By Clifton Light
Wow, what a weekend! I had so much anticipation for Under Armour Run Camp over the past months. District Running Collective was invited to attend the camp, and I, along with two other DRC captains, was selected by our peers to participate. We had no clue where we were headed until we received heavy packages filled with sand and UA gear. Within the package was an invitation that vaguely explained the challenge that was ahead of us in the upcoming months. Matt, Corey, and I didn’t have a clue where we were heading to, but we knew we had to prepare somehow.
So, we trained and ran as much as possible to get ready for wherever we were heading. Luckily, I was training for the Chicago Marathon, so I had less anxiety about how prepared I would be for run camp. We were in the dark about the location until early October while we were in Chicago for the marathon. I saw a text from Corey that said, “So, we are heading to Death Valley.” I was thinking, What are they talking about? I had no clue what Death Valley was or where it was located. So, I quickly checked my email and then Googled it. I discovered that it was in California and is the hottest area in the world based on Wikipedia. What did we get ourselves into?
In the following weeks, we would get more information about the weekend, and that meant we could prepare better for what was to come. It seemed like time flew with the busy weekends of fall racing season — the Navy Air Force Half, Chicago Marathon, and then the Baltimore Running Festival. It also seemed like we didn’t have enough time to settle and prepare. But nonetheless, we were excited.
Matt, Corey, and I flew out of Dulles, and all of us were in shock that we were actually headed to run camp and nervous about what was to come. We had a layover in Chicago, where we ran into Kyle who would be a group leader while at camp and Nick a run camp participant who was from the UK. We talked briefly about what we were expecting, but nobody knew what was going on, or we didn’t get any answers.
We finally landed in Las Vegas, where we were met by our shuttle drivers and other runners that were participating. In the shuttle, you could feel the excitement. We drove towards the Las Vegas Strip, and we had all types of ideas running through our heads of what we would do while we were going to be staying in Vegas. As we got closer towards The Strip, we turned away from there to an area we had never been to. I kept saying, “What part of Vegas is this? I have never been to this side of town before.” The driver didn’t have any answers. We pulled up to the SLS Las Vegas which was a nice hotel but nowhere near the strip. When we walked into the lobby, we saw members of Harlem Run and Resident Runners. Again, we talked about hanging out in Las Vegas like we weren’t there to run; but we soon found out they put us in what seemed like the most boring hotel in Las Vegas. There wasn’t much going on other than a few people around the pool area, and the casino area was so quiet. I asked about walking to The Strip, but we were told it would be a three-mile walk, so that wouldn’t work. I should have known that this past weekend would be more about business than pleasure. We headed to our rooms and on our beds was UA gear that included everything we would need for the next day. We received an itinerary that outlined where we needed to be during Friday night and early Saturday morning. Most noticeable was our 4:45 am shuttle departure from the hotel in Vegas. That kind of ruined the entire mood of being in Las Vegas, knowing that we weren’t going to stay there for the weekend.
The thing I looked forward to the most while in Las Vegas was eating, and we had a dinner at 7pm at Honey Pig, which we heard was a great farm-to-table restaurant. While at dinner, the group, which was made up of DRC, Harlem Run, and Resident Runners, ordered pretty much everything on the menu along with beer and wine. We were having a good time enjoying dinner, and then some other folks from UA appeared that we met previously, along with a woman that I had never seen before. We were told she was a special guest. I kept eating and didn’t think anything of it. She asked for our attention and began to talk. Immediately, I could tell that she was serious about this weekend. She explained that she would be important to us over the weekend, and we would need her. I remember her saying that she would be a part of our world and that she would welcome us into her world with a serious expression. She then had a list of food and drinks that we should avoid the night before we headed to the desert. Everything she said we should avoid was ordered already. She told us that her name was Kellie Nightlinger and that she would be our survivalist expert. Everyone asked why we would need her for a run camp. She explained that at some point in the desert our lives could be in possible danger and that’s why she is important to us. I immediately got nervous and thought to myself, I didn’t sign up to be put in danger. I got so nervous, I couldn’t finish the wine I had ordered.
We left dinner and headed back to get some rest because we had a 4:45 am shuttle departure time for the desert. I remember waking up out of the comfortable hotel bed early Saturday morning just wishing I could sleep a little longer and enjoy Vegas. We met in the lobby, and we were told to only carry the things we would need for running, and they would hold on to the rest of our bags. All of the information we would receive over the weekend would be vague. So, I packed all of the running gear I had and anything I thought I would need.
The ride to the desert was dark, cold and long. It was a two-hour drive on a cramped shuttle in complete darkness. We drove along and as the sun rose, we were able to see the desert. Everyone immediately became excited. The views were crazy. We arrived in Death Valley and it was a complete ghost town; we stopped for a few pics. There weren’t any signs of life until we saw a wild donkey on the side of the road. We drove more and pulled onto a dirt road with white UA trucks. We placed our gear into the pickups and drove another 45 minutes up a canyon with winding, hairpin turns with over one-hundred-foot drops on the side. I never looked out my window. On the way, our driver told us about a story of a runner who veered off the trail during a training run from being delirious and died from heat exhaustion. I was thinking, What are they trying to do to us? We decided that we would stay in groups and never run alone. When we reached the top and were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, we saw our UA reps. Everyone was pumped. We quickly changed into our running gear, and we were warmed up by Sandra, a UA run coach, immediately.
We started in an abandoned mining town, Leadfield, located in Titus Canyon. The pack stayed together for the first mile and then we began to separate into groups of four. We were heading downhill, which felt great for the first two miles. Guys from Resident Runners and I flew downhill at a sub-seven pace. We approached mile five and noticed we were still going downhill. It seemed like there were never-ending, winding twists and turns and, it was a task trying not to turn an ankle running on a gravel path. The views were great. Every few minutes someone would say, “Wow, look at that!” This was probably my favorite run, and I never ran 11 miles that easily and fast.
Once we were done, we headed to lunch. We were told by Molly, our cool driver, group manager, planner etc., that lunch would be a clue of how dinner would be. We pulled up to a picnic area and were handed a weird package of food. She then started to set up a portable stove. We would use that to boil the water to place in our dehydrated packages of food. I ate the dairy-free spicy beef chili and mac and cheese (it took a lot of salt and pepper to give it taste).
After lunch, we headed to meet up with a crew of drivers that took us on a Jeep tour through the desert. It was cool! We stopped by the Devil’s Golf Course which has these huge salt crystal formations. Afterwards, we continued on throughout the desert. This was the first time we saw groups of tourists checking out desert landmarks. We headed back to meet up with Molly at a nice resort within Death Valley. Everyone got excited. We saw a swimming pool, tennis courts and basketball courts. Most of us were excited to get a chance to take a shower. We all thought we were going to spend our night there, but as soon as we all got out Molly told us to head back into the van and not to touch our gear bag. She said she had a surprise for us. We drove about 45 minutes on a bumpy, dirt path and in the distance we could see bags lined up in the middle of the desert. Everyone in our group said, “Oh hell no! What is going on?” We got out of the van and there were book bags, sleeping bags, tents, and folding chairs with our names on it. Two people were assigned to each tent. Immediately our group went crazy, cursing, and letting poor Molly have it. We couldn’t believe we were staying overnight in tiny tents on the desert floor. We eventually got the tents put up, and Molly suggested that we begin to figure out what we will eat for dinner before it gets dark at 6pm (It was already 3 pm). It was almost dark and Kellie, our survival expert, appeared and was impressed that dinner was being prepared and our tents were up. She had a chat with us and had guidelines from the park ranger regarding our stay overnight in the desert. There was a long list of rules. Most importantly, we couldn’t throw any trash on the ground, leave food opened, and nothing could touch the ground other than water. If we had to do a “number two” outside, we had to dig a hole using a shovel and cover it up. The toilet paper would have to be placed in a bear container. While on the campsite, we saw two tarantulas. After that, everyone was on the lookout. It had gotten completely dark at 6 pm. You couldn’t see a few feet ahead of you without a flash light. But this is when we started to get the most comfortable. We knew we had no choice but to deal with being out there. We sat around and joked for a couple of hours until we went to bed. It was only 7:30 pm, but it seemed like it was midnight. I wrote in my journal that was provided by UA for most of the night and listened to music. I finally fell asleep and it was tough. Every noise I heard outside of the tent, I would jump up. It was hard to sleep because there were rocks all over the desert floor in my back. I slept for maybe 3 hours total and woke up around 4:15 am happy to be alive and to see the entire group was intact.
We had a 5:15 am shuttle pickup time to take us to a yoga session. I was so happy to see Molly and the shuttle van. I didn’t want to spend another minute in a tent. We headed up about 40 minutes to the top of a mountain peak named Dante’s View. It was dark and freezing. When we arrived, we saw candles lined up along the ledge of the mountain. Yoga was led by Nichole Avery. She helped stretch out all of the soreness from the run before and from sleeping on the desert ground. For most of us, she helped us stretch out our soreness individually as she walked around. I will never forget her saying, “We want happy spines, no sad spines”, as she helped me straightened up my back. We left yoga and headed back to the campsite to pack our equipment and to eat breakfast.
Breakfast was the usual dehydrated food, oatmeal, fruit, and random snacks. I was so over eating pretzels and snap peas; I just wanted real food. We were told to eat as much as we can, continue to drink plenty of water, and to make sure to take our hydration packs and signal mirror for this run. We knew it would be serious. We packed the shuttle and headed on another long drive. Along the ride, mostly everyone was sleeping. Along the road, we started to see signs with the message, “Caution Runners Ahead”. We had no clue where we were going, but these signs gave us clues to where we were going to run. We drove for about six miles on that road seeing these signs and then we made a sudden turn off the winding road, headed onto a dirt road. This road seemed like it would never end. We continued on the road until we reached a dead end where we saw a UA tent filled with the other group runners. We stretched and did a dynamic warmup led by Sandra. It felt like we were being prepared for battle almost. I was getting my back and ribs taped by the medical staff. I saw some others getting their ankles taped and putting sunscreen on their bodies from head to toe. We did a UA chant to get everyone hyped and we were off.
We took off in a large pack down the dirt path of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. I can’t believe at one time it was once the ocean floor. The terrain was filled with rocks and sand, and the sides were filled with hardened salt crystals. Because of all of the runners’ dust that was everywhere, my nose and throat were completely dry. By mile two, the packs started to separate and smaller groups were formed. We could tell it would be a rough day. I managed to catch up to Team 1, filled with mostly ultra-runners and triathletes and I was determined to stay with them. I knew there was no way I could run alone in the lonely desert.
By mile nine, everyone started to get delirious, but we kept pushing. We could see aid stations in the distance, but it seemed like they were so far away as we saw the winding hills and turns. I was with a fun group though. We made up a pineapple song along the run and throughout, everyone was looking forward to drinking for the post-run celebration (Specifically, Fireball and Gin and Tonic). We were on the dirt for about 10 miles, and we turned onto the main road. It got much easier once we hopped on this road. It felt natural, and there wasn’t any dust. We ran in single-file along the shoulder of the road, going up and down rolling hills and trying to get each car that passed by to honk. When they did, we would give a huge cheer. We had no clue how long we were going to run, so we tried to enjoy every minute of it. At the last aid station, someone told us that we only had three miles to go. Everyone got pumped and decided we were going to finish strong as a group. As we approached the finish line, we locked arms and crossed. It was the most climatic finish to a run I have ever experienced.
We finished at a resort, and we headed inside where some people got massages, V12 shot, or got hooked up to an IV machine. I was just happy I was able to take a shower finally. They had an open bar cocktail reception and dinner for all of the participants, and that was the most fun. We finally got a chance to mingle with all of the other groups and got to relax. Things escalated quickly, and we hung out for most of the night. It was a good way to end the tough weekend.
This run camp challenged us both mentally and physically and forced us to overcome adversity and the unknown. Looking back, it helped prepare us to become stronger as individuals and as runners, and I am happy that I got the chance to participate.
About Clifton Light: I’m a DRC captain, and I’ve been running with the crew for three years. I #RUNDRC to inspire the community and my peers to live a healthy and active lifestyle.