You thought I was talking about Burning Man didn’t you? Nope. Not quite.
The Burning Man Festival took place just a couple of weeks ago. I first heard of Burning Man 6 years ago. I was doing a summer Shakespeare festival in Los Angeles and a fellow actor in the play was talking about how he was saving his money to go to Burning Man. What is Burning Man? I asked. His response set the tone. He just kept going on and on about how he couldn’t describe it. About how it was something he couldn’t put into words. This of course intrigued me even more. I managed to extrapolate only a few details from him; it was in the desert, it involved trade instead of cash, it was a little temporary city, sometimes there were drugs involved. Really not much to go off of, but the seeds of mystery were planted. I’ll admit, from his sparse and mysterious description it sure sounded a lot like a drug-addled cult of hippies hiding out in the desert for a week. His enthusiasm and reverence in talking about the festival gave me pause however, and I withheld my judgement and allowed myself to be intrigued. Burning Man. Huh.
In the past 6 years since that summer social media has changed our world. Now I don’t have to ask my friend’s what some rising event in pop culture is, I just have to log-on to Facebook. Over the past few years it’s come into clearer view. Burning Man. In the desert, yes. Looks like camping is involved. Fun. Lots of people in silly costumes. Dig it. Late night dancing, communal feasting, riding of bicycles, and art. This all looked more and more intriguing to me but there was still a piece missing. I still didn’t “get it.” I mean I saw the details. I saw the whats, but I guess what I still didn’t understand were the whys. How is this different from any other art festival. How is it different from camping with a bunch of friends? I put the question out to the Facebook universe. What is this Burning Man, in seven words or less. Responses: celebration of art, adult camping, epic communing experience, music, dirt, sweat, high hippie hipsters. Ok. All of those things I had pretty much pieced together, but there was one response that really started to get the message across. What is Burning Man? Freedom.
That I get. That one little word started to gel all of the details together and make me realize why Burning Man was different from a week of camping with your buddies, playing music, and smoking pot. Freedom. Now that is something we all need.
I was curious enough at this point to consider that I might want to attend myself one day. See what all the fuss is about. I looked up the details and immediately realized that was never going to happen. I would never attend Burning Man. The festival is always the week prior to and weekend including Labor Day. There is another event that is the same weekend every year. The Disneyland Half Marathon. This realization bummed me out for about 10 seconds, and then I got over it. Not because I’m not curious. I genuinely am. But because The Disneyland Half Marathon is my Burning Man.
I can hear all of the loyal Burning Man enthusiasts scoffing at their computer screens. Disneyland? Really? In fact some of you are probably offended at the suggestion. I’m sure there are those out there offended that I would compare a giant commercial endeavor, the behemoth of capitalism itself, to Burning Man. That’s fine. To me, one of the parallel threads of the two events is non-judgement, so maybe keep reading before you write off the notion. After all, there’s two sides to every coin. The commercial capitalists are right now accusing you of being lefty hippie narcissists with nothing better to do than dance in the desert without your clothes on. But of course, you know that’s not a fair assessment. That doesn’t even scratch the surface. So let’s not judge.
I could go to Disneyland pretty much anytime and I can run pretty much anytime, so the technicalities of Half Marathon weekend are not what keep me from choosing it over a week in Black Rock City. What keeps me there are the same things that keep y’all in the desert. Freedom. I started to think about why I would never give up Half Marathon weekend and I started to draw so many parallels between what the weekend in the Land gives me and what Burning Man loyals purport to get from the Playa (you like how I’m using all the terms, even though I’ve never been there? I kinda feel like a tool, but it sounds weird to say Burning Man over and over so I gotta whip out some synonyms). Allow me to draw some for you, parallels that is.
The concept that makes it all worthwhile. We really need this. The world is hard and demands a lot of us. There are so many rules. Get a job, eat sensibly, get a good night’s sleep, wear clothes, shave your legs, do your hair, act like an “adult.” I’m just going to go ahead and quote Walt Disney. “That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up.” Being an adult sometimes feels like a terrible idea, and the only way we’re going to survive it is to get some days off once in a while. So here’s what Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend does for me that I think Burning Man must do for many others:
Freedom to be silly
Freedom to Challenge Yourself… or Not
From what I understand, about 68,000 people attend Burning Man each year, and there are 68,000 different experiences had. Same is true for Half Marathon weekend. Running is an incredibly independent sport. It’s so independent in fact that I think the reason we do these huge races is to remind us that we’re not the only crazy people in the world who run 13 miles for fun. But the challenges are your own. You’re racing against your own ability and it’s up to you what kind of race you’re going to have. Are you going to push yourself beyond what you’ve ever experienced? Are you going to challenge yourself in new ways to see what you’re made of? Or maybe you’re going to hang back? Maybe this is a race you just want to finish, comfortably. Maybe you’re here more for the fun and solidarity than the personal challenge. Maybe you’re running to work through some shit (we’ve all been there), or maybe you’re running in honor or memory of someone. From what I understand, festival go-ers have this same choice at Burning Man. It can be as weird, fun, spiritual, challenging, crazy, low-key as you want it to be. Some years I run the Half Marathon with hopes for a PR. Others I run just to see the sights, take some pictures with Mickey, and have fun. I appreciate the choice, and that the weekend allows me to have whatever experience I want. Again, freedom. It’s pretty awesome.
Freedom to wear silly costumes
Freedom to Relax
Nothing like true R&R!
Freedom from Judgement
I care what people think of me waaaay too much. Sometimes it keeps me up at night. I have INCREDIBLE anxiety about how I’m perceived. I constantly worry that I’m offending people, letting people down, making a fool of myself, behaving awkwardly, etc. I NEED a weekend completely free from that. I NEED a weekend where I can run through Anaheim dressed up as Donald Duck and not give two-shits what anyone thinks about it. I NEED a weekend where I can run my 12-minute mile and know that no one is judging me for being slow, but on the contrary, CONGRATULATING me. I need a weekend where I can celebrate myself and not apologize for my inclination toward themed entertainment, my slow running pace, my love of wearing costumes, and my love of the Mouse. No one at Dland Half weekend judges me for these things because they are there with me. They have their needs, their reasons they run. No questions asked. We’re all acting like big dorks together. All 20,000 of us. Burning Man too, oui?
This is a big one. We don’t have enough of it. We live in a global, digital world where our modern sense of community involves:
I’m not going to spiral off into an analysis of what Facebook is doing to the thread of our society. I just want to say that I think it’s important we still have events where we come together in person, under the same sky, we breathe the same air, we hear the same sounds, and we look each other in the eyes. I believe we are kinder to each other when we can look each other in the eyes. Every year at Half Marathon weekend 5:30 am rolls around on that Sunday morning and Brad and I find our way to our corral. Every year we’re awestruck by the sight of 15,000 people all joining together with a common goal. Every year I get a little misty-eyed when the national anthem is sung and the fireworks go off. Every year I love chatting with the runners around me as we wait to start the race. Is this their first year? It is! They’re nervous. We encourage them. They’re going to do great. Others tell us about all of the races they’ve run so far this year. That this one is their favorite. We pass the time together. We swap running stories. We admire each other’s costumes.
This year I dressed as Donald Duck. As we’re waiting in our corral I notice a few feet behind me a girl dressed as Daisy Duck. We lock eyes and grin from ear to ear. She clearly speaks zero English and I speak zero Japanese. We don’t say anything to each other but manage to decide through eye contact and body language to pose for a picture together. Donald and Daisy. We’re so excited to have found each other. You don’t really get moments like that anywhere else. Well, maybe at Burning Man 😉
Community of Support
I’m not sure anything warms my heart more than the sight of the thousands of spectators at the race who have woken up at 6:00 am to come out just to cheer on complete strangers. Cheerleaders from local high schools, dance troupes, school bands, and just average Joe’s line the streets of Anaheim with songs and signs and snacks, WILLING us to succeed. Powerful stuff. From what I understand Burning Man survives on this kind of support. Cooking meals for each other and not for a paycheck. Sharing sunscreen because you’re neighbor ran out and you know what that kind of sunburn feels like. Passing along tips to first-timers. Supporting each other because we’re all in it together, and we expect nothing in return.
Last but certainly not least:
It’s easy to forget how much there is to celebrate in life! At Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend we get it all in. We celebrate 12 weeks of hard training paying off. We celebrate another year running together. We celebrate getting closer to Tahiti! We celebrate our first year running the race as an engaged couple (funny thing happens when you get engaged. Every milestone becomes, “this is our first time eating pasta as an engaged couple!” It’s adorable to us and probably sickening to everyone else. Oh well!) We celebrate setting a goal, working towards, and meeting it. More than anything, we celebrate for celebration’s sake. Because life is beautiful, humans have a lot of goodness in them, potential is magic, and it’s important to be joyful. I’ve heard that Burning Man is many things, one of which is a big frickin’ party. Sounds familiar. Dance and be joyful!
Sorry Black Rock City. You do sound awesome and I think you give a lot of goodness to a lot of people, but my “Home” is with the Mouse.
Why draw these parallels? I don’t know. It was interesting to me. Interesting that two events that could be considered polar opposites, in fact have so much in common. How many other opposing forces in our world might share the same traits if we looked a little deeper? Interesting to articulate that I wouldn’t skip out on Disneyland Half weekend for Burning Man not because I think it’s better, but because I think what Burning Man would give, I already got. I think more than anything I wanted to say that I hope you have this in your life. A place, or an event, where you can go every year and feel free. Feel inspired. Feel like a kid. Feel like an adult. Feel like whatever you want to feel like. Sad, depressed, challenged, relaxed, happy, spiritual, enlightened, skeptical, PROUD. Proud to be a runner, proud to be an artist, proud to be in love, proud to be human, proud to accomplish a goal, proud to be a nerd, WHATEVER. You need to find a place where you can feel, just, alive, with no expectations and no conditions. Because we are not our work, we are not our Facebook profile. We are cosmic beings thrown together from the stars on this big rock, trying to figure it all out. The only way we’re going to do that is with a little freedom.
ONE last thing Burning Man and Disneyland Half Marathon have in common: Holy crap are they both expensive to sign up for. Someone asked me recently why I would pay so much money to run when I can get a bunch of friends together and run on the weekend for free. Probably the same reason all those Burners pay so much money for a week at the festival when they can just as easily get a bunch of friends together and go camping in the desert for free. Because getting some friends together and running/camping for free is not the same. Some things are just worth it. What makes it worth it? Well, everything I’ve tried to articulate in this article which may or may not have resonated with you. But maybe my friend from 6 years ago was right. Maybe despite my attempt to do so with this lengthy post, maybe you just can’t put the “why” into words. I can’t REALLY make you understand what it feels like to run 13 miles until you do it. Just like I can’t REALLY understand what it feels like to run 26.2 until I do it. Which is why I’m going to. In my search to understand Burning Man, I didn’t actually go, and I’ll probably never truly get it, not all of it. But I’m good. I have my little community of running Disney nerds who make me feel free for three days every first weekend in September. I’m good.