Perseverance and Perspective: Bataan Memorial Death March 2017

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I liked the idea of this event from the first time I heard of it: Marathon distance with 35 pounds on your back, through a military base in the middle of the desert, honoring some badass WWII vets, who will see you off at the start line.

It turns out that many of the marchers carry some form of food as their weight, and a local food bank sets up at the finish line to take donations. I found that 4 big cans of hominy in a Warhammer carries beautifully and weighs in at 38#.

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The Bush’s logo being visible earned me the nickname “beans” while I was on the course. I also carried photos of my great uncles who were killed in WWII. (Neither of them were at Bataan, but it seemed appropriate to bring them along.)

We showed up to the starting corrals well before daylight. The opening ceremony was an experience that you need to see for yourself, as I lack the words to convey the feeling. Powerful to the point of making me tear up.

The first to move out on to the course were the Wounded Warriors, and seeing them move out, missing limbs but stepping up to cover the distance, helped put us in the frame of mind to ignore whatever petty pains came up and do what was required. They were followed by the military heavy group, then my group, the civilian heavy.

We went in a loop around the starting corrals, shook hands with the Death March survivors at the start line, and we were off. The first few miles were on paved streets around the post, then we turned off onto sandy dirt trails, walking through a haze of dust kicked up by the marchers ahead.

The first bathroom stop had long lines and I figured I would push on to the next one, then I broke out laughing as I turned the next corner and saw a wall of guys standing out in the bushes. Someone behind me commented, “The guys waiting back there must be first-timers… or just polite. One of the two.”

Water stations were every two or three miles, with oranges and bananas available about every other station. We had debated if we should carry a water bladder or depend entirely on water stations, and I decided to split the difference with 2 bottles in the ruck that I would top off at every station. This turned out to be a good idea, as one of the stations toward the end was out of water when I got there. (I passed the truck bringing in a new water buffalo about a half-mile later.)

I stopped every few miles to drop the ruck and stretch out my shoulders, and the first 5 miles or so went by easily. Then I realized the point I had overlooked in training for this: This year set a record for hottest temperatures for the march, and it is tough to train for New Mexico heat when you are training through a South Dakota winter. The heat got to me, my energy levels went down, and the suck arrived.

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I happened to catch up with my teammates Carl and Schmitty at the 8-mile checkpoint. I stopped to sit for a few minutes and reapply sunscreen, and Schmitty asked if there was any way he could assist.

“No. I just need to suck it up and get it done.”

“I was going to say it more politely, but yeah, that’s the mindset you need.”

Shortly after this we moved back onto paved streets, which would have been nice if they were not going unrelentingly uphill. About this time the winners of the light division were passing us on their way back, so we cheered them on as we passed.

It turns out that the sunscreen I had brought was not up to the task, and people started pointing out that I was burning around mile 9. I reapplied mine, got heavier-duty stuff from the medical tents, and kept going. We left the road for more trails, deeper sand and more hills. When I hit the halfway marker I asked another marcher to get a picture of me ruck-flopped on the side of the trail. (The trails are sunken into the ground enough at places that they make a decent place to sit down, and the frame of my ruck propped me up.)

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In the TV show The Selection, Roster #11 has a moment when he asks himself, “Why am I out here in the middle of the desert, dying? I think I’m losing my marbles…” I had that moment at mile 14. There was a hamburger stand there, which should have raised my spirits, but by that point hot food was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to quit there (and rumor has it that this was a popular spot for DNFs) but I remembered what this event is, what it is in honor of, and you want to quit because its a little hot out here? Perspective reset. Refill water, ruck up, back at it.

Things got a little easier, because there was a lot more downhill involved in the second half. Heat and sun continued to be a problem, as I think shows in the photo from the next checkpoint:

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It was about this time that I checked in with one of the medical stations, as I was having trouble moving my arms. I noticed it when a volunteer offered me a tray of fruit, and I had to ask him to hold the tray lower. The diagnosis was simply that the muscle the ruck straps bear on is worn out. Only thing that would fix it is rest.

“So I just need to grunt it out for the next 10 miles?”

“Pretty much, yeah. Good luck!”

Push 2 miles, sit a minute. Push a mile, sit. Around mile 20-21 we hit the Sand Pits. Depending on who you ask, this is between 3/4 mile and 1.5 miles of ankle-deep sand. I had gaiters to keep it out of my shoes, but it still drained leg strength that was already mostly gone. I remember one marcher stopping in frustration, yelling “this is the pits! *laughter that sounds on the verge of losing one’s mind* The sand pits!” As I passed, I offered,”What’s that old saying, if you’re going through hell, keep going?” The other marcher smiled and got moving.

I reached an aide station that had music playing, and I found myself increasing my march tempo to match the music. Silly as it sounds, that raised my spirits a lot for the last few miles.

The end of the course is mentally taxing, as you think that the end is just around the corner, then you come around the corner and see another turn, and it just seems to take forever. I finally rounded the last turn, saw the end, and went into the fastest shuffle I could manage, with spectators cheering us on to the finish.

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I find myself at a loss for words trying to describe this experience. Grueling. Brutal. Humbling. Alongside the most awesome people you can imagine. And having never been happier to put down your ruck.

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