Friday, May 9, 2014

Burning Man, Marathon des Sables and the changing nature of trail racing

Having used part of my time at Burning Man in 1999 to train for my first Marathon des Sables (perfect simulations for running in the heat, all night exercise (dancing), mind alteration…), and having proposed to my wife there in 2002 (a definite exercise in overcoming typical male commitment issues) I see distinct similarities between aspects of what Burning Man represents and what it means to compete in ultra running: the desire for self-expression and a moment in time and space when and where you are allowed the freedom to express yourself however you wish and discover yourself in the process.


Don’t laugh. Ah, maybe it’s because I miss Burning Man. But… Kids, family, funds,… I haven’t been back since 2002, and recently I read that a lottery system has now been instated to handle the surge in interest. Doesn’t this remind you of something? UTMB, Western States… How many of these presumed bucket list races now impose a lottery system because of high demand, or require qualifying points or races?

I can accept in most cases the need for a lottery system to limit the number of places. If lottery systems are the price to pay for an exponentially growing interest in trail running, well… welcome to the fun everyone! It just forces me to be more proactive in finding less known and/or newer races.

And my main grief is not against crowded races. Though I prefer less crowded races, there is something to be said for the atmosphere in Chamonix and Courmayeur at the start and finishes of the UTMB races. I don’t think fundamentally that more people changes the nature of the event (apart from at the Marathon des Sables, but I’ll get into that later). And

In the end, when you’re in your tent, cycling around the Playa, chatting with random strangers (at Burning Man) or deep into your race, in the middle of the night on the top of a mountain or a dune, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the race (or camped around you) or what their take on ultra running is or anything else. You are experiencing the fundamental nature of the event as a means of self expression and discovery. Whether there are 200 or 2,000 people at the UTMB, at some point you are alone with your fears, hope, suffering, determination… That’s all that really matters.

I know that the essential nature of Burning Man didn’t change between 1999, when we were 25,000 and 2002 when we were over 40,000. Certainly those who attended in the early years, when participants numbered several hundred or a few thousand at most have experienced a change. But what they lost in intimacy they gained in extravagance. The number, variety and exuberance of the art work, theme camps and cars (and people) are amazing

However the lottery system has changed Burning Man in the sense that exclusivity is just foreign to the nature of the event. That’s not the case really for the UTMB – you miss out on the lottery one year? Well, you can do the TDS, or why not sign up for the UT4M (which will probably fill up soon also), or if you’re brave enough the Swiss Irontrail? There are a lot of races out there that don’t require lotteries, you don’t have to do just the best known. (Still, even those who have been on the circuit for a while somehow feel they have to the best known, sort of like people fee like they have to do the New York or London marathon when any marathon will test them in the same way – but no, I guess it doesn’t have the same bragging rights. But who are you doing this for?).

So anyway, lotteries can be a price to pay for the prestigious events… But what I feel saddest about, what I feel has changed the nature of trail races the most, is when people are shut out from a race they want to do just because someone arbitrarily decides they aren’t ready – and in that sense, qualifying criteria should not be required. Let everyone make his/her own decision…

Ultras are about so much more than just physical ability or even race experience. Or rather those aspects of race experience that are relevant to finishing an ultra are those that pertain to life experience. I’d argue that hitchhiking through the Andes, crewing on a merchant marine ship, working for the Red Cross in Rwanda prisons or even battling addiction, abuse, mental illness,… are valid life experiences. And the motivation for doing an ultra is as equally important to finishing as proper training.

If the Jordan Desert Cup in 2000 had required qualifying races, I would not have been able to enter – well actually that’s probably not true since I’d done the Marathon des Sables only six months before, but it was only my third race after the MDS and a single marathon. I’d only been running for 18 months, building from a 20-minute run that had me gasping for breath and my thighs burning. Before that I had ten years of smoking, drinking and recreational-turning-into-habitual drug use to account for. Yet I finished in under 42 hours, ranking 65 out of about 160 starters. No-one told me it wasn’t possible and I was probably willing to die out there in the desert rather than quit – and so I finished. When I did the MDS, I had the best motivation possible: rebuild my vanishing confidence and self-esteem. Quitting was not an option.

Ultra running floods with body with endorphins and is great outlet for that need and desire to live life to the extreme (which might explain why in my first ultras I met several recovering alcoholics and addicts – I could draw a parallel with Burning Man here again…) And I feel that anyone who has that desire should be allowed to express it through ultra running as I have been able to. Even if all they do is one marathon, or participate one time in the Marathon des Sables – fine. Chances are, however, they’ll get addicted, and soon there’ll be looking for other, greater challenges. Also, people should be trusted. Most people will graduate from smaller to longer trails before finally attempting a 100-miler. But maybe somebody won’t. Perhaps their unique background means they have every chance of finishing, even if they don’t – look at the story of 61-year-old Cliff Young who beat world class athletes in the Sydney to Melbourne ultra.

Marathons are about time, performance, PBs etc. But ultras, at least anything greater than 50-100 miles, should always first and foremost about finishing. It seems now like it’s all about the athletic performance – and the media has played a great part in that by focusing on front runners at the expense of the majority of brave men and women who out there on a journey of discovery.

Even though ultras are won (i.e. finished) in the heart and mind, there is more and more talk on the trails about time – finishing 100 miles is not enough, you have to do it in under 24 hours, otherwise you’re not really part of the club. Really? I fully admire Killian Jornet and his ilk for completing the UTMB in barely more than 20 hours, but I admire that person who slogged through two nights and two days to finish just as much – and of course everyone who finishes deserves the same degree of praise. Funnily enough, those at the top like Killian Jornet often repeat this. We admire them for their extraterrestrial fast finishes, they admire us for slogging it out for so long.

Everyone should have the chance to test themselves. This emphasis on athletic performance is translated at the organizational level on entry requirements as well as time barriers. And yet at the same time runners are being babysat and allowed (or even required) pacers, crewing… as much assistance as the runner can muster. This has long been the case in U.S. races, from what I understand, and now it is happening in Europe. And this also changes the nature of the race.

Now, I understand the need for a crew at something like Badwater where it is quite conceivably an issue of survival (though Marshall Ulrich did show that it’s not essential if you’re willing to drag a cart behind you). But allowing crew and pacers even on something like the Western States turns what is essentially a solitary adventure into something of a team effort – which has its merits, but it’s not the same inner experience as completing a really long, self-sufficient, truly solo run. Again, crewing doesn’t make it necessarily easier to finish (in my case, having my wife and kids around or even friends would make it much harder for me to finish), but it does change the nature of the event.

I have nothing against really strict time barriers that are built into the very philosophy of the event like Spartathlon. But when they are solely to allow the organizers to shut down the race in a timely manner – then it’s a shame, as much as I understand and respect and admire all the effort and energy that goes into organizing an ultra trail.

In fact, it’s a catch-22. On the one hand you don’t have these issues at the Marathon des Sables, but then it is a bit of a media circus and a definite commercial venture. On the other, you have passionate race directors struggling with a full-time job and assisted by other equally passionate volunteers to offer runner a great race. But they need to make sure that it remains within certain parameters.

So I suppose here I’m just noting these changes, not criticizing or saying that I have the solution. I do think that if low and no time barriers are impossible, then races should cut the distances but increase the responsibility and self-sufficiency of the runners.

If time barriers are instated, however, to ensure a certain level of “expertise” – well, that’s just plain elitism. Either you go all the way and have real tough time barriers – and it becomes an additional difficulty to the race – or you don’t have any at all, allowing everyone to challenge and discover their limits (or lack thereof).

That’s what I was allowed to do at the Marathon des Sables in 2000, and for that I am very grateful to Patrick Bauer. I’ve read some ranting about this event, and yes it is certainly not “the toughest footrace on Earth” (though it was arguably when it first started in 1986), but it is tough. Not particularly in terms of miles, but because of the self-sufficiency aspect with reduced calories, sleeping on the sand (maybe a bare mattress) for nine days, sharing a tent squeezed like sardines with eight other smelly competitors, having to cook your own food at the beginning and end of every day, being rationed water...

I remember this one guy at a check point during the long stage who was too exhausted to continue. Turns out he’d bought nothing but gels with him – quick sugar. Yes, the medical team had to treat him for a variety of related ailments, but that’s what they’d signed up for. And I think he quit – but he should have informed himself better. And if he continued, well good for him. In most trails today you barely have to think about the food, to the extent that when there are races with potentially long distances between two aid stations they are very careful to point it out.

As for the “media circus” aspect of the event – well, it’s always been there to some degree or another. At the 15th edition in 2000 we all had to form a heart shape for aerial picture at the start of the last day to celebrate the anniversary. And yes, it’s expensive. But anyone who complains about that shouldn’t sign up – they knew ahead of time. It’s all relative – if this has been your goal for several years and pretty much the only race you’re going to do, then cost is irrelevant; if you’re a veteran runner then why sign up? – just to be able to say you’ve done it?

The Marathon des Sables has been changed by the number of people, because when I found myself with just one other runner in the middle of the night in 2000, it was not the same as 2006 when I could always see a least one headlamp ahead or behind – when I wasn’t blinded by the large laser beam put in place so we didn’t get lost (ah, I’d forgotten about that – so even the MDS does some degree of babysitting…). But it does maintain an authentic trail spirit in the sense that it allows anyone to compete – and to finish if they can still put one foot in front of another. It

Each event is different and changed in different ways. The UTMB isn’t changed by the lottery system but by the qualifying points and the long list of required gear, not to mention a distinct propensity for shutting down the race when the conditions get a bit dicey. Burning Man hasn’t really changed because it now costs $380-650 instead of $85 when I first went in 1999, nor by the amount of people, but it has because of the lottery system which arbitrarily shuts out people for no real reason – seriously, Black Rock could welcome 100,000. The organization may not be at fault since it could be a governmental decision, but it still changes the nature of the event.

Yes, the link between Burning Man and ultra trails is tenuous at best, but I wanted to talk about both topics without doing separate blogs. If you made it to the end, you’ve demonstrated a remarkable degree of endurance that should qualify you for almost any ultra.

If you have any comments on this, please don't hesitate to write to me at

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