What IS the Burning Man Ultramarathon?

Written by Dirtbag Runners Core Team Member & Burning Man Ultramarathon Director Cherie Yanek You can have an idea, but it’s pretty much pointless if…

Written by Dirtbag Runners Core Team Member & Burning Man Ultramarathon Director Cherie Yanek

You can have an idea, but it’s pretty much pointless if you don’t do anything about it.

You can talk about things, but if it doesn’t come to life, well, it’s just conversation.

Nine years ago, I was at my favorite week of the year, Burning Man, talking to a friend about how it was great there was a 5k at Burning Man, but why wasn’t there an ultra, and I really wanted to put on an ultra and blah blah blah blah blah. My friend was puttering around his camp, wrapped in a sarong, showing off his leopard-spotted pedicure in wearing flip flops, drinking tequila-something, when he said to me, “Well, why don’t you put one on?”

Why don’t you?

 So I did.

Burning Man is a week long experimental community that takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. If you went there now, you would see nothing – a lake bed in the winter, a vast desert of nothingness in the summer. No plants, no animals, no people. Just – nothing.

Which is why it makes perfect sense that tens of thousands of people should come together, create a temporary community, clean it all up, and leave a week later with nothing but memories, maybe some photos, and a whole lot of dust everywhere. Unlike other festivals, where vendors make obscene amounts of money and people livestream their entire experiences on social media, nothing at Burning Man – except coffee and ice (which are fundraisers for the local communities) cost money, and the phone reception pretty much sucks so you don’t see people glued to their phone like in the default world. (Yeah, that’s what we call non-Burning Man – the default world.). Oh, and Burning Man has ten principles that guide the culture – radical inclusion, gifting, leaving no trace, civic responsibility, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, decommodification,  communal effort, participation, and immediacy. It’s a place where you contribute whatever your passion is – maybe bringing a few kegs of homebrew to share on hot days in deep playa, or building an extensive art piece to enjoy for a week and then blow it up in a spectacular fire, or hosting a wild mojito dance party, or you know, putting on an ultramarathon, as is my case.


If you like easy things, don’t go to Burning Man. Don’t even bother. If you don’t feel like shelling out a bunch of money to fly to an airport without conveniently-timed flights or connections, spending too much to rent a car (and then too much to clean it and/or paying too much as a cleaning fee), maybe renting a truck to lug in your camp’s stuff, finding or running a camp, brainstorming what to contribute, figuring out food and water and alcohol for a week in the desert, researching out how to prepare yourself with a suitable tent and sleeping gear and costumes – please do not even try to run the ultramarathon there.


I’m not going to lie. It will probably be the most fun you will have during a race – and I’ve had a lot of fun at other race. I’m the person that runs the NYC marathon in a tutu, high-fiving everyone and getting my mug plastered on subway ads afterwards. But this is different.

The course is deceivingly easy. It’s flat. You are running on the desert surface, or, “the playa” as we like to call it. But there are spots of playa so soft that it reminds you of running in snow. The dust will get into your shoes, and your feet will soon be covered with unbearable blisters that are so horrifying, you compare them with fellow runners afterwards. (Who’s the grossest?) Then there’s the weather – it can get pretty cold in the nights (near freezing sometimes!) and soar into unbearable daytime temps (above 100F). Oh, and there can be dust storms so extreme that you can’t see a few feet in front of you. Then there’s the fact that you’ve probably been partying since you arrived – which definitely means little sleep (and little sleep will happen whether you like it or not – it’s hard to sleep when a nearby art car is blasting Cyndi Lauper or dubstep until dawn) and maybe consuming some alcohol and who knows what else. You’ve probably been eating like crap – out of bags of trail mix or canned ravioli or countless grilled cheese sandwiches. But let’s face it – most of the carbs you’ve consumed come from beer, not food, and some of the things you’ve been eating, well, you might not call it food in the default world.

Then you’re running past gorgeous people in amazing outfits dancing to phenomenal music on top of giant art cars or sculptures or, people drinking champagne half-naked watching the sunrise. (Come on, you are really going to run past them?) You’re missing parties and cocktails and conversations and jumping on trampolines – or are you? Maybe the ultra is the biggest party, and you’re probably drinking champagne (offered from those beautiful naked people) or shots of whiskey, and talking with some amazing strangers, and stopping to jump on trampolines, and you’re running, and yeah, it hurts sometimes, but this is the ultimate high out here, and people can keep their PRs and their good sleep the night before at race, you don’t even care about the time on your watch, because the time you are having is all that matters, and it is the time of your life.


Read more about the race or Burning Man itself. You need a ticket no matter what. Don’t come just for race day and don’t come to check something off your bucket list – come for the experience and let it change your life. Oh, and study the 10 principles – they’re good guidelines to live your life. Oh, and pack more sunscreen and alcohol and baby wipes than you think you’ll need.


all photos by the amazing Samuel-Christophe Tedjasukmana (c) 2017