As I bent forward into downward dog, hands touching chalky playa, muscles screaming for a release from their agony, and sun, oh hot desert sun, baking my naked-for-the-last-four-miles body, I wondered how I had wound up here. Here being a 50K ultra marathon in the buff, here being Black Rock City, the people still up at five-thirty in the morning to slap us five, cheer us on, create a human tunnel and scream war cries in the middle of a dry lakebed… but that was hours ago. That was lap one when I was fully clothed and my legs were fresh and the dawn was breaking and this is lap four and the sun is merciless and even the hardest of the partiers have retreated home for their vampiric day-naps. Now it is just the runners, the guy with the speaker medallion blasting 80’s rock warble guitar and the guy in the kilt who gave me the idea run one song walk one song run one song… and the guy who is even more naked than I am with his bare feet and bare body and only the water of his sweat. And occasionally there is a lone bicyclist or a veteran Burner MOOPing the playa and their shouts of “keep going” and “you guys are incredible” sound more like “better you than me” with every step.
When I left camp the night before, Nora had hugged me and said, “Say yes to anything.” Okay. My first yes was to a cookie and a spanking. I had never been paddled by a grown man before, at least not after the age of five, and I will admit trepidation, but he let me keep my pants on and choose the instrument of my flagellation, and the embrace he gave me when we parted with a “welcome home” was as warm as the fresh baked chocolate chip cookie gift I received from his assistant.
My second yes was to an interactive game of catch the falling whatever (I picked cows catching apples) that used some sort of magic technology to simultaneously project a green avatar under your feet on the sand and a video avatar that mimicked your movements on a large glowing screen. After a while I was joined by two other players, our little cow-crew now in competition for digital fruit, but lost interest when a glitch in the system sent six apples in a row down the side I was on and I realized I was letting them get there first on purpose.
My third fateful yes was to Cherrie Bomb. Cherrie Bomb was the race director of the Black Rock City 50K, and when I arrived at Pink Lightning, a camp of New York runners decked out in, you guessed it, pink, she had her hands entirely too full for a woman who was expecting to run 31 miles the next day. When I left later her hands were still full, and when I returned the next morning at four-forty five, which really should count as the same night, I found myself wondering if Cherrie Bomb actually required sleep like the rest of us mortals or just a change of batteries and a strawberry flavored GU energy gel.
“You’re a runner?” Cherrie Bomb asked. “I’d like to be a pacer,” I replied. In my head I pictured myself leading a group of 8:30-9:00s for a lap or two and then a warm farewell as the sun rose over the dry lakebed, a position of relative comfort waiting for me at camp, and the final hours of the race spent cheering the psychopaths who had chosen to run an Ultra Marathon at burning man. “Well, people have asked about pacers…” Sweet success. “Have you ever run a marathon before?” I had, last year in Pink Lightning’s home turf, Prospect Park, first run then walked then crawled my way through the 26.2 with an unreasonably disappointing time of 4:15 and this year I was training to tackle the Brooklyn Marathon again with a sub 4:00. I told Cherrie Bomb all of this with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.“Well why don’t you just run it?”
How do people become Ultra Marathoners? That is a question I’ve asked myself several times before. While reading Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, listening to the stories of Paul, the father of one of my students while I was teaching abroad, who at least once ran the 104-mile ultra around Mt. Fuji, Japan, and he was a vegan to boot. I knew where my first marathon had come from: it was the cumulative effort of four years of races, injuries, breaks that lasted too long and late nights out with the one more drink that put me just over the edge enough to decide “maybe that long run can wait until next week.” And then the hop-back up on the wagon with the early mornings and the hot afternoon trainers and the saying no to that one more beer the night before even though I so badly wanted to say yes.
I had been a fat kid. Cheetos of the flaming hot variety, cheese whiz sandwiches (one member of the Avant Yard tried cheese whiz on the playa for the first time. “This stuff is awful!” he’d said, and I shuddered a little remembering that I at one point went through a can of awful a day, sometimes whizzing directly into my mouth). I had felt unattractive and alienated and when I picked up running sophomore year it was to validate a lie I had told. “I run a mile a day!” I’d bragged to a girl at the bus stop. “You sure don’t look like it” she had said, probably because I really didn’t because I really had never run a mile without a gym teacher telling me it was required, and even then we would cut parts out behind the football field where they couldn’t see us. But that day I went and ran a mile, or rather went a mile through a complicated combination of running, walking, and gasping like a fish out of water, or more accurately like a fat kid running his first voluntary mile. And then, slowly, it became a habit and then a priority and eventually I resembled rather than someone who did not run a mile everyday, someone who maybe did sometimes run a bit. So take that, girl at the bus stop, and also thank you.
“Say yes to everything” Nora had said, and “Why don’t you just run it” Cherrie Bomb had said, and how do people become Ultra runners? Well, I now knew my answer. I should mention that I did not expect to be a citizen of Black Rock City this year. Nora waged a war of attrition on my doubt, first by reminding me every other day that she really thought I should go to Burning Man and then once she realized that the more she said it the less interested I was, by shutting up entirely. But the seed was planted and as I watched her receive a pair of sweet goggles off of Amazon and plan her month and a half long expedition, first to Israel then to Seattle and finally to BRC, the psycho, I found myself yearning for an adventure. Perhaps her best move, her coup-du-grace, was adding me to the Avant Yard email list. The bi-weekly messages, first six out, then 45 days, then suddenly I’m interested and scrambling for a ticket, a flight, time off of work… I was going. I was actually going.
And now here I am. Butt naked in the middle of the Nevada desert relieving my furious claves with downward dog and praying that if anyone bikes by I cleaned my under parts thoroughly enough to not be remembered as “the guy who gave me the dirty moon on the Playa.” Winter King had left me a few miles before with the instructions “Whatever you do, just keep moving forward. Don’t stop for long, don’t worry if you have to walk, just keep going.” I’m not entirely convinced Winter King wasn’t some sort of demigod sent down to earth to get me through my 50K. He is in fact named after Shiva, lord of death, whose name also translates to King of Winter, the Playa name I gave Winter King both because I found his default name terribly difficult to pronounce and because during our hot, time consuming, dusty, difficult challenge he never lost his cool or failed to impart his superior running knowledge to myself or anyone else in the vicinity. “Breath deep every eight steps, that helps me keep loose” he’d said, or “When we hit the next water station sip, don’t gulp. That will help with the cramps.”
Winter King had grown up in India and after a brief stint in Los Angeles he was now living in New York. “Near Columbus Circle,” he’d said casually, an area I didn’t even know it was possible to live near. Winter King had plenty of marathons and Ultras under his belt. Winter King’s current goal was to run a marathon in every state, the BRC 50K filling that quota for Nevada, and in a few weeks Winter King was doing a “double header” which apparently would involve running two marathons in two different states on back to back days. In short, Winter King was a total badass. My galloping god found me in the first mile of the race as the pack started to break apart while attempting to dodge late night/early morning revelers tossing out high-fives and drunken chest bumps (one busty woman wasn’t wearing a shirt when she launched herself bodily into the runner behind me.) What I had expected to be a brief chat before individually breaking off into our own pace slowly turned into a conversation about running and then about the nature of art and then about our personal lives.
Ryan, another virgin and total badass who ran the fist three laps or 20 miles having never run more than 6 before, and I listened in awe as he told us a story about his first Ultra. At one point he looked out at the mountains surrounding our lakebed, at the sunrise cresting over their purple peaks. “I remember it was a the same as this, a 50K, but it was a trail run. Someone at the starting line told me that whatever I did I shouldn’t forget to look around and appreciate it…” Ryan and I both took in the dusty playa in the ethereal early morning glow… “and then when I did look up at mile two I fell on the rocks!” he cackled. “I had two bloody knees and was closer to the starting line than the first aid station.” “What did you do?” I asked. “Well, I thought about just crawling back and giving up. But I decided right there that I was going to finish. I had to walk a lot and I limped across the finish line, but I finished. DFL not DNF. Translation, dead fucking last not did not finish. The King paced me through the first three laps expertly without me even realizing he was doing so. He kept us at a 9/mile, ensuring we didn’t burn ourselves out by running too fast or slow down so much that we would have to contend with the midday heat, and he did that while fending off the partiers trying to shove bottles in our hands and give us whisky shots from between their legs. A few particularly wicked Burners even tried sending us the wrong direction, to whom I would iterate the Avant Yard’s number one camp rule “Don’t be a dick.”
Maybe my adventure started when I turned to Winter King and said “I think I’m going to run this final lap naked” and he said “okay” and helped me sunscreen my back. Or maybe it started when I said my third yes to Cherrie Bomb, or my first to a spanking, or when I finally crossed that finish line 5 hours and 24 minutes later, 31 miles later (9 of them naked), a lifetime later, or when and hour afterwards I stumbled into a strangers camp just before vomiting my half digested race gels and bananas on his doorstep and he shoveled it off the playa and disposed of it for me, no questions asked, and for only a hug in return. Who knows, my burn could have started six months before when Panda casually said “You should come to Burning Man,” and I thought “I’m hardly the poster child.” What I like to think though is my Burn never started, or anyone’s for that matter. I like to think the Burn was, is, always there, inside of everyone, virgin or return Burner or default alike.