I’m shivering uncontrollably with thousands of others as we wait for the opening ceremony of the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, NM. I mistakenly relied on the weather report this morning figuring I’d be warm enough. Usually I pack a few extra layers in my bag, but thought heat would be more of an issue today. I wander around the soccer field and stumble upon a few of my fellow Team Red, White and Blue members and some Run El Paso Club friends. We huddle together and share the misery while waiting for the race to start.
This is my third year participating in this somber event that remembers the fallen POWs and honors the survivors of the original death march in the Philippine Islands during WWII. The ceremony includes the singing of the National Anthem, playing of Taps and the reading of war correspondent, Frank Hewlett’s poem:
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!
The last line tells why we are all here on this cold breezy morning to walk, ruck march or run 26 miles through desert, hill and sand. Several survivors of the original march are in attendance today and when they were marched and held captive for over three years in POW camps they thought they had been abandoned. We are here to show them that we certainly do give a damn.
The sun finally rises and begins to warm the air a little, but I’m still shivering. Following a roll call of living survivors and some who've passed since last year's event, the race gets under way. Wounded warriors and ruck marchers lead the pack and it’s a good 45 minutes before the runners cross the starting line. Survivors greet us as we set off through the desert. It’s hard to get around the scores of marchers, so I try to stay on the side to run around them.
I’m amazed at the many different flags people are carrying. Ol’ Glory, POW/MIA, Wounded Warrior, Team Red,White and Blue, and various military unit flags flap in the breeze. One honors the heroes of a tragedy that unfolded just last June; the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew that perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. This event is a place of healing for so many who’ve lost friends and loved ones to war or other catastrophes. It’s also a place to celebrate heroism and a testing ground for those who are physically challenged.
Once we are through the main base area we transition onto a dirt road. I swear it seems like there’s more sand on this road since last year. The entire area is beautiful though; nothing but raw desert surrounded by the towering jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains. I pass a few friends and eventually settle into a groove with, Erik from Team RWB. I have a tendency to lollygag, sightsee, stop to smell the flowers and otherwise spend too much time taking pictures so Erik’s help is much appreciated.
After 8 or 9 miles, we cross a highway and then begin a slow steady slog up a paved road. Soon a huge medical tent and staging area lined with porta-potties comes into view. It was here several years ago where a chopper landed to medevac a person off the course while I was taking an emergency latrine break. Rocks were hitting my plastic enclosure while it pitched wildly back and forth from the helicopter wake. Talk about being scared sh**less.
Today is smooth sailing though, so I just grab some oranges and water and thank all the volunteers for their help. As we continue up the hill, I hit my flask of chia seed mixture and eat an energy ball that Cara made especially for my race today. She put together a concoction of almond butter (since peanuts don’t agree with me), chia seeds, grains, dark chocolate and some other secret ingredients. Delicious and just the thing to help get me the rest of the way up the incline.
Pretty soon we are back on a dirt road and pass some Border Patrol agents on horseback. This entire area was the Wild,Wild West not too many years ago when the likes of Billy the Kid and other cattle rustlers and gun slingers were up to no good. In fact, the ranch of Pat Garrett, who shot The Kid, was very close to this exact spot.
Once we crest the final hill, we are rewarded with the finest view of the entire course. A wall of mountains in all their rugged splendor; The Needles, Rabbit Ears and Baylor Pass, named for Col. John Baylor, C.S. Army. Baylor used the pass as a shortcut while chasing down Union soldiers who went through the San Augustine pass, the route of present day Hwy 70.
When you feel miserable from the 15 miles you just ran, stop and look around at the beauty of your surroundings. Also, don’t forget the reason you are participating in this event in the first place. My feet are aching and my shoulder muscles feel as though they are tied up in knots, but this pain is nothing compared to that of the men who marched 80 miles through the jungle with little to eat or drink.
On the way down, Erik and I chat with a couple who’ve done many of the ultramarathons around the Southwest. The excitement in combination with the steep downhill makes the tempo seem very fast to me, so I just hang on and enjoy the ride. Pain starts to creep into my hip and becomes more intense with each jolting impact. At least we are on dirt and the pace should help us make up some time.
Before long we are back on the paved road we ran up earlier. Marchers are still on their way up as we run down and we have the opportunity to give words of encouragement and high fives to many of our fellow Team RWBers. The spirit of this race is awesome and helps to ease the pain I’ve been suffering the last few miles.
Even though I’m hurting, I resist the temptation to walk. Eventually we transition on to another dirt road where we merge with other walkers who are doing the shorter 15 mile route. All of sudden someone yells, “MEDIC” to volunteers who are monitoring the course. We turn a corner to see a young lady on the ground. Apparently she twisted her ankle on a rock while coming down a steep descent. Too bad, because she was about to enter the infamous “sand pit”, a mile long slog through ankle deep sand that will test the mettle of even the fittest athlete.
When we get to the sand, a disabled Team RWB member is stopped on his three wheeled handcycle. Two of his buddies are about to hook a couple of straps to his bike to help him overcome this obstacle. This is the epitome of Team RWB spirit; helping vets overcome challenges and enriching their lives through physical and social activity.
The sand is a challenge for anyone and I usually walk through it, but this year I try to run at least part of it. In spite of my tired legs, throbbing feet and stabbing pain in my neck, I continue pushing forward as fast as I can. My shoes sink down with each step which makes the effort seem twice as hard. Fine grains make their way into my shoes, even though I’m wearing my Dirty Girl Gaiters (WARNING: don't forget to type in "gaiters" when googling this product.) The sand grinds like sand paper against the balls of my already sore big toes.
Nevertheless, I finally make it through and meet up with Erik who ran the entire way through the pit. We continue on and eventually run alongside of a wall which is the boundary of the base housing area, our indication that we are nearing the finish. Time slowly ticks by and all I really want to do at this point is walk to the end. But we are so close and I’m ready to get this over with.
Finally the finisher’s tent comes in sight and I think about taking off into a sprint, but have nothing left. I watch Erik cross the line as I simply saunter in somewhere around 4:43. Survivors of the original march are waiting to shake our hands and I thank them profusely. They truly are the greatest generation and I think all the participants of this event are here to show how much we care about their sacrifices and valiant efforts to keep our nation free.
See you on the trail.