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The Physical Demands of Burning Man

T with bikesNo amount of pre-event information about spending a week in a temporary city in the desert without running water can quite prepare a person for the physical demands of Burning Man. At one point, some weeks ago, I imagined that I might even try the Burning Man 50K Ultra.

Not that I planned to complete. But maybe I could run a few laps around the perimeter of Black Rock City with the true ultra-marathoners, at least somewhere between 10-20K.

No. That didn’t happen. I didn’t run at all while at Burning Man. I rode my bike a lot. And I danced way more than usual (because seriously, you could find dancing at any time of day, from 7 a.m. to noon to the dinner hour and right through the night).

I kicked into survival mode much of the time. The checklist of things necessary for any given outing: water, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat (for the relentless blazing sun during the day), dust mask, goggles with the right lenses (clear for nights and dark for days), toilet paper and hand sanitizes, lip protection.

At night, add to that plenty of lights for the bike and yourself so you don’t get run over by an art car or another bike.

At any time of day, you’ll want boots and high socks to keep the high-alkaline desert dust of this area from attacking your feet. Though the idea of a playa might make you think of sandals, there is a condition called “playa foot” — painful drying and cracking of the foot after a week of exposure to the dirt of the Black Rock Desert. Yeah, no thanks.

My boots and knee high socks--daily protection for my feet and legs.
My boots and knee high socks–daily protection for my feet and legs.

And if it rains, forget it. We “left the pavement”(the highway) and reached the Gate Road (the desert) at 5 a.m., one hour before the gate into Burning Man closed because of rain. Severe thunder and lighting brought hail and a downpour that turned the desert into a mucky mess. We’d only surged forward about three times before we heard that things weren’t going to move again until at least night time, possibly the next day.

The Gate Road after the rain. Eight lanes of traffic stopped for about 12-14 hours.
The Gate Road after the rain. Eight lanes of traffic stopped for about 12-14 hours.

With hours ahead of them, people started to step out of their vehicles. The mud gathered on their feet like cow paddies that gathered heft at each step in the sticky mess. The city too was shut down because of the rain, the streets would have been un-passable. About four hours after the rain the surface had dried enough not to be a mess and to allow for bicycles, walking, and dancing, but the gate remained closed for about twelve hours.

But the rain kept down the dust for a few days. I’d heard horror stories about the dust at Burning Man. People talk about an ever present fine powder that fills the air and settles onto everything. At the beginning, we thought these tales were exaggerated. But after a week of no rain, no clouds, and hot days, the wind came up and the dust flew.

And in every night shot taken with a flash, you can see the dust particles in the air. In some photos, that’s all you can see.

That meant that for the last three days, no matter where you went, you had to wear a dust mask over your face and protective goggles over your eyes. Or at least you needed to have these on the ready in case a dust storm kicked up.

Much of the attraction of Burning Man takes place on the playa, an vast open space filled with immense works of art, with the 120 foot “man” in the middle facing towards the city at 6 o’clock, and the temple a stretch behind the man at 12 o’clock. It’s hard to explain the vastness of it.

The Playa with the Man in the distance.
The Playa with the Man in the distance. This gives you somewhat of a sense of scale.

During a dust storm you experience white out conditions on the open playa. When they come up, you’re in white out conditions. It’s easy to get lost. And if you’re not visible, it’s easy to get struck by a bike or an art car.

Me in front of playa art during a dust storm.
Me in front of playa art during a dust storm.

I loved my cruiser bike, especially when it was lit up. I had lit up handle bar streamers, el-wire wrapped around the chassie, blinking lights on the handlebars and under the seat, a head lamp on my head, blinky rings on my fingers, more el-wire wrapped around my hat or on my jacket or worn as a belt. But the conditions in Black Rock City and out on the playa make for difficult riding.

On the playa, while some stretches are solid, flat and wonderful, you’ll be riding along and then hit a patch of thick sand (imagine a beach) that you need to plow through to stay upright. In town, especially after things hardened, post-rain, the streets were bumpy and chewed up. Hazards abound.

Intersections are not regulated in BRC, so you need to be super alert. And there are lots of them, with the grid as a clock face with the spokes as 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30 etc to 10 o’clock, and the cross-streets denoted by letters: A, B, C up to K. And let me just say that no everyone at Burning Man is at their sharpest, some taxed by the elements, others by lack of sleep, and many by drugs and alcohol.

Picture thousands of people on bikes riding around all day and all night, and a few hundred slow moving vehicles dressed up into all sorts of creative things, like dragons and spaceships, scorpions, and fish–blasting music and creeping along the streets and the playa. You can jump on and off of art cars as you like, and I actually had a Butch Cassidy moment running for an art car one night and grabbing an outreached hand as I stepped up onto the platform, just making it.

People and bikes crowding onto the playa for the early morning burning of a stunning art piece called "Embrace."
People and bikes crowding onto the playa for the early morning burning of a stunning art piece called “Embrace.”
Embrace burns on the playa. Just showing you because it was so cool to watch.
Embrace burns on the playa. Just showing you because it was so cool to watch.

The heat of the day has its own challenges. You need to drink lots and lots of water constantly.  One of the few things they tell you at the Gate when you enter is “stay hydrated!”  Leaving your camp without water puts you at serious risk of dehydration. Every single day I amazed myself at how quickly I would go through a bottle of water that I might take all day to drink at home.

You also need to consider electrolytes. It’s the desert, after all. So it is HOT. One part of my routine each morning was to swing by a place called “Rejuvenation,” where a group of people gave out boxes of cold coconut water and offered vitamins from a menu of options. I took the vegan multi-vitamin and washed it down with my coconut water.

Other than the one morning when it rained, I saw few clouds. Unless you find yourself under a canopy or in the shade of a big piece of art, there’s no shade.  So heat stroke, sun stroke, and sun burn are all things to keep in mind.  The good thing is that there are some places people have set up where you can find refuge in shaded hammocks or lounges. One afternoon I curled up in a hammock at “The Hang Out” in Center Camp for about an hour when I got overheated.

The other purpose things like this serve is to help people who are sleep deprived.  When there are literally things going on all day and all night, it’s easy not to get enough sleep. I averaged about six hours a night and most days caught another hour in the afternoon.  But lots of people I talked to didn’t do as well as that.

Another challenge is food. I stayed at a camp where they prepared meals. But though I could manage, they didn’t cater to vegans and they certainly didn’t provide the fresh fruits and veggies I’m used to eating.  We were fortunate enough to have an RV with a refrigerator, so I kept some of my staples there. But I find that when I get into survival mode I eat less well.  I’m sure lots of people did far worse on that score.

At Burning Man, it’s not as if you can go to the corner cafe for a meal. There are none. In fact, in the entire Black Rock City, there are only two things you can purchase: ice and coffee.

And what about the toilets? It’s a temporary city set up in the desert, with a leave no trace principle in effect.  That means no plumbing or sewer infrastructure.  And that means banks of port-o-potties, simmering in the desert sunshine all day long, servicing 68,000 people over the course of more than a week.  We all have to steel ourselves to use a port-o-potty at the best of times.

Three saving graces:  sewage trucks came in to clean them daily, suctioning out the waste. And there was a strong campaign to get people to connect with the seats instead of hovering over the seat. Much tidier. If everyone sat down there would be no peeing(or worse) on seats. And they strongly urged people who refused to sit to lift the damn seat.  Towards the latter part of the week the campaign seemed to be gaining traction (or I was just lucky). I had the RV to use sometimes, of course, but the tank can only hold so much, so we needed to be sparing with that.

The port-o-potties were also put to good use for spreading the word about the importance of consent and where to get information and help at Burning Man for sexual assault. The inside of every door had a detailed notice about this important issue.

And they also tried to dress the ones on the playa up with cool and witty signage.

Bathrooms on the playa.
Bathrooms on the playa.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on and on about Burning Man. This post doesn’t even begin to tell you how spectacular the event is. In keeping with the blog’s theme, I wanted to just outline the ways in which it was, for me, an unexpected physical challenge. And worth every second of it!

The Man on the night of the burn.
The Man on the night of the burn, not yet burning.

8 thoughts on “The Physical Demands of Burning Man

  1. My reaction to the thought of being around that many people is not a happy one. Think I’d much prefer the solitude–and the cool and the water–of Algonquin Park! But the art and the spectacle looks amazing. I’m curious too about the party culture and alcohol and drugs. These days that’s not something I want to be around. How pervasive is it? How easy is it to avoid?

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    1. No problem avoiding alcohol and drugs. As anywhere, if you hang out in bars you’ll find alcohol, but there is no need to hang out in bars. We also spent a lot of time in the Anonymous Village, a totally drug and alcohol free place full of like-minded people. It’s also not always about crowds, despite how some of the pictures look. Much of my time I spent cycling on the playa and it’s easy to find solitude there. Not like Algonquin Park, of course.

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  2. Great post. You didn’t mention all the other activities that happen at BM:
    – Trampoline jumping
    – Artcar chasing
    – Gear carrying and lifting
    – Ice hauling on the shoulder
    – Peddling thru playa dust with a dozen bags of ice in a bike trailer
    – Peddling thru playa dust with a “fallen comrade” in a bike trailer
    – Rollerskating
    – Peddle-car racing
    – Bowling
    – Tennis
    – Golf

    Sam: If you want to experience solitude, peddle out into “deep playa” at night, just a few miles. The experience of having literally _nothing_ around you for miles is unique and scary. Add a little bit of a wind and you will feel that you are on your own planet.

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  3. Didn’t know about Burning Man festival requiring one to be self-sufficient. Then it knocks me out of the game!

    So sexual harassment is problem..then there must be booze there? I know, but stuff like that gets encouraged by too much of the bottle, etc.

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