Jesus Leon

At 4:00 a.m. on Monday March 20, the Santa Monica Pier was already filled with people. As the starting point for the tenth annual Speed Project race to Las Vegas, a crowd had gathered to see the runners off.

Among this year’s competitors was Jesus Leon, a former UCLA employee who discovered a love for running just a few years ago.

“UCLA really is a very beautiful campus and I told myself one day, I want to do a 30 minute run around the campus,” he said.

But instead of the light 30 minute jog he had planned, he ended up running for two and a half hours and covering nearly 15 miles. Leon has been pushing his limits ever since. In 2021 he ran nearly 80 miles from Santa Monica to the summit of Mount Baldy. This year, he decided to undertake the close to 300 mile journey from the pier to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on the edge of the city.

Leon competed in the Speed Project’s Solo Mission, meaning he had to run the entire distance himself, rather than just segments as part of a team – the farthest distance he has ever attempted. Leon said he had originally wanted to do the race last year but didn’t feel like he had the necessary support and resources to make it a reality.

“A 300 mile race from Santa Monica Pier to Las Vegas is not easy, you can’t do it on your own,” he said. “You need support with you at all times.”

This year, he launched a GoFundMe to raise money for supplies and equipment and recruited a team of friends to drive alongside him as he ran whenever possible and meet up with him at night so he could sleep in the car.

Unlike other races, participants in the Speed Project choose their route. They can take any course they want, the only rule is that they are not allowed to use freeways.

Leon’s route took him along roads and dirt trails, through mountains and across vast desert.

“The scenery and the dessert is beautiful,” he said. “At night and at sunrise it is truly beautiful.”

However, along with the beauty came exhaustion and pain as Leon pushed his body to its limits, covering about 70 miles on the first day and only slightly less on the following days. The weather posed an additional challenge as Leon found himself running through rain and cold temperatures.

He placed fourth after a grueling final 30 miles during which he and two other runners passed each other up multiple times, vying for the lead.

When he finally reached Vegas at 12:20 a.m. on Friday March 24, he said he was not in the mindset to truly appreciate the celebration at the end.

“At the finish line they sprayed champagne at the runners but it was so cold that I couldn’t even feel my hands, my body was beyond cold,” he recalled. “But I was just relieved, I finally made it to Vegas, but at the same time, it was nighttime, it was cold and I was in pain so I couldn’t really fully enjoy it.”

Now, back in LA he is taking the time to revel in the accomplishment, indulging in all of the foods he did not eat while he was training, watching all of the movies he missed and spending more time with friends. Although, this restful period won’t last too long as Leon has plans to run the Boston Marathon in just a few weeks. Leon said he feels running is something he is truly good at and enjoys doing and he doesn’t have plans to slow down anytime soon.

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...