Race Report: Burning Man Ultramarathon, 2010

Tom Davis

Last Updated: September 14, 2010

Visit Tom's home page
Read other race reports by Tom

Are You Batsh!t Crazy?

This was the title of the first official announcement (in Jack Rabbit Speaks: the official announcement list of Burning Man) of the first Burning Man 50k race. A lot of my friends must think I'm bat-shit crazy, since at least a dozen of them forwarded pointers to the web announcement for the race. They knew I'd attended Burning Man seven times, and they knew that I'd be there. There's also a Facebook page.

Here's an article about it in Wired Magazine. Here's the race director's race report.

And woo-hoo! We hit the big time. Here's an article in Ultrarunning Magazine!

Burning Man is one of the last places you'd want to run a long race: it's hot, very dusty, (usually) totally dry, and possibly very windy. In fact, the combination of wind and dust can cause "whiteouts", where you can't see for more than 10 feet in any direction, even in the middle of the day. Besides, most people go to Burning Man for the opposite of an athletic experience.

I knew there was no chance of my doing it, but as the dates for Burning Man drew nearer, I decided that the least I could do would be to volunteer to help out with the race, possibly manning an aid station, or perhaps even pacing some runners at the end of their race. I had never run an ultramarathon, and figured Burning Man would not be the best place to start. So I sent a note to the race director, Cherie, and she said it would be great, and maybe I could help her measure the course on Monday (with the race scheduled for Wednesday, September 1).

I took along a running outfit and my GPS unit to help measure the course, and I also took a bag of sample energy gels, et cetera, that I'd gotten as freebies during the previous year. I also brought a 2.5 gallon plastic "suitcase" of water to be used at the aid stations on race day.

I was a member of a theme camp unrelated to the race, and I got there two days before the festival officially opened so that I could help getting set up to give away coffee and cookies every morning and so the last email contact I had with Cherie was on the Friday before Burning Man.

Mapping the Course

She'd given me an address where she'd planned to camp, and I checked it a few times on Saturday with no success, but luckily, I'd given her my playa coordinates, and she stopped by on Sunday. When she'd arrived, there was no space where she'd planned to camp and had to set up elsewhere. We agreed to meet at 8 am on Monday with our GPS units to figure out the exact race route. Cherie had submitted an approximate route to the Burning Man organization (BMorg), but we needed to modify it as necessary to make the race exactly 50 kilometers (31.05 miles) long. Here was her original proposal to BMorg:

Refer to the map above for some of the descriptions below. Burning Man is totally logical in its layout: radial roads named by clock hours, and circular roads in alphabetical order other than the inner-most road, called the Esplanade. The funny jog off the 10 o'clock road took us past one of the official BMorg medical stations in case somebody had trouble.

Of course the race had to start and end at The Man, so Cherie and I measured from the man to the position of the aid station at the apex of the boundary fence and then ran once around the large loop to see how long it was. I agreed to figure out a suitable route. I was actually a little paranoid about this, since I envisioned that we'd get all the way to the boundary fence along the 2 o'clock road and we'd have to run a bit along it to make the 50k, so a calculation of the proper point to turn toward the man might require some trigonometry. I knew my iPhone had a calculator app with trig functions, but with my brain fried at Burning Man, I wasn't looking forward to doing that sort of calculation.

Luckily, the route turned out to be simple and no trigonometry was required; simply arithmetic: The Man to the aid station, then four complete loops around the perimeter fence and outer part of Black Rock City, and most of a fifth loop, except that on the last trip along the 2 o'clock road toward the boundary fence we needed to run a couple of hundred yards past Kyoto street, make a U-turn, and then follow a straight line directly back to The Man. My calculation was verified at the end by a racer who carried a GPS unit and managed not to accidentally turn it off during the race who told me that the course was almost exactly 50k.

Cherie is a dead ringer for another ultra runner I know named Chris (not in looks, or anything, but in personality and energy level; for example, I've never seen Chris with pink hair). They're both very extroverted, very excited about running, and the term "Energizer Bunny" can easily be applied to both: they keep going and going and going... To take the course measurements we had to run about 10 miles, and Cherie was exactly the same at the end as at the beginning. I, on the other hand, could tell that I'd run 10 miles.

The only tricky part of the course was where to turn on the boundary fence as you ran away from the aid station, and we marked it with a pile of dirt and later Cherie went out and put some flags. She also put some flags to mark the final U-turn on the 2 o'clock road.

By this time I was starting to have thoughts that maybe I could do the race. After all, I'd just done an ironman a month ago (Ironman Regensburg) which ended with a marathon, and a 50k is only six extra miles. Cherie told me, "C'mon, do it! It'll be fun!" I worked out the course route on Tuesday and when I took it to Cherie, I told her that at least I'd be at the 5:00 am start on Wednesday with my bag of gels and water. I think that by about Tuesday noon I'd finally convinced myself to run.

Cherie asked me what the usual age cutoff was for the "masters" category: 45 or 50, and so of course I told her she should only consider folks to be masters if they were 61 or older. Coincidentally, I'm 61...

Race Day

Monday night was one of the coldest I've ever experienced at Burning Man. Our camp thermometer got down to 35 degrees F, and if the same thing happened on Tuesday night it would sure be a miserable morning on Wednesday. Burning Man is usually known for the heat, and many of us hadn't brought much in the way of cold-weather gear. I had brought some light-weight cycling tights and so I planned to race with them under a short pink skirt that I'd acquired the day before. I figured if I got hot I could just strip off the tights and at least I wouldn't be running completely naked (although that would not have been out of place at Burning Man). I had a lightweight long-sleeved white shirt that would be good for keeping sun off, and a Zombie Runner cap with a flap on the back to keep the sun off my neck and ears. I took a CamelBak for water and stuffed some electrolyte tablets into one of its pockets. I also wore a beanie and some gloves.

I got up at 4:00 am, had some cereal and a couple of Red Bulls, emptied out everything at a porta-potty, and lugged the water and gels out to The Man for the 4:45 pre-race meeting. There were lots of runners there (Cherie told me later that there were 37 starters) and as I talked to people I realized that most of them knew exactly what they were getting into. I had worried that there might be a lot of folks showing up who couldn't run 5 kilometers, let alone 50. But I think the 5:00 am start was enough to discourage any non-serious runners. If all of us runners were bat-shit crazy, I'm not sure what you'd call one of the guys there who had raced Ironman Louisville three days previously.

The only thing that made this start different from the starts of all the other long races I've done is that one major topic of conversation was to compare the amounts of alcohol each of us had ingested the previous evening.

Here are two photos of me taken by Fabien Pichard, the husband of Michelle, another 50k racer. On the left is me running with Jack early in the race with regular glasses and tights still on. The image on the right is me at the finish: no tights, and dark goggles, and pretty wiped out. Click on either image for a higher-resolution version.

Cherie did a great job of organizing the race. We got started at 5:03 am which is amazingly good for a Burning Man event. Of course nobody wanted to delay, since the later we got going, the more running we'd have to do in the heat. There was a very nice aid station at the apex of the boundary fence, there were folks there to record our numbers as we went by on each loop, there was even a guy standing for the entire race at the lonesomest point on the course: at the turn off the boundary fence toward the 10 o'clock road, and there was even a small aid station at about 3:30 and the Esplanade.

After we started, the runners broke up into groups. Cherie and a few others were off ahead, and after a few miles I seemed to be pretty well matched with a guy named Jack. He was quite a bit younger than I, but hadn't run for a while, so was happy with my slower, but at least very constant, pace. I figured if I could run 12-minute miles for the whole thing I'd finish in 6 hours which I'd be very pleased with, but we were running at about a 10:45 pace which would actually give us a cushion if we got tired at the end and had to slow down.

It wasn't too cold, and as the temperature started to climb I started stripping down: I took off my gloves and a beanie, and later took off the tights. When the sun came up I switched to my dark goggles from my normal glasses. The race surface was pretty good: there were only a half-dozen spots where the hard surface turned to deep dust, and then only for 10 or 20 yards at a time. The surface was also soft enough that in spite of the heat and the repetition of footfalls on a basically dead-flat playa, I didn't get any blisters, and at the end, I still had all my toenails.

I was very careful about hydration and was almost constantly sucking a little bit out of my CamelBak. I had three of the electrolyte pills over the course of the race, ate a lot of potato chips and one Gu packet. I emptied the CamelBak (70 ounces) about three times and had one giant drink at the 2:30 and Esplanade aid station over the course of the race. I should have eaten more, in retrospect, but my hydration was good.

Jack and I ran (rather than walked) for our entire time together (about 20 miles) except to use the porta-potties or to strip of tights or eat/drink/reload at the aid stations. After 20 miles Jack sped up a bit and I ran most of the last 10 by myself. I met him at the end, and he'd run the final 10 miles about 7 minutes faster than I. At the final time at the apex aid station I managed to bump a button on my Garmin GPS watch and turned it off, but didn't notice for a mile or two, so I wasn't sure exactly how far I'd gone, but I did remember the 5:03 starting time, so I knew my overall time on the course.

As the day went on and more and more people were awake, I was surprised at how many of them had heard that there was a long race that day. Most of them thought it was "merely" a marathon, but many knew that it was even bat-shit crazier. A bunch of people wanted to "gift" me junk on the course but I always refused since I had no way to deal with it. Almost everyone with whom I had any interaction was great except for one asshole on the 2 o'clock road. There was a guy with a microphone making insulting comments about any person who passed, be they runners or not.

As in every race where you run multiple loops, each time around, the loops got longer and by the end, I was using the standard mental trick of telling myself: "You just need to get to the aid station." Then, when I'd get to the aid station, "You just need to get to the 10 o'clock turn." And so on.

At mile 25 or so I caught Cherie and a couple of other folks who were walking (I guess Cherie was having some stomach problems) and I passed them, but we leapfrogged for a few miles. When she ran, Cherie was a bit faster, but every mile or so she walked a bit and I would pass her. At about mile 28, I started doing a bit of walking myself, but managed to keep it down to just 3 or 4 relatively short sections. During one of those Cherie and her group got ahead and I never caught them again, although I did see them as I was headed toward the final U-turn and they were heading toward the finish. I don't have the final results yet, but she must have finished 3 or 4 minutes ahead of me.

My final time was about 5:41, which I'm really happy with. That's just from a wrist-watch, and I'm writing this before I've seen any of the official race results. I talked to Cherie a day or two after the race, and she said that 32 of the 37 starters had finished (actually, from the final results, there were only 29 official finishers), which, to me, is amazing. And I know that at least one of the "non finishers" called it quits after "just" running a full marathon. So although we are all bat-shit crazy, at least almost all of us have a lot of experience at being bat-shit crazy.

I hung around the finish for about 10 or 15 minutes, being sure to keep moving so that my leg muscles didn't lock up. Then, another nice feature of the course presented itself: since we were at The Man, every one of us had to walk at least a few hundred yards to get back to our camps, which is also a very good way to cool down after a long run. I didn't have much in the way of recovery drinks in camp, but I had some milk and cookies and figured the protein from the milk and sugar from the cookies might do the trick.

I didn't have any problems with dehydration or cramping, and within a few hours I was getting around almost normally on my bike. Walking, however, was another story: my legs definitely knew that something horrible had happened to them.

One thing I'm darn sure of: I'm totally lucky that they didn't make me pee in a cup at the end. I would have come up completely drug-free, and that would probably be good for an instant disqualification at Burning Man.

Burning Man is as geometrically perfect as the map above indicates. Here's my GPS trace of the first 25 miles of the race before I accidentally turned it off. The heart-rate is also accurate until about mile 19 when the sweat caused the band to slip down and I was too tired to try to get it working right again. I suspect that the rate was pretty constant throughout the race, other than for the few short walking portions. I also thought the playa was dead-flat, but if you look at the elevation profile, you can see a regular undulation of 50 feet or so. I think that the Google guys took an aerial photo of Black Rock City that'll probably be incorporated eventually on Google Earth, and if you download the Google Earth format file from the site above and view it, you'll see how the route and the city fit together.

Here are the final race results. I did pretty well: 13th out of 29 finishers (and 37 starters).

Here's my finisher's medal, hand-made by Cherie:

And here's the award I got at the annual year-end party from my triathlon club: