“You’re organizing an ultramarathon where?” Yes, in one of the most inhospitable places for a race, but also, one of the most fun places for a race. Burning Man is a week-long festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada where crazy costumes, interactive art, loud music, dust storms, high heat, low temperatures, poor sleep, wind, and excesses are the norm. So it is a rather unusual place for an ultramarathon.
Runners donned costumes (including tutus, cat outfits, sarongs) or wore nothing at all. Runners began at 5am, though two runners began an hour earlier by special request. The course was flat, though Black Rock City is at 3,848 feet, and the terrain is soft alkaline dust and sand, which can be difficult to run through at times, especially on the 2:00 side of the course where the sand is similar to very powdery snow. The main loop (repeated four times) was 7.1 miles, followed by a short out-and-back of 2.6 miles. Each full loop began and ended at the main aid station, which was stocked with runner-supplied water and snacks, everything from cookies to pretzels to bananas to chips to beer to trail mixes. In addition, another smaller aid station was placed approximately halfway through, staffed by volunteers, and a friend (and personal trainer) placed an unmanned water stop about a mile and a half from the main aid station. In addition, various other camps set up water stops, vodka stops, whiskey stops, and moonshine stops. Rumor has it, the winner was fueled by some of these informal aid stations.
Runners ran past various pieces of interactive art, past (and sometimes through!) the giant rave camps blasting music until late morning, past people dancing, handing out beignets (for free – Burning Man is a gifting economy), people cheering, people daring us to hurdle them (and some of the braver runners even choosing to hurdle). The ultra has begun gaining more attention over the years, and many Burners know about the event, are impressed by it, and are really helpful in cheering us on and helping us out.
Winner Joel Fitzegerald stole the show with an undisputed win with a time of 3:48:31, and won the 5k the next day as well. Women’s winner Christine Mosley was followed just a few minutes later by artist (who had an art piece not too far off the race course) Kathy D’Onofrio.
Participants really were not just runners, but participants in the entire race. (“No spectators,” goes a saying of Burning Man.) Everyone brought a gallon of water and at least one running snack to share. Rachael Bazzett made bandannas for everyone, Ray Krolewicz embroidered hats and made numbers, Wayne Pacileo carved the medals, and Darkling Thrush’s campmates made post-race homemade ice cream for everyone. When the runners finished running, the party continued.
A special shoutout goes to Chris Tschintel, who got the starting time confused. Not to be dissuaded, and it being Burning Man, we were flexible and allowed him to run the race – at 5:30 p.m. (instead of starting at 5 a.m.). Without competition, but with the glowing lights of el-wire and glow-sticks and the glowing art of Black Rock City, and booming clubs his soundtrack, he ran solo, using the start/finish aid station remnants, finishing with a time of 6:45:44.
For a lot of runners, it was their first ultra – and some had not even run a marathon! It was a perfect first ultra, and also, a lot of ultrarunners used it as an excuse to head to Burning Man (as if you really needed one!). Plan early to get tickets (check out www.burningman.com as tickets go on sale as early as December and January), and make this flat, fast, and extraordinarily fun course on your to do list. This race may be the highlight of your week at Burning Man (as many claim), and Burning Man could very well be the highlight of your year!
Unfortunately, I crapped out (pun intended). While I did get a PR, I also placed a record for “Most Time Spent in the Port-a-Potty.” Stephen, being an awesome friend, waited for me the entire time, and we ran the race together. We shared a lot of laughs – like when he flipped over the trash fence (Luckily, he was fine.), and when an art car began heckling and chasing a naked runner in front of us. It was so much fun, even if I missed my goal by a long shot. And I have a new mantra: I will never eat beans the day before a race again…