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Nils Arend

Words: James Whiting

Images: James Whiting

Nils Arend is the Chief Experience Officer at the design studio Optimist based in Los Angeles. He is also the co-founder of the alternative running race – The Speed Project. Nils has such a fascinating story and we’re always excited to speak with him, be it about running, various creative outlets or life philosophies. On a recent trip to LA Good Sport caught up with Nils at his home. The interview that follows is a part of an ongoing series that profiles people who are pushing their creative practices and have an involvement in sport.

What drew you into running/where did it start?

Where it started was, I went to boarding school and in the breaks, if you didn’t smoke – because there was the smokers corner and that’s where everything happened – you miss out. So we had that group, but then we also had our little community that went on jogs and even back then it was kind of a way to get out of the system. So I was 12 when I started smoking and drinking – and running was always there to escape a little bit, and that escape mode has kind of maintained itself throughout my whole life. And as life became more and more digital, and challenging in different ways, I think running stayed as my escape and a way to hit reset.

It’s just the repetition [of the every day] you know. We’re on our phone all the time, so when I run I just sign off – I don’t bring my phone or listen to music. It’s just a complete reset of the day.

I had a conversation with someone recently asking if I meditated and they asked how long I did it for. So I said, ‘You know, about 8-10 hours a week’ and they were blown away! When they asked what my practice was, I just said ‘Running’.

How does running affect the other aspects of your life?

I think that the tolerance, of pain, is way higher in someone that is able to run. If you’re a runner, and you get better, it doesn’t get easier. You can run longer, and run faster, but you still go through the same amount of pain as someone who has just started. The tolerance and the way you handle difficult situations where you’re out of your comfort zone, regardless of it being physical or mental challenges in life. I believe i’ve felt stronger in more scenarios because of how it translates across.

One of the reasons why I haven’t committed to a non-for-profit for The Speed Project is because first I think we really want to introduce the [idea of] building of mental strength through a physical challenge. And especially society, right now, drives you towards making your life more comfortable. It doesn’t cater to make you stronger. So I feel running should be there, especially for younger folks. To strengthen them physically, and then through that it will inform them mentally.

Where do you see running culture in 10 years?

The interesting part right now is that there’s so much hype around running. Like, ‘let’s introduce new people and make it as fun as possible’. You name it there’s the Disney Marathon, Colour Run, Tough Mudder… It’s all just about entertainment and bells & whistles. So that’s one aspect that’s evolving into a huge industry. The other aspect is surrounding the nightlife folks, where the original run crews came from. How they came from such an unhealthy lifestyle and found running as a new addiction, effectively moving from one extreme to another in terms of pain level and a high.

And a lot of the industry is moving to make running more interesting from a product perspective, and easier and smoother because of how unhealthy it’s high-impact nature can be for the body. The core of itself will stay and remain the same and I think the industry will try and push really hard, because it’s such a massive sport, to make it more healthy. And the entertainment factor will pop more and more. But we still have a lot to explore with the sport because a lot still hasn’t been done. If we’re talking more about the professional performance aspect of it though, I think at some point we’ll have to ask what is doping, and what is performance enhancing – and what is okay and not okay.

But taking all of those aspects into account, as everything around us evolves, I still think in 10 years from now we’re still going to be putting the left foot in front of the right foot.

What keeps you pushing to do more with running?

I think it’s a commitment to life in certain ways. That’s just how I live. I’m hungry for new experiences and always exploring, and that translates into my sport. So occasionally I’ll just come up with random things like ‘Maybe I’ll bike to Palm Springs tomorrow..” you know? Ultimately I think it comes down to branching out and being creative and mix-matching sports with race formats. The Speed Project started by taking inspiration from Gumball – Illegally racing from one place to another and there are no rules. The only goal is to get from A to B, the fastest.

I think there is hunger in the running world to explore and do new things. One of my main focuses is finding ways of utilising it to bring different people and different cultures together through the one same passion. And I think the whole younger generation of more urban runners are going to come up with their own race formats and ways to come together.

There is so much untapped potential and so many people that are hungry to do things that are out of the norm. It’s like if you tried to do an advertising campaign for Nike, it’d be so hard because they’ve already done it all. But if you tried to do that for an insurance company it’s so easy to do cool shit, because none of it has been done. Running is that insurance company.

If you could change one thing about how running exists currently?

I’d love to get rid of all of my injuries (laughs). But no I don’t think there’s anything i’d really like to change. There are lots of products I think could be cooler but that will happen [in time].

I feel like lots of people could go more extreme in terms of, ‘Do we really need to stop to take a photo?’, ‘Do you really need to take your phone or get distracted and listen to music?’, Do you really need to run on a treadmill inside on a perfect day and watch the news?’. I think that might be the one thing I would change… It’s like you’re either doing it or you’re not – just be real about about it and don’t half-arse it.

I think there is hunger in the running world to explore and do new things.

Do you think sport has a big part in the community?

Oh hell yeah, definitely. Like in running – I was shooting with a photographer this morning actually, and he asked me if he could come with me on my run. So he followed me on his skateboard and we went down to the beach and shadowed me on my daily run. It was funny because you know there’s the old lady on her roller blades that says ‘Hi’ and then the woman who walks her dogs and she says ‘Hi’. There’s two young kids that run by and I know them and it’s like, there’s just a bunch of regulars here. It’s like we’re at a bar or down at the pub. You might not stop and have a deep conversation with them all but it’s always like, ‘Okay, we’re all the regulars of this bar and we show up and we do our thing’. So I love that form of community. And particularly I think relay running really introduced people to running as a team sport as opposed to as an individual, and that’s very special. That’s why I love relays more than running as a group. In a group you’re all doing the same thing but for yourself. In a relay everybody is relying on each other, and that’s beautiful. It gives running more of a team spirit than just a sport for individuals.

Running is so hard, doing it together is much easier.

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