"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.
Nobody gives a damn."
by Frank Hewlett 1942
This weekend, I ran my 10th marathon at the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, New Mexico! It was a fun, emotional, beautiful weekend and I had a blast.
I first learned of the Bataan when my friend Toni ran it in 2010. She'd run it in honor of her grandfather who was a survivor of the march in WWII. I put it on my to-do list because it sounded incredible. Then last summer, I met Cliff at the ET 51K and while we were running thru the night, we talked about races he'd run and Bataan came up. He had run it four times and confirmed Toni's experience there. He told me I should run it sooner rather than later because the best part was meeting the survivors. I decided that this year would be the year!
I flew out on Saturday morning and went thru Phoenix to El Paso. From El Paso, I drove to the White Sands Missile Range. Cliff had told me that it might take a while to get thru registration and I should get it done ASAP so I could make sure and attend the other events. I got to the base a little after one and luckily remembered to bring my pass to get on base! It was my first time on a base and the curious coyote in me was excited to see what it was like. I guess I didn't look like trouble because they let me in. ;)
Cliff and a few of his friends were already on base so I met up with them and they helped guide me thru registration. During registration, we got our bibs, chip, shirts, dog tag, and certificate.
It didn't take that long and when I was finished, we all met up in one of the food places and talked for a while. Cliff was asking me about my running and I told him about hiring Justin, one of the Run It Fast Club members to be my coach. I mentioned that he was from Indiana and he said Kathy was from there too. She said she knew who he was because he was her friend Alicia's coach as well. Alicia is an RIF club member too. Small world, huh?
A little before two, we headed over to the auditorium for the Bataan Historical Seminar. The presentation gave us a brief overview of the struggles, hardships, and torture that the soldiers endured during the march and their captivity. What they went thru during the march is the stuff of nightmares and so heartbreaking. If you don't know the history, you can look it up here. After the presentation, they introduced the survivors that were there this year to HUGE rounds of applause. They looked so fragile but stood so proudly. Then before it was over, they played God Bless America which was their favorite song while they were captive and the whole auditorium sang along. It gave me goose bumps. Then the presentation was over and the survivors walked out first with everyone standing for them and clapping as they want by.
Next, we went over to another hall where the survivors each had a room to give a little talk about their experience and then do a Q&A. The first survivor we listened to was Harold A. Bergbower. The first thing he did was thank us for coming to the march! Can you believe it? We were the ones who were honored with their presence but he was so moved that we were there to honor and remember them. I can't even begin to describe how amazing it was to listen to his stories from that time. He sugar coated it but told us enough that we could get an idea of how rough it was...the starvation, the beatings, the hard labor, and the fear that you could die at the whim of the guards. He told us about the time he'd been so sick and weak that he collapsed and they thought he was dead. They actually tagged him and sent him to the morgue...but he said he was too stubborn to die and woke up and walked out! But the Army still had him as deceased and notified his family that he was gone. They didn't know he was still alive until after they were released from the prison camps when the war was over and he sent them a telegram! Can you imagine how shocked his family must have been and how happy? Then he told us about another time where some of the POWs had escaped the camp. The Japanese had said that for every POW that escaped, they would shoot 9 or 10 remaining POWs as a deterrent Well, 10 POWs escaped and he was rounded up with about 100 others to be shot but at the last minute they decided they needed them to work instead and they were spared.
Someone asked him how he endured, what was it that made him go on and not give up and he said he never lost hope that they would be rescued. That he believed he would survive and that you had to have something to believe in. He weighed less than 100 lbs when they were released from the prison camp after the war but he had survived. He ended up making the military his career and even went back to Japan during his service. He married and had a family and we got to meet his daughter too. He is 95 years old.
The second survivor we heard was John Leroy Mims, 91 years old. He enlisted at the age of 16 and then was kicked out because he was too young. But he re-enlisted and ended up going to the Philippines. He talked about how he was separated from his troop and ended up with some Rangers from the Philippines before they were eventually captured. He told us about the time one of the Japanese guards dropped a coke bottle and he picked it up for him and the guard hit him across the face with it for disrespecting him. He told us more about enduring the walk without water and what it was like in the camps. He told us about the horrific boat ride the prisoners endured when they were sent to Japan and what it was like when the bombs dropped. He told us about how he'd learned Japanese and heard the guards talking about how they were going to kill the POWs after the war was over so they wouldn't talk. But they confronted the guards and the guards decided not to shoot them.
It wasn't all bad memories for them though and they shared some of the laughs and smiles from that time as well. It made me wish I'd asked my grandfather more about his time in the Army during WWII. But he, like my dad for Vietnam, never seemed to want to talk about it. I got the same feeling from listening to the survivors, that they didn't want to share the horror of what they'd seen and experienced during the war. I am so glad they shared their stories with us.
After the meet & greets we headed over to the pasta dinner and Cliff's sister and her husband Jeff (who I'd met at JJ100) joined us. Dinner was pretty good and Jeff and I split the desserts so we could try the different cakes. :) There was a movie at 7 but Cliff suggested that we go back to the hotels because we'd have a very early start. I still had to go to the store and check in so I agreed.
I got my stuff ready for the next day and set my alarm for 2:30 and went to bed about 9:30. It was going to be a VERY early morning!
I ended up waking up before my alarm around 2. I ate and got ready and drove over to Cliff's hotel to hitch a ride. We were carpooling so we would be 2 less cars getting on base. We left at 4 and got to the base about 4:30. The line wasn't too long to get on base and it went quickly. They wanted everyone to be there by 4:30 so all the cars and runners could get thru the checkpoint before the race started. Once on base, they directed us to the parking and we headed over to the race start. It was a little windy but not too cold. We got into the civilian corral and sat down to wait.
The waiting area was on the base's soccer field and we were set up in corrals according to our races/divisions. The first corral was for the Wounded Warriors and then the next was for the Military. We, the civilians, were after them, and the last corral was for the Honorary which was the half (actually 14ish miles). All around us were people with packs (for those doing it "heavy" and carrying a 35 lb pack). Cliff was doing it heavy again. He's done it heavy every year! Those running in the military division were in full combat gear. The waiting area was pretty relaxed and felt more like the start of a trail race than a big marathon.
The opening ceremonies started at 6:30 and it was very cool. You could hear a pin drop when the soldiers stood at attention and the rest of us went silent. Over 6000 people and no one spoke a word. The national anthem was sung by a local high school choir and it was beautiful. They introduced the survivors and then they did a roll call, first calling the names of the survivors and then some of the names of those who did not come back and all you could hear was the echo of their names. Then they played Taps and I teared up for the millionth time that weekend. It always gets to me but even more so that morning.
The race started at 7 and the Wounded Warriors marched out first. Then the military marched out and then it was our turn. We made it to the start line about 7:30. Before you crossed the start line, you got to shake the hands of some of the survivors. And again they were thanking ME for coming to remember them. It made me want to cry. I shook their hands and thanked them and their families and then I was at the start line and my march had begun.
Since so many started out before us and many of them were marching and not running, it was crowded at the beginning. I wasn't in any hurry though so I took my time and weaved in and out as openings appeared. Running by the missile garden was cool and I was checking out the base anyway. After a little bit, we were on dirt and it started to thin out. It was flat or downhill for about the first 8 miles and the morning was cool. The sky was clear and blue as can be. :) It was a good day for running.
This is in the first few miles looking back at the base:
After mile 8, we were back on road and heading up, and up...and up. It wasn't steep though. I had been stopping to take pictures and having little conversations with those around me so the time went by quickly. There were no spectators on the course but the aid stations were awesome and very enthusiastic. My stomach was not feeling great so I stopped to use the port-a-potty at one of the aid stations. They definitely had plenty of those on the course! They also had a mister on the course that we went thru twice and it felt wonderful. Later, I had oranges at various aid stations and they tasted so good. The support for the race was awesome!
This is looking back on the climb up on the road portion:
According to the elev chart, we would be climbing for about 5 miles. The last couple miles were on dirt and much of it was sandy. Oh, and now the wind was stronger and a head wind but it was cool and felt great. I actually missed it when we eventually hit the turn around. There was no reason to complain anyway. The views were amazing and there was no where else I'd rather be. Besides, if I did start feeling crummy all I had to do was look around me at those carrying 35 lb packs or who were doing it with artificial legs. Yeah, I was one of the lucky ones out there. I remember one girl (civilian) who asked me if we were having fun and I said yes, it's an adventure!
This is looking back during the dirt portion of the climb:
When we got to the top and headed down, it was a fun downhill. We went thru areas with old settlement houses and mines and there was a lot to see. This is the aid station on the way down after hitting the top. As you can see, they had a lot of support! This aid station was selling hamburgers and they smelled so good but the best part was the ice water and iced oranges at the aid stations:
Here's a few more pics from the second part of the run:
Then it was over. The was a huge cheer going on for the finishers and when I crossed the line, there were more survivors to greet us and congratulate us. Once again, they thanked me for coming when it should have been the other way around.
I heard Cliff call my name and met up with the others. When I felt like I could eat, I went to get some food. They served us a free meal after and I chose a pulled pork sandwich, chips, and a rice krispie treat. I ate and we watched the awards ceremony and then went to watch and cheer the finishers as we waited for Cliff's friend Bill to finish.
An ROTC team, doing it heavy, about to finish:
After Bill came in, we went and got him some food and headed back to the car. We left the base at 4, almost 12 hours after we'd arrived! It was a long, full, fun day.
RANDOM WEEKEND THOUGHTS
- 95 year old Ben Skardon, a Batann Death March survivor, and his Ben's Brigade marched 8.5 miles of the course...amazing!
- One soldier told me he liked my style. I must have been a little tired...or I'm a runner...because at first I thought he meant the way I run but then I figured out he meant what I was wearing (red bandanna and calf sleeves, white RIF shirt, and a blue skirt). :)
- Teams had to finish within 20 seconds of each other and it was fun to listen to them encourage and support each other on the course.
- 47 states and 5 countries were represented. Seeing the military teams from other countries was very cool.
- There were a lot of kids in the march, most of them marching with their families and it was fun to see them as well.
- Amazing Grace played on the bagpipes is beautiful!
- All weekend, and especially on Monday when I was wearing my race shirt while I did a little sight seeing, people stopped me to ask if I'd run and how it went. They also thanked me for supporting the march. So many times you go to a big marathon and you feel invisible because it's so corporate and so big. But this race was filled with warmth and good feelings. Really incredible.
- Being around the military is always fun. They are so polite! One group from Kansas State gave me their unit's coin just for taking a few pictures for them. :) This is my nephew's favorite team so I'll be giving him the coin. Isn't it funny that of all the colleges there, Max's favorite would be the one to give me a coin?
And by the way...I saw over 6000 people this weekend who DO give a damn and I am so happy I was one of them.
So that's my recap! I hope you enjoyed it and it gives you a little nudge to experience this yourself! If you do, you can check out their website here:
One last pic of the Bataan Death March Memorial Statue: