” Shears said.
Trey Monaghan was the Bolt & Dagger team’s way into the 2023 Speed Project. Photo courtesy of Trey Monaghan.
Cue Bolt & Dagger’s entry into TSP. Trey Monaghan, the “unshaven and danky” civilian friend, ran in last year’s race with another team and was Bolt & Dagger’s way in for 2023. With the connection from Monaghan, Shears pleaded the vet team’s case for entry in a letter:
We hope to use our participation in this event to showcase a counterpoint to the common narrative that veterans are no longer physically or psychologically whole after our military service and to serve as motivation for other veterans to continue to push themselves to do challenging and scary things.
Bolt & Dagger’s “why” passed review, and the vets gained entry.
Starting Friday, Shears, Hauser, Monaghan, and the other runners on the Bolt & Dagger team will take on the 2023 Speed Project. The nine teammates (all but two vets) will sub in and out throughout the race in 5K to 10K segments. While one participant runs, the others will rest in the team RV. Hopefully, less than two days after the start, the anchor leg will close in on the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the southern end of the strip. A secret Sunday afternoon pool party will cap the achievement.
“I think we’re shooting for 48 hours or faster, but I don’t know,” Kristen Anderson, an Army vet and one of two women on the team, told Coffee or Die. “I told everybody I have a flight on Sunday to catch!”
Bolt & Dagger team member and Air Force combat-controller-turned-C-17-pilot Adam Malson with teammates. Photo courtesy of Adam Malson.
Shears knows Anderson from when she lived in Oklahoma. She and his wife, Gabby, did CrossFit together. But they’re in the minority. Only a few Bolt & Dagger runners have met in person. The team coalesced via the web of friends that service members weave throughout years of deployments, permanent changes of station, and nights out at the bar. Most of the runners will meet for the first time on Thursday at their pre-race meeting in California.
There, the team will discuss strategy. The race has no official route, though the director shares the 340-mile “OG” track with participants. Every year, teams blaze new trails with the help of maps and satellite imagery. This year, Bolt & Dagger plans to follow in the footsteps of another runner who set out in TSP’s solo race, which started several days before the relay. The new trail totals roughly 280 miles rather than 340, but it will take them off the beaten path.
“It’s a lot more off-road,” Shears said. “If I had to worry about anything, it would probably be falling into a den of snakes. And then some butthole will write the headline: ‘Snake Farm Owner Dies in a Pit of Snakes.’”
For Shears, running in The Speed Project won’t be just another opportunity to do something difficult. The race seems to complete a redemption arc that began when he was a teenager.
Kevin Shears, second from right, and a group of friends run in the Austin Rattler 50K in Texas on Nov. 5, 2022. Photo courtesy of Kevin Shears.
“I got out of high school, went to Vegas, and lost my car and all my money,” Shears said. “Not even gambling — I just forgot that you have to pay your credit card bills.”
Shears’ father served in the military for more than 20 years, so joining the Air Force and then the Oklahoma Air National Guard wasn’t far-fetched for Kevin. It also solved his money problems. Eventually, service taught Shears discipline and introduced him to his wife, who worked in intel.
Now, back in Vegas, Shears is a man changed by years of service and a good marriage, ready to “do hard shit” with other vets and active-duty service members. If all goes well, he’ll be back next year.
Follow along with live updates from Bolt & Dagger on Instagram @teambolt_dagger as the runners take on the 2023 Speed project.
Disclosure: Some founders of BRCC have invested in Snake Farm.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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