Sunday, April 01, 2007

03/25/07 Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon

Here is the report I wrote for last year’s race. I will repeat the introduction:
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.

Last year, I designated this as the hardest and most meaningful marathon I had ever done. I no longer consider it to be the hardest (both Leadville and Volcano are orders of magnitude harder), but it is still the most meaningful. Paying tribute to the survivors and not-survivors of this terrible ordeal is incredibly moving. And watching thousands of men and women marching up the hill in heavy packs while I’m blazing back down... all the while giving ME encouragement as I try to say something coherent to them… well, that’s very powerful too. And so I came back to do this race again. This time with a little course-specific experience.

Like last year, the day began super early. Up at 2:45a to leave at 3:45a to be on the base by 4:30a. Unlike last year, this time I decided to crash in my car for a little while instead of shivering and inhaling cigarette smoke. And sure enough, many of the marchers smoked and drank coffee while waiting for sunrise. This is a big clue that this isn’t an ordinary marathon. So here I was, sacked out in my car, and probably 30 minutes later, I woke up… startled by a very low-flying helicopter and tons of people talking. And completely disoriented because I had gone to sleep with my cap over my face. Heh. Time to go.

At 6:00a, they played reveille and started the opening ceremonies. They talked about the actual death march, introduced the few remaining survivors, and played taps for the rest. One of the survivors was in attendance even though a tornado had destroyed his house the previous day. Wow. Star spangled banner, and we began to file past the survivors to the starting line. Boom, and off we went.

The first two miles of the course were on roads in the base proper… then the course turned onto tank trail. The first six miles of the course were downhill and the tank trail in this part was in pretty good condition this year. It was fairly cold at the start, but not too bad. Unlike last year, there was almost no wind. I chugged through this downhill at a not-leisurely-for-me 7:50 pace – until I had to make my first potty stop at M6.

“The hill” started at M6. This is some hill. It went on from M6, where the course came back out onto asphalt road, continued as the course veered onto tank trail around M11, and kept going until M13.8, gaining about 1500 feet overall. It’s not the steepest hill ever, but it is steep enough, and by M10 or so, it becomes your best friend. I can say that this year because there was no wind. Last year, the gale-force headwind made it not my best friend. The first overall female passed me around M7. I ran with the second overall female from M8-10 and then she pulled away too. Up and up we went. The trail we entered around M11 was a bit more challenging than the earlier stuff, but it still wasn’t too obnoxious. This part of the course was interesting. After leaving the asphalt road, the course traced a winding path around the circumference of a big hill (or small mountain).

Third overall female absolutely smoked by me at M13.

At M13.8, the course crested “the hill”, and started heading back down and around. After a quick aid station stop at M14, down we went. I was able to get back to a nice 8:30 pace… but no faster… as the trail conditions got a bit rockier and washboard-y. Around M16, the course provides an absolutely stunning vista to the south… and 16 miles away, there was the base. I sighted the two water towers that are big landmarks in the last couple miles of the course. They sure seemed like they were a long way from me! Closer than that, I saw what I thought was smoke from a brush fire. I would soon find out that it was a water misting station for the marchers… turned up to Spinal Tap’s 11.

At M17, the course started rolling. This section was brief, but the little ups and downs along the way were fairly steep. On fresh legs, I think I would really like this part. At M17, it wasn’t quite the same.

At M18, the course dumped back out onto the asphalt road and it was time to go back down a couple miles of “the hill”. This section is one of the main reasons I returned to Bataan. Thousands of marchers were headed up the other way, most carrying 35 pound packs. They were at M9, and I was at M19. I did the best I could to encourage them as I cruised by. They wished me well. Very amazing experience.

Just after M20, we turned off the asphalt and entered this race’s particular hell. I contemplated whether I thought “the hill” was harder than this section for a long, long time. Now after doing it twice, I will say with complete certainty that this is the harder part. The trail got bad… and then at M21… the trail got spectacularly bad. Welcome to the sand pit. M21-22 was in ankle deep sand. With hidden rocks. And, just for fun, uphill. With lots of turns. One mile doesn’t sound like a long way in marathon terms, but at M21 it really is. And both years, this mile has chewed me up, spit me out, and left me for dead. After the sand pit, the last four miles of the race should be a piece of cake because the trail widens up, the footing gets better, and there’s a bit of downhill. But “should be” is not “is”… and just like last year, these last four were a struggle. Unlike last year, I ran every step, though. At a smoking 11:00 pace. The fourth and fifth place women passed me in here.

At M24, we hit the wall. I described this last year, but I’ll mention it again. I don’t mean the marathoning glycogen-depletion wall… I mean a literal rock wall that makes up the perimeter of the base’s residential section. For whatever reason, this wall is deadly monotonous and helps make the last two miles seem like ten. Lucky for me, I remembered this in great detail from last year, so I kind of zoned it all out.

Chug chug chug. By the water tower landmarks.

Robert Lopez, Seattle, Washington. Woohoo, I got announced. At the finish line, two of the survivors were waiting for finishers. I wasn’t terribly coherent yet, and I wanted to get to the post-race food, but I wanted to shake their hands and say thanks. So I did. A simple “thank you”.

The first guy held on to my hand, looked up at me and said, “now, do you think you could do 70 more miles with no food or water?”

Kind of put things into perspective.

They saved the world, you know. They really did.

As for me, 4:04. 16 minutes better than last year, and unlike last year, I didn’t feel like someone had beaten me with hammers. I felt pretty good. 4:04 was a fine time on that course… in fact, I came in 51st out of 1671 folks who ran without heavy packs.

Seven weeks prior, I had run the Pacific Shoreline Marathon in the same 4:04. The differences between the two races are major. I must be improving.

Up next: a double weekend, with the Yakima River Canyon Marathon on Saturday, and the Big D Texas Marathon on Sunday. Including the two ultras I have completed, Yakima will be my 100th marathon and ultra.

See you there.

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