Burning Man is a 70,000-person hippy gathering in the desert of Nevada, in summer. There’s cool art, funky music, and fun activities to do. It’s a bastion of hippy values: love, sharing, and friendliness. Most of all, it’s summer camp for adults – where you have no plans and no obligations, other than to have fun. So basically, you get to do whatever you want.
For me, doing whatever I want often means … running.
Background and Course Info
I’d heard about the Burning Man 50k a few years ago. For a variety of reasons and despite having tickets, I hadn’t gotten around to actually going to Burning Man. So when Cyndi, my friend and colleague, mentioned she was going to Burning Man for the first time this year and invited me along, I couldn’t say no. Later, she also mentioned she was going to run the 50k, and I knew I’d found the right group to camp with.
The Burning Man 50k course goes through some of the major landmarks of the city, which is laid out a bit like a clock (see below). The course starts somewhere near the middle of the city, heads out to the perimeter, goes about a quarter of the way around the edge, then comes back in. It’s about four laps of running, plus a little bit at the end, to get to the full 50k. The course is flat (it’s a desert). The race itself starts early – around 5:30am – to avoid the desert heat. Dust storms are a very real consideration, so appropriate apparel, such as dust masks and goggles, are required.
A few things surprised me (in a good way!) about how the race was organized:
- There’s no registration fee. That’s because everything at Burning Man is “gifted” – e.g. created by another participant and then shared, with no exchange of money, goods, or services
- It’s chip-timed, which is really impressive for a race that’s so far out in the desert and affiliated with a bigger event
- There’s even swag: T-shirts, finisher medals, and start medals
- It’s BYO aid-station – all participants were asked to bring some aid station snacks to donate, as well as 1-2 gallons of water each. We brought some salty crunchy snacks (I can’t remember exactly what). We also made a little aid station box for our camp, which consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, peanut butter and nutella sandwiches, and peanut butter and honey sandwiches. You might be picking up on a theme here.
The Start Line
The race was supposed to start at 5am, so we headed over to the start line around 4:30am. Most Burning Man activity happens at night, so as we were waking up to get ready for the race, it felt like the city was still in full-on party mode. About a hundred runners were at the start (it felt like more), and it was clear some of them hadn’t actually gone to sleep the day before. They’d just rolled right up after staying out all night.
Almost all runners were in some kind of costume. Most costumes included illumination of some sort, such as LED-encrusted headgear, or jackets lined with electroluminescent wiring. These light-up clothes serve a dual purpose: they both look cool, and make sure people can see you at night. Lots of folks wore tutus, capes, or headgear. One woman had a mirrored disco-ball sports bra!
We said hi to a few folks – there were one or two other people I knew who were running as well – and stashed our camp’s aid station out of the way of the hoards.
For reasons that remain unclear to me, the race didn’t actually start until 5:30am. That said, this is pretty typical of Burning Man – things start late, or not at all. Timing is pretty flexible.
After a brief group photo, we lined up at the start, and the race began.
Cyndi, Alex, and I had planned to run a few miles at the start together, but it became very quickly apparent that they wanted to set a much faster pace than I wanted to. I also didn’t want to push my pace too much to start, since I’d been rehabbing an ankle injury (posterior tibial tendinitis – it’s healed now, but it was a long road this year). So they took off within the first few minutes and I settled into my pace.
For the first mile and a half or so, we ran along the Esplanade – the innermost ring of the city. Along this road, there were lots and lots of non-running revelers in various stages of intoxication, all wearing lit-up clothing. Once they figured out what we were doing, they cheered us on, with calls of “You’re crazy!” ‘Here, have a shot of vodka!” and “F*ck your burn!” (Which is actually a nice thing to say, even though it doesn’t sound like it). The atmosphere was very much charged with energy.
We turned left at the end of Esplanade to the 10’o’clock branch of the city. We ran by the ill-fated and now notorious 747 airplane – the first of four times we would pass it that day – around which a party was still commencing.
Then we headed out into the desert.
The desert of Burning Man – away from the center of civilization – is called the Deep Playa. It has this mysticism about it, as if it takes a monumental journey to get there. In reality, it’s just a short walk – maybe 10-15 minutes – away from the main camp areas – but it does have a weird, isolated vibe. The desert is an empty place, and you realize it as soon as you leave the bustle of center camp behind. There’s nothing out there.
That said, we runners could still hear the thumping music from the fleets of art cars crawling about the Playa, and we could still see the laser lights cutting through the persistent cloud of dust over the festival. We were still part of the party, even as we ran away from it.
The course turned to the right at the trash fence – an orange, plastic perimeter constructed to keep festival trash from blowing into the desert. You can see it in a few pictures below.
At about four miles in, or halfway through the lap, we hit an aid station. I didn’t stop, but it was great to see the volunteers, including two of my good friends, Natalie and Mikaela! You can see their photo below – they were the most enthusiastic cheerleaders, and it was so awesome to see them.
The next four miles are a mirror image of the first – continue along the trash fence, turn right at the gate, then back to camp. This stretch was our first introduction to the non-official aid stations, which consisted of folks who just randomly set up aid stations to offer things to runners. These offerings were diverse, and included the obvious – like water and oranges – and the less obvious – like pigs in blankets and rum.
At the end of the lap, we passed through Pink Lightning’s camp and crossed the timing mat.
The second lap was gorgeous, and when the sun rose. Seeing the sun rise at Burning Man is a bit of a rite of passage, usually because it means that you’ve stayed up all night to see it. In this case, we got to see it coming up as we were running. It was beautiful, and ethereal to be running in the desert as the sun rose.
After Sunrise – the Middle Miles
I fell into step with a couple of guys, including one – named Natron (real name) – who was wearing some crazy bouncy shoes. The shoes had some complex spring contraption on the bottom, which gave Natron a literal bounce to his step (as well as a little squeaky noise). He was already tall, and this added a few more inches to his height. He told us he was trying to set a Guinness world record for “Fastest Marathon in Bouncy Shoes,” but Guinness kept telling him that bouncy shoes aren’t a universally accessible piece of gear, so they wouldn’t take it.
I ran with him for a few miles before we caught up to Cyndi and Alex.
Probably my favorite runner costume: two guys dressed in checkered shirts and pants carrying a banner that said “finish.” They ran all the loops in reverse, so I got to “cross the finish line” about eight times! I loved seeing these guys, even if it never meant I was actually finishing.
In terms of food, since that’s a common question – I didn’t partake of any of the race-organized aid stations, and I also didn’t partake of any of the non-race-organized aid stations. I carried a handheld water bottle, which I filled up every loop or so at our camp’s aid station, and I ate the PB&H we had prepared as well. I made this decision for a few reasons: First, the race-organized aid station food wasn’t laid out in a way that made it easy to grab, so the little bit of added friction made me less interested in trying to figure it out. Second, the non-race-organized aid stations … well, it’s Burning Man. You don’t always know exactly what you’re gonna get from strangers, no matter how well-meaning they are.
The after-sunrise vibe is a little different on the Playa. Revelers start going to bed, so it quiets down quite a bit. The early risers wake up, and they tend to be a more peaceful, thoughtful bunch. They were more genuinely curious about what we were doing, and asked us questions (as much as possible when you’re running by) about the race, rather than shouting encouragement. We also saw a lot of folks doing morning yoga.
The Last Few Miles
After the fourth lap, we had to do another short out-and-back to round us out to the full 50k distance. I had held a pretty consistent pace so far, and it had felt pretty good. I was happy about this, as I was just coming back from that injury and hadn’t been doing a lot of running.
As I passed the timing mat, I heard a guy on the sidelines asking if anyone wanted a pacer for a bit. I said sure – one of my goals for the week at Burning Man was to say “Yes” to people offering gifts, and this was an opportunity to do that! So this guy and I ran the last little bit together. He was a super nice guy – lots of ultrarunning experience – and I think it was his first time at Burning Man as well. I think he was disappointed I wasn’t doing more miles before finishing, but I was very happy to have the company. (When I finished the race, he found another runner who still had another lap and went off with her – what a cool guy!)
The Finish Line
I crossed the finish line with a time of around 5:40 / 5:45. Slow for me, but great for not having run any meaningful distance for a few months, and my ankle didn’t hurt! Cyndi and Alex came in about twenty minutes later, and it was so awesome to see them cross the finish line of their first 50k together. Our camp mate Cliff came to cheer us on at the finish, too.
We gifted our remaining camp sandwiches to a runner who was just about to leave on her fourth lap – she hadn’t eaten anything for the first 22 miles of the race (!) so we were happy to share.
We headed back to camp, took the Burning Man equivalent of shower (e.g., leveraging lots and lots of wet wipes), and had some breakfast. I think the other two took a nap – I got on my bike and went out exploring.
I took the rest of the week off from running, because I was still pretty skittish about further injuring my ankle. Posterior tibial tendinitis isn’t a joke, and can turn into a permanent injury if not treated. I was still pretty nervous about it. Honestly, taking that week off may have been what got me over the hump in terms of recovery. The ankle felt much, much better when I got back to the real world.
I am so glad to have gotten a chance to run this race. I was happy and smiling the entire race, for probably a few reasons.
- I hadn’t run for a long time, and it felt so good to get back out there, even if I was going slow.
- I’d been wanting to run this race for a number of years, and finally getting to do it was a real treat.
- The scenery and the environment were completely amazing. The desert is an incredible place, and getting to see the art and people of Burning Man in this way was very special
- I got to run with two of my favorite people – Alex and Cyndi – and they were running their very first 50k! I love running with new ultrarunners.
In terms of the race itself – the winning woman ran an average of 8:09 minute pace or so for the entire race. You may remember that, just a few months earlier, I ran my fastest marathon ever, averaging … 8:07s. So, I’ll just leave that there. All I’ll say is … my tendinitis is healed. I’ll be back in Black Rock City next year, and I’ll definitely be running again.
Make sure to read John’s race report – I ran a bunch of miles with him!
Some photos in this post courtesy of Samuel-Christophe Tedjasukmana