2011 Burning Man 50k Ultramarathon Race Report - Earn Your Burn

Hurricane Irene hit New York City on Sunday, August 28 causing my flight to Burning Man to be delayed by a couple of days till Tuesday, resulting in me missing the first part of the festival.

I survived the tempest and after a sleepless night on Tuesday I left the house at 2:45am - 2 trains, 1 bus, 3 planes and a car ride later I arrived through the gates of Burning Man.  There was a big round of hellos to good friends then I went to the car to get all my belongings and my act together because for God’s sake I was running the Black Rock City 50k Ultramarathon in the morning!  Was in my sleeping bag close to 11:30pm and the distant sounds of techno music put me fast asleep.  In my dreams I could hear the steady bass beat of the music - oonst, oonst, oonst - then awoke to realize it wasn't the techno music but my alarm beeping at me - beep, beep, beep, beep, oonst, oonst, beep, beep - it was 3:30am and with a whole four hours of sleep after a tired day of travel it was time to get up and get on with it.  This is what Burning Man should be.  Take all the comforts and everything you think you know and flip it upside down and try to scramble to survive and somehow make sense of it all.  Or not.  Maybe it's best to just ride out the wave. 

I opened the trunk of the car and disrobed then put on my running costume.  My wife Ciara was at a family wedding and couldn’t make it to the festival this year, but she had given me a stack of envelopes that I was supposed to open each day so she could, in a way, be with me for the week.  For this particular morning she wrote me a wonderfully inspiring note for the run on a card that almost brought me to tears.  I folded it and put it in my hydration pack in case I needed to take it out and read it during the run for motivation.

With clothes on my body, three bananas in my belly, band-aids on the nipples, a handkerchief on my head and vaseline lining my crotch I was walking by myself in the dark to make it to the start line by 4:45am.  What the hell was I doing?  Where was I?  An ominous flaming octopus on wheels blasting music and filled with furry people yelling inaudible randoms passed by me as I wondered how my life had taken me here, to this place.  What the hell was I doing?  I was about to run 31 miles through all of this.  Don’t make sense of it.  Don’t try to be grounded.  Best to float in space for the next several hours and hope that when I do land it is feet first. 

I ran the Black Rock City 50k last year, when it was an inaugural event.  This summer, the humidity of the northeast had really gotten to me and I hadn't had the best season of running.  Physically I was under-trained for the 50k distance but missing out on it wasn’t an option - I like the sound of finishing 2 out of 2 too much.  It was surprisingly warm for this time in the morning in the high desert at around 3,800 feet elevation.  Last year I was shivering under a coat and hat.  This year I was without shirt sleeves.  Hopefully it didn’t mean it would get hotter than last year.  I think it did. 

The crowd was gathering and a group of about 60 of us were fastening our race bibs to our clothes and getting ready to go.

A little after 5am we were off.  The course was four loops around the Esplanade and deep playa then a final out-and-back that went along the Esplanade to 2:00 and C then back to the finish line. 

I tucked myself in with a group of runners and as we made our way to the deep playa the sun was beginning to rise. 

We all completed our first loop and with a stop to the aid station the group mostly split up and as I kept running I locked on in a smaller group of around 5 or so.  Three of the runners were from my fellow Brooklyn and part of the running group North Brooklyn Runners which I have been meaning to run with for the past year now and haven’t.  In this group was Cherie Yanek who had the drive to create this 50k last year and has been the race director of it for two years now.  Toward the middle of the race she would developed a big bad blister on the top of one of her toes which caused a lot of pain.  So what did she do?  Took of her shoes and ran the rest of the race in her socks!  And finished the race long before I did.  And just a week and a half later she was scheduled to toe the line for a 100 miler.  Amazing!

The second loop was interesting because there was daylight now and as you ran you would pass by all sorts of Burners who were heading home after a full night of partying out on the playa.  If Burning Man is the place where all the freaks go, we were running by the most hardcore that exist in the freak kingdom - and they were all staring at us like we were the weirdest people they had ever seen.  We were the freaks to the freaks.  And we kept running.  You had acid heads with beers in their system chasing after us trying to run alongside until their energies gave way.  A woman in only her underwear was shuffling along with her legs locked together towards the port-o-potties.  As we came up behind her I realized why she was shuffling - she had shat herself.  Yes, this clearly was the hour when the animals were still wandering free out of their cages.  The junkies were scouring the land.  The werewolves were looming about.  A lost soul came up on us, suspiciously asking if we were undercover cops.  We assured him that we were.  People stopped what they were doing to check us out.  There was a chorus of comments:

“You guys are crazy!”

“What are you running from?”

“Slow down!”

“Nice tutu!”

“Nice ass!”

“Dig the mustache!”

“No way!”

“What the hell are you doing!”

“Are you serious!?!”

“This is awesome!”

“Am I hallucinating?”

“Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna die?”

“Stop here for a beer!”

“Take a swig of this tequila!”

“You guys are idiots!”

“You guys are hardcore!”

“You guys are at the wrong festival!”

“How far are you running?”

“Is this the Marathon?” to which we replied, “No, it’s the Ultramarathon.”

By the third lap as we crossed the Esplanade and made our way to deep playa the group really split up and for a while I found myself running alone.  A man in a suit jumped out of a giant beetle on wheels and started sprinting laps around me then got back on the beetle and took off.  The sun was steadily rising as well as the temperature.  Soon most of the people that had been out partying had gone to bed and the early risers hadn’t risen yet.  Things got pretty quiet.  It is here when you really feel like you are isolated in the desert. 

Photo from last year's race.  I'm on the left.  Imagine me without the other 3 bodies.

Up to this point I had been doing a good job of taking a GU every half an hour and been taking regular sips of water from my hydration pack as well as drinking the orange Gatorade from the aid stations.  Maybe too good of a job.  The liquids were sloshing around in my stomach, making me nauseous and sick to my stomach.  I really wanted to puke it all out and clear it away from my stomach but I was afraid of doing so because it was starting to get really hot (heading toward the 90’s) and I feared dehydration.  As I was in the middle of nowhere running along the border fence I couldn’t take it anymore.  A woman and a man passed by me on bikes and told me I was looking great and to keep it up.  A few seconds after they rode by I was hunched over the trash fence violently hurling orange foamy liquid into the desert dust.  My abs clutched so tight I thought that I had strained them and a new fear set in, not of dehydration but of pulling a stomach muscle.  Thankfully the pain was temporary and a good four heaves or so later and I was feeling better but I knew there was more.  I forced myself to keep moving to avoid a second round that would put me into the depths of dehydration but about ten minutes later I found myself hunched over the fence again retching out more orange.  It was at the end of this round that I felt I cleared what was bothering me out of my stomach and was able to keep moving again, slowly.  Although I felt better, my stomach was still feeling rough and I wasn’t sure what would happen when I would begin to drink water again.   

This was the low point - alone on the boarders of Burning Man, having just vomited all the contents out of my stomach, with the temperatures of the dry heat slowly causing my body to bake and knowing that there was much more left to run.  This is the point where things can start to turn.  This is when everything can go from manageable to dire.  It’s times like these that you step back and look at what lies in front of you and you make the decision to stop or continue on.  For me, even though things had almost gotten to the point of dire, I never once considered quitting.  What I did wonder was with my stomach feeling the way it was, how was I going to get through the rest of this race?  How was this going to happen?  How were the cards going to be played out?  I pulled out the card from Ciara and re-read it. 

The last part of the note.

And so I kept moving. 

It was shortly after this that Peter, one of the runners from Brooklyn came up behind me and we got to chatting.  He was having difficulties with cramping and I told him about my stomach troubles.  We moved along together for a short time before he was ready to pick up the pace.  I wasn’t, so he said that I would probably see him at the aid station up ahead.  I wasn’t so sure the way I was feeling.  About a half hour later it turned out he was right.  I got to the aid station, refilled my hydration pack, tried to eat a few pretzels and take a few sips of that orange Gatorade I had gotten to know so well and the two of us were off together with one loop left to go plus the out and back along the Esplanade. 

Peter and I more or less decided we were in it together for the remainder of the race as we passed by the familiar theme camps, by some of the same people that had been watching us each loop and by some people that were seeing us for the first time.  More comments.  More conversation.  More people on acid with beers in their system.  More continuing on.  The last camp you see on 2:00 before reaching the deep playa fence is a camp that I like to call Camp Heckle.  They were there last year at the same place, on the outskirts of town, probably put there because of the wealth of complaints they get from year to year.  Loud dubstep techno blasts from their speakers and a jerk on the microphone hollers out as many insults as he can think of towards whoever passes by.  And being the freak runners that we were, we may as well have been running with a target attached to our clothes instead of a race number.  In truth they weren’t as bad as last year.  A year earlier in the exact same spot, the last words my friend Tyler and I remember hearing them say to us while making our way to the outer fence, echoing from the loud speaker throughout the desert was, “FUCK YOU, RETARD!”  How do you respond to that?  What do you do?  Say something back to them?  Or maybe sneak into their camp at night and puncture holes into all their water jugs?  Naw.  This is Burning Man.  The world has been flipped upside down.  You just smile, shake your head, and move on.  

We finished the fourth loop and resupplied at the aid station.  Keeping out of the sun behind a large art piece, a woman who had just finished the race was taking off her shoes and hobbling along.  I asked her how she was doing and she said she was fine although her feet were really hurting.  Having turned into an ultrarunning nerd the past year, I was pretty sure that I knew who she was but I wanted to ask what her name was just to make sure.  “Kathy D’Onofrio” she said and I had been right.  I asked her, “You won Western States twice, didn’t you?”  For those readers who don’t know, The Western States 100 is the very first 100 mile foot race in the world and is known as the Super Bowl of American 100 milers which attracts the most elite distance runners not only from the US, but around the world. She had won the woman’s field in 1986 and 1988. Kathy humbly said, “Yes I did win Western States, but that was a very long time ago.”  I told her I thought that was totally awesome and she thanked me and said, “But let me tell you something,” and she pointed her finger right at me and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You could win it too!”  Time froze for a moment as I was taken aback by this, never haven really considered the notion.  Before I could say anything she asked if I was finished with the race and I told her I had the out-and-back left to do.  Her mouth dropped open and she gave me a funny look and yelled, “then what are you waiting for, GO GET EM!”  And she started jumping up and down on her tired feet yelling over and over again, “GO GET EM, GO GET EM!”  And with that Peter and I were off for the home stretch. 

The physical pain was intense for us both.  We’d run until it was too much for one of us and then we’d have to walk for a while.  We reached the turn around point and gave the Esplanade one last hurrah.  My stomach was really upset and I felt sick.  The heat was oppressive.  If I ran for more then a few minutes I would come close to puking.  The wind kicked up and before we knew it we were in the middle of a thick dust storm.  We put the bandanas that had been tied around our necks over our mouths to filter out the dust.  I took a few breaths through it and immediately took it off as I realized it had been around my sweaty neck for the past six hours and smelt so bad I preferred to breath in the dust.  I struggled with a few bouts of coughing.  And then after all the way we had gone and how little we had left to go, Burning Man decided to throw one last obstacle in for us to navigate through.  Blocking our path was a steady stream of several hundred fully naked men riding on bikes.  There was so many of them it was hard to cross through to the other side.  We had no other option but to carefully make our way across, fording the river of naked bicycle men, feeling like we were in the Atari game Frogger.  After much concentration, we safely made it through, managing to avoid being hit by a bike or a loose body part and we kept moving.  We trudged on together.  It is unbelievable how great company is for an event like this, especially when you are suffering.  Good conversation will take potentially hellacious miles and turn them into pleasant moments.  I was very grateful for Peter's company and hopefully I’ll make it out to some of these North Brooklyn Runner events in the future.  Finally we made it to the finish with a time of 6 hours, 27 minutes and 4 seconds and received a nice big finisher’s medal around our necks and a t-shirt to take home.  

Peter at the finish.

I can’t say enough good things about Cherie for organizing this crazy event and for the volunteers at the aid station sitting through the heat of the day to make sure the runners were properly taken care of and accounted for.

Although I had a lot of physical stomach problems over the course of these 31 miles, besides that one quick moment in the deep playa, I stayed pretty strong mentally.  I knew the whole time that somehow I was going to finish this race.  And I did.  Mission accomplished - now bring on the rest of the week!  

I was surprised at how fast my body ended up recovering from the race and two days later I found myself running again, this time a half marathon around the perimeter fence of Burning Man with two stellar people, Andy and Sage from the Yummy RUMInations camp.

It’s amazing how quickly the feelings of suffering fade from one’s mind and you are left with nothing but good memories of elation towards an experience.  As soon as they fade comes into your mind the next big question:


The answer to that is I'll be running in the Inaugural Brooklyn Marathon on November 20, 2011.  And after that… I’m thinking about this.