In April 1942, at the conclusion of the Battle of Bataan, approximately 60,000-80,000 American and Filipino soldier prisoners of war were forced to walk 80 miles in an event that resulted in the deaths of thousands, and was eventually considered a massive Japanese war crime. During this sweltering hot march, soldiers were tortured mercilessly. They were starved and denied clean water during 3 days of continuous walking, and anyone who fell behind was beheaded, bayoneted or beaten. As many as 11,000 soldiers didn’t survive the march, and many died of other diseases including dysentery in the days and months following. Growing up, my dad knew a couple of survivors. One had his Achilles Tendon cut to prevent him from escaping. The other had an appendectomy with a sharpened spoon as a scalpel and a stick between his teeth as the only form of pain control.
Since 1989, The Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon and Honorary March (14.2 miles) has been held on a desert military base in the very Southern part of New Mexico. The purpose of the event is much less a simple commemoration, but rather, it is meant to give marchers a small taste of what the soldiers endured more than 70 years ago. Most race participants are active duty members. They march in full uniform with a 35 pound sack on their backs (most fill their sacks with canned food to donate to a local food bank). Many compete as teams of 5 with a true “no one left behind” mentality. All team members must finish within 20 seconds of each other.
But the most impactful part of Bataan is the survivors. Each year, survivors of the Death March answer to a roll call before the race, and greet marchers at the start and finish lines. This is really an event to honor and remember them and the hell they went through in order to protect their country. There is a bit of urgency to do this race NOW because, as the actual Bataan March slips 71 years into the past, the number of survivors is sadly diminishing. This year, 3 were at the event.
White Sands Missile Range is located about 3 and a half hours south of Albuquerque. The nearest airport is in El Paso, Texas (over an hour away) and the nearest city is Las Cruces, NM which is a decently sized college town housing New Mexico State University. NMSU is where my parents met as students and where my little sister is currently in her senior year.
My dad (who did this race 10 years ago) signed up for the full 26.2 course a while ago, and my little sister followed suit and signed up for the honorary 14.2 course (her first half!), so Aaron and I jumped on board, signed up for the honorary 14.2, and we made it a family excursion. Aaron and I headed down on Saturday, and my parents along with the other sister (who didn’t do the race) and their dog followed a few hours later. Giuseppe was slightly annoyed that he wasn’t invited, even though he was sufficiently spoiled by Aaron’s parents while we were away.
I WANNA GO!
I know I complain a lot about how dry and barren Albuquerque is, but southern New Mexico is much, much worse.
We drove into town and went right to packet pick-up, or, in military speak, “in-processing” (am I signing up for a race, or the draft?). Because we had to go on base, we had to have a special pass that came with registration that granted us access (DO NOT FORGET YOUR PASS!).
If you’ve ever been on a military base, you probably know that there are some little quirks that you don’t find in a normal neighborhood. For example, explosive items and public art in the form of giant missiles.
We also passed by an aid station set-up that gave us an idea of what we’d be dealing with. Just sayin, if I was a rattlesnake, I’d live there.
In-processing was held in the base community center and was quick and organized. A nice yet very intense drill sergeant type guy was commanding you where to go, so there was little guess work involved. They also had artifacts and newspaper articles on display from the actual March. You get your “medal” (a dog tag appropriately) and finisher’s certificate right there at in-processing, which kind of gave my little superstitious self a heart attack. During the race, I carried mine with me and put it on myself when I crossed the finish line!
After in-processing, we started the drive back to Las Cruces to unpack at my sister’s apartment. Let me just take this opportunity to say that my sister’s college apartment is way nicer than my first big girl job apartment. SIGH.
While the rest of my family headed out to in-processing, Aaron and I headed out to carb-loading. We were also on an urgent mission to find a television broadcasting the Mountain West Championship game in which Aaron’s team (New Mexico) was playing. We started off at High Desert Brewery which had some really good beer if you don’t mind the dive bar atmosphere.
BUT, they didn’t have the game on, so after a quick taster flight, we had to make our way over to a sports bar called The Game. We were in NMSU Aggie country so the place wasn’t crawling with Lobo fans, but Aaron still cheered loud and proud when the Lobos won! (Don’t worry…all three teams I cheer for are OUT in round 1, so I will stop talking about basketball now).
After gorging on sports bar food, we made the short drive back to my sister’s apartment and started getting ready for bed. Because the base has limited parking and one gate for some 5,200 participants, they asked that marchers be at the gate at 4:30 am, meaning we’d have to LEAVE at 4 to make the 25 mile trip. An ideal bedtime would have been 7, but since that was damn near impossible, we made an attempt for 9. We finally crawled onto our air mattress at 10. Best case scenario: 5 hours of sleep.
As amazing as my sister’s apartment is, it is still in a college apartment complex. She is on the ground floor, and her windows face the handicapped area in the parking lot, which apparently is the designated turn around/drop off/pick up point of the complex. And, it was a Saturday which meant drunk people were loudly walking around ALL night. In fact, they were still walking around when we left the next morning. Oh how I miss college.
Add to that my parents’ poor puppy who was disoriented and confused and quite vocal about it, and we literally got 1-2 hours of sleep. I’m certain it was closer to 1. This is not even remotely an exaggeration.
Sadly, the alarm went off at 3:15 am (we were already awake), so, we got up, got ready, and got out the door and to the base by about 4:40 am (there was already a long line of cars, and we got one of the last close parking spaces). We met up with my dad and sister who drove separately, and my sister’s boyfriend who was also doing the half.
There was no gear check, so we packed all of our valuables into the trunk, hoping that hoards of military personnel would ward off any potential thieves.
Even though the ridiculously early morning arrival was necessary for parking, opening ceremonies didn’t start until 6:30, and the race didn’t start until 7:05. So, like everyone else there, after parking and making trip #1 to the porta potties, we took a half hour nap in the car, which almost doubled the amount of sleep we got overnight.
At about 6:25 we made a final trip to the porta potties, and I was in one when they announced the presentation of the colors. As I found out, there is a very unique type of panic that occurs when you are sitting on the toilet and hear the announcement that you are to now rise for the National Anthem. Do you stand? Do you get yourself out at all costs, ready or not? Do you hide and pretend that you aren’t committing patriotic travesty? I opted to get myself out of there FAST, ran a few steps away, and got into proper National Anthem form. As previously mentioned, the majority of people doing this race were uniformed service members. Probably one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen is uniformed service members experiencing the same panic. During the course of the song, several had to run out of the porta potty and jump straight into a salute while the doors slammed shut behind them. I wish I was able to more accurately describe just how funny this was.
As soon as the National Anthem was done, we hurried to get into our corral. The Opening Ceremony was pretty amazing. A giant American flag billowed in the breeze against the early morning desert landscape. During the roll call, three survivors yelled, “HERE” much louder and stronger than their age might suggest, and I almost teared up during Taps. A Black Hawk helicopter flew over just as the sun was rising. If you are wanting to renew your pride in America and our armed services, this is the place to do it.
Pre race in our corral
Unlike traditional races, corrals are set up to accommodate the hardest workers. Full marathoners with 35 pound sacks go first, etc., and honorary race marchers go last. So, basically, it is set up slowest to fastest. We were marched around a field led by bag pipers, and we lined up at the start line. Even though we lined up at the front of the Honorary corral, it easily took 45 minutes for us to cross the start line. The survivors were lined up, greeting marchers right before crossing the chip mat. I managed to shake hands with one who looked justifiably overwhelmed with the number of people coming at him. Still, very awesome to get to honor someone who lived through Bataan.
So, we finally crossed the start line, and the next 5 miles were spent attempting to weave through the crowd. While it was frustrating, I kept trying to remember that this was not MY race. I was there to commemorate a horrible event in our history and to honor service members past and present, so I very patiently passed people at a very slow pace. People with packs, people carrying large flags, teams of 5 walking arm in arm, and people who didn’t train at all and were struggling at mile 3.
I never carry my camera or a phone during races, but I wish I had for this one. There were so many amazing and inspiring sights, and the scenery was incredible!
This is what the first 5 miles looked like.
Also, I have managed to make my legs somewhat unsuitable for running (another post for another day). Should I have run on Sunday? Probably not. I was in pain for the first 10 miles. Yet, something about seeing a wounded warrior with an amputated leg carrying a 35 pound pack on his back changed my perception of discomfort. My little side calf issue that hasn’t fully healed since October? Absolutely nothing compared to to these amazing strong and determined people. So I ran on and I ran with a feeling of purpose. Not everyone gets the privilege of running on two feet.
I decided to just enjoy the experience and not put pressure on myself to run fast. I was hurting, and a heat advisory had been issued the day before suggesting that people not participate if they weren’t fit enough to handle it. I walked the aid stations and drank full cups of water to keep hydrated (turns out, there is significantly less spillage with this method!).
Spectators aren’t allowed on the course (can you imagine all of the rattlesnakes and explosive items that might be lurking in the desert?). But that didn’t stop a man wearing a mullet wig (or, maybe just sporting his natural mullet?), dancing like a weirdo, banging on his cowbell near the start. It was the only spectator amusement we got all race, and he was definitely enough! Thank you, Mr. Cowbell Man for your enthusiasm!
At about mile 2, the pavement turned into dirt, and I wouldn’t see pavement again until the last .1 mile. Truthfully, the dirt was pretty packed down, so it wasn’t horrible to run on. Definitely dusty, but not impossible.
My dad was running the full, so he had a significant head start. I ran into him at mile 4 and he ran with me for a couple of minutes. He was doing the run 4 minutes/walk 2 minutes method and was able to keep it up for 17 miles before having to walk. He’s in solid half marathon shape, but he hadn’t been training for a full.
At mile 7, I came across my sister’s boyfriend (I thought he was running with her, so I was surprised to see him), and I ran with him for a bit. This was about the time that the sleepless night started impacting my overall mood. I was grumpy and exhausted. At about mile 8, the course splits sending full marathoners and Honorary racers into different directions. Volunteers yell out exactly where you need to go, and someone checks each person as they go through their respective chute to make sure nobody goes the wrong way. I went from being on a course with thousands of marchers to suddenly being around about 2 or 3 other people. Out of the 5200 participants, less than 900 did the Honorary.
At mile 9, I came across the dreaded part of the course known as the Sand Pit. For a little less than a mile, the rocky sand is ankle deep and incredibly soft. Oh, and lest this be too easy, the whole part is uphill. This comes at about mile 21 for the full marathon, and I can imagine that walking with a 35 pound pack makes the section just slightly more cruel. Truthfully, it wasn’t as bad as I had heard, but it wasn’t the easiest running experience. I slipped down to a 9:50 for that mile split.
Check out that nice uphill!
As I emerged victoriously from The Sand Pit of Doom, I had a really weird race moment. I looked around and realized I was completely alone in the middle of the desert which was truthfully very disorientating. I have never been all alone during a race. I started questioning if I was in the right place, and then I started having visions of grandeur. Perhaps me, little Amy Lavender in her bright green compression socks, was in first place (forget the fact that logically, Aaron had to be somewhere far ahead). I also really count on other racers to bring out my competitiveness, so not having any one there made me much less motivated to pick up the pace.
I approached an aid station, and I felt kind of like a rock star as these awesome volunteers cheered loudly just for me. They also sprung into action and picked up their water/sports drink trays. I didn’t necessarily need a cup of water and a cup of sport drink, but I felt bad for having them pick everything up for me, so I stopped and took one of each and thanked the volunteers for their support.
Luckily, the complete loneliness only lasted a mile. I turned a corner, and spotted a herd of about 10 runners half a mile ahead. I made it my mission to pass these people.
I overtook the first of them at mile 12, only to get re-passed when I stopped at the mile 12 aid station to high-five a little kid and accept one of the little American flags he was handing out. But, as soon as I was done at the aid station, I put on my DOMINATE face with only 2.2 miles to go, and slowly overtook my racing comrades one by one. I should also mention that there were no “categories” for the Honorary march. Most of the people doing this race were in normal running clothes as opposed to uniforms, not carrying any sacks, and not running in teams, so it wasn’t like I was unfairly whizzing past people.
I always secretly want to be a big cheerleader type person, but I always feel so awkward shouting out words of encouragement as I pass people. Will people think I’m being pretentious if I cheer them on as I leave them in my dust? I usually do a mental “GOOD JOB!” as I pass people, but I rarely feel comfortable saying it out loud. But every lady I passed during those last 2 miles cheered me on, and I felt like an ass for not putting forth more of an effort. I shouted a hearty “YOU TOO!” in response, but maybe I should have initiated the good will.
Mile 12 is also when the winds picked up. They would get worse throughout the day (when we were driving back to Las Cruces several hours later, we saw a bunch of marathoners get blasted by an intense dust cloud), but we got a small taste of it. The combination of wind and sand and sweat is not a fun one.
I knew I was getting close to the end, and started focusing on a strong finish. Every flier/volunteer/website has a different mileage distance listed for the Honorary (everywhere between 13.5-15.2 miles), so I wasn’t sure WHEN it would end, but I knew it was coming.
There was one last aid station at mile 13.5 (with only .7 miles to go). I wouldn’t have stopped, but again, I was the only person there and the volunteers were going out of their way to make sure I had water. So, I grabbed some. Then, I heard the familiar voice of Coach Aaron telling me to KEEP RUNNING. For every race that he is able, Aaron circles around after he is finished to meet me and run with me into a fast finish. And there he was, waiting for me at the mile 13.5 aid station.
I attempted to swallow some water as I ran on. I asked Aaron how he did, and he gleefully let me know that he was the first to cross the finish line. He was cautiously optimistic since it was hard to tell the chip times of people who potentially started way after us. He also let me know that I was the 4th female in, but he had talked to one of the girls and she said that she had started near the front of the march and likely hadn’t run a 3rd place time.
With the prospect of finishing THIRD OVERALL FEMALE, I picked up the pace and excitably attempted to spot the finish line. I’m glad Aaron was there with me, because the turn off from barren desert to finish line chute wasn’t exactly obvious to someone trying to sprint her way in. The finish line chute was downhill, which makes for an amazing flying sensation, and, with American flag in hand, I ran in with some awesomely supportive spectators cheering me on.
I crossed the finish line in 2:05:43, an 8:50 average pace which is by far the slowest race pace I’ve ever had. I realize that this isn’t a traditional race and I shouldn’t treat it as such, but if this race was supposed to validate my fitness level for Boston, let’s just say that it didn’t.
I took my dog tag out of my pocket, and medaled myself, proud of finishing a race that was harder than most.
Aaron and I stayed cheering people on for about 20 minutes. We chatted with the girl who ran the fasted female time. People came up to congratulate us and ask me why on earth I was wearing bright green socks. We also talked with the sport drink sponsor reps. The course served Cera-sport. It was much sweeter than Gatorade but it is designed not to screw with your stomach. The reps talked sports drinks with us for a bit since apparently we looked like we knew our way around our Gatorade, Cytomax, and Nuun.
We weren’t sure how far behind my sister’s boyfriend was, or how far behind my sister was, so Aaron and I decided to trek to the car, pick up some more sunscreen, and then head to the mess hall for lunch. Lunch (choice of burger, brat, or pulled pork sandwich along with potato salad and Bud Light) was provided for all the marchers which was really a nice perk. We met up with my sister’s boyfriend, and my sister finished her first half about an hour later. We were all able to enjoy our victory lunch together.
Aaron took a nap on the golf course, and he definitely wasn’t the only one.
Because my dad was expecting to finish in about 7 hours, we had decided beforehand to head back to Las Cruces early since we still had a 3 hour drive home (he ended up finishing in about 6 and a half hours in a course best for him!). We headed back to my sister’s apartment and took an amazing shower (the amount of dirt on face my was unreal) and a really quick nap (still going on 1.5 hours of sleep). We weren’t able to really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day since we still had to drive home, but we stopped at another local restaurant/microbrewery called De La Vega and grabbed a quick early dinner and a beer flight before driving home. This was actually a really great restaurant, and the beer was decent.
While I totally understand and appreciate that this wasn’t “our” race, we were also really anxious to know the results. Aaron had possibly WON the half, and I had possibly won third overall female. By Monday morning, the results still hadn’t been posted. Any inquiries via the race facebook page were met with some severely harsh comments from other racers (not the organization itself) suggesting that it was our patriotic duty to shut the eff up when it came to results. Like most races, chip timing was outsourced, so this isn’t a reflection on the race itself.
And when they did finally post, they went up in waves. While we got ours posted on Monday night, some didn’t post until Tuesday afternoon. But when the half results did post, it was a joyous occasion!
Unfortunately, awards are not given out for the Honorary march. This may very well be the only race that Aaron wins, and the only where I come in 3rd, but we will have to be content with our private celebration. And that’s ok. We are still very excited about our accomplishment!
Bataan Memorial Death March is a race that I think every American should consider. I was inspired and humbled with every step, and I am so grateful that I got to experience it NOW. Even 20 years from now, World War II will be a long forgotten war. While I’m sure this race organization will make every attempt to keep the meaning of this event forefront, soon there will be no survivors. Most of the marchers will be too young to have ever had conversations with their grandparents or even great grandparents about the war years. While it will be a nice memorial, the marchers of the future will be too far removed from the war to really grasp the significance. To get the opportunity to run and shake the hand of a man who survived is an unforgettable experience.
I do suggest that anyone who wants to run keeps that meaning in mind. You will spend the first several miles weaving through people. It will be hot, dusty, sandy, and uphill. There are less water stations than you might want (everyone in my family aside from Aaron and me carried CamelBaks). And you will be reminded that running fast is pretty wimpy if you don’t have on a full uniform and 35 pound sack on your back. And you will have to be ok with all that.
With good reason, the Bataan Memorial Death March has become the New Mexico marathon of choice for the Marathon Maniacs, 50 Staters, and all other efforts at running a race in every state. Because of this, I think it should be noted that this in no way is a tradition marathon/ half marathon.
This is not the race for you if:
1) You are looking for a PR (the half distance is pretty unique anyway);
2) you think $95 for a race entitles you to flawless execution and lots of bells and whistles (the marathon and honorary cost the same). You do get the dog tag, a t-shirt, a reusable drawstring backpack, lunch, and course support.
3) you hate running on dirt, hate trail running, or hate running uphill;
4) and for whatever reason if you have an aversion to the military, veterans, or people being extremely patriotic.
I would suggest flying into El Paso and booking a hotel in Las Cruces (but book early…there aren’t a lot of rooms to go around). Get to the gate at 4:30 am if you don’t want to walk 2 miles to the start line. PRINT OUT YOUR PARKING PASS or you will hold up the long line and grumpy sleep deprived people will hate you. Prepare for the fact that there is no gear check. Bring your dog tag with you to the race so you can wear it afterwards. And enjoy and appreciate that you are getting to experience a small part of history.