Words and images by: Tyler Tomasello
Generously provided by: Like the Wind magazine
I looked through the lens of my camera, bobbing and weaving as small pieces of plastic whizzed by my ears. “Holy shit!” I muttered to myself. A grown man in a rapidly disintegrating, plastic Hello Kitty car, designed for a small child, blasted past me, flying along, barely in control, down the steep overgrown hill leading into the main camp. Ploughing through long yellow grass, seconds from disaster, race veteran Tyler Clemens successfully completed his sketchy trip back to camp, to be greeted by a roaring crowd of runners and spectators.
It was only Friday. The shenanigans had barely begun. The highly trained elite four-day runners had been on the course for 24 hours already, and most of the onlookers were preparing for their own races. From 10 miles to four-day events, all these people had come here to run. Well, all except the athletes who signed up for the 0.0km race: a “run” involving grabbing a PBR (that’s a legendary American beer, in case you were wondering), crawling under a crudely built stage and warming up by doing the chicken dance, only to finish by toeing the line for a shotgun start, then going nowhere except back to their camp to change out of their beer-soaked clothing.
Throughout the day many spontaneous games would pop up randomly around the camp, forming an eclectic group of events sure to satisfy any brave soul visiting the Born to Run festival, held on a massive, working cattle ranch in Los Olivos, California. Mariachi music blasted from the stage while two blindfolded men, armed with rolled-up newspaper wrapped in duct tape, swung wildly from wheelchairs in attempts to pop balloons taped to their opponent. Shotgun-toting, race director Luis Escobar, an ultra-veteran of 29 years, added colour commentary to the spur-of-the-moment event. For round after round, opponents battered each other with their makeshift “weapons”. During the shenanigans, cheers erupted from the crowd. Not for the gladiators in the chairs, but for the impressive runners working toward their goals and dreams in a multi-day race.
Hours spun by like minutes and before anyone knew it, it was late afternoon. The sun fell in the sky, casting a golden light across the camp; shadows grew long as people began to huddle around the start line. This could only mean one thing: it was time for Quiet Reflections with Patrick Sweeney, an annual event also known as the Varsity Beverage mile. This grassroots event, instigated by Patrick over the years, outside of the race management of Born to Run, acts as a pre-race warm up.
With smiles on their faces, an uncountable number of costumed runners stepped up to the starting line clutching four carbonated beverages (some of which were alcoholic), to partake in the tradition. Sweeney picked up the mic and shouted out the guidelines for the race. “Drink a beverage. Run an eighth of a mile out, then back… Do that four times and you’re done!” Patrick raised his right hand and told everyone to do the same: it was time for the beverage mile oath. Once the oath was recited, Patrick took his place back in the crowd. After a countdown, in unison, everyone cracked their cans, and the race was on. Lap after lap, runners chugged their drinks, struggling to keep the foamy fluid down. Finally reaching the finish, Patrick waited with the finisher’s amulet, a cheap plastic beach shovel, strung on balloon string.
Hundreds of cans were cleared in preparation for the evening start of the 100-mile run. Dodging dancing stragglers from the beverage mile, the 100-mile runners lined up and prepared for a long night on the trails. Like all the other races, Luis appeared with his trusty shotgun, firing it into the air, signifying the beginning of their journey.
The 60, 30 and 10-mile races were yet to start. Bands played through the night. Mariachi singer Josue Hernandez entertained the rowdy crowd of runners until everyone was forced to call it a night and rest for the morning’s efforts. The deafening sound of quiet rolled through the camps and another day was done.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The chest-rattling sound of a shotgun ripped through the early morning darkness, more mariachi music blasted from the speakers on stage as shouts of “WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UUUUP! IT’S TIME TO RUUUUN!” echoed through the camp.
Runners stumbled and wandered out of their shanties, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, shaking out the celebration from the night before. As they gathered around the stage, the energy of the crowd was infectious, people hugging, smiling, dancing and singing.
After an overview of the run from Luis, it was time for the oath. The oath is a very special moment at Born to Run – it was created by the late Micha True, Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon RD. For this Luis called up the legendary bearded Scotsman, Graham Kelly, to recite the words. Although perhaps not everyone in the crowd could understand Graham’s accent, all appreciated it. “IF I GET HURT,” he yelled, and the massive crowd echoed back. “LOST, OR DIE… IT’S MY OWN DAMN FAULT!” Like an army preparing for battle, the sea of people erupted in applause.
Luis grabbed his shotgun and began corralling everyone to the start. He counted down from three and pulled the trigger. Ears ringing, the runners blasted off the line, making their way down a dusty dirt road, running along trails lined with cow dung and long, swaying grass. Dodging cows and rattlesnakes, up and down the hills of the ranch. Aid stations came to life after the long night and worked fast to fulfil the needs of the flowing river of people.
As runners filtered through the main camp after their first 10-mile loop, the daily activities began. Much like the day before, these included a wide-ranging series of random games. From the Lego Lava Walk, an excruciating run on thousands of pieces of Lego, to a full-on Lucha Libre battle royal. But as soon as the games were over and the runners trickled in, the clouds began to build. The sky grew dark and suddenly a biblical rain poured from the sky. Participants scattered to find cover and a dry place to prepare for the grand finale of the weekend, The Dirtbag Prom.
Much like in high school, everyone at Born to Run looks forward to prom night. Here, it was an opportunity to wear ridiculously unique outfits and celebrate life with one another. As the band Metalachi began to play, the crowd exploded, singing together louder than the band itself as the rain continued to pour. The rambunctious party carried on into the small hours until finally the rain stopped and all was quiet again.
The next morning as the sun began to peek over the rolling hills of the ranch, I wandered around camp giving out hugs to friends and strangers alike, making new friends around every corner. After all, this was a family reunion – in some way we were all connected. All 1,200 of us, whether through our passion for running, mutual friendships, or just our love for life. We were all there to celebrate one another. In a world that on many days doesn’t make sense and feels upside down, it’s good to know that every May, on a sleepy cattle ranch in California, a family whose many members couldn’t be more different from one another comes together for the better part of a week, to flip it right side up and make life feel right.
Luis Escobar and his wife Beverly planted a seed eight years ago that continues to grow each and every year. The event feels perfect and natural, but they continue to strive to make Born to Run better year after year, creating an inclusive home for everyone and nourishing their ever-growing family tree.