The hardest thing I’ve ever done.
That’s how I would describe the Bataan Memorial Death March. From a 0345 (3:45 am) wakeup to the most physically and mentally challenging 26 miles in the world, it was an intense day with a lot of ups and downs. When we arrived at White Sands Missile Range at about 0500, we stepped out of the car and were immediately met by a big gust of wind and dust. The opening ceremonies included a joint color guard, a speech by the base’s commanding officer, Ricky Lee singing the Star-Spangled Banner, which ended with a cannon blast, an Air Force flyover, a roll call of some of the deceased Bataan veterans, and a bugler playing Taps. Saluting the flag with hundreds of other service members in honor of these heroes to Taps was a profound experience, and, looking back on the ceremonies, was the most representative moment of the spirit of the event.
After the opening ceremonies, teams and individuals (there were approximately 6000 participants) moved towards the line-up area. We rucked up (my ruck came out to 45 lbs. with water) and moved into the queue. We shook hands with two Bataan vets on the way out, then very abruptly hit the starting line. At that point, our team took off like a bat out of hell, still filled with fresh energy and un-crushed souls. After several miles of flat desert, we turned towards the highway, which we took towards the mountain we would be traversing. From about miles 8 to 13 we climbed a very long road up the mountain, then a winding (still climbing) path all the way around. Combined with the wind (which we later found out was gusting at 50 to 60 mph HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN) straight in our faces, this part of the march was a test of endurance and willpower like nothing I’ve ever done.
At about 14 miles, we hit the high-water mark, where one of the water stations (these were on the course at approximately 2-mile intervals) marked the highest elevation of the race, which was about 1000 feet above the starting line. Everything hurt and everything in me wanted to quit, but that wasn’t really an option, so we pushed onwards. At about mile 16, the team started to spread apart – some of us move faster than others in the latter half of our marches. I spoke with some interesting people on the now-downhill portion of the course (miles 14-19), including a German Army officer, a 59-year old Marine veteran, and a group of high-school age runners or scouts (a lot of deductive reasoning goes out the window during such an event). Once the downhill transitioned back to level road for about a mile, I was able to stride with semi-confidence (everything still hurt) until reaching the dreaded “Sand Pit.” A mile-and-a-half section of beach-like sand, the Sand Pit can only have been devised by someone who clearly never planned on marching or running the course – Stepping through the soft sand with 40+ lbs. of weight and boots was nigh on Sysiphian. After conquering the Pit, I came out the other end to finish off the race. Somewhere around mile 24, the final water station was giving out small American flags to all the participants, which, although it sounds corny, was really a morale booster – The smiling faces of the volunteers and the flags in everyone’s rucks, hats, waistbands, and hands was an awesome patriotic motivator, and the last few miles were hard but bearable. I reached the gate leading to the finish line ahead of my team, so I waited and cheered on the other teams and individuals until each of my team members came in. We joined up and ran the last 100 feet to the finish line, with locals, volunteers, and early finishers cheering from the sides. Considering how demoralized I felt around halfway through the march, the ending, though painful, felt very, very good.
After we staggered across the finish line, a row of Bataan survivors and Wounded Warriors waited to shake our hands, a fitting way to end the march. The last veteran in line, in response to my thanks, thanked me for my willingness to come out and march for his friends. The incredible soreness and pain I am still experiencing was 100% worth that moment, and I hope to be able to fly out and participate in this extraordinary event next year.