The self doubts started on Tuesday or Wednesday before the race. A marathon? Can I actually complete a marathon? Come on, my longest ever run was four weeks prior, it was 20 miles, and I barely made it.
I had kind of gotten over it by Friday. Then someone posted on my Facebook page: “Good luck, I’ve done Bataan three times, it’s a beast.” Oh Crap! What am I doing? I’m undertrained and I’ve chosen one of the most difficult marathons as my first. Oh well, what OGRT lacks in talent is made up for in desire—I will finish this thing even if it takes me 8 hours and I have to crawl the last mile.
A bit about the Bataan Memorial Death March – in April of 1942, an estimated 11,000 US troops and 60,000 Filipino troops surrendered to the Japanese after a 3-4 month battle for Bataan. It was the largest surrender in US military history. The Japanese forced the prisoners of war to march 80 or so miles to Camp O’Donnell. Thousands died on the march due to disease, exhaustion, and torture by the Japanese military.
The POWs thought they had been forgotten and abandoned by the US military. A war correspondent summed it up with a limerick that has come to symbolize the Bataan Death March:
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!
In 1987, some ROTC members at New Mexico State University decided they wanted to have a march to let the remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March know that they weren’t forgotten. The first Memorial March was in 1998. Today, this event is the largest military-civilian athletic event in the United States.
Since the starting line is a good hour away from my house, and the recommendation was to arrive at the gates of White Sands Missile Range between 4:00 and 5:00, I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping until O’dark Thirty. After our traditional pre-race dinner of grilled salmon, I went to bed about 6:30 and set the alarm for O’dark Fifteen. I drove over to my wife’s daughter’s house to pick up Kim who would also be attempting her first ever marathon. We left her house and headed to the race.
Turns out we were one of the first to arrive, so after wandering to the starting field we went back to the car and dozed for an hour. We were at the field just in time for the start of the pre-race ceremony. An amazing version of the Star Spangled Banner was performed by a high school choir, followed by some announcements, the invocation, and a reminder that we were here to remember and honor the thousands who thought they had been forgotten. The White Sands Missile Range Commander gave a goose bump inducing tribute to the men who marched in the Philippines in 1942.
Kim and I probably 20-30 yards before the starting line.
Then it was race time. A bagpipe brigade lead me and Kim and 5,800 of our closest friends from the field to the starting line, a 20 minute journey. I was next to a leprechaun for a bit (it was St. Patrick’s day after all) and another fine gentleman kept asking people if this was their first—then when anybody replied in the affirmative he explained that “It’s not to late to quit. Just step to the side casually, hardly anybody will notice.” And of course there were the real heroes moving towards the start, members of the United States Military. The line moved forward in fits and starts, Kim and I even had time to have someone take our picture for us.
Then suddenly the starting line timing mat appeared. As I crossed over it I clicked the start button on RunKeeper and started trotting (OGRTs rarely run, just move along at faster than a walking pace—I’ll be ecstatic if I can finish with 16 minute miles).
The Leprechaun amongst us.
The first mile was fun, along an asphalt road, bobbing and weaving around the walkers while trying to listen for real runners coming up behind me so I can get out of their way. Then after two soft left turns, I could have sworn I heard a cowbell ahead. As I got closer, the cowbell sound got louder. Then, lo and behold I saw a Will Ferrell lookalike whaling on a cowbell. I’m not sure why he was there, but his sign read “Doubter’s Can Suck It” and he put a huge smile on my face. I shouted the obligatory “MORE COWBELL” and he turned my way to gave me an extra loud 3-beat tap. I’m guessing The Bruce Dickinson put him up to it.
I kept running along, the first mile was being super easy, and suddenly I saw the first water station. I was a bit surprised because I thought the water stations were every two miles. Then I saw the mileage marker – mile 2. I’m usually pretty good at estimating how far I’ve run, but today’s adrenaline threw my internal pedometer way off. I was astounded to realize I had already gone two miles.
The first mileage marker I saw. Also the point where we left the asphalt for the first time.
Since my race strategy was to do the Galloway thing and walk for a minute every mile, I took my first walk break. I was antsy to get running again, but I knew that I was undertrained and would be doing more walking than I wanted to this day. I figured it was better to walk at the beginning than at the end, so I kept the walking pace up for a couple of minutes.
This was just after we left the asphalt and headed into the desert. The next few miles were ruler straight along a dusty dirt road. We made a sharp left just past mile 6, then a sharper left before mile 7. I could see highway 70 to the north and I was pretty sure we were going to cross it. I noticed a wide variety of marchers along the way. I passed a few wounded warriors, men who had lost limbs and were marching with prosthetic legs. I noticed people with photos on their backs, marching in honor of someone who had gone before.
Marching in honor of – Father? Grandfather?
Wounded Warrior. A hero beyond measure.
There was a bit of an uphill trudge from mile 7 to mile 8, this is where I did my first longer than a minute walk. Just after mile 8 I could see the split. Bataan has two distances to choose from – the full 26.2 mile March and the 15.1 mile Honorary March. Those doing the Honorary take a left at this spot and go downhill. Those of us running the full go to the right and it’s uphill. What am I doing? I am way undertrained and I have no business attempting 26.2. But this OGRT has desire, lots of desire, and before even one more iota of self doubt can embed itself in my mind, I turned right with a huge grin on my face.
And then I heard it again. It was ahead of me. Another cowbell. Not sure why this cheered me up so much, but it did. But it wasn’t a second cowbell ringer, the Will Ferrell lookalike had moved from mile 1 to mile 8. I thanked him and took a picture and headed under Highway 70.
The next part of the course was uphill. Three miles on asphalt with about 1,000 feet of climb. I alternated between trotting, walking, and trudging up the hill. Met a guy named Corey who was also doing his first marathon, and he was walking backwards up the hill. He mentioned it gave the hamstring muscles a break and so I gave it a try. I felt silly, but it seemed to work.
Then I met Chuck, who was carrying a replica American Flag from the Civil War. Chuck told me he was carrying it in honor of the 106th Infantry Regiment from New York because it was the 150th anniversary of a particular battle the 106th fought in. And the 106th was primarily made up of Irish-Americans. And today was St. Patrick’s Day. That’s why Chuck was carrying the flag. By this time the wind was kicking up pretty well and holding on to the flag was taking more of Chuck’s effort than the walking was.
Chuck carrying the flag of the 106th. Notice the flag has only 35 stars.
At packet pick-up the day before I had overheard two medics discussing how much busier than normal they would be due to the high temperatures and the high winds. Seems wind makes your sweat evaporate faster, keeping you cooler, and making the body less thirsty than it should be. This in turn would lead to more people getting dehydrated and more cases of heatstroke. (As a matter of fact, an advisory had been posted on the Bataan March website the day before the race. Seems that the possibility existed to shorten or even cancel the event – here’s the notice.)
I had made sure to force myself to drink a lot and sure enough at the mile 12 port-a-potties I needed to get rid of some of that extra water. I was proud of myself for hydrating properly. I had made it a point to fill my water bottle at every aid station and try to drink it before reaching the next station. No reason to fill up at mile 12, I was doing fine.
Mile 12 also marked the end of this stretch of asphalt and we entered into some of the most beautiful parts of the course. The route circled into the mountains. As I passed the mile 13 marker I realized that I was essentially halfway through, I was right at the 3 hour mark, but I was also aware that the second 13.1 miles would be much longer than than the first 13.1. My mental calculator told me that there was a good possibility that I could finish closer to 7 hours than to 8 hours since there was no more uphill to speak of. Then the realist in me reminded me that it took me 6 hours to run 20 miles a few weeks ago, but the optimist was thinking 7:15.
Near mile 13.
The aid station at mile 14 was selling real food, hamburgers and such. A burger was $5 and a bag of chips was $1. I thought that was a bit odd, then realized that many people walked this course and would be arriving here at lunchtime or later. My water bottle wasn’t even halfway empty so I figured there was no reason to refill, I was still rather proud of myself for drinking enough to need to pee a few miles back.
We continued downhill, sometimes I was able to pick up some speed. At one point someone came up behind me and said, “You dropped your cell phone” as he handed me back my phone. Thank you perfect stranger.
The misting station between mile 9 & 10 and again between mile 18 & 19
At mile 18 there was a timing mat, but no water station and I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to run non-stop from 18 to 19. This worked out great until we got back to the asphalt a half mile later and went through the mile 10 aid station again. My water bottle was low so I grabbed a cup of water and stopped to fill my bottle. I continued walking and decided I would run the 19 to 20 mile stretch.
At mile 19 marker I started running and managed to have my fastest mile of the day – RunKeeper gave me an 11:28 for that mile – a great time for OGRT! At mile marker 20 we went through the mile 8 water station again. I started to grab some water but my bottle was still full, no reason to not wait for the next water station.
I could see the the little city that is White Sands Missile Range from here, and I knew the finish line was there somewhere, and this road lead straight to it. But the course designers had other plans. As we ran along the road towards WSMR, they added a right turn back into the mountains—a turn that took us away from the finish line. We went uphill a little bit and I finally was able to meet the Sand Pit, an area everybody says is awful. It wasn’t my favorite part of the course, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
By this time I was at essentially 100% walking. But I was OK with that. My old record for distance was 20 miles in 6 hours, and I was currently at 21 miles in a few minutes over 5 hours. I was also glad that it had cooled down, I noticed that I wasn’t even sweating any more.
At the 22 mile water station I was wondering if I could make it another 4 miles. Being an OGRT means being a bit stubborn and very determined, so I told myself that even if each mile took 30 minutes I would still finish this event. I also drank a cup of water just because I knew I should, but my water bottle was still over half full and had been since mile 18, so I saw no reason to fill up.
At this point I honestly wasn’t sure if I could finish.
Just past mile 23 I saw a small concrete wall a few feet off the road. It wasn’t quitting if I just stopped and sat down for 3 minutes. I pretended to be involved with some important message on my cell phone as people passed me by. The 3 minutes probably turned into 5, but I was a little refreshed and managed to run for about 1/8 of a mile, but I was dragging.
Then the aid station that saved me appeared at mile 24. The first person with a tray said the magic word, “Cookies?” and i took one. Iced oatmeal cookies, a generic store brand, but at that moment they were the most delicious looking things I had seen. My nutrition so far had been the Fig Newtons and Power Bars I had brought with me.
Not only did it look delicious, it tasted wonderful. But it was also very dry and there was no saliva in my mouth. Luckily water stations have water, so I grabbed a cup and chugged it so I could take another bite of cookie. The next bite was much easier to swallow, but it made me thirsty so I grabbed another cup of water. Then another cookie. Then about 3 more cups of water—I’ve never been so thirsty in my life. This water was also cold and it was hot out here.
It was on my fifth or sixth glass of water when I realized what I had done. In the first ten miles of the race I probably drank about 100 ounces of water. In the second 10 miles I had probably drank less than a fourth of that. And I had gone the last 4 miles on 1 cup of water.
I started feeling better instantly. I started running with the goal of running a complete quarter mile. At a half mile I didn’t feel like walking so I just kept running. And it felt good! I also took a look at RunKeeper and knew that I was going to come in well under 7 hours. Pretty heady stuff for someone who’s never run a marathon and was guesstimating 7-8 hours.
Somewhere along here I saw a soldier with two kids, holding hands. His daughter in his left hand and his son in his right. I chatted just a bit as I passed, he was wearing a German military uniform. They had been marching the entire route holding hands. I didn’t get the backstory, not sure why they were marching the entire route holding hands, but it certainly made me feel good.
Suddenly mile marker 25 showed itself. I was tired, and I was now at something like run for 100 steps, then walk for 100 steps. But I knew I was going to finish and a sense of giddiness overcame me. I also checked my time and realized that if I could do a 14 minute mile I would finish under 6:35. But could I do a 14 minute mile? With the exception of mile 20, I hadn’t done a 14 m/m since mile 9.
Screw it. I can do this. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, even my arms were sore. But one foot in front of another at a faster than walking pace would give me a 15 minute mile. Throw in a little jogging, a fair amount of trotting, and even at this point of the march an OGRT sub-14 would be possible.
The most beautiful mile marker of them all.
Then mile marker 26 showed itself. Many of the other mile markers appeared shiny and new, put in place for today’s march. But marker 26 obviously lives there year round, it shows signs of rust and aging. I saw other marchers taking photos of the sign, some people were posing with friends here. I glanced at my time and realized I could get a picture of this symbol and still finish under 6:35.
And then, with 385 yards to go—the .2 in 26.2—something happened. My legs weren’t sore. My feet didn’t hurt. I was about to finish my first marathon and I could fly! Somebody told me that the final .2 miles were the toughest. I think they were the easiest.
We made a left turn and suddenly the finish chute was there. People where cheering and clapping. I was grinning from ear to ear. The sign said “Finish” and I crossed over the timing mat and it was over. Then a volunteer was talking to me, saying, “Bataan survivors to the left.” I guess I’ve run too many Susan G Komen races, where they separate out cancer survivors to cross the line and be honored, so when I heard “survivors to the left” I veered to the right since I was not a Bataan survivor.
Then I looked to the left. Then it hit me. Like a ton of bricks it hit me.
Sitting to the left were 3 or 4 elderly gentlemen. These were the actual men who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines 71 years ago. Theirs was not a “Memorial” March, theirs was truly a Death March. These were real Battling Bastards of Bataan, the ones who had No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam; and they thought that nobody gave a damn.
These men were the reason that today’s event existed. It was these men the ROTC members had set out in 1987 to remind they had not been forgotten. I walked over to shake their hands. I was in shock, in awe. And one man said to me, “Thanks for coming out and marching today.”
I wanted to cry. I had just finished a somewhat difficult 6+ hours trotting along 26.2 miles with people helping me the whole way, while this gentleman had endured being forced to march 80 miles with people who would beat him—or kill him—for just stopping to rest. And he was thanking ME? I really couldn’t speak, there just were no words, and I didn’t want to cry.
I’ll be running the Bataan again next year. And the year after that. And the next and the next and the next. And I will have the honor of shaking the survivor’s hands again, and I’ll probably choke up again. And then one year I’ll run the Bataan and there won’t be any old gentlemen sitting there at the finish line. And I’ll try not to cry.