You may remember that, a few days ago, I ran the Virtual Burning Man Ultramarathon 50k. This a race which usually takes place at Burning Man every year and consists of few loops around a hard-packed desert surface amongst a temporary city of hippies. I ran the race in the desert (at the official Burning Man event) in 2018 and 2019, and had decided for various reasons to partake of the virtual event this year instead of the in-person event, which is what I did on Saturday.
This year, with Burning Man cancelled, there was no official event at Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man usually takes place and where the 50k is usually run. However, a collection of Burners decided several months ago that they were heading out to the desert anyway, at the same time as usual, to camp there. Because this land is under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, it is public land, so there isn’t really anything wrong about camping in the desert.
The folks who put on the 50k are a camp named Pink Lightning. They were amongst the folks who decided they would come out to camp in the desert, and some of them were planning to run the 50k in person, on Tuesday at 5:30 am. My plan was to arrive at Burning Man on Monday, but NOT run the race, since I had already run it virtually three days prior and was worried about the air quality due to the fires in the area.
However, as the day got closer, I found myself creating an opportunity to run, should I feel up for it. On Sunday, I packed my race gear, “just in case” I wanted to do a few miles with the crew. On Monday when I drove out, I drove over to where Pink Lightning were camped, since my camp was quite close to them anyway, and said hi to Cherie, the race organizer, and a couple other runners. There were a few other folks who were planning to run, so the idea of running was validated by peers as not totally crazy.
So, I decided I would start with the group at 5:30am on Tuesday and just … see what happened. If I was sore because of the 50k I had done three days earlier, I would stop. If the air quality got bad and my lungs hurt, I would stop. If something else happened, I would stop.
The morning of the race, my alarm went off at 4:45am. I looked out of my car towards the Pink Lightning camp and didn’t see any movement, but figured I should go ahead and get ready anyway. As I was putting on my clothes, Cherie ran into camp; she had done a few miles before we started just because she had woken up early.
While about ten runners had signed up to run in person, only six of us toed the “line” at 5:30am, when we were starting the run. There was no official start time this year (and no time limit – you could take days to finish if you wanted), so a handful of runners started a little later in the day. Those of us at the 5:30am start were Bob Hearn (famed ultrarunning athlete who was running this 50k in the buff), Cherie (race organizer), Kathy (more on her later), Ken (first time Burner, and first time ultrarunner), a guy whose name I don’t remember (he only did one lap with the group), and myself.
As the six of us lined up at the start, a guy named “Burner Steve,” who wasn’t running the race but was a runner who was camped with the group, dragged his foot through the sand and said, “This is the start line!” Cherie looked at it and said, “Okay, but we are actually going that direction,” and pointed ahead. Steve redrew the line, so it was a very official start. We counted down as a group, then took off into the night.
Bob took off immediately, and we basically never saw him again. He was training for some multi-day, super-long race, so this 50k was barely a training run for him.
As we began the race, I started my Garmin and also Strava on my phone, but neither of them picked up right at the start and not concurrently, so it’s likely that I did a few extra tenths of a mile. I figured the Garmin would be more accurate, since it’s a GPS-dedicated device, but I also wanted to see what the final course looked like, which Strava would be better at.
Because there was no official course this year, and no real landmarks to speak of other than loosely assembled clusters of RVs and tents, five of us stayed together for quite some time. A lot of our route was decided on the fly. We would reach some landmark – usually a collection of RVs – and someone would ask where we should go next. Then someone would suggest another landmark – likely another cluster of RVs – and we would head towards that. Or, we would decide we would just run in one direction out into the desert for 15 minutes, then turn around and come back. Below is what Strava thought my course looked like.
Cherie, Kathy, Ken, myself, and one other gentleman all started off with a loop inside the city. Black Rock City – the temporary city that is built by Burners – is loosely arranged like a clock with the center hollowed out, so the loops we were doing were along the inside of that circle near the empty section. The loop was about 1.5-2 miles total, and the shape of the inside of the city was pretty poorly defined. After one loop, we were back at the start. We did another loop, and this time went a little further out to a camp that was outside of the city, and then did that larger loop a second time.
Everyone was mostly asleep, and the vast majority of Burners hadn’t actually even arrived on the Playa yet, so the whole race was pretty quiet. It felt like it should be desolate, but it was more fun than anything else – getting to spend time with runners is one of my favorite things to do. Runners are so easy to talk to because we have nothing else to do when we run, we have a lot of practice talking to other runners, we don’t run fast enough that we can’t converse, most of us have no ego, and the topics of conversation are all immediately relevant. I also love hearing runner stories about races they’ve done, so it was fun just to listen to the other folks as we ran through the empty and silent desert.
By this time the sun was coming up, but the smoke from the Caldor Fire was blocking most of it. That meant that we got a lower heat day and a pretty sunrise. I was keeping tabs on my breathing given the poor air quality, but it still seemed fine at this point.
At Burning Man, some people have “Playa Names,” or monikers they adopt that are different than their actual names. Usually these names are given to the person by another burner. It was somewhere around here that Ken’s Playa name originated. It was Ken’s first time to Burning Man, and he didn’t have a name yet. For some reason, Cherie kept thinking that Ken’s name was Chris, and kept calling him that before correcting herself. Later in the week, Kenstopher evolved as an amalgamation of the two names.
We did a slightly larger loop for the next one. On the way back in I had to use the bathroom – except, it’s the desert, and there are no bathrooms. Because this year’s Burning Man was completely unofficial and had no involvement from the Burning Man Org, the Bureau of Land Management put a number of rules in place that were somewhat inconvenient for campers. One of these rules made it very difficult for portopotties to be brought out to the Playa. Instead, I used the Wag Bag I had brought for this purpose, and paused in the middle of the desert to do this. This was probably one of the more scenic commodes I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Fortunately, the Wag Bags are EXTREMELY well sealed, so carrying it for the next ten minutes was not unhygienic or smelly, and I used hand sanitizer immediately after finishing the lap. I recognize this sounds and seems a little gross, but it was also very much a part of the Burning Man experience this year – most camps spent a weirdly large amount of time trying to figure out how to shuttle human waste off the Playa.
After I caught back up to the group and we left the camp, we headed south – this was one of our larger out and back legs. This is when I learned that Kathy – who we had been running with – was in fact famed runner Kathy d’Onofrio, who has won Western States twice and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I tried to play it cool, but those are some amazing accomplishments.
Cherie and Kathy turned back from this out-and-back a little earlier than Ken and I did. I wanted to get to the edge of the desert because it seemed like a fun thing to do, so Ken and I did that, took some pictures, and then turned around. At this point Ken and I separated as well, as he wanted to walk for a bit.
Once I made it back from the out and back, I was at maybe mile 24-25, so I decided to finish up by running a few loops around the inside of the city again. A mile or two of that I ran with Cherie, who was just about to finish up – she took off at some point and completely dropped me, speeding away with what seemed like a sub-8:00 pace for her last few miles.
When I saw Cherie again at Pink Lightning, she had finished – I asked her what her time was, and she didn’t tell me! I thought we were pretty close to each other pacing-wise, so I wanted to know what the time to beat was, but since I didn’t know I figured I would just trot along as fast as I could for the last approximately three or four miles. I left the “aid station” at the Pink Lightning camp and headed back out.
It was getting pretty warm by this point, and I was making sure to consume a little more water than usual in anticipation of the heat. Also, I was getting a little fatigued, and some areas of the Playa were a little less hard-packed and a little more like running on loose sand, which was pretty difficult. I decided to avoid the east side of the inner loop for this reason, and instead did a couple of C-shaped laps on the west side of the loop to finish.
I came back to camp at exactly 31.00 miles on the Garmin, at 6:03:55 (I took the photo below a second later). Wayne, Cherie’s husband, had been collating the times, and this meant I had finished 7 seconds ahead of her and was theoretically the “first place” woman that day. However, this is a little wonky for a number of reasons, including the distance we ran: according to Ray and Bob (who ultimately finished first in 4:19), the actual distance of a 50k is 31.068559. I ran exactly 31.00, and Cherie ran 31.05, so both of us were short, but she ran a little bit further than I did. My watch also started late and didn’t count those minutes or miles at the beginning. So, while I have a very cool “medal” that says #1 on it, this feels more like a friendly tie to me. Also, there were only three women out there, so we all got a spot on the podium!
I sat around the finish line for a bit just to hang with the runners. Ken was also chilling out, and he had decided after mile 26.2 that he wasn’t going to finish the full 50k. However, Ray Krolewicz, an incredibly elite and accomplished distance ultrarunner (e.g. probably top five in the world at one point – regularly has won 48 hour track events), walked in to camp. Ray was taking a very leisurely approach to this 50k: he would walk around the Playa, talk to whoever he found along the way (and Ray is a GREAT storyteller), come back to camp, charge his phone, hang out for a while, then head out again. His final time was something like 16 hours – he was literally in zero hurry and mostly just logging his miles while he went and met new people. So, Cherie suggested that Ken just go out and walk around for a while with Ray, since easy walking wouldn’t be a huge effort and it wasn’t like he was going to miss the nonexistent cutoff. Ken agreed, and when he returned, he had finished his first 50k and was already contemplating another. I love watching new ultrarunners discover the sport and finish their first race – this was a really cool moment.
All in, I felt surprisingly good during and in the days after this race, given the challenges: having run a 50k three days earlier, sleeping in a car the night before, and running in terrible air quality. The air quality didn’t seem to pose any major problems during the race. The dust and the ash were not the best, but my breathing experience in the desert this year wasn’t different than folks who hadn’t run – some coughing, mostly, but nothing that posed a barrier to activities.
I’m so happy I was able to do this race. I got to meet some awesome people and get to know them – the runners at Pink Lightning are literal legends, and it was amazing to be in their halo for a little bit and hear some of their stories. It was also so fun to get to camp next to them for the next several days, hang out, go out at night together, and chat runner shop talk while on vacation.