On Sunday March 22nd, I completed in the 26th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is truly a living memorial, honoring a group of World War II heroes. U.S. military (including almost the entire New Mexico National Guard) and Filipino soldiers were forced to surrender to Japanese forces in April 1942 and become prisoners of war. The POWs were forced to make a 65-mile trek (with no food or water) to confinement camps under Japanese soldiers’ inhumane brutality. This has become known as the Bataan Death March.
The march went from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga. The reported death tolls vary some –but thousands of individuals lost their lives. Those that survived the march were loaded to a box train at San Fernando and were brought to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. Surviving POWs would spend the next 40 months in horrific conditions in confinement camps. It wasn’t until late summer of 1945 that these prisoners of war saw freedom. Survivors were diseased, emaciated and frail. Sadly, one third of the former POWs would die of complications within their first year after being released. It is a chapter of history I didn’t know about until I heard of this event and began researching it. Doing this race is honoring the individuals who survived, and those who gave their lives. You are marching to honor and ensure that the sacrifices of so many who came before you are not forgotten.
I signed up with a 5-person team under the Civilian Co-Ed heavy category. Marchers in the heavy division must have a minimum of 35 lbs. in their rucksacks/backpacks, which they weigh and verify at the finish line. They suggest that the 35 lbs. in your backpack be nonperishable food items like beans, rice, cans, macaroni, pasta, etc. After you cross the finish line, you drop your items in the food bin to be donated to Roadrunner Food Bank. Per the event website “Bataan marchers donated 21,679 lbs. of food at the 26th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March! This donation equates to 18,740 meals provided to those in need in Southern New Mexico. That is 800 more pounds than last year and over 1,340 more meals.”
I carried a 20 lb. bag of beans, a 10 lb. bag of rice and 3 cans of tomato sauce. My ruck ended up weighing 49 lbs. at the start of the race (when I finished it weighed 47 lbs. due to drinking water and eating my snacks). Around mile 8, I saw two large bags of rice on the side of the road; someone decided to lighten their load. Trust me, I had the thought of doing the same since I had 10 lbs. over the minimum, but I kept telling myself to dig deep — it’s for an amazing cause.
I rationalized that at a point in my life just a few years ago; I was carrying an extra 100 lbs. on my body — so carrying nearly 50 lbs. was something I could do. I knew going in that it would be a challenging event, but I underestimated the amount of miles going uphill and the wear and tear from the heat. Losing 10 lbs. wouldn’t have helped me much. There are plenty of people running the event under “Light” category with no weight. The course was surely a challenge for them as well.
Two friends and I drove from Tulsa out to New Mexico the Friday before the event, stopping at roadside attractions along the way. It ended up being a 17-hour trip, but time went by quickly because we had so much fun. We set out only with the plan to get to New Mexico; everything else was done on the fly. On Saturday, we went out to the base and picked up our packets. They were very organized and got everyone through the lines quickly: shirt, bib, timing chip, dog tag and participation certificate. It’s not a race expo like a lot of marathons have beforehand, they just have some shirts and other items for sale and that’s about it.
The morning of the event was a very early start, so you could get onto base along with the other 5,600 other participants. You had to be in your corral before 6:30 a.m. We were loaded into corrals by race category; the military corrals had a lot more people in them than the civilian corrals. The opening ceremonies included speeches, the national anthem, TAPS were played, there was a helicopter flyover and the names of the Bataan survivors that had passed since the last year’s march were read. It was very inspiring to see all the military (present and past personnel) stand at attention during the opening ceremonies.
It’s my experience that through challenging events like a marathon, people aren’t quite themselves as the race progresses. They become less talkative, and many have grumpy or miserable looks on their faces. After all, everyone is just trying to get to the finish line; trying to impress people goes way out the window. As we walked, we would check on random people nearby on the course or try to start conversation and there just wasn’t much reception. I think I went in with expectations of what being on a team would entail and unfortunately, the team camaraderie was fleeting. The four members of my team walked together and left me behind for a good part of the race. Instead, I walked with the two friends that drove to New Mexico with me.
There was finger pointing and blaming within the team later, as a result of how long it was taking us to finish. “We suck” and “You need to start walking with a purpose” are just some quotes that stung. I truly blame the stress of the event and don’t think the mean-spiritedness that I experienced has any reflection on the people. I myself am normally more outgoing and talkative, but found myself being very quiet. When I have done distance events like this, I end up crying at some point; it happened twice on this one.
I got some juicy, delicious looking oranges at a water station and while I was trying to take my pack off my back, I dropped my orange slices onto the dirt. Tears spilled over the oranges. They had more oranges — but in that moment, I felt so defeated. Later in the race after the orange incident, my water valve was cut off because of the weight of my pack and I cried because I couldn’t get any water. Frustration and exhaustion just streamed down my face. We were all hot and tired trekking through the desert. In moments like this, you have to push through your roadblocks because there’s nothing distracting you and you are very aware of your body and thoughts. You are there with the physical pain and the overwhelming doubts in your ability.
I found motivation as I reflected back on the soldiers of Bataan Death March. No matter how you physically or mentally felt throughout this day, it paled in comparison to what those men endured. I thought about helping people with the food I was carrying in my bag. I saw veterans with the Wounded Warrior Project missing limbs participating and doing the march alongside us. I thought about how fortunate I am to be able to do an event like this. I thought about the relief I would feel when I crossed the finish line, versus the disappointment I would feel if I quit.
I think it was around mile 20 when I finally hit the medical tent for the first time. I had some blisters and had them for some time and figured I better make the final miles as comfortable as possible. I ended up having 6 that needed to be bandaged. I had no idea.
I am thankful for the volunteers at this event. They were working for hours and hours helping people like me finish. And again, we’re not bright shiny personalities as we pass through these stops either, but I made sure to say “Thank You” to as many people as I could. At water stops, volunteers would fill trays with cups and have tubs of oranges and bananas and would start walking down the course to meet us with enthusiasm.
The event Facebook page said that there was higher than normal of both self and medical disqualifications this year. I know my friends and I stopped to check on a few people that didn’t look good. I was impressed with the number of people the race had driving around patrolling the course looking for people that needed help.
Around mile 22 there was a water station with huge speakers playing music. I started singing and dancing and getting some pep back in my step. I now know that I must bring music on these adventures. Music fuels my soul, and during those few minutes around the speakers, I was energized and felt pretty good. Now if I were to sing and dance for 26 miles, my friends would be less than amused about it so maybe that is something to do in moderation.
After doing the event I also now know that more sock changes were needed. Upon returning and looking online, people recommend foot powder or deodorant to keep your feet dry. I did apply Body Glide to my feet but my feet sweating lead to my blisters even with changing my socks at the halfway point. I would also try the pantyhose tip I saw online; wear a cut off pantyhose and then your sock over that. I wore Hokas and had on gaiters, and had no problems with sand getting in my shoes. I applied sunscreen at nearly every water stop (I saw some very red skin out there, but I wasn’t one of them). I recommend sunscreen spray so your hands don’t get coated.
I ate bananas and oranges at every water stop. I recommend clean fueling because of how hard your body is working. I ate almond butter packets with honey, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, as well as some honey Stinger energy chews — my solution for portable calories. I will pack a few honey sticks for more sugar next time. As far as training, getting out a few times and putting in mileage with weight on my back would have been beneficial.
Despite the multiple painful blisters, the exhaustion of walking for 12 hours, several long stops with people in the medical tents, a lot of weight on my back, the draining sun through the desert — the experience was AWESOME. The views are beautiful throughout the course. After climbing uphill for nearly 10 miles, you can see far across the desert. At the opening ceremonies, the mountains are behind the stage and it’s dark. You can only make out their outline. As you wait for the start, the sun comes out and reveals the beauty in the skyline. The course itself is very challenging, but laid out clearly with mile markers posted. The majority of the 26 miles is on dirt/gravel trails.
Crossing the finish line is amazing. We finished and crossed together as a team. We had to have a team member rushed off to medical after finishing and another had to have her feet checked. We each had to overcome the pain and push to the finish.
The soldiers in WWII had to march an even farther distance under horrible conditions without the hope of crossing a finish line; they had no idea of when they would be done. When they got there, their struggle continued. My journey ended with driving to the hotel, taking a hot shower and then falling into a deep sleep.
I look forward to doing this event again. It was such a test of my strength and ability. I am so proud of everyone that finished. I am thankful for my friends doing this event with me. We may have bickered or were short with one another under duress, but we completed this journey together. We crossed the finished line holding hands.
This is definitely not an event for the weak of heart, spirit, mind or body.
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