Burning Man

My Story:

I have a profound need to actively engage in my own life. Whatever the hell that means. I am a doer. When I gain knowledge of something that interests me, I think, “Let’s go. Let’s do this.” I struggle with ‘someday people.’ I am the type of person that if someone says to me, “I have always wanted to go to Thailand,” I respond with, “Let’s pull out our calendars.” If that person looks at me sideways and simply says, “I’ll go someday,” you can bet money, they will never go. I heard about Burning Man from a friend. He tried explaining it to me; he tried showing me pictures. I still didn’t get it, but I wanted to. I kept looking at pictures and reading blogs on fire dancers and costuming. I thought this is something I need to do, to feel I have experienced the full range of life.

I have had the privilege of attending Burning Man twice. I went 2015 and 2016. Both burns were completely different experiences. As the point of this blog is to help inspire doing something for this first time, I will focus on my first burn.

The story of my first burn began in August 2015. I had started dating a man, let’s call him EDH. I had gone on three dates with EDH at the time, and I sat across from him quietly picking at my drink. “Have you heard of Burning Man?” I asked. “I think I am just going to go.” He gasped several times. He told me how he had wanted to go to Burning Man for over a decade. I smiled and said, “I’ll have to tell you about it when I get back.” I wanted this trip for me. I wanted to experience this on my own.

My first burn fell together so easily. I obtained a ticket (and didn’t get scammed) and accommodations came together for me in an RV. I went out and bought outrageous costumes, I joined multiple facebook groups, and I still had no idea what to expect.

I made the drive to Black Rock City with my car loaded up and butterflies in my stomach. I was greeted at the gates with a bear hug by a dust-covered man wearing only a kilt. He scanned my ticket and told me, ‘welcome home.’ Through those gates, I went on to have one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Every morning, I got up and rode my bike onto to the playa. I stopped at various tents and talked to people giving away coffee and wanting nothing in return. I rode my bike to the different works of art. Nights, I would ride from DJ to DJ dancing to music and meet new people. It was one of the most amazing and random experiences at the same time.

The most meaningful part of my first burn was my visit to the temple. The temple is a wooden structure. It is a solemn monument standing among the eclectic art. The temple is a quiet place for reflection. On the walls, you see tributes and memorials to people who have lost loved ones. I took a moment to write a note to my step-grandmother, in sharpie, on the walls of the temple. I told her I was sorry I didn’t try harder to visit her before she died. I then, sat alone under my writing and cried. I had never fully processed her death, or my guilt for denying her requests asking me to make the drive to El Dorado, Kansas to visit her one last time. As I cried, strangers came up and hugged me. One man looked at me and said, “I am just going to stand next to you, as a presence so you know you are not alone.” To me, that is burning man. That is radical inclusion. It isn’t the parting or the costumes; it is being accepted in your most honest form. I was sitting alone in the temple, wearing a rainbow-colored corset and matching tutu, bonding with strangers who wanted only to provide comfort in a moment of pain.

The majority of Burning Man is fun and games.  The city quickly becomes a community. Walking along the streets of Burning Man, I have stumbled across a full-on roller skating rink, twerking contests, dance parties and anything else the creative human mind can concoct. Last year a piece of a Boeing 747 was brought in and used as a lounge.  My favorite camp is near center point. Every morning a group of people come together and hand out freshly baked focaccia bread and mint tea. It is a place to relax and socialize. My favorite event every year is the French Toast and Lingerie party. Wear your favorite outfit and get served some yummy french toast.

Burning Man is a place for people to go out and be their most authentic self. It is amazing how natural it feels to dress in wild costumes and hop on and off wild artistic cars. I acclimated quickly to all of the quirkiness around me. Decompression, as it is called (coming home after burning man) can be a rough transition. You go from wearing clothing that makes you feel expressive, to wearing what the latest magazine tells is trending. After seeing people put so much time and energy into creating transportation illustrating their personality, you return to the real world of silver and white cars all looking the same. It can be a bit sad for people. That is why you will hear so many people refer to burning man as home. And from one burner to another I can tell you, there is no place like home.

Master of Burning Man:

David Bell is a veteran burner. He has burned 12 times and heads Camp Shrunken Heads. To prepare for my first burn, I joined a local facebook group and was quickly put in contact with David Bell.  When I asked David for his number one piece of advice is for a first-time burner he said, “Don’t worry about the bullshit, you can buy ice and melt it for water. Just get a ticket and get your butt down there. Mentally you have to be tough. People can be assholes in the desert just like in the city. It’s not nirvana. I always sleep inside my car. I had a spare tent, but it got run over by a drunken dinosaur.”

“Burning Man is no one thing. It is a self-fueled art expression festival. The point is seeing the people. We are all so fucking scared in life. In America, we are scared shitless. At Burning Man, you get to relax and play.” I asked him how he responded when people ask about the sex and drug aspect of Burning Man. “It definitely has a lot of adult shit. You aren’t going to be walking down the street and have someone ask you if you want drugs, but they are definitely there.”

*Please note that some pictures are from 2015 and others are from 2016

**Click here for Part 2: Burning Man for the First Timer


Death Ride

My experience:

If you ask me what compelled me to ride 129 miles and climb over 15,000 feet all over five passes, I will answer you honestly: To prove to myself I could. Shortly after I bought my road bike, in April 2015, I was at a karaoke bar waiting on a few friends. While I was waiting for a table, I started talking to a group of cyclists. They told me they were training for something called ‘Death Ride.’ I was in awe. It was as if they were speaking in a language I couldn’t understand. I daydreamed how it would feel being a part of the pack that finished all five passes.

I did my triathlons I took some time off from my bike over the cold NorCal winter (something I am embarrassed to say, having been born and raised in the Midwest). By the time Death Ride sign ups posted online the furthest I had ridden was 50 miles, so I did what any adventurer new to cycling does, I signed up for one of the hardest rides in America.

Most people train for years before they attempt Death Ride. I had six months. (If you take nothing else away from this blog—do not—DO NOT—do what I did. I am so lucky I wasn’t hurt or even killed. This blog is not a training plan. It is my story and some tips for what to expect.) I had no technical experience. I had NEVER done anything that resembled real distance or climbing, and I had no training partners. I found a few experienced riders who took pity on me and eventually through coincidence started training with the SAME GROUP I had met in the karaoke bar right after I bought my bike.

To date, Death Ride is the hardest and most intense thing I have ever accomplished. It is the only event I honestly questioned if I could finish (due to time constraints). But I finished, and the moment I knew I was going to finish, I cried. I cried is not expressive enough. I was hysterical. Snot was dripping from my nose. I was heaving; people were asking me if I was okay. At the top of Carson, you are given a pin to show you completed all five passes. The man who pinned my jersey could tell this was my first time. I was full of pride. I was in an elite club.

People often ask if I will ever do Death Ride again, to which I respond, “I think I proved my point.”

Talk with an expert:

Rod Halbert is a Level 2 USA cycling coach and owns and operates Phoenix Cycling Systems with his wife, Kristy. Rod has participated in Death Ride fourteen times. “As hard as you train, you will never know how hard it is until you do Death Ride,” Rod said confidently as he sat in his cycling studio. His wife Kristy nodded as he continued, “It’s no joke. Everyone wants to quit their first time.”

Every year Rod leads a group of experienced riders and newbies alike on their common goal, to complete all five passes of Death Ride. When asked what is needed for the minimum training he said, “you need to be on a bike at least six to seven hours per week average for ten weeks. And at least two weeks before the event you need to do at least ¾ of the distance and ¾ of the climbing. You also need to know how the steepness feels.”

Rod said that descending is the most important skill and to know how to use your brakes. That is where people get hurt. “Learn to feather the brakes. Don’t overheat the wheels, overheating the wheels can puncture the tubes.” He suggests going to a skills clinic before Death Ride and to ride with someone who can coach you on a downhill. Rod takes safety and training very seriously. A few years ago, he witnessed the tragic death of a woman that crashed on the backside of Monitor. Last, year a friend was blown off his bike by the wind on Carson. He slid down on his back, losing skin and teeth. He was going 50 miles per hour. Rod says, “So with the wind and descending, just get with a coach that’s done it before to help you get downhill.”

Regarding fuel and hydration, Rod says not to eat to lose weight right before Death Ride. Eat healthy all week, get in lots of carbs and proteins. Rod personally loves Osmo preload the night before the ride and the next morning. Kristy reminded, not to try anything new the day of Death Ride. Training is where you want to try new supplements and gear.

When it comes to gear Rod couldn’t stress layers enough. He suggests a wind jacket, arm warmers and light items you can shed. “It is usually cold in the morning and at the tops. Then, you’ll sweat on the climbs,” he says. He went on to advise, “We never stop at the top, because you’re warm from the climb. So, if you stop, you get cold then you descend cold.”

Lastly, if you start to feel your mental motivation draining, ask yourself, ‘why are you here?’ and ‘why are you doing this?’ Usually, poor mental attitude comes into play because you are low on sugar or dehydrated. Stay ahead of your hunger and thirst. But remind yourself, you’ve made the decision to do it, and you’re already here. You might as well finish.’

Description of the event:

I was limited in my ability to train for Death Ride. I could only train every other weekend when I didn’t have my daughter. Even with hubris such as mine, I knew better than to ride on streets by myself. I was in a unique position. Most people who sign up for Death Ride are experienced riders. Experienced riders are too fast to ride with someone like me for distances of 100 miles. It takes me about 10 hours to do 100 miles. It takes them 5-7.  People who are new to riding do not want to do distances that long. So, I went on Facebook, and I begged and pleaded to anyone who would take me out to ride distance and climbing until I found people to ride with me. I also signed up for a lot of organized rides. I did the Wildcat 125 (about 125 miles and 7700 feet of climbing). I did the Sierra Century which was 122 miles and 9600 feet of climbing, and I did Hell Hole. Hell Hole is 100 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing. It is arguably more challenging than Death Ride. After Hell Hole, any mental inclination that my body could not endure Death Ride had left me. The issue was the timing. I could climb, but I was still slow. Climbing and speed are different muscles; I only had time to focus on climbing. I carefully studied the elevation map in regards to my speed on similar rides. I allotted 5mph for uphill, 20 mph for downhill and 10 for the rare flat. To ensure I would finish on time I started at 4:30 am. Since Death Ride is a ride and not a race, you can start pretty much as early as you want. There were several people on the road at 4:30 am. I gave myself less than 5 minutes at rest stops, to account for how slow I ride.

The first climb was Monitor. With all my training and adrenaline, I took the first pass of Monitor down like it was my bitch. Sticker one. I finished the backside of Monitor with similar gusto. Sticker 2. I was warned Ebbets is the steepest and most challenging. I scoffed. I was on fire. Two stickers down and I was way ahead on time. I was making my way up Ebbets, actually thinking to myself, “Death Ride is sooo overrated.” Then Ebbets hit me in the face and let me know I was an idiot for underestimating her. After a false show of ease, Ebbets suddenly looked vertical. I was looking straight up at the path I needed to take. I held my composure for a few miles but the pain set in. I take a supplement to help ease leg cramps, but no pill was strong enough to override this level of intensity. I made it up and over Ebbets. My most frightening moment downhill was as I was passing a rider who was on my right I heard a woman out of control frantically yelling at me to go right. I couldn’t go right; it was packed with other riders. She couldn’t go left as it was filled with riders coming uphill.  The uphill riders saw her peril and made room for her to come into their lane— but my takeaway is don’t get too full of yourself and go so fast that you put other riders at risk. The uphill on the back face of Ebbets is where I started to break down. I was slowing down and losing time. Also, the ache of so much steep uphill was hitting me hard. I started crying from the pain.

After Ebbets, I ate lunch. I rushed through the meal, as I had a large climb and with my slow speed I knew I needed to get going. I began the stretch that was the most mentally draining, the straightaway past my car. For me, endurance is more mental than physical. I know my brain will quit on me long before my body. At that moment, my brain almost gave out. I looked at the parking lot that held my car, and I said to myself, “Breathe and move forward and you will have no choice but to finish.”  I knew myself well enough to know that I would not recover emotionally from the failure of a DNF. I set out to complete five passes, and I was going to finish five passes.

I pushed forward towards my last ascend, about 20 miles up. It is 10 miles uphill just to get to the 10-mile climb that is Carson. I had been riding since 4:30 am. My only focus was moving. I stopped at the last rest stop on this stretch to grab some more fuel. I attempted to clip back in and get going, but my legs were so weak that I physically couldn’t get the momentum to push forward on my bike. At this point, another rider saw my failed attempts, like a baby deer trying to walk, my legs did not have the strength to push off. He came over to me and held my bike upright and gave me a soft push. I gave a thank you wave, too scared to gesture too much as I might fall over.

The final climb up Carson was mentally brutal as I had convinced myself I was running behind schedule and might not make the cutoff time. A rider I didn’t know rode up next to me and was sporting a jersey from the Phoenix group (Rod’s cycling team) that allowed me to train with them. I called him out, and he saw the distress on my face. He took pity on me and motivated me the entire way up that hill. He told me about his previous experiences doing Death Ride, he told me about his wife and kids and helped me focus on anything but quitting.

As I turned the corner and saw the tent, I knew I was there. Everyone who told me I was ‘crazy’ for doing this, the people who supported me, wouldn’t me let down. The emotions mixed with the exhaustion and hysterical tears of joy poured from my body. I clocked a finish time of 6:36 pm. Fourteen hours later. The final descent back to my car was grueling but filled with elation. That night I slept very well.

Questions to ask yourself:

-How many passes are you setting out to complete? Not everyone does Death Ride with the intentions to complete all five passes. A friend of mine set out just to do the front faces of all three mountains; others just do monitor.  Remember, for Death Ride, there are two different jerseys, the Death Ride jersey any participant of the ride can purchase and then there is the five-pass finisher jersey. You cannot order the five pass jersey until after the ride. You must obtain a sticker at all five stations after the completion of a pass. Then, you either order your jersey at the end of the race or you mail in a photocopy of your bib with all the stickers. 3,290 people signed up for Death Ride in 2016, 1,556 completed all five passes. Of the total number of riders, only 372 were women, 207 of which completed five passes. These statistics aren’t meant to intimidate, just to make you aware of the level of commitment this ride entails.

-How much time do you have to invest in training? Never ride on the streets without experience. Never ride on the streets alone, always ride in a pack. The best place to find Death Ride training groups is online through meetup.com or your local bike shop. If you can’t find a training group then sign up for organized rides. I did the Sierra Century, Chico Wildflower and Hell Hole. I also did the Alta Alpina.

-How does your body respond to various fuel and hydration plans? Fuel and hydration needs are different for everyone. You will need to find what works best for your body. I start carb loading about four days before an event like this and also hydrating with electrolytes four days prior as well. I make sure I am peeing clear and that my carb stores are full. Not everyone responds to this plan. I hear some people say carb loading weighs them down or simply does not work for them. A coach or trainer that specializes in endurance cycling can help you come up with a program to meet your needs.

What do you need:

-Road Bike

-Fuel, water. I ran out of water part way through luckily another rider filled me up from his spare bottle. That was stupid on my part. Don’t make my mistakes. You will need a fuel plan. Don’t try new supplements or foods the day of the ride. Be sure that if you are going to experiment you do it during training. 129 miles is a long way to realize you ate something that doesn’t agree with you.

– Gloves-your hands will be a wreck without them.

-Lights- if you start early in the dark these are a necessity. It also makes you more visible to cars.

– Sunglasses (prescription if needed), sunscreen.

– Layers are essential. I started out freezing and ended sweating. Be sure you take into account the weather can change drastically.

-Helmet-you will be laughed out of the event before you even begin if you attempt this without a helmet.

-Training- Lots of training. Do you know how to descend in the rain or high winds? Are you able to ride in a group with lots of other riders? A coach is an excellent resource and highly recommended. If you do not have a coach, you will need a mentor or experienced riding group to guide you through safe riding.

Death Ride is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I take immense pride in having completed something so difficult. If Death Ride is on your bucket list, remember what I told you, “breathe and move forward and you will have no choice but to finish.”