Whenever I hear Taps I can’t help but get a lump in my throat. I’m here at the opening ceremony of the Bataan Death March, a 26.2 mile journey to remember and honor thousands of US and Filipino WWII POWs who were forced to march for miles to prison camps with little food or water. Thousands died on the trip through the jungles in the Philippines and many more perished in the camps.
The course today is on White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces NM and is mostly run on hilly dirt roads through the desert. Many participants march in full military gear with heavy packs and service units and civilian teams compete in various categories.
Having spent 20 years in the Air Force, I feel right at home on this Army base and was happy to report for duty at zero dark thirty this morning, just like in the old days. Although I must say I feel kind of wimpy in my shorts and neon green running shirt. I commend all those marchers in full gear, because this is really what the event is all about.
An extremely loud cannon blast cues the marchers to proceed, but the runners are in the very back of the formation so we have to wait about 15 minutes before we are on our way. When it is finally our turn to go, I try to stay on the outside of the pack so I can run around all the troops.
After running through the base for several miles, we transition to a dirt road. The jagged Organ Mountains make up the backdrop and a prominent peak, San Augustin, can be seen in the distance. Mexican gold poppies blanket the lower slopes of the mountains adding to the beauty. (Poppies only bloom during years that have significant rainfall.)
One of my running acquaintances, Jim, catches up to me and comments on my speed. I realize that my pace may be too brisk, but I keep it up anyway knowing that a big climb is going to slow me down later. I’m making sure that I stay plenty hydrated and am fueling with my secret weapon, Hammer gel and chia seeds (don’t tell anyone). The temperature is expected to hit the high 80’s today so I take some electrolyte capsules also.
Jim takes off and I cruise along snapping a few pictures here and there. I reach a highway and then start the grueling slog up the big hill. I’m still able to slowly pass people and my energy level is great so far. I stop for a picture of one of the Cox Ranches and have another hit of my secret weapon. The slimy concoction slides down my throat like an oyster on the half shell, but much sweeter. I chase it down with plenty of water.
The sun is starting to scorch and I can’t wait to get this arduous climb out of the way. When I reach the next aid station, it appears that I’m at the top, but then the course takes a turn and keeps climbing. I recognize another friend, Tony, who is a multiple Bataan finisher. “Shouldn’t we be at the top by now?” I ask. “Don’t worry we are almost there”, he says. When we finally reach the crest, we are rewarded with the most stunning view.
To celebrate, I bomb down the slope as fast as I can to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, all the heavy pounding is stirring up something deep within my bowels and I just hope I can make it to the next aid station. It’s a long winding road down and I’m mostly by myself now. I pass another abandoned ranch house of days gone by. The sun is beating down in full force now —there is no escaping it.
Somewhere around mile 19, I reach the main road that I ran up earlier and can see a string of marchers laboring up the gradient. An Army helicopter is circling overhead and everyone is rubbernecking to see what is going on. I enter an aid station where cots are lined up in neat rows like something out of M*A*S*H. Medical personnel are tending to blistered feet and checking for heat illnesses.
I use this opportunity to duck into a port-a-potty to take care of some business. A few seconds later, I hear the thwuck, thwuck, thwuck of chopper blades getting louder and louder. My plastic enclosure starts to pitch back and forth and rocks are pelting the sides. It seems that the eagle has landed and I’m wondering if my head is going to be severed by the tail rotor when I exit. (We don’t call this Greg’s Running Adventures for nothing.) Well, needless to say, I’m scared sh*tless now so that didn’t really work. Oh well, it’s only 7 more miles to the finish.
When I leave the latrine, the chopper is sitting in the middle of the road and everyone is gawking and taking pictures. I feel sorry for the poor soul who is being air lifted to the hospital, but am glad that our troops are so well cared for during this challenging event.
I get on my way as quickly as possible and continue my downhill descent. Many are still going up and they shout words of encouragement and offer high fives. This gets my adrenaline going and I push my pace again, but know the worst is yet to come —the dreaded “sand pit”. I blast through a water spray mister that they have set up to help cool people and I finally reach the bottom.
The muscles in my neck and shoulder blades have tensed up like a rock and I'm in quite a bit of pain. If something hurts when you are running a marathon, just wait 15 minutes and some other part of your body will hurt worse. By then you will have forgotten the first ache. Besides, this is nothing compared to the agony our POWs suffered 70 years ago.
I continue on and merge onto a road with walkers who are completing the shorter route. I hit the sand trap, a dry drainage lined with smooth boulders. I alternate between a walk and slow jog and am able to pass more people. Some are sitting on the side of the trail trying to cool off while stretching cramped muscles. Despite the heat, I keep pushing and eventually reach hard packed terrain again.
I can see the base ahead and reach another aid station. I’m so close that I decide to skip this one and push to the end. I pass the 25 mile marker and reach a rock wall, the boundary of base housing. All I can think about is finding the first patch of shade and lying on my back to relieve my tight muscles. I finally get to the 26 mile point with only .2 to go and my time is under 4:30.
When I cross the line, I want to lie down, but how can I pass up the opportunity to thank those WWII veterans who endured and survived this horrific march? I’m honored to shake their hands and am grateful for the contributions of our greatest generation.
This was a most remarkable event and I’m also grateful for the sacrifices made by all our troops, vets, wounded warriors, and family members, many who participated today. The human spirit is truly remarkable and I’ve witnessed it first hand. I hope to return in the future for another Death March.
See you on the trail.