Bataan Memorial Death March - An Experience to Remember

This is probably my longest blog post ever, because there is so much to tell about this race, and so many pictures to share. Scot and I just returned from finishing our first marathon in New Mexico. We chose a very special event for this state, the Bataan Memorial Death March, held at White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces. This march memorializes the survivors and those who were lost at the Bataan Death March during WWII in the Philippines. There are fewer survivors each year, and we wanted the opportunity to do this event when we could still meet and shake hands with these brave men who served our country so long ago and endured harsh conditions, much more harsh than we would encounter during our New Mexico "race". You can learn more about the historic death march from the US Army's history site and an Army article on this year's event.

The Bataan Memorial Death March includes military and civilian divisions, can be an individual or a team event, and "marchers" can travel HEAVY by carrying a 35 lb. (or more) pack, or LIGHT (without a pack). No matter what division a participant enters, this is not an easy event. Most people only march, or walk, the course. It is very difficult to run many parts of the course due to the altitude, the hills, and the sand. Scot and I participated in the Civilian Light division.

Crazy ascent - not as steep as it looks, but it was LONG
Our journey started on Friday, flying into Houston and missing our connection to El Paso TX because our United flight ran late. The airline put us up in a hotel that evening. We enjoyed a meal and some conversation with Heath and Jocelyn, whom we had met at the airport in DC; Heath would be completing his second Bataan event and Jocelyn was there to support him. Early the next morning we flew out on the first flight to El Paso and then drove the short distance to our hotel in Las Cruces NM. We were sharing a room with friends Jc, Peter and David at a quirky little place called the Big Chili Inn, part of the America's Best Value Inn brand. The hotel is known for having a huge chili pepper in its parking lot. They had a lot of fun kitschy d├ęcor and served us chips and salsa after checking in. It was not fancy, but had personality.

The Big Chili in the courtyard in front of the hotel

After checking in, Scot and I drove to White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan "in processing". This was not an average race expo or packet pick-up. There were educational sessions and events, and the opportunity to meet Bataan survivors. We received our commemorative t-shirts and dog tags on Saturday; there would be no traditional medal for finishers on Sunday. We ran into many friends at the packet pick-up, including Ed, whom I would not see the rest of the weekend. Ed is recently retired from the Army and would be marching HEAVY as he does every year.

The dog tag and shirt that all participants got at packet pick-up

For a pre-race dinner, Scot, David, Peter, Jc and I went to La Posta in Las Cruces. The restaurant was recommended by a local and is in the historic old town of Mesilla. It had an aviary, some character and good food. I quickly became aware of how tired I was. It was nice to get back to the hotel and crash.

Pre-race dinner at La Posta; we are standing in front of a mural inside the restaurant

We woke up Sunday morning at 3:30 AM because we were told we needed to get on the base early. There was some time to take a light nap in the car before walking over to the opening ceremony. In true military fashion, there was a presentation of the colors, the national anthem, some speeches, and recognition of the survivors who attended. There was also recognition of those who had been lost in the last year. All this time we waited outside in the cold, windy air. The desert has no insulation, so it feels colder in the dark, and hotter in the daylight. My extremities were numb and didn't warm up until a couple miles into the march.


A group of Marathon Maniac friends as we walked to the start corrals

More Maniacs and other friends just before the race start

At the opening ceremony; we couldn't see the people on the podium

Unlike most marathons, this one starts slow because most people walk, or march. It was difficult to maneuver through the thick crowds to make some headway on the easy first part of the course. Then we hit the sand, and it was even harder to run. The good news is that most of the sand on the course was packed, or close enough to being packed. A slow run was possible for me in some places; other times I had to walk due to crowds, deeper sand, or hills. The weather was getting warmer and pretty nice as the sun rose in the sky, and there were occasional breezes. The scenery consisted of desert sand, cacti and other dessert plants, and mountains in the background. Most people were doing the march in teams, either official teams or just a pack of friends sticking together. I saw some Maniacs here and there.

Early in the race you can see how packed the course was with marchers

A typical aid station where marchers rested and tended to their feet


Scot and I between Miles 8 and 9, I believe

At Mile 14, there was an aid station with a hot dog and hamburger stand. Since I don't eat meat, I had planned to walk through the aid station without stopping. Then I saw Jc and Peter and was waved over to the hot dog stand. It was an unofficial Maniac break and I also saw Larry, Marina and Halbert. We hung out for a little while as the others ate their food and I had some Doritos. It was nice to have this little respite from the difficult course, as until that point we had predominantly marched uphill. Just like the other aid stations, this was a spot for the HEAVY marchers to take a break, fuel up, check their feet (marchers in boots or with packs were prone to blisters and other foot issues), etc. In a regular marathon, most people run through the water stop, or maybe walk through it, but they do not usually stop. This was a completely different scene. The aid stations all had water, sports drink, bananas and oranges; they also had complete medical tents. The volunteer support at this event was top-notch.

At the hot dog stand aid station with friends
After the hot dog stand stop, the course was mostly downhill. I ran as much as I could, though I was not fast. I had to be careful in the sand and the uneven terrain, and some of the hills were too steep to go down very fast. It was also getting warmer, and my feet were killing me at this point. I wore trail shoes, but I think I should have worn a different shoe for better stability in the sand. When I couldn't go downhill, I was walking slowly at this point. My walking pace is always slow, but it was even more slow in the sand. However, I was never alone. There were always lots of other marchers in sight, and I also knew that even though I was going slower than any of my other marathons, I was nowhere near the back of the pack. That's just how this event was.

Mounted Border Patrol agent on the course

A medical helicopter - I hope there was no one who needed it

Around Mile 21, I reached the Sand Pit, which was about one mile (felt like more) of a much deeper sand than the rest of the course, and it was all uphill. I had trouble even walking this portion, and the course was very tan and boring at this point. I was so happy to come to the aid station immediately following the Sand Pit. At that point I decided to sit down for a minute to catch my breath and stretch. In the last couple miles, I met up with a first time marathoner and walked with her the rest of the way. I told her it was a crazy race to pick as her first, but she and her sister wanted to participate with their cousin, who was in the Army. In the last 3/4 mile, Scot came back to find me. He was worried that I was injured or in a bad state emotionally. I was neither; I was just tired and sore. It was not a race for feeling sorry for yourself. All I had to do was glance at the other marchers traveling HEAVY, or see a Wounded Warrior trudging through the sand with a positive attitude, or think about the proud veterans who survived the real Bataan Death March, or of those who didn't.

The last 10th of a mile we were back on the base and on pavement. I found a tiny bit of energy in me and mustered up a shuffle. Some of my Maniac friends lined the finish chute, so I ran past them for some high-fives, then I finished the race. It was my slowest marathon ever (excluding Honolulu where Scot and I had our mid-course wedding). I was so incredibly sore, but not actually injured. I was happy to be done.

The finish line is under the tent; Scot joked that these guys were my security detail, but I had no idea they were right behind me
Scot and I after we finished Bataan

As we drove off the base, Scot and I saw many marchers on the road approaching the Sand Pit. It was late in the day and they still had several miles to go. We rolled down our windows and gave them all cheers and applause. We knew it was hard to be out there for that long, that late. After returning to the hotel, saying goodbye to Jc and Peter (David left on his own straight from the race) and getting cleaned up, Scot and I went to High Desert Brewing Co. for some celebratory craft beer and root beer. We were amused to find Don Kern was sitting at the next table. Don is race director for the Grand Rapids Marathon and the Groundhog Day Marathon. He is a fellow Maniac too. We spent some time chatting about Bataan and other races before heading back to the hotel to crash.

Then Monday we were off. We met up with friends and other Maniacs at the airport and talked a lot about the march. We congratulated others who were wearing the race t-shirt, or who otherwise looked like they had participated in the event (it was often very obvious). The El Paso airport was flooded with marchers, and that caused our flight to be overbooked. Scot and I volunteered to be bumped to a later flight, and were rewarded with United vouchers which we will use when we book our flights for the San Francisco Marathon in July. It was our lucky day!

Just two of the marchers we saw at the El Paso airport: Maniac Janette "Stitch" with Magenta the Road Trip Flamingo, and her friend with "Gnomie"

Would I do this race again? I'm not sure. Part of me wants it to be a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable experience. Part of me wants to do it again because it is so special. A very, very tiny part of me would consider doing it again as HEAVY, but only if I trained properly. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely!

Comments

  1. What an amazing race to have run. Because of the difficulty of the course, certainly. Most especially because it was in honor of those who have given so much. Way to go, Sandy and Scot.

    P.S. Magenta must not have had any interest in being photographed with that big chili. Is she afraid of them?

    M.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Magenta was photographed with the big chili, and also with the classic VW microbus that had a smaller chili on its roof.

    ReplyDelete

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