this is a long post…settle in
I completed the Bataan Memorial Death March in the Civilian Light category of the full march (there was an “honorary” course which was only 14 miles). It was the hardest thing I have ever done, mentally and physically.
Let me be clear: there are others who completed this course faster than me, with more weight on their backs, and with less pain. I salute those folks. I hope they don’t judge me, but I really don’t care if they do. All marathons are personal.
My intent was to participate in the Heavy division, but the folks at the airport didn’t like what I had in my pack. Since I’d only had 3 hours of sleep, it never occurred to me to take out the prohibited items. I just took the bag back to the car and chalked it up to “everything happens for a reason”.
The morning of the march, I ended up starting out with 25 pounds:
100 oz of water, 1 liter of coconut water, Gu’s, Sport Beans, Shot Blox, almond butter with honey, 8 pairs of socks, mole skin and blister pads, baby wipes, sunscreen, a small camera, and a change of undies. (in a Camelback pack) What I forgot: sunglasses. It was 0530 and I’d had less than 4 hours of sleep…totally spaced my shades when I got to the parking lot on post.
Wicking hat, sports bra, unit PT shirt, undies, compression shorts, running skirt, watch, pearl earrings, 2 pairs of socks, shoes, and gaiters. My rings were left in my car. …along with my sunglasses.
For breakfast I ate half a banana, some almond butter with honey, and coconut water. This is a significant change from what I usually eat on race mornings: coffee, oatmeal, and water. I haven’t had coffee for…a month? now, and I really think this helped my gut a great deal.
During the opening ceremonies, the National Anthem was sung by the local high school choir and then original Bataan Death March survivors were introduced, Army HALO jumpers gave a little demonstration, and then …then they did Roll Call. The survivors present answered loudly, “Here!” and then they called the names of the survivors who’ve passed away since last year. The silence was deafening. And they played “Taps”. And they fired artillery (which boomed and echoed off the mountains in a cacophony which rattled my bones). And I cried. And then we started the march to the thudding strains of the song which, I’m sure, is a requirement for every race ever run: “Eye of the Tiger”. Only it took forever to get everyone started, so after “Eye of the Tiger”, we also heard “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, and “Trouble”.
The pace was relaxed and just before we crossed the starting mat, the survivors shook our hands and told us, “Thank you.” I jogged/walked the first two miles to warm up a bit, (pavement) then ran until mile 7 (all dirt/gravel/sand). This was a huge mistake. Had I known what hell was waiting ahead, I’d have strolled as if I were at the park. At mile 7 I used the porta johns and had a snack of a banana, an orange slice, and coconut water. The uphill climb began then.
And it didn’t stop until mile 12. From mile 8 to mile 12 was pavement.
At mile 11, my nose began to bleed, either from the altitude, the sand, or both. At mile 12, I changed my socks, ate some more, and stretched a bit. It was back to sand/gravel at that point. After mile 14, MWR was selling hamburgers, chips, hotdogs, and sodas. I bought a burger and chips, but couldn’t eat 1/3 of either one. My bottom lip had cracked open. Blood from my lip and nose dripped onto my food and I took that as I sign that I should just get up and move. The terrain was morally hateful: the inclines were steep and many. Just when I thought I was finished going up, I’d round a turn and find another 50 yards to go up. At mile 15.5, I stopped at an aid station and found this:
the medics were thrilled. They took their sweet time (about 30 minutes) draining this and other blisters and bandaged me up. It turns out, they took their time because they thought I was quitting. When I declined a ride in the sag wagon, they looked surprised, but wished me luck. At mile 17, I saw a grown man sitting on the side of the road crying. At mile 18.5 the pavement finally began again. At mile 19, it was my turn to sit on the side of the road and cry.
I had only 7 miles to go, but this was my Wall. My brain was screaming at me to stop. My feet and legs couldn’t scream because they had died back at mile 16. My back ached, my face hurt…I wanted to quit. …and then I saw a soldier carrying a heavy pack stumbling along, weaving all over the road like he was drunk. I hopped up to him and asked if he was okay, if he wanted me to walk with him to the next aid station. He said he was okay, but company would be nice.
So we hobbled along together to mile 20.5. He told me about his dog, his new girlfriend, his recent deployment to Afghanistan. He told me about his politics, his mom, and his finances.
When we got to the aid station, he met up with his group and said, “Thanks. I’ll see you at the finish line.”
I got my feet patched up again (the medic here was new and he took a solid 45 minutes to patch me up.) and realized that I had less than a 10k left to go. I could not quit. I told myself that I had given birth to three children without drugs, surely I could go 6 puny miles.
At mile 21, “The Sand Pit” began. Loose, shifty sand that betrayed my feet…uphill, downhill, around corners…it was exhausting. At mile 22 I called Toy and cried again. She and her Jim talked me through to mile 23, giving my a pep talk and much needed love. At mile 24, I passed a dude puking. At mile 25, I saw people cut the course and I wanted to kill them. I ran from mile 25 to the finish line in the dark.
I crossed the finish line 5 minutes before 8pm. The photographers were all gone and only the dedicated volunteers remained. As I crossed the mat (and heard the glorious “beeeeeep!” from my chip), a volunteer looked me in the eye and said, “Congratulations. You survived. That’s all that counts.”
I cried. I found a chair, put my filthy hands over my face, and I wept with every ounce of anything I had left. My brain played a broken record of, “I did it. Jim will be so proud. I did it. Jim will be so proud.” I wept from pain, from pride, and from the realization that as bad as this was for me, the original marchers had it infinitely worse.
There are no finisher’s medals for this march. I stopped taking pictures after mile 19 because I was trying to not fall/puke/die. I think the only evidence of my completion is the finisher’s time posted on the event website. (feel free to look me up…I’m almost at the bottom of the females’ civilian light section. They don’t have my age for some reason, but you can see my finisher’s time. No DNF for me!) I plan on taking my t-shift to a tailor and having it altered so that I can wear it out and about without feeling frumpy.
I made Toy and her Jim promise to never let me sign up for this race again. Now, though, a week later, the soreness is gone completely, the blisters have healed, and all that remains is the pride. …the memories of the folks I met on the course, the mountains, the sunshine, the flowers. …and really, all I had was 25 pounds. What’s ten more pounds, right?
…I think I’ll go for a little run tonight.