Monday, March 31, 2014

Bataan Memorial Death March

The Bataan Memorial Death March (marathon) serves to memorialize a group of American and Filipino soldiers who worked to defend Luzon, Corregidor, and the Philippines during World War II. On April 9, 1942, these soldiers were surrendered to Japanese militants and forced to endure unimaginable atrocities. Over a four day period of time, they were forced to march in blazing heat through the Philippines, where thousands of them died. 
This year marked the 25th memorial march on the White Sands Missile Range, NM.

Ben told me several months ago that this was a race he wanted to do. I had mixed feelings, but thought, what the heck, it fits perfectly into my training plan and has been said to be a difficult race (I also had mixed feelings about this… I mean, really? Hills and sand? I do live in Colorado). As the day for the race approached, I actually began to dread the trip to New Mexico, only because it added stress to an already busy schedule.
We packed the car and made the 9 plus hour trip to the missile range to pick up our packets. I must admit, I have never felt this out of place at a packet pick up before. I was surrounded by what felt like throngs of military units, interspersed with individual military personnel. We were promptly provided with our packets, including bags, shirts, and commemorative time chips (I thought that was a joke until I saw them). The expo was surprisingly organized. The only negative thing I have to say is the shirts were huge and now, Ben has two and I have none. Really though? I will get over that.

Ben and I headed back to our hotel to prep our fuel and finalize getting ready for the next day. We did an easy 3 mile run in the neighborhood, grabbed dinner, and went to bed. We needed to leave our hotel by 4 the following morning. Well, being the procrastinators that we are, the alarms went off way to early, we grabbed our stuff and headed out. Security was better than we both had expected and soon enough, we found ourselves sitting in our car in the dark (we were on base and parked by 5:10 for a 7 am start), on a military base, eating hard boiled eggs and bananas in order to fuel before the race. Around 6:15, we made our way to the bathrooms in order to make it in time to the 6:35 opening ceremonies.
The opening ceremonies began promptly on time (strange to me, considering the joke about hurry up and wait in the military). The ceremonies were more moving than I had expected. Roll call was called for current survivors of the Bataan Death March, and a silent roll call was called for those who have passed in the last year. This was followed by the playing of taps. Let it be known that taps gets me any time, and this year for some reason, reminded me of my grandparents, who have passed away in the last year and a half. While I stood in the crowd shivering, I was glad I was there, in that moment, to memorialize people who had fought for my independence.

The race began at 7. It was led by wounded vets and followed by those in the “heavy category,” meaning, those who were going to carry 35 pounds on their back for the length of 14 or 26.2 miles. We waited and moved slowly toward the finish line and could not figure out what the hold up was… until we saw the survivors shaking hands of runners and marchers at the start line.
I must admit, there is nothing quite like starting the race off by shaking the hands of several old men who fought so valiantly for our country.

After we hit the start line, Ben and I bobbed and weaved around people to try to find our comfortable pace. I have never seen so much variety in a marathon before. It was amazing to see how many people had come together to memorialize. Starting at mile 2 and ending around 8, Ben and I were mostly able to settle in, while battling the sand. Yay sand.
Around mile 8, we turned off from those doing the honorary 14 mile run and began our long ascent uphill. Every time it seemed like it was going to end, we were really just cresting and restarting to climb. The climb up, which looked short on the elevation profile was really about 5 miles. After reaching the top, it felt glorious to relax and have some downhill running. We ran downhill on dirt and sand for a while, before rejoining the road where throngs of people were still climbing up, some rucking with their 35 pound packs, some running, and others in large groups wearing shirts to memorialize veterans who had died in the line of duty. I was struck by the fact that many of these people cheered us on, while they were so clearly the ones doing the hard work.

While we were coasting downhill, we were passed by a friend we had met while running TransRockies 3 years ago. While I had thought we had passed through the dreaded “Sand pit,” he was nice enough to remind me that we had yet to actually hit it. Sure enough, around mile 20, we ran through a section about a mile to a mile and a half long that had spots where the sand was ankle deep.
It was in this area that we rejoined individuals who were doing the 14 mile march. At one point, I found myself pissed off by the sand and angry hamstring when I looked up and noticed a man a few yards in front of me… moving along on his forearm crutches and single amputation, with no prosthesis yet. He had covered about 10 miles with 2 crutches, 2 arms, and one leg. We then also passed at least 2 individuals with bilateral amputations, both wearing prosthesis. I was humbled in that moment and reminded that what I was going through was nothing in comparison.

Over the last 3 miles, Ben worked really hard to dig deep (and not throw up… which was amazing). We gained strength from a unit running near us, who was working hard as a team to get the job done.

When we finally crossed the finish line, I felt elated… and I could feel Ben about to keel over. There was a brief moment that passed and suddenly, I felt a new surge of energy and I could tell Ben felt it too. At the finish line of one of the more difficult races I have done, sat survivors of the real Bataan Death March. What I had just completed did not even begin to compare to the brutality and atrocities they had experienced, so that I could run freely. What a way to end a run!

Needless to say, the Bataan Memorial Death March is like no race I have ever competed in. The organization was phenomenal, aid stations were well stocked with fuel and spectators. The other marchers around me were humbling. The purpose for the race- beyond the imaginable.  

Regardless of whether or not I do this race again, I am beyond thankful that this is a run I have now completed.

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