Sunday, March 26, 2017

Race Recap: State #12: New Mexico

Race: Bataan Memorial Death March (Civilian Male Heavy Division)
Date: March 19, 2017
Official Result: 11:09:17.871

We're the Battling Bastards of Bataan,
No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn!
-Frank Hewlett

The Bataan Memorial Death March is a countermeasure to this poem. On this 75th anniversary of that cruel event in history, over 7200 marchers came together to the White Sands Missile Range to remember and pay homage to the Filipino and American soldiers forced to make the original 65 mile march to their POW camps. Already starved, they marched not with food or water but the certainty of death by bayonet or beheading if they were to fall behind.

Rewind a bit back to October 2015 - While riding the subway in D.C. after running the Marine Corps marathon, I struck up a conversation with a rider who noticed the finisher medal swinging around my neck.  Before getting off at my stop, he suggested I look into the Bataan Memorial March in New Mexico.  Hardest thing he's ever done.  After reading about it initially I thought the idea was insane. But now that I've participated in it I can confirm the idea is indeed insane. 26.2 miles into a desert mountain range with no sun cover and the option to carry a 35 pound rucksack will absolutely put your limits to the test. 

My cousin (and fellow Napa Ragnarian) Jeffrey was putting together a guys trip for March Madness in Las Vegas, and since the race fell on the same weekend I thought I'd consolidate both into a single trip. I just wasn't sure if I should register for the light or heavy division. I polled my Ragnar team and they unanimously said I should go for heavy, the jerks. I only ended up logging about 60 miles of training, but with 50 pounds on my back as suggested by Jessica, another one of my Ragnar teammates.

I got to enjoy my first taste of enjoying the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas, but learned that I'm terrible at picking winners. I lost all eight of my 2-team parlays, and the one that I thought I did win, I accidentally bet on first half outcomes thinking I bet on the final score (I called out the wrong numbers when placing my bet in the sportsbook). Thankfully I made that all back and finished comfortably up for the trip at the blackjack tables.

Early Friday I took an Allegiant Air flight after two chill days in Las Vegas, walking past bleary-eyed party goers heading back to their hotel rooms on my way to the airport at 4:30 in the morning. A retired couple from Utah sat across from me while waiting to board and I couldn't help but make friends with them since the woman was wearing a Ragnar jacket. Brad and Mary were both also headed to the march. We swapped a few running stories and they recommended I run a particular marathon for Utah, but I can't remember which one. By mid-morning I was wandering the aisles of a Walmart just a few miles from the border in El Paso, where I was picking up supplies for the race. I read that pickle juice is great for alleviating cramping, so I bought a big jar of pickles and carefully poured the juice into an empty Ice Mountain water bottle, leaving a big jar of pickles sans juice to roll around the floor of the front passenger seat. The original plan was to spend the next three nights at Bell Gym on the military base, but I decided to spend the night in town and spend some of my winnings on a hotel room, but not before doing a bit of sightseeing and celebrating St. Patrick's day with the best tacos al pastor I've ever had from El Cometa.

On Saturday morning I headed out north where Google maps took me to the southern edge of the White Sands Missile Range, where I was stopped at the security checkpoint. There were all these warnings of our ID's needing to be Real ID compliant, and since Illinois' driver's licenses weren't, I brought along my passport with me, but they didn't need to see it.  I was allowed to pass and drove through another 5 or so miles of blank space on my GPS map until I found the building that already had a line out the door for In Processing (packet pickup). We were led into a gym where upon showing my ID the volunteer asked me if I had been hydrating, to which I nodded. After confirming that I was in the heavy division he looked me up and down and asked if I had been training, and I had trouble coming up with a response. "Umm, as much as I could?" was all I could come with. I was handed my envelope with my bib and certificate of participation, and a cinch sack that had my t-shirt and dog tags and in them (which doubled as a finishing medal since no medal is handed out at the finish).  The Wounded Warrior booth gave out some really nice swag - US flag, a pin, bumper stickers - but best of all phone battery chargers.

After getting my bib I found the gym that offered free billeting for marchers on a first come first serve basis. I was able to secure a cot and as I was setting up I looked around at all the other folks spending the night in the gym and told my cousin Jennifer via Facebook that everyone around me looked like her husband Steve, a Marine.  I felt like such a fish out of water.  Her brilliant response - Now you know how Steve feels at all of our family gatherings! I was basically a reverse Steve.

I took advantage of all the programs they had planned for the day since I was staying on base for the night - There was a presentation regarding the advancement of recognizing native Filipinos who fought for the US during WWII - they were promised US citizenship and benefits but those rights were later revoked - and their roles were largely written out of US history. Only recently were they awarded the Congressional Gold Medal thanks to the efforts of the people presenting. You can learn more about their cause here.

I attended a historical seminar on this history of the original Bataan Death March presented by the ROTC. The atrocities our POW's went through put into perspective that what we're doing tomorrow and the challenges we are about to face is really nothing when you compare the two. In fact it can't even be compared.  I'm pretty sure I would have not survived. Later I met OSS Officer (pre CIA) Oscar Leonard, one of the original survivors who was kind enough to share some of his experiences with us. He was very frank and open with us. In a Q&A someone asked what he thought of the Japanese. His answer, "There are good people and there are bad people, no matter where they're from." I also checked out very cool outdoor museum of missiles and aircraft. It also gave me a chance to get used to the conditions since the same warm weather was forecast for tomorrow.

There was a pasta dinner but it was on the other side of the base so I settled on going to the bowling alley next door for a taco salad. I figured this could possibly be my last meal so it might as well be something I'd really enjoy. After dinner I watched a documentary in the theater called "Never Surrender: The Ed Ramsey Story" which was about Ed Ramsey and how he never surrendered.  For real though, it was pretty good and put me in the right mindset for the night.

Me when lights on at 0400
I found my way back to the cot at 2100 hours and by 2130 the lights went out in the gym and the murmurs of conversation surrounding me began to die out. At 2200 I heard a bugle play the song Taps, just like they do in the movies. Wow I'm really here, I thought. Now it's hard enough to fall asleep the night before any marathon within the comforts of a hotel bed.  But being in a gym with hundreds of others, I ended up spending several hours listening to how other people snored, waiting for the next cough, and hearing the crunchy sound of people turning over in their cots. I think I had maybe about 2 hours of REM sleep before the lights went back on right at 0400 hours. I woke up in a bit of a daze and thought, oh yeah. Today's the day. I left my pillow and blanket behind on my cot and packed up everything else and drove to the parking lot at the start. I got here way too early, I thought.

Highlights from the opening ceremonies included roll call of the original survivors who were present - there were eight of them who made the trip - the singing of the Philippine national anthem, the first time they've done it, and a demonstration of a pair of specialist jumpers known as the black daggers who made a precision landing in front of the stage. After a moving ceremony we were set on our way. It took another half mile to get to the start line where we had another opportunity to shake the hands of the survivors, and I'll be forever appreciative for those moments. I just thanked them for all they've done.

After a mile of pavement from the start we made the turn onto the dusty dirt trail towards the imposing mountains in the background. Much like the Marine Corps Marathon, everyone seemed to be marching for someone or was military themselves. I thought back to the stories my dad would tell me, how they had to hide in the mountains during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. He was only five or so, and I can't imagine being exposed to the horrors of war at any age much less at that age. I thought about him a lot, and decided to do this in his honor.

The Mile 8 Aid Station was the first timing chip checkpoint and the part of the course where the shorter distance heads back to base. The stretch leading up to this point was significantly uphill, and I was pretty beat up already at this point. To think that 99-year old survivor of the original death march, Col. Ben Skardon, would also complete these same 8 miles just blows my mind.  I sat down on a cot to switch out my sock as my right pinky toe was starting to hurt pretty bad. As good a job these gaiters did keeping the sand out, they did just a good job locking the sweat in. I decided not to switch out my left sock yet as it wasn't hurting as bad. I unwrapped and snacked on a pair of Nature Valley Chocolate pretzel nut bars that I had picked up at Walmart, as they were starting to melt in my bag. I also took my first swigs of pickle juice which ended up working well with keeping the cramps away.

Because the full course loops into a figure 8 around a hilltop, the fastest of the runners were already coming back down just as we were beginning to make our climb up. I was beginning to envy the light marchers/runners, and was already into unfamiliar territory as I had not trained longer than 10 miles, much less in this heat. I figured no amount of training could truly prepare me for this, so I had trained just the right amount. There were bags of rice lying along the side of this stretch of the road, as heavies were already beginning to ditch their loads. Tempting, I thought. But I just couldn't live with myself if I gave up.

A pair of runners came up behind us as I was resting at the mile 12 station, a little confused, asking a volunteer if this was the mile 20 station. "You're at mile 12," the volunteer deadpanned. "You're fucking with me, right?" These two runners were supposed to turn right at mile 18 back towards the base but looped around again and went 2 miles off course, uphill. I felt so bad for them, as their marathon just became a 50k.

The trudge to the top from miles 12-14 was a tough one. The course continued snaking upwards to its peak and the incline went from gradual to steep. A few of us were sitting on the side of the trail when a volunteer in an ATV drove by, asking if everyone was ok. "Let me think about it," said a marathon maniac next to me. He contemplated hopping onto the back of the ATV and catch a ride to the medical tent ahead, but if he did he would be DQ'd. I never entertained that thought myself. They were selling hamburgers at the mile 14 station, and I made that my carrot, if I could just make it there I can reward myself with a hamburger.

Made it to the top! Hamburgers ahead
But that hamburger line...

At the mile 14 station I found a cot next to the medical tent and took a 10 minute break. I saw that there was cell phone reception up at the top of this hill. I posted a few pictures to show that I was still alive and kicking. I received a message from my friend (and Ragnar co-captain) Courtney asking me if I had finished yet. I told her I'd be thrilled if I finished before 1900 hours my time. The line for hamburgers was craaazy. And it wasn't moving as far as I could tell. So I reached into my bag and tore into my bag of sea salt jerky like a wolverine. The taste and texture was so satisfying, chased with warm water and a few more swigs of pickle juice. The woman in the cot across from me who was doing her 5th Bataan march was telling me what to expect in the back half of the course, and was debating with another experienced marcher which part was their least favorite.

Miles 14-16 was a long stretch of downhill trail back around a hilltop we were encircling. You would think downhill would be a good thing, but I found out that it was more painful than uphill because my pinky toes were getting squished against the front of my shoe with the force of all the weight on my back. From a cardio standpoint it is easier at least. In order to stay consciously hydrated I developed a habit of making sure I had finished my 1 liter bottle of water between each water station, which were every two miles, where I would re-fill my bottle, as well as drinking two cups of Gatorade at every station. I would also sit and rest for 10 minutes at each station, which is conservative, but being here alone I wanted to make sure I would finish safely.

The trail from here didn't get any easier. Miles 16-18 had one more hill pass, and the ups and downs were more dramatic. I was already on the course for over six hours and we were flirting with record temperatures approaching 90°F. But for a few fleeting moments a small cloud was able to hide the sun and give us a break.

10 glorious minutes of cloud cover
One of the female volunteers asked us who were resting at aid station mile 18 "Is there anyone here having any issues with their feet? Because I'm a certified amputator."  That made me laugh. I couldn't feel anything in my left pinky toe anymore and was too tired to change socks so I decided to just leave everything as is for the rest of the race.

HUGE thank you to all
the amazing volunteers
The long stretch of downhill pavement took us underneath the Route 70 overpass and some much needed shade.  This was some prime real estate as there were many marchers camped underneath. I sat down on the curb to take a picture when a bearded marcher who sat down near me started dry heaving and rolled over onto his back. Before I could help him one of the other marchers went over to check on him and he said he was going to take the bus back at the next aid station ahead.  

At mile 20 I sat down on a cot with my pack still on, and because it was angled on a slant along the road I almost tumbled backwards right out of it. "Try sitting on the other side," a volunteer advised me a little late.  "Thanks." As I went to the other side of the cot to sit down, pain shot through my side from my hip to my armpit and I had to stand up right away to stretch it out. It was the same pain I had described when I was sitting in the car in Mississippi after running the Gulf Coast Marathon.  I decided it was best to not sit anymore and just keep going.

I stopped taking pictures at this point because I couldn't hold my phone anymore.  I needed both of my hands to help keep the straps off my shoulders which were pretty raw at this point. After hitting another timed checkpoint we turned away from the direction of the base towards what is lovingly known as The Pit, a two-mile section of ankle deep loose gravel/sand that gives no traction and feels like you're just walking in place. I felt alone in my despair. But I just put my head down and somehow got through it.  

Clearing the pit, which I thought was just slightly worse than the hill climb between miles 16-18, we made a turn back towards the base. "That breeze feels pretty nice," A very tall brunette in full fatigues and rucksack with "HEALEY" on the back of her cap declared. We chatted for a good mile, which helped pass the time, but at a pace I was struggling to keep. An army captain, she carved out a career as a social worker and as such loved to talk (her words not mine) and shared her story with me over the next half hour. A 19 year veteran of the army, this was her fourth Bataan march, and each time she finished one she would, by happenstance, get a promotion in rank. Here's hoping it works out for her again. She was interested in running the Chicago marathon but was a bit hesitant.  I reassured her that the Chicago Marathon was cake compared to something like this. Finally by mile 23 I told her to pull ahead as I needed to slow my pace and off she went into the horizon.

I pulled off to the side to give Mae a call so she knew where I was. I asked her to put the kids on the phone so I could hear some encouraging voices. "Don't die dad," was all Miles would tell me. The final few miles had us wrap along the outside of the base with a six foot high stone wall on our left. I've heard from other marchers that this stretch is so mentally defeating because for miles you can see the base, and when you do make it back to the base, you have to turn right and around the water towers which look like they're a mile away (they are). But I used the remaining distance to picture how far away from my house I would be if I were running my usual neighborhood run and that helped me clear the distance.

Finally I saw the finish line, 10 minutes before 1900 hours and with the sun just starting to dip below the mountains. I pulled out my phone to take one last picture so I could remember the moment. The marchers around me started to run, and I threw my backpack on again and started to sprint to the finish. I thought I would seize up, but the opposite happened - I hadn't used my running muscles all day and it actually felt pretty good! I caught up to the guy in the red backpack pictured and crossed the finish to the cheers of many who were still waiting for their loved ones to finish.

Since I didn't weigh my backpack prior to the race, there was this sick feeling that I would get DQ'ed for bringing in an underweight sack, but when I took the pack off my shoulders for the last time and saw the volunteer struggle to handle the weight I knew I'd be safe.  He hung my bag on the scale and called out the weight - "Forty three pounds." It was official, I had finished. I opened up my bag and donated my 20 pound bag of rice and 10 pound bag of beans to an excited volunteer, 30 out of a record 27,500 pounds that were donated to RoadRunner Food Bank in Albuquerque and Casa de Peregrinos in Las Cruces.

I called Mae to let her know I had finished and was so overcome with emotion I couldn't even talk to her. I pulled off my shoes to put on my flip flops and saw my left pinky toe was purple with blood flowing inside a blister encasing it.

There was no way I was going to spend another night in that gym - after I found my car (only took forever) I left my blanket and pillow behind and made the 50 mile drive back to El Paso and went back to the Home2Suites I stayed at on Friday. A full day of drinking liters and liters of water finally caught up to me on the way back and I had the urge to go so badly, which was good because it kept me awake, but ultimately had to pull over on the outskirts of town.  Protip: a jar full of pickles and pee looks just like a jar full of pickles and pickle juice. Since I didn't get any food at the finish I went to the Arby's next door to the hotel and inhaled an Arby's Max (a tradition revived!) and large curly fries as my first and last meal of the day.

This was an incredible experience. The hardest thing I've ever done. JFK said we don't do things because they are easy, but because they are hard. I would do it again.

About the Marchers
This was the first year they've sold out. Out of 7200 marchers, there were 629 participants in the Individual Male Civilian Heavy Division, 492 (78%) who finished.  Compare that to 138 Female Civilian Heavy, where 111 (80%) finished. Way to crush it ladies.

My Gear
Backpack: I used a Kelty Redwing 50 ($99) to carry my load. This is my all time favorite bag, and will use this as my travelling bag forever and ever. So many pockets and has an aluminum frame down the middle of the bag that helps put the weight on your hips taking the load off your shoulders when rucking.

Hiking Shoes: After going on a 10 mile ruck in running shoes I definitely needed more support, and went with a pair of Merrell Ventilator hiking shoes ($89) I found at DSW.  I also bought a pair of Dr Scholls Gel Sport Insoles ($12), but made the mistake of slipping them under the original insoles instead of taking them out.  That left less room in the toe box and my pinky toes have yet to recover.

Gaiters: To help keep sand out of my shoes I bought a pair of Salomon Trail Gaiters ($25).  I was skeptical but these worked really well. The sand stayed completely out of my shoes the entire day.

Flights:$67 Allegiant Air LAS -> ELP, $198 Delta ELP-> ATL -> ORD
Rental Car: White Ford Fusion $166.80 Avis
Hotels: Home2Suites El Paso ($204 total for Friday, Sunday)

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