Community: The Runners
Fourteen women, an epic 550km relay run beginning in Santa Monica. We meet runner Tilly GW and photographer Ashley Stewart to explore the necessity of sisterhood in overcoming mental and physical challenges, as they pushed through the demanding terrain of Death Valley desert to make it to the Las Vegas finish line
Photography by Ashley Stewart
Unsanctioned, unhinged, and off the grid, The Speed Project stands as a hidden gem in the realm of running races. With only a select few in the know and even fewer daring to compete, this extraordinary relay race pushes the boundaries of endurance. But amidst the chaos and the thrill, there lies a captivating story of resilience and camaraderie.
We delve into the remarkable experience of team We Are All Protagonists, led by runner Tilly GW and immortalised through the lens of photographer Ashley Stewart.
Together, they recount the gripping tale of their 550km odyssey through the treacherous Death Valley Desert, a gruelling journey that took them from the bustling streets of Los Angeles to the glittering lights of Las Vegas. But this is not just a story of personal triumph; it’s a celebration of the power of community. As part of a diverse team of women runners, supporters, and creatives, they defied boundaries and embraced the unbreakable bond that comes from shared passion.
Glorious: Let’s dive straight in! As part of our community edition, tell us, what does community mean to you and how does it impact your sporting life?
Tilly GW: Running is often seen as a solo sport. However, there’s a large number of people who support, encourage, challenge, and elevate our abilities both physically and mentally. It’s never a solitary journey unless you choose it to be. Some people enjoy the pursuit of solo runs, but there’s always the option to be part of a supportive community.
Ashley Stewart: Absolutely, community plays an important role in sports. In this project, we started individually and gradually built a supportive community. From our initial runs to the present, we support each other, both in races and projects. Building friendships along the way is a vital way to push yourself and each other!
Glorious: How did The Speed Project come about and can you explain what it is and how you got involved in it?
Tilly GW: My fascination with The Speed Project began when it started 10 years ago, I was age 15. I was a track runner, and became intrigued by the other ways running could inspire and push boundaries. I followed runners from around the world on social media and was drawn to The Speed Project as something truly remarkable. Over the years, I experienced various instances of sexism and inequality in running, which fuelled my desire to participate in this race. I knew I wanted to create a team with a diverse group of women runners, supporters and documenters, to capture our journey through a woman’s eye. It took time to gain the confidence and understanding of what it could mean, but over the years,, I connected with inspiring people, had meaningful conversations, and found the confidence to build a team. Ashley joined as a supporter and photographer, contributing to the collective vision and encouraging me every step.
Glorious: Ashley, tell me about your career and your role in this project?
Ashley Stewart: I’m a sports photographer. I initially focused on skiing in Canada before moving to London. I’ve worked with various running events and for various agencies, but I felt a strong desire to shift my focus to women’s sports and projects that empower women. One night I was ranting about the film and photography industry being run by men. Tilly said: “Do you want to come and do this amazing project with me and join this great group of women who are going to run 340 miles from LA to Vegas?!” Of course, I said yes!
Glorious: Incredible! I’m guessing this event is pretty pricey to stage and this is something that isn’t always discussed. Did you have brand sponsorship/a brand to back you and understand your vision?
Tilly GW: I pitched the project to Salomon, they embraced the idea and it was great that they understood our vision. It was a new experience for me to ask for a significant budget, and the trust to bring such a big project to life. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of those who eventually became a part of the team, it really is about them!
Ashley Stewart: It’s important to acknowledge that securing sponsorship was challenging before Salomon came on board. Our team was composed of women from diverse (running) backgrounds, including those who were not sponsored athletes. One team member had recently given birth, and another had just started running. We wanted to showcase the essence of being a runner, beyond being Olympians or sponsored professionals, and we faced some resistance.
Tilly GW: That’s true, and it’s important to highlight. I could easily talk about all the incredible aspects with a smile, but the truth is, there was some persuasion involved, even to enter the race. The remarkable thing about this race and team is that everyone put in the same hours, covered the same distance, experienced the same sleep deprivation, and followed the same intense schedule. Yet, we had individuals who were champion trail runners alongside new runners. Who is to say that one is more deserving or stronger than the other?
Glorious: 100%. I don’t think people realise the crazy planning, which inevitably comes with a cost. So, you’re there at the starting line, Santa Monica Pier at 4 am. Eight athletes, fourteen women in total, and about to embark on a 550km relay run through the Death Valley desert all the way to Las Vegas. That must be pretty overwhelming, but also incredibly motivating knowing you have a shared mission?
Ashley Stewart: I’m not as big of a runner as Tilly, but I can say from observing and being in the presence of (the other) 13 women, the energy was amazing! Everyone was supportive and so excited, and just wanted each other to do as best as they could. Through the entire journey we continuously uplifted one another. The whole endeavour lasted two and a half days with very little sleep, yet everyone was there, offering encouragement in both big and small ways. I’ve observed other running groups and I’ve noticed that it can sometimes be quite elite with egos and competition. Even in women’s sports, there can be a sense of rivalry. However, in this group, it was all about being part of the race together. There was no individual prize or record to beat; our goal was to cross the finish line as a unified team. The atmosphere was incredible, the people were amazing, and to this day, we continue to communicate daily. We’ve gained thirteen new friends!
Glorious: Were there any standout moments that really stuck with you?
Tilly GW: Something that has really stayed with me are the moments during the race that were incredibly intense and frightening. I experienced a level of fear that I didn’t know could exist, with my whole body trembling and mind going in all directions. However, despite the extreme fear, I also felt an incredible sense of safety in the presence of the team, who created an environment where I felt seen and understood.
They have the lived experience where even running in the city at 7pm in winter requires changing routes, texting friends, or sometimes not running at all. Being in the middle of nowhere, in a foreign land, running through darkness with no idea of what might be out there goes against everything we are ingrained to do. But, fear of the dark and unknown doesn’t make us weak or unable, it just changes the approach we have to take.
In so many scenarios, there was no need for explanations or justifications to what we were feeling. We didn’t have to rally or challenge someone’s response because they simply got it. I can only speak for myself, but these moments had a profound impact. It’s interesting because you mentioned the start and finish lines, these are the only moments I felt like I was in the real world. From the moment we left Santa Monica until we arrived in Las Vegas, it felt like we were in an alternate universe where it was just us. And that experience was elevated by the presence of women.
Ashley Stewart: There were a few standout moments that I loved capturing. One of them was when the entire team was running together, and I was taking photos. It was a magical sight to see everyone come together, including the support team, filmmakers, everyone running towards the finish line. Another moment was when Eden, one of the runners who had just started running six months ago and struggled with confidence, completed a five-mile run. It was sunrise, with clear skies and a highway backdrop.
As we all had the windows down, singing and laughing, we cheered her on. I captured her behind the camera, crying tears of pride and realising she had accomplished something she didn’t think was possible. It was a powerful moment. When she finished the five miles uphill and embraced Tilly, everyone was there, hugging and supporting each other. The energy was incredible, and it was evident that we were all in it together, regardless of our roles as runners, supporters, filmmakers, or photographers.
Tilly GW: That was definitely the most exhilarating and emotional moment for me as well. Seeing the entire team present when Eden completed her run, and witnessing the tears of joy from everyone, it’s impossible to explain. You could see the significance of it in her and in all of us. We all understood what it meant.
Glorious: I can imagine it was quite tricky to capture so beautifully. How did you do it?
Ashley Stewart: Well, for this race, it was mostly documentary-style photography. We had a van and an RV, and we would switch out and drive to different points along the route. I spent most of my time in the van, capturing moments spontaneously. The women didn’t always know that I was taking photos of them, and it was wonderful to capture their genuine emotions, both the highs and the lows.
Glorious: When it comes to the creative community, how crucial was it to have a female perspective capturing this event? Ashley, as a photographer, how do you feel about being surrounded by other female creatives?
Ashley: Initially, I didn’t fully realise how much space men occupy in female-dominated spaces. As I’ve been working and observing, I’ve noticed men documenting female sports and stories, and being able to capture and see things from a female perspective definitely shifts the narrative. I can’t fully articulate it, but when women come together and take charge of the documentation, it becomes apparent how much space men occupy! It can be frustrating and challenging for women to break down the barriers and stereotypes that have been established in the industry. So, it’s crucial for women to share their perspectives, tell their stories, and document what they want to be documented.
At one point in the race, we stopped in the middle of the desert. A crew of male videographers came onto our RV to capture some content. The way they occupied our space, just wouldn’t have happened if they had been women. They would have been more mindful of the fact they were walking onto an RV full of tired women who were changing or stretching. It completely changed the vibe. They were confused about why we were quieter and didn’t consider the fact that we’ve just run 200 miles. Instead they concluded that we were just grumpy! Being able to see that in that moment, you’re like, wow, and you really see what it’s like. It really, really bothered me and I think it bothered a lot of the other women.So yes, essentially I guess in the world of sport, a creative female community is pretty vital and pretty rad!
Tilly GW: Brands are beginning to realise the power of featuring women athletes and bringing more diversity to their campaigns and that’s great. But, It’s really important to consider: Who’s behind the scenes? Who’s creative vision is it? Who’s voice are we listening to? Through whose eyes are we looking? Without considering what’s going on behind those doors, so much opportunity is lost. I met Ashley in one of those environments, and we connected on this shared drive to challenge them. It was super important to have our journey documented by women.
Glorious: Alongside Ashley’s beautiful imagery, was there also film footage captured during the journey?
Tilly GW: Yes, we are creating a short film in collaboration with Salomon TV. I am involved in directing the film with Alicia and Claudia, two brilliant French filmmakers who were a part of the team. We have spent a couple of months writing and planning the structure, identifying the stories and narrative elements. We just started the editing process, it’s going to be an exciting Summer bringing it together.
Glorious: So, no sleep, I’m sure a lot of cramps, 57 hours of solid running, you made it to Las Vegas. How did you celebrate? I can imagine you were overjoyed to have completed it, but also a little sad that you would all be returning home and possibly not seeing each other for a while?
Ashley Stewart: After the race, saying goodbye was difficult for all of us. Coincidentally, it was Tilly’s birthday on the day we finished, so we spent two days in Vegas together, celebrating and sleeping! We have a big group chat where we continue to discuss different runs, share advice, and stay connected. We formed such a strong bond that I feel like I could FaceTime any team member at any time, and they would be happy to chat. I hope we can all plan a reunion in London, where some of us live. There were a few team members who went on a road trip around the states after the race, and they met up for runs together. Everyone is making an effort to connect and stay connected!
Glorious: Clearly, community played a significant role in The Speed Project and continues to be important in your running pursuits. Running is often perceived as a solo sport, but how do you think being part of a running community can enhance athletic performance? What advice would you give to someone interested in joining a running club?
Ashley Stewart: I believe that showing up, being present, and actively engaging with your running community is crucial. While I didn’t initially participate in run clubs, I’ve started attending them as a photographer, and I absolutely love the sense of community. Everyone is there to support one another. Joining a club is a great way to begin, especially if you want to stay committed to your goals and challenge yourself. There’s no judgment if you don’t run as far as you think you should. Instead, everyone is there to help you, whether it’s with nutrition, physical training, or mental support. Personally, my housemates are now avid runners, and we support and motivate each other. Tilly has definitely inspired me to enjoy running, showing me the fun side rather than just dragging my feet on concrete. I genuinely love being out there.
Tilly GW: I believe the key is not feeling pressured to run specific races, reach certain distances or times, or even join a club. While there are many excellent run clubs in London and around the world, you can also find community and run with a housemate, a friend, or even your mum! Being a runner isn’t defined by the clubs you join, the shoes you wear, or the races you participate in. For me, it’s about confidently and happily identifying as a runner, whether or not you engage in those activities.
Title Image Ocean, Delphine and Marianne sharing miles as they approach Vegas, captured by Ashley Stewart
Team We Are All Protagonists:
Runners Tilly GW, Eden Beylard, Esme Arkinstall, Meera Joshi, Sarah Legrand, Helen Wu, Ocean Lewis, Marianne Hogan
Support Crew Ashley Stewart, Delphine Duhot, Shelley Howard, Joana Pires
Film Crew Alicia Cenci, Claudia Lederer
Special Thanks Cassidy Case, Delphine Duhot, Alex Huno, Salomon Running
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