Thursday, September 26, 2013

MOG100: One of the Toughest Ultras in America

Once you run a half marathon, you set your sights on a full marathon. And once you conquer that, then it’s time to think about an Ultra run – at least that’s how my mind works.

However, there’s a big difference between running 26 miles and 100 miles and even I know I’m not ready for a run that intense.  But I was ready to help mark the trail of theMogollon Monster 100 (MOG100) – or so I thought.


The Mogollon Monster 100 is a crazy, rugged trail race located outside the town of Pine, Arizona.  But here's the thing, the "100" is really a lie because the race is 106 miles – approximately.  And if you've ever run any long race, you know those last few miles are the ones that kill you.

“We couldn’t physically use a tracker on the trail,” said Jeremy Dougherty, one of the race creators. "It was just too rocky and uneven to get it exact but we did the best we could."

The race climbs the Mogollon Rim and Jeremy says runners can expect to climb 23,000 feet along the way.  And the course is extremely technical and not for ultra newbies (like me).

The terrain is rough and ranges from steep climbs, rocky areas, streams and knee deep grass.  It’s not like you’ll be running on a smooth dirt path. This trail is hardcore.

Jeremy and a couple of buddies came up with the race one day while hiking.  It uses 35 miles of the Zane Grey Ultra route and then a bunch of other trails to make up the full 106 miles. 

And it's tough. In fact, Jeremy thinks it might be one of the hardest ultras in America -- it maybe even the hardest.
“Last year we had 32 people sign up and only 9 finished the race,” Jeremy said. “We’ve got 50 signed up this year. We had over 60 at one time, but a few people have backed out.”

Yup, it’s that difficult. So naturally I had to volunteer to help out.


I found out about the race on Facebook through a post. A fellow runner was looking for a pacer for the MOG100.

With a name like Mogollon Monster how could I resist not googling this beast of a race?  I checked out the description and the photos, and immediately fell in love with the course.  It’s gorgeous. Lots of trees, great views and the thought of running under a moonlit sky sounded fantastic.

Luckily I had plans already that weekend so couldn't sign up. I'm saying "luckily", because now that I know more about the race, I think I would have died if I actually attempted to complete even 50 miles.  Instead, I volunteered to run and mark a part of the Highland Trail the week before the race – which if you’re an "Ultra Race" novice like me is the perfect way to check out the course and be a part of the event without having to run the whole thing.

I had to admit, I was pretty impressed with Jeremy and his team for putting this race together.  It's not like he does this for a living.  He's a manager at one of the resorts in Phoenix, has a 14 month old son and squeezed in this planning in his free time.

"I had to pick this weekend because this area is famous elk hunting trips. I had to make sure there wouldn't be any hunters in the area while my runners were out there," Jeremy said.

Um, yeah... elk hunters and runners. Probably not a good combination.

Then there's all that stuff you don't think about when running a race, like getting the porta-potties up in the middle of nowhere, aid stations, accommodations for the runners and their families and friends, and what to do if a runner doesn't show up at an aid station when expected.

"Cell phone reception is sketchy on most of the route and so is GPS.  If a runner doesn't show up when expected, then we have to wonder if he's lost or hurt or just resting somewhere along the way," Jeremy said.

I looked around the dense woods and the steep hills.  Yup,  making sure we clearly marked the trail was super important as I would hate to be a lost runner -- and I would really hate to be the poor person who would have to go out and try to find them in the vast area, especially at night.

I arrived at the Trailhead outside of Pine around 7:15 a.m. (45 minutes late as I got lost).  As I pulled in, I saw Jeremy and Justin getting ready to hit the trail.  

Justin was going to attempt to clear a path by lopping off branches and the brush.  Jeremy and I were going to run/hike the trail and mark the route with ribbon as we went. He took the yellow tape and I had the red "oops, don't run here" ribbons.

It sounds simple until you realize I haven’t actually ever run 20 miles of trail as I’m mostly a road runner.  While I run 15 to 18 miles each Saturday for fun (on roads), I’ve only run 8 to 10 miles on trails – and none of them were as rugged as this route.  
It took nearly 7 hours for us to complete the trail marking and I was glad to see my car at the end.  I was out of water, I was bleeding (a pebble in my sock had rubbed the skin off my heel), and my legs had scrapes and bruises from the branches. 

I hurt. And I smelled like...well, like someone who was running around in a hot, dusty forest all day. 

Just 20 miles of the Mogollon Monster kicked my butt and I have the biggest respect for the 50 runners who will be attempting to complete the entire 106 miles this weekend.  Good luck!!!!  And maybe I'll be ready to run it with you in another few years.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Burning Man: I never expected the Temple

The Temple - Burning Man 2013

Nobody warned me about the Temple at Burning Man.  My friend led me there on Saturday as he had a duty to fulfill.  The mother of a friend had passed away the week before and he promised to leave a message for her there.

He told me this in advance, but it didn’t prepare me for the power of the temple. 

We rode up in the heat of the afternoon passing through the now normal dust storms along the way.  I had my arms draped with yoga bracelets from Silver and Sage (one of my friend's friends made them)  with the plan of handing some out along the way – but that didn’t happen.

This is because this area is sacred…and a place unique to the rest of Black Rock City.

When passing through the camps lining the streets of the playa, you always hear some sort of music, conversation, laughter or a call-out for free drinks, free pasta, free massages or whatever people happen to feel like doing at the moment.

When you walk through the boarded fence marking the perimeter of the Temple, that all ends. The vibe changes. It's somber. It's sad. It's different.

The wooden fence outlining the Temple's perimeter
The first thing I noticed was the silence…and then the tears.

The dub-step beats you hear in the background in other parts of  Burning Man didn’t reach the Temple.  Here you heard the wind and sometimes that wind would trigger the gongs within the Temple to echo within its structure. But that was all you heard.

No one spoke. No one made eye contact.

It was a place to be alone with your own sorrow, hurt and demons in the midst of hundreds of other souls wandering around and doing the same thing.  You're lost and invisible in your pain amongst the crowd.

The Temple itself was a plain wooden pyramid that they would burn on Sunday night. But while it looked like nothing special, it was the most powerful structure on the property because it was filled with  a combination of human suffering and peace.

As you walked around and weaved your way through the sections, messages written in marker on the wooden beams lined your path.  The messages were simple -  but their honesty was raw.

Messages left on the Temple
While walking I read things like:

- "Sarah, please forgive me. I’m so sorry.”

- "1979 -2012 – He was taken from us too soon.”

- "I am beautiful…and one day I may actually believe it.”

- "Tara, I love you. I wish I would have told you.”

- "Please…give me another chance. Derek.”
- "It's been a year, and I still miss you."

There were also photos of friends undergoing cancer treatment,  those who had recently passed and shrines to friends and families.

The temple was truly an unexpected spiritual place in this vast place of dust, crazy outfits and happy go-lucky cyclists.  And I could see how when it burned on Sunday night how the experience could help release the emotions trapped inside the people there.

It was amazing.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Burning Man: Becoming one with the Playa

Our super decorated bikes thanks to my friend Jason.
After waiting hours in the "staging area", we finally rolled into the gates of Black Rock City around 4:30 a.m.

We were tired and excited.  I was a little worried my friend had given up on waiting for me and had crashed somewhere.  The one thing about Burning Man (and it’s not a bad thing) is that your cell phone doesn't work so my last text to him was at 7 p.m. in Reno with a note saying: “We’re on our way!”

Unfortunately at that time I was on my way and now I was nearly 7 hours late – and I had no idea where my camp was…or how this whole thing worked.

But I had nothing to fear. My friend had stayed at our set meeting point and he had my tacky fake fur thrift shop jacket I had bought for the trip -- and he had decorated my bike Burning Man style. Yay!!

My friend, who was celebrating his 7th Burning Man trip, led me around the city the next day for hours. I soon learned it’s all about the bike at Burning Man. The bike shows off your personality, but it’s also a way to get you from place to place.

Actually, one of my favorite parts of the whole adventure was seeing the people on the bikes. 

Bikes at Burning Man 2013
Imagine this – you’re pedaling through a dust storm. The storm has muted all sound and you can barely see.  There’s no one around you on the playa -- or so you think, but then suddenly the dust breaks for a second and group of wildly dressed people ride out of the cloud.

They are covered in grey sand, but their scarves, hair and wigs are flying behind them in the wind.  They are wearing goggles and pedaling bikes decorated with fake fur, plush animal parts like cartoon heads and tails, flowers and other crazy things.

And then they disappear into another cloud of dust.

It’s all a little bit surreal.

And it doesn’t matter where it happens.  It could be by the esplanade area that is lined with dance clubs or the coffee place.  

Hanging out at the far end of the playa.
It could also be by the Man.  The dust storms were sometimes so thick, you couldn’t see him perched in the distance on his spacecraft.

Or they could happen in the mid or far ends of playa where the large sculptures were.  This was my favorite area as it was a mix of isolation and crowded-wonder together.

I really did like the emptiness and quiet of the playa  -- and the respect it commanded.


I admit I was worried about going to Burning Man. Not as worried as I was going my Guatemala Mission Trip a few years ago, but pretty worried.  I was concerned I wouldn’t fit in and I would be too conservative for the people who were there.

So I’m going give you a word of advice – don’t believe what you see on YouTube.  Yes, the images are real, but the essence isn’t. 

Typical moment at Burning Man 2013
Before I went, Burners told me over and over how crazy it was, how bizarre the people were, how big it was, how it’s all naked people and drugs and how my eyes are going to be opened.

Surprisingly, I didn’t find it unusual at all.  I expected it to be bigger, crazier, wilder, and more bizarre.  But…this might just be me.

I’ve done a lot and seen a lot of interesting things over the years so I might not be your typical Burning Man virgin.  Plus, I'm a writer -- so you know our minds are a little warped to begin with and unreal worlds are our norm.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. Once I realized I wasn’t going to be out of my element, I relaxed. 

Our fantastic neighbors
So here are the answers to the questions everyone asks:

1) Yes, there were some naked people there, but not as many as you may think.  I saw maybe 1 person in every 500. 

2) Yes, there were drugs and alcohol there – but compared to going to Lollapoolza or any weekend in Old Vegas, I didn’t see one person throwing up, not able to stand on their own, or urinating in the open.  

Sure, they were buzzed and happy, but the difference between Burning Man and every other crazy party I’ve been to over the years, is that here, people were very respectful to others….and to the playa.  People really worked hard to keep things as clean as possible which was really nice.

3) No, I didn’t feel threatened or scared at any time. 


Here’s the thing…people are busy doing their own thing and letting go of their own knots and boundaries that they don’t have time to worry about yours.

I found everyone was welcoming, chatty and curious.  There were a lot of people there who dressed in the “look” but when you talked to them or gave them something, they were genuinely surprised and grateful.

I had amazing conversations about creativity, where the world was going, technology, business ideas and a bunch of other topics that I've never had time to explore in my day-to-day life just because I've been too busy to sit still -- and other people like me were just as busy.

Burning Man is one world where everyone gets to stop and take the time to explore their own little world – and that’s okay because for one week, they don’t have to be anywhere else.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Burning Man Early Friday Morning: The Dream Circle Revelation

Hours later, we still weren’t officially in Burning Man. We were in the so-called staging area of timelessness --- mainly because no one had any idea when we would get in.  

We found out that the people in the vehicles two rows over had already been there for hours and hadn’t moved an inch. It was now midnight but time at Burning Man really didn’t matter.

Burning Man is a quest and the destination isn’t that important as the experience and attitude doesn’t really begin (or stop) at the gates. It is part of those who are attending.  And the cool thing is that everyone there is ready to accept things with an open mind.

It’s almost as if you can see the hole in the their normal barriers and their curious, searching tentacles reaching out to you.


At Burning Man, we are all children asking “Why?” And the question most often asked to newbies is “Why did you decide to come?”

This is the question Michael and Pimm asked us.  First time Burners like me, they were parked behind us in the “staging” area and had traveled from Amsterdam.  They had rented this Camper Van from Juicy Lucy in Vegas (Cool name. Plus, it's lime green and purple…how could you resist?) and were pretty much winging it. No bikes. No real plans or clue what to expect - except what they saw on YouTube. But they did have a whole lot of alcohol.

However, just like me, they had spent a lot of time on the costumes.  They were going to be gladiators and had custom skirts made and some sort of fancy helmet thing with lights that I didn’t get to see – but it sounded much fancier than my gold and purple disco shorts and Madonna-envy bra.

But let’s get back to the question of “why.”

Why were we newbies at Burning Man?  After a couple of shots of  Oliphant Jenever, a Dutch gin that was deliciously smooth, the words started to flow.

 Why was I there?  Hmmm…Well, my job is stressful and high paced so I was going to escape the boundaries of reality and take the time to see things in slow-motion, a difficult feat on its own. But I had some deeper goals.

In my quest to break down my barriers and inhibitions, I was looking to see if the Burning Man vibe would match my own and make me feel safe enough to release the constraints I put on myself in my day-to-day life.

Besides, I love art and the beauty of the playa had been calling me for years. As you know, I have a weakness for the desert and the dust is more than a little magical.

Michael was coming for a different reason.  He too had walls and fears to face. A little shy and an introvert, his quest was to work up the courage to talk to strangers.  Sure, he was talking to us, but it was his friend Pimm who first approached people, did the introductions and did all the talking to break the ice. Michael wanted to break out of his box by being the first to speak to strangers.  And what better place to take this chance than Burning Man?

Anna and I spoke to Michael for about 5 hours and we have no idea what he does for a living - which is one of the brilliant things about Burning Man. It’s not about what you do, but who you are. It’s an interesting switch as you aren’t defined by how you make money, but what you say, how you think and who you are as a person.

But at the same time, it’s scary – because so much of our lives is based on what we do for a living and what if the real us (without the job to back us up) is boring or lost?


As the hours progressed, our conversations got deeper. Anna was a free spirit so when Michael decided to demonstrate how this creative technique he learned called "The  Dream Circle" worked, we were on board.

Carving out a circle in the sand, Michael tells us this is phase one. The dream phase.  It’s here you can dream of anything and not worry about the reality.

Anna immediately steps into the circle.

Image from
“I dream of the Golden Clitoris,” she announces.

Michael and I don’t falter.  He draws another circle in the sand and tells me to get into it.  He says this is the area where the details happen. I have to decide things like is the Golden Clitoris big? Is it hard?

“It’s big enough to ride,” Anna says from her circle.

“It’s soft,” I say. 

They both look at me. Soft?

“Yes, it should be soft and comfortable – cozy-like.”

Apparently, they haven’t ridden a road bike for hours without a padded seat or bike shorts.  Believe me…soft is good.

They take this in and then accept it. Okay. Circle three: Implementation. 

“This is where they decide if the dream with the details can happen,” said Michael. “If they can’t, we go back to the dream circle and dream again.”

Interesting. Who would have thought I would learn something like this at Burning Man?