Wednesday, May 13, 2009

2009 Bataan Memorial Death March

29 March 2009 White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
20th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March

I did not know what to expect from the marathon even though different people had told me about it. What I didn't expect was to think immediately afterwards, despite the pain, "I can't wait to do it again next year!".

So here's the story...
I woke up at five AM after a restless nights sleep. I was full of nervous anticipation. My sister was so anxious she was feeling ill. It was my sister, seven friends, and I. (Sherry McAllister, Aysia Pirtle, Keri Pirtle, Tammy McVaugh, Suzy Head, Jimmy Head, Jeff Head, & Alan Franzoy) Molly, my friend and training partner from D&D, had a death in the family and was unable to attend. We stood in the dark with over 5,300 participants from every state, territory, and many countries around the world waiting for dawn and the start of the race.
The opening ceremonies were held under a giant American Flag waving proudly in the early morning breeze. Director of the Army Staff Lt. David H. Huntoon, Jr. set the perfect stage for what the day would be about. He said, "This march is an uncommon marathon because it speaks to all of us about the things that truly matter...This march is about the selfless service today of our Armed Forces and our allies, who stand a collective watch around the world for the principles of freedom, protecting our right to assemble here in this peaceful place by their presence in the dangerous places. Finally, this march speaks most importantly to the courage and the sacrifice of the brave Americans and Filipinos, who suffered a terrible ordeal of the Bataan Death March in April, 1942."

The opening ceremonies included a flyover of F-22 Raptors from Holloman Air Force Base, a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, and roll call honoring the 13 Bataan survivors who were in attendance along with the 24 Wounded Warriors participating in the March. This left me with the biggest case of goose bumps that I have ever had and they had nothing to do with the cool temperature.
As we walked toward the start line we had the privilege of meeting and shaking hands with the Bataan survivors in attendance and other WWII veterans. I was not prepared for how happy and excited these great men were. You would have thought each and every one who shook their hands were handing them a check for a million dollars. I said “Thank you for your service,” to one gentleman and he replied, “Thank you for honoring me here today.” That was all the motivation I needed to get through the day: knowing that one man who had made such huge sacrifices for me, was honored that we were all here.

Due to us stopping to talk and navigating the crowd, our group of nine got separated into two groups. My sister, two of my friends, and I walked together for the first mile. My sister’s nerves were calming down enough for her to start running after the first mile. One friend had to use the restroom at the first rest stop just before mile two. There were about 100 people in line! These friends were only going to walk the half marathon, so I went out on my own to catch up to the other friends that were walking the whole marathon. I then started jogging from mile two to mile four as much as I could to catch up. Let me state this fact: I am not a runner and never have been. I was ready to die by the time I caught up to their group. I then found out that they had planned on greeting the veterans at the finish line, that’s why they were so far ahead.

I had trained once with this group and they were fast walkers, just like me. However, keeping the fast pace after jogging was killing me. Every two miles there were volunteers handing out water, Gatorade, oranges, and bananas. This was the much need fuel I needed to try to keep their pace. This became more and more challenging as we started the five mile uphill climb around a small mountain. By mile twelve, I could not continue at their pace. I had to say goodbye and go alone.

I turned up the music on my iPod and set out at my own pace. I knew I had over done it by jogging. My heart felt like it was about to explode and I was barely moving. I stopped a few times to get rocks out of my shoes between mile twelve and mile thirteen. This mile was the hardest of the entire day. It took everything I had to keep my feet moving. I even wondered if I was going to have to get help and be taken off the mountain by the rescue guys on ATVs. Each time I stopped several people would ask if I was okay, did I need a band-aid, did I have water, etc. I knew that if I really started to have trouble, I wouldn’t have to wait for an ATV to be helped. I finally made it to mile thirteen – halfway! I stopped along with a group of soldiers to rest, change socks, have a snack, and try to talk myself into some confidence. I asked one of the soldiers to take my picture, at least I would have proof I had made it halfway. They must have been reluctant to get back on the trail too, because they then asked me to take a picture of their group – with seven different cameras! This killed some time and my heart no longer felt ready to explode with every beat. I got back on the trail.
Much to my surprise, I felt great! Mile thirteen starts the downhill part of the mountain, but it’s not all downhill – it’s up and down, up and down. But I was back to my fast walking pace and doing fine.

At the rest area at mile fifteen, I had the opportunity to meet and talk more with several of the Veterans in attendance. I was honored to have my picture taken with Cpl. Lloyd R. Hackenberg. Lloyd was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart along more medals than I could count during his service in WWII. He even gave me his address and I look forward to writing my new friend and sending him a copy of the picture.
Right after mile sixteen, I was looking down and saw a tube of EsteĆ© Lauder lip-gloss. It was just lying there and didn’t even look like it had been stepped on. I knew this was my sister’s! Before the start of the race, I had to move it out of the way in her emergency kit so that she could test her inhaler. I picked it up and surprised her with it at the end. She said she was so sad when she realized she’d lost it. It was crazy that I had found it.
I got to chat with so many great people from all over the country as we walked together. This camaraderie and encouragement was so uplifting. Everyone was happy to help each other. It was very strange how you would see someone walking at mile two then again miles later. The wind had begun to pick up around mile fourteen, but it was just enough to keep you from frying in the hot sun. There was a woman who passed me at one point and she was braiding her hair to try to keep it from flying everywhere in the wind. I then passed her later and she was still struggling with her hair. I turned around, took my hair tie out since I also had my hat to keep my hair back and gave it to her. She was so thankful. That was the spirit of the day – help however you can.

I had a couple of small blisters around mile ten. I applied moleskin and hoped for the best. Around mile nineteen, the combination of moleskin and swelling feet had made my shoes feel a little tight and I was getting several more blisters. They didn’t hurt enough to stop and get professional treatment at one of the rest areas. I just kept working on them myself and turned down help from the medical volunteers. Each new piece of moleskin seemed to make a new blister somewhere else.

I was still feeling good, despite the blisters. Then I hit mile twenty: close to one mile of deep sand. It’s a dry arroyo with ankle deep, rocky sand. I knew this was going to be there and that it would be hard, but I didn’t know what an energy killer it would be. I didn’t know how to train for this, and I’m not sure if any training I would have done would have prepared me. I had such a difficult time. No exercise can make your legs burn like this sand did.
After the sand, the blisters were really starting to hurt. I had decided to ask for help at the aid station at mile twenty-two. They wanted me to sign in and fill out some forms before they could re-bandage my blisters. I decided to pass and re-bandaged them myself. This made them feel better and I kept walking.

Mile twenty-four was special because besides the normal fruit and drinks, they had volunteers from Children Youth and Family Services there with trail mix and cookies. The kids also had made signs of encouragement and cheered you on for the next half mile!

During the opening ceremonies, Army Brig. Gen. David L. Mann called this event “a living history lesson that will not just test your endurance, but make you think.” From mile twenty-four to the end I did a lot of thinking. I thought about how hard the day was, but how little it actually compared to the unbearable six days that the POWs were forced to walk 80 – 100 miles while being deprived of food, water, restroom breaks and medical care all at the threat of being shot or bayoneted for falling behind. Imagining what they went through, along with the sense of accomplishment, the kid’s signs of encouragement, and fatigue made me quite emotional the last few miles.

Those last two miles were quite frustrating. We were walking on the outside perimeter of the base housing which was a zigzag of what seemed like never-ending cement block wall. Every corner you were hoping to see the finish line, but all you saw was another corner. With about three-quarters of a mile to go spectators had lined the route and were cheering you on. Finally, with about a tenth of a mile to go I could finally see the finish line! I ran that last part and was so proud to see my family and friends cheering for me. I finished in 8:18:06.

Another quote from Brig. Gen. Mann rang true at the end of the day. He said, “Whatever your reason for participating you will leave here a changed person.” This was an incredible experience that I will never forget!

Call me crazy, but next year I’m going to run!

1 comment:

SAHSHA said...

WOW! That is amazing!!!
Way to go!!!!!!!!!
If you can do that... you can do anything!!!!!
-Sahsha's Mummy