(Virtual) Burning Man 50k

The last year and a half have been challenging for the sport of running, especially in California, for a variety of reasons. Here are some that I have found particularly challenging.

  • Races have been cancelled, or postponed, with no obvious of definite time to return. A lot of runners train specifically for races, and not having a goal can be quite challenging.
  • The social elements of running have been taken away. Even though running ultimately comes down to an individual, there are plenty of social aspects which have been removed as options. Running with friends, running with clubs, and meeting up runner friends are all activities that are temporarily on hold, replaced with Strava likes and virtual races.
  • Fires in California have taken away 10-15% of “runnable” days. The air quality during August and September has been awful for much of California and other parts of the west in North America; running outside on these days can cause permanent lung damange.
  • Gyms have been closed. Enough said.
  • I’ve had injuries – plantar fasciitis on one side, and a sprained ankle on the other. My training has been inconsistent at best, and most of it was replaced by the Peloton (which I begrudgingly bought second-hand pre-pandemic), which is a poor substitute.
  • My mental health has been up and down. Especially early in the pandemic, I faced some fairly serious mental health challenges, which made running tough.

For all of us, staying motivated in the face of the external stressors and ambiguity is a very difficult task. For me, I hadn’t run a race since Tahoe – which was exactly two years ago – until yesterday, and even yesterday was a virtual race. And for that reason, I was very excited to finally get out and run.

The race I was planning to run was the Burning Man Ultramarathon 50k, which usually takes place at Burning Man every year. I ran the race in 2018 and 2019. The race was virtual in 2020, and I was injured, so I ran a “Ultra 5k” with some friends instead. This year, the Burning Man is cancelled a second time. However, many runners are planning to go out to the desert and run anyway (on Tuesday, just a few days from now). I was also planning to do this, however, because of the fires, the air quality has been terrible, so I decided to run locally in San Francisco, where the air quality is marginally better. If you’re having a hard time following this sequence of events, I totally get it – the whole last two years of races have been equally as confusing, ambiguous, and subject to last minute changes and cancellations.

Anyway, I decided to run on Saturday.

I picked out a route that I would know fairly well – starting from my house, heading north to Lake Merced, then up Ocean Beach, one lap around Golden Gate Park, back to Cliff House, then under the Golden Gate Bridge (but not across, because it’s really not fun to run across the bridge), then Fort Mason, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and finishing at the Ferry Building. I wasn’t too fussed about getting the distances exactly right on the map because I knew I would probably pick up some mileage going around Lake Merced and through Golden Gate Park, so the below map has a little under 31 miles.

The approximate route

I started around 6am, when it was just light outside. In a nod to the official race, I sported my unicorn headband and the race shirt from 2018.

Leaving the house

I felt pretty good for the first six or seven miles, and watched the sun come up over the mountains to the east – an eerie red because of the smoke.

Red sunrise

When I got to Lake Merced, I did a counterclockwise circuit. I think the last time I had run there was when I did Nike Women’s, which was maybe 10 years ago. Most of the pathways around the lake aren’t actually that great – they’re sidewalks next to a street. I think there’s also a golf course taking up a bunch of space, so that part wasn’t scenic at all.

When I got to the Great Highway, which is right next to the ocean, I ran north along it. Much of the Great Highway is currently closed to motor vehicles, so it was nice to have some space with just pedestrians. My favorite pedestrians were a guy on a skateboard who was doing laps with his dog, and a woman wearing a red dress who I couldn’t tell if she was legitimately out for exercise or coming home from a night of partying. I tried to ascertain by looking at her shoes, but they were blocked by some hedges.

One of my pet peeves about Camelbak water bladders is that they are a bit of a pain to refill. I had brought my 32oz bladder, and was trying to figure out how to avoid having to refill during the run, which would involve unclipping the backpack, taking it off, opening it up, removing the bladder, opening the bladder, filling the bladder, closing it, replacing it in the backpack, putting the backpack back on, and reclipping the backpack. Instead, I was hoping to find some strategically placed waterfountains, and found my first couple along the Great Highway, so was feeling pretty solid about this hydration strategy.

When I got to Golden Gate Park, was about 14.5 miles in. I remembered a trail some friends had showed me a week ago when I was running with them, so I decided to take that route rather than stay on the streets. It was nice relief for my feet, which were a little sore. I was also getting a small blister on one toe, so I paused to remove my shoe and fix it. I also took out some Clif Blocks for nutrition.

Where I had come from
Where I was heading

YUM. (Not sponsored/shilling – just was hungry and have a friend who will appreciate this photo)

As I was running to the east side of the park, I heard some loud music. My first thought was that it was pump-up, pre-race music – it has a certain quality that is weirdly recognizable, which is upbeat, not-political, fairly mainstream, not offensive, and at a certain volume. I was right – I saw a bunch of runners lining up to start a race. I was weirdly overcome with emotion – there’s something very cool about being at the start line of a race – the nervous energy, the camaraderie of all of the runners together, the anticipation of the start, the envisioning of the finish, the recognition of the training it took to get there. I had a moment where I really missed that.

About 15 miles in, running in Golden Gate Park

When I got to the east side of the park, I turned around to come back along a different route on the north side of the park, which is also closed to traffic right now. As I made the turn onto the closed streets, another runner on the sidewalk and I briefly made awkward eye contact, then he came off of the sidewalk onto the road as well. He and I ran together for a few miles. I didn’t say anything because he was wearing headphones, but it was kind of nice to have a running buddy for a bit. When he fell off, I waved at him and he waved back.

As I was coming back towards Ocean Beach, I saw all the racers from earlier – it looked like a 5k and a 10k race. I cheered some of them on – about half looked vaguely confused, and the other half waved back.

When I got back to Ocean Beach and turned north towards Cliff House, I was around mile 21.5. I checked my phone – one of my runner friends had said he was planning to come pace me for 4-5 miles towards the end, and I wanted to check in to see where he was at. We coordinated that we would meet somewhere at Chrissy Field, which was probably 45 more minutes of running for me with a lot of hills.

The next couple of miles were tough. I knew I had less than ten miles to go, but a lot of them were hills. Coming out of Golden Gate Park, I quickly ascended several hundred feet, then descended, then did a big climb up to Golden Gate Bridge. My right knee was a little sore, so I had to stop at one point to stretch my IT band. I didn’t walk any of this stretch, although I did have half a 2.5-year-old Clif Bar (somehow still good)!

Christmas flavored!

Also, this stretch featured a lot of cyclists – it felt like anyone who had a bike was riding it today – and those three-wheeled yellow touring go-karts.

Once I got to the top of the hill and started coming down the other side, I texted my friend Eric, who said he had parked near Chrissy Field. I sent him a photo of where to meet (see below), and headed down. My directions to him were terrible, but I knew the area pretty well, so I called him to figure out where he was and met him there.

Pretty mediocre bridge picture, but it isn’t like you haven’t seen it before. Also you can see the haze from the smoke a little bit in this photo.

“Meet at this building” aka terrible directions from Lisa. As I look at this photo later I understand how it could be confusing – hah.

Having Eric as a pacer for the next four miles was immensely helpful, both in terms of keeping me moving and also keeping me mentally positive. He set a pretty good pace, but was also very respectful of not pushing too hard. We also hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years (thanks COVID), so we had lots to chat about, including topics that weren’t even running-related!

After some clever navigation of the tourist hotspots of Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, I took out my phone to check how much distance I had left to cover – only a quarter of a mile! So we ran that, then immediately stopped. I sat down on the side of the road for a few minutes to rest my feet, then we walked another mile to the Ferry Building, grabbed some chocolate milk (how is this weirdly so good after running?) and pluots, then Ubered back to his car.

Running with Eric!

At the “finish line” aka the Ferry Building

After the run, I headed home. Physically, I was mostly just tired – nothing in particular hurt (some lingering soreness from plantar, but that may be a thing for the rest of my life). Sprained ankle was good as well. I did some stretching and then lay with my feet up for a few hours. The smoke wasn’t as big of an issue as I thought – I had some coughing later in the day, but it was gone after an hour or so.

Strava Results (link)

It was nice to get to go out and run distance again. I hadn’t run this far since 2019, and it felt a little harder than before, but that could also be the passage of time making us forget former pain – hah. I’m excited that the puzzle pieces seem to be fitting into place to allow for running – pandemic mostly winding down, injuries mostly healed, air quality mostly good – and I can probably force the rest of the pieces to fit with enough will power.

Until next time –


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