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The 2018 Burning Man Ultramarathon: My First 50k!

Burning Man 50k in deep playa

The 2018 Burning Man Ultramarathon: Deep Playa

As I sit on a cross-country flight and reflect on the past year, a major highlight comes to mind immediately. Burning Man was, without question, one of my favorite parts of 2018. Running my first ultramarathon while at Burning Man was a peak life experience within a peak life experience.

The 2018 Burning Man Ultramarathon

Shakey selfie at sunrise, 2018 Burning Man Ultramarathon

I’ve run my share of marathons, but have never pushed past that arbitrary 26.2 number into “ultra” territory.

Hitting the standard running milestones over the years (from 10k to 13.1 to 26.2) has taught me that these measures of course mileage are more or less a formality. With proper training, I’m confident I could cover some pretty long distances.

The Burning Man Ultramarathon is a 50k, which is only about 5 miles further than a standard marathon, so it shouldn’t be a big deal… Right? I was already planning to attend Burning Man, so how could I resist an opportunity to run in the most niche ultramarathon in the world?

Like any other race, the challenge began several months before the event. I’ve trained for my share of marathons, so I had a general sense of what I was getting into: a more hectic schedule, less social commitments on the weekends, and a mad dash home from work each day to catch those last few precious moments of sunlight.

Well, my training for this ultramarathon did not go smoothly. A few weeks into my 50k training plan, I began to experience intense heel pain. After several visits to the doctor, I was diagnosed with achilles tendonitis. Four weeks into my training, I stopped running entirely.

Any runner who has injured themselves while training will know how frustrating this is. I had the motivation necessary to keep up with my training but was prohibited by forces outside of my control. Mind and heart were willing, but the body was unable to comply!

I was super diligent with my achilles tendonitis treatment. I was told to stay off of my feet as much as possible, which meant that I couldn’t run. Trust me, I asked.

I purchased expensive insoles and started wearing kinesiology tape, rolling my foot on a frozen water bottle, doing a stretching routine twice a day, wearing a night splint, and more… I was so determined to continue the 50k training that I tried almost every remedy in the book.

I also replaced about 5 weeks worth of runs with stationary bike workouts. Despite all of this, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to run the ultra. You can’t just run 32+ miles without training.

On top of those concerns, I was beginning a new career, and my wife and I devoted a lot of time towards planning our first “real” Burning Man trip, because we wanted to do it properly. The group we were planning to camp with, Opulent Temple, is based in San Francisco, so we regularly met up with them to help get things ready.

I was thinking philosophically about my running more than ever before. Stressing over the injury and my training problems had me wondering:

  • Why do I run at all?
  • When did I become a “lifetime runner”, and why do I devote such a sizable portion of my free time to this activity?
  • Where is the threshold between enjoyable and laborious running, and where will I draw the line?

With time and persistance, the heel pain began to improve. Eager to “catch up” on all the training I had missed, I ramped my runs back up very quickly.

I vividly remember my excitement at the end of an 18-mile training run when I realized that the ultra was still in the cards.  I was elated. After a 5 week dry spell, it was almost as if I had finished the 50k itself that day.

Fast forward to Burning Man. We’re camping with Opulent Temple, one of the largest sound camps at Burning Man. I was excited for their world-class sound equipment and the accompanying party atmosphere, but in regards to the ultramarathon, I was a little concerned about getting adequate rest the night before the race.

We arrived on the playa on Friday. The ultramarathon was to be held the following Tuesday, so I figured I’d have time to adjust to the sleeping conditions.

The first night out was special, as not many folks were out there yet. We got to experience amazing art without crowds.

Robot Heart, up close and personal

Robot heart beats in relative solitude

I was delighted to learn that one of my Opulent Temple campmates, Philipe, would also be running the ultra. We instantly bonded and made plans to ride our bikes to the starting line together on the morning of the race.

After a few nights of sleeping close to a giant stage where DJs perform until sunrise, my body was fairly accustomed to the volume/bass frequencies. By the time I got to bed most nights, I was so exhausted from the day’s activities that I could have slept through anything.

A camp known as Pink Lightning are the gracious hosts of the Burning Man 50k. I decided to do a “shakeout” run over towards their camp the day before the race, so I was familiar with the route and could ride my bike there on race day.

I was unsure how playa dust would be as a running surface, but it was great. It’s packed down enough to be solid, and as long as you avoid wet spots you won’t end up with heavy mud clumped all over your shoes. I actually enjoyed running on playa more than concrete/road.

The night before the ultramarathon, I got all of my race gear and nutrition ready and laid it all out next to my sleeping bag.

Laying out my running gear the night before the Burning Man ultramarathon

50k gear check

I generally don’t drink alcohol the night before a race, but I had a few drinks that afternoon to calm the nerves. I wasn’t nervous about the race, I was nervous about sleeping for the race.

The morning of the race, I sat up at 4am, wondering whether I ever really slept at all. I was so antsy for the race that I practically leaped out of bed. I doubt I got more than 4 hours of sleep that night, but I was wide awake. I excitedly began my pre-race ritual.

I know this ritual well. Normally it involves fumbling around in a dark hotel room, hunting for a peanut butter knife or a Keurig pod. The Burning Man version of the ritual was a little bit different. This time I was in a dark tent with a loud psytrance DJ right outside, playing to a group of people whos night was far from over.

I stood in a dark tent in my underwear, eating a banana and nodding my head to the pounding beats. I laughed to myself over the absurdity of the situation. What other race begins like this? The ground was shaking, and I felt confident and prepared for the task ahead of me. This was going to be an awesome day.

I put my shorts on and carried my gear outside the tent. It was too cold for shorts, but I knew that I wouldn’t be chilly for long.

I found a note from Philipe attached to my bike. He couldn’t sleep through the loud music, so he went to the starting line early in hopes of getting a little rest. I remembered seeing several couches strewn about their camp, and I hoped he was able to find a comfy spot to lie down.

I walked my bike over to the big Opulent Temple stage and was happy to spot my wife and a few friends. It was nice to hear some words of encouragement before riding to the starting line.

The run was slated to start at 5 am, so I hopped on my bike and pedaled through the dark towards Pink Lightning. It was crazy to ride past these massive parties that were showing no signs of slowing down as sunrise drew near. I was mentally prepared to run the longest distance of my life, which put me in a very different headspace from these people dancing to electronic music.

Burning Man ultra starting line at Camp Pink Lightning

Pre-dawn excitement at Pink Lightning, the Ultra starting line

I got to the starting line about 15 minutes early. It was still dark out, but everyone was wide awake, and the energy was palpable. Everyone was super excited and happy to be there. I love the camaraderie of a pre-dawn runners gathering. The most common sentiment shared was “this is so cool”.

We all got together for a group photo. Cherie, the race director, shared some pre-race words of encouragement. She quickly reminded us of the race route, which is essentially 4 giant loops around the perimeter of the deep playa/Esplanade.

BM50k group photo

A (partial) group photo before the race began

Before I knew it, the race was on. I felt fully prepared, and also in disbelief that the moment was finally here.

My start-of-race mantra is usually along the lines of “relax and find your groove, ignore everyone else, you’re doing this for yourself, enjoy every moment.” As far as mantras go, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but it gets me where I need to be in those first few miles until I lock into a comfy, sustainable pace.

Every runner that I kept pace with was friendly. Within the first 10 minutes, I had already made a few friends.

When the sun began to rise over the mountains, I was in a fantastic groove. I felt so grateful to be out there on this bizarre landscape, running this completely absurd event with everyone. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nothing else I wanted to be doing. I was 100% in the moment, and so very content.

Running along Esplanade was fun. This is basically the “main street” of Burning Man. Many of the larger sound/theme camps have prominent placement here. A lot of camps are aware of the ultramarathon and have cheering stations set up. There was no shortage of people encouraging us along the way. In true Burning Man spirit, there were plenty of hecklers, too.

Opulent Temple was at such a prime location for the race: right at the corner of 10:00 and Esplanade. This meant that I passed it every lap, and I always looked forward to seeing any familiar faces that were awake at that hour. Some were preparing coffee and breakfast; others hadn’t gone to bed yet. Our camp was a primary attraction along the course, because the route went right between our “Opulent Chill” tent and the massive sound stage across the street.

After passing Opulent Temple, a few other large camps, and a giant 747, the race route took runners out into “deep playa”.

Deep playa is the big open area at the top of this map. It’s wide open out there, and has potential to be lonely. You do encounter other folks in deep playa, and there are even a few cheer stations, including a smoothie/juice bar set up just for the runners. It’s much quieter than the rest of Burning Man, though.

If you were going to get into your head and have second thoughts about the dozens of miles ahead of you, this is undoubtedly where it would happen.

Burning Man 50k in deep playa

Running in deep playa with Lisa and Natron

Luckily, I had great company with me the entire time, and the conversations helped me to stay out of my head. I had headphones with me, but I never felt the temptation to use them. This is significant for me, because I’ve had a playlist for every other marathon I’ve run.

I ran the first 3 laps of the ultra with some new runner friends. When I passed Opulent Temple for the final lap, my wife Lauren and friend Jimmy were waiting for me.

50k support on bikes

My awesome support team for the final lap of the Burning Man Ultra

They rode along with me on their bikes and told me all about what I missed the night before.

At no point did I ever grapple with those familiar temptations to stop and walk or take a break, and I owe this entirely to the company I kept. I also have to mention some of the countless distractions along the course that kept my brain occupied.

A lot of these distractions were things you’d only see at Burning Man. Two guys kept pace with me and tried to convince me to smoke. They were both carrying cartons of cigarettes and were describing the flavors of each brand in detail. One of them said, “I’ll even put it in your mouth and light it for you, all you need to do is inhale!” They were great salesmen, but I did not indulge.

A skate camp along the route was blasting punk and metal. They built an arch out of scrap wood and tried to funnel runners through it. Once you passed through the arch, they’d block the path and pressure you with a plastic jug of cheap whiskey. Most folks did not oblige, but I promised them I’d have some on my final lap.

Oh yeah, and there were 2 guys that ran the entire route  reversed, with a “mobile finish line”… Just to keep things confusing.

This run really helped solidify just how much of the challenge of running is mental vs physical. If I were alone the whole time, I’m not sure my outcome would have been the same.

Things started to hurt around the 28-mile mark. I was still enjoying myself, but my knees weren’t happy. I was ready to cross that finish line and collapse at Pink Lightning.

I decided to indulge in some “novelties” in the final lap, including a shot of whiskey and a martini. I hate martinis, but I really wanted that olive. Drinking hard liquor during a race may seem counterintuitive, but I was running for the full Burning Man experience, not to break a record. I also think the booze helped dull the knee pain that I was experiencing.

My chip timing was 5:53:59. I took in the entire experience and didn’t deny myself anything for the sake of speed. This was my goal.

Seconds after crossing the finish line

Crossing the finish line of any race is a great feeling, but I was overjoyed to finish this race. It meant a lot of things to me, but mostly I was just excited to relax and enjoy the rest of my week at Burning Man without this race looming ahead of me.

My wife had a cold beer waiting for me at the finish line, so I was pretty excited about that, too. Pink Lightning also had a few kegs of beer and some awesome food at their camp. This was my favorite “finishers area” by a landslide.

A cold Cellarmaker IPA at the finish line

I’m grateful for perfect race day conditions. I’ve heard crazy stories about mid-race dust storms in the past, but my run was graced with clear skies and perfect temperatures. I’m not sure that things could have gone any more smoothly.

A peaceful post-ultra snooze

I even managed to get a peaceful “recovery” nap after the race.

The Burning Man Ultramarathon confirmed what I knew all along: I’m a lifetime runner. I’ll keep pushing the limits of what’s possible until my body no longer lets me. I’ll continue to experience new cities by running their streets. I’ll see beautiful sunrises and sunsets in ecstatic solitude. I’ll celebrate major life events with a blissed-out trail run, and I’ll contemplate and process hardships by putting one foot in front of another along the beach.

Prior to this race, 26.2 was my “wall”. I never contemplated pushing it further. With my first 50k in the rearview, I’m extremely confident that I can take on longer distances.

Thank you so much to Cherie and Camp Pink Lightning for hosting this incredible event, and to Samuel-Christophe Tedjasukmana for being out there to capture some awesome race photos. Special thanks to Ryan Van Duzer for creating this awesome video of the 2017 Ultra. I believe his video is what originally put the event on my radar.

Before I wrap this up, there’s one other thing I’d like to share. Strava has a “global heatmap” that’s generated from public running activities uploaded to the site. Check out the heatmap of Black Rock City:

Strava heatmap of Black Rock City, NV

Strava heatmap of Burning Man

My Strava run data is part of that triangle that shape that follows along the perimeter from roughly 11:30 to 4 pm!

Lisa, who I ran and chatted with for a lap or so, shared her Burning Man Ultra experience here. Worth a read!

1 Comment

  1. Natron Deo

    Thanks Johnny!! You used my quote “the most niche maratiin the world!” -Natron

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