Sunday, November 12, 2006

03/26/06 The Bataan Death March


I told people that I was going to do The Bataan Death March. Some gave me a knowing look. Some said "wow, what a cool name." Ok, first things first. The Bataan Death March was a real thing, a very terrible thing, in World War II. If you don't know about it, go read this. I'll wait until you are done.

Every March, the event is commemorated with a Memorial Death March Marathon at the White Sands Missle Range in New Mexico. It's mostly active duty military personnel marching in full uniforms, boots, and 35 pound packs. However, they allow civilians to run it... now, this isn't a hardcore technical trail marathon - but it is wicked hard. Alas, knowing about the actual event from WWII, and knowing that most folks are doing the "race" in full gear (though as a walk), I absolutely cannot complain about the difficulty. By comparison, I had it easy in my shorts and my nice shoes. That said, I think it's still the most difficult race that I've done in recent memory.

Side note. We were advised to be there between 4 and 4:30am because of traffic and parking. Then we waited until 6 for the opening ceremony. At 6:30, we marched past Bataan POW survivors... very very moving. And then we were off. But it meant that I had to get up at 2:30, factoring in, uh, forcing my body to do God's work, and the drive. See the food gap between 2:30 and a 6:30 race start? Yeah, that's gonna factor in later.

Oh wait. Let's not start quite yet. Side side note. Given that the majority of the marchers are active duty folks and some ROTC folks, the age of the people around me was skewed much younger than I'm used to at a marathon. Cool! And... before we started... for, like two hours before we started, a whole lot of people were smoking. I haven't seen this many people smoke before a race except in Europe. Not Cool!

Oh yeah, there was a race. It is held within the missle range proper... we started at the base on paved roads... at about M2, we turned down a tank trail. These are wide and can be nice for running. Or not. Aside from a few miles in the middle on nice paved roads, the whole thing was on these tank trails. The first 6 miles were mostly level or slightly downhill. We hit the first hill, and more importantly to me, the headwind from hellaround M6. The first hill was big, but it was merely a bump. The second hill was a solid up between M9 and M13.8. And I don't mean a gentle, grandmother-likes-it incline. This was a HILL. A 3-STAR GENERAL ASSKICKER HILL. And the headwind. 20mph solid, with strong gusts of probably 1,000mph. Because of the proximity of the hills we were running around and the overall breeze, the headwind stayed with us for most of the day - no matter what direction we were running. Or walking. I managed to get to the top of the big hill at M13.8 by running. But my pace went from 8:20s before the hill to 9:30, to 10+. It's possible that I would have walked it faster. And then we hit a section between M14 and M20 that was net downhill, but had lots of sharp ups. I wish I could say that I blew through this. I did not. This is where I realized that between the altitude (4,000-5,500 feet... M13.8 was at the top), the wind, the heat, my approaching dehydration (yo, it's the desert), and my crappy eating the day prior and race morning, between alll that... it was likely that I was headed for a nasty crash into the wall. I didn't want to death march the Death March. But it was clear that 3:50 was out of reach. And so was 4:00. Yech.

Coming down the last section of hill between M18 and M20 was very inspiring. I saw troops. Thousands of troops. They were all going the other way up the hill. I was headed for M20 and they were headed for M9. And almost all of them hooted me, wished me luck, or called me 'sir'. I tried to return the favor when I could... I was breathing hard... but it was an experience I will remember forever.

Which is great, because M20 enters what the course organizers like to call 'the sand pit'. It isn't a pit. It's still tank trail. But for about two miles, the footing is horrid... not packed down... probably 10 inch deep sand that fills up your shoes and grabs you with every step. And in here, readers, in here is where my day went really poorly. But I will not complain. Whereas I had made it back to about 9:00s going down the hill (and should have done better, but I was cooked), I walked the pit. The whole pit. And it was hard work, because most of the sand pit was uphill. Exiting the pit, we continued uphill through M23ish, and then had a nice downhill to M24. I tried to get some kind of reasonable pace back. Couldn't.

Then at M24, the oddest thing happened. The course flattened out... woohoo... yet I absolutely could not run faster than a shuffle. I don't think it was The Wall... the glycogen-depletion monster. I know about that wall. This was different. Instead it was another kind of wall. The last two miles of the race follow(ed) a rock wall around the exterior of the base. It was sooooo monotonous. Psychologically, that was that. Finally, I rounded the end of the wall and saw the finish. And I finished.

I won't tell you my splits or my time. They sucked.

But at the end of the "race", I shook a survivor's hand, one more time. The guy was ancient. Could barely hear. But I feel like I owe my life to this guy and others like him. Very moving. Lots of things moved me today.

The support during this race was/is OUTSTANDING. Fluids every two miles, like clockwork. Army folks and volunteers at each aid station hooting. It was great. And portpotties for days. A necessity when 4,000 people are gonna be marching for 8 or 9 hours.

And chip timing. Are you listening Napa Valley? This race had chip timing. And. You got to keep your chip afterwards! The race cost 45 dollars, but you got to keep your chip. Shirt was so-so. No medal... but... we got a commemerative dog tag. Given the point of the event, this was way way WAY better than YetAnother medal.

Possibly the coolest/niftiest/neatest event I've ever done.

Definitely the hardest.

I can tell you more if you want to know more. I think I want to take a nap now.

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