Before I leave this earth, one of my life’s goals is to run a marathon or ultra in all fifty states. It will probably take me until I’m eighty. I’ve been running marathons for fifteen years now, and still have more than thirty states to go. Between family and work responsibilities, the most states I’ve been able to check off in a year has been just three. Between travel costs and time away, it gets to be a bit much.
So I approach this adventure the same way I do a good book. The goal is more about enjoying the journey, rather than rushing to finish. So I select races or destinations that either have some meaning to me, or that sound like fun. Last month’s Lost Dutchman Marathon was fun. This time I went for meaning.
Last year about this time, I’d read about the Bataan Memorial Death March. This 26.2 or 14.2 mile event is held at the White Sands Missile Range, about an hour northwest of El Paso Texas.
The Bataan Memorial Death March honors a special group of World War II heroes. These brave soldiers were responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.
The conditions they encountered and the aftermath of the battle were unique. They fought in a malaria-infested region, surviving on half or quarter rations with little or no medical help. They fought with outdated equipment and virtually no air power.
On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard.
They were marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived faced the hardships of a prisoner of war camp. Others were wounded or killed when unmarked enemy ships transporting prisoners of war to Japan were sunk by U.S. air and naval forces.
– Bataan Memorial Death March background given on http://www.bataanmarch.com/r09/history.htm
I’d heard great things about the event from some fellow Marathon Maniacs. The advice was to try to do this soon, as the surviving veterans (some of whom attend the event) are not going to be with us forever. Most are north of 90 years old. The New Mexico connection is due to the 1800 members of the New Mexico National Guard deployed to the Philippines – only half of whom survived. And so I registered to visit the New Mexico desert in March.
The most direct way one gets to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is flying into El Paso Texas, and then driving an hour northwest.
After dropping my stuff off at the hotel in Las Cruces, I headed out to the range. Word had it that the expo got very busy the day before the event (Saturday), so I thought it a good idea to take care of business on Friday evening. This was a good choice – I was done in about ten minutes.
While there, I took the opportunity to get some barbeque at the Frontier Club. Over dinner I had a chance to meet John Leroy Mims, a Bataan Survivor from North Carolina. He’d been taken prisoner, survived the march, and did forced labor in a Japanese prison camp. I found myself at a loss for words when hearing his story. I contemplated the circumstances the young soldiers faced while trudging those 80 miles on the quiet drive back to the hotel that evening.
I awoke early the next morning, hoping that I’d shift my body clock a bit. I’d need to arrive at the start around 4:30 the following morning. After breakfast, I drove about an hour to the White Sands National Monument. This is a gypsum dune field in the northern end of the Chihuahua Desert. Besides being a beautiful place, it’s apparently popular for sand-sledding too.
I did the short 1 mile nature loop and learned a bit about the ecosystem here. The dunes can shift with the winds dramatically enough so that the vertical height of a given point can vary by nearly forty feet. You can see Yucca plants with long above-ground root systems that had apparently located on a higher dune at some point. Cottonwood trees sometimes look like bushes, with their tops peeking out from the top of a dune whose height has grown. Plants can tap into a surprisingly generous water table just a few feet below the baseline elevation of the area. Animals however cannot. Some of them have learned to metabolize water from eating dry seeds. That would be a handy skill to have while running a marathon in the desert.
After wandering the dunes for a while, I went back to the missile range, running into some friends at the expo. While there I visited the Missile Park and the Museum. There are many older missiles that have been tested at White Sands since the 1940s there. It’s interesting to get a history of nuclear and conventional warheads while strolling under the sun.
I got an early dinner, and then went back to my room and settled in for the night. Wake-up time would be early, as I’d need to be to the start shortly after 4:30.
I slept restlessly and startled awake to the alarm at 3:15. I’d laid out my clothes and gear the day before, and was dressed and ready to go quickly. There were already many people at the start when I arrived over two and a half hours before we’d begin. I got a lay of the land and settled in to wait with everyone else. This was where I first saw some folks in the military and civilian “heavy” classes – doing the event with a 35 pound pack. Wow.
As we welcomed Bataan survivors, and mourned those lost in the past year during the opening ceremonies, the mountains behind the podium become visible under a rising sun. It was a beautiful scene and a poignant time. Thinking about the incredibly difficult 80 miles the real marchers covered – no food or water, the penalty for falling back being death – I felt very humbled.
We walked to the start, and the gun went off for each of the groups in succession. As we left the starting line and ran the roads approaching the trails we’d cover, it was hard to hold back and settle into an easy pace with the harder path ahead.
The first seven or eight miles were on flat trail. By now the sun was all the way up. We settled into a steady pace. When we started a steady climb around mile eight, I regretted not studying the course a bit more. It turns out that the climb would be about six miles long.
While not at all steep by Pacific Northwest standards, I felt fatigue in my legs. Possibly this was due to running at altitude (we would peak at about 5600’). More likely I’d just not properly tapered and was paying the price. I’d run eleven of the twelve days before the race, and was regretting this a bit now.
As we headed uphill, we found a headwind. I mixed in a bit of walking with miles 13 and 14 being the slowest of the day. When we hit the top of the climb, it was like turning a page to a fresh panorama of nice descent. It was here that I clicked off a few sub-9 minute miles. But by now I was feeling the distance. I knew that I’d probably not be able to muster many more of these sub-9s. I lowered my stride, leaned into the downhill and tried to cruise.
These miles were nice – running on dirt, and going downhill made things easier. As a bonus, we were winding through a beautiful panorama of mountains. Eventually we made our way back to the road, where we rejoined the road we’d run uphill earlier. A number of the civilian and military heavy division participants were heading up the toughest part of the course. I exchanged some “low-fives” as I wound down to the bottom of the hill, where I’d find the other toughest part of the course.
This was the stretch that had us going through some sand. While this wasn’t completely loose sand that would have been impossible to run in, it was not what I’d preferred to find when completing that nice downhill stretch. I walked in the sandier parts, and picked things up again when I could.
As we passed mile 21 and 22, we could see that we were approaching the finish. I found myself running alongside Renee, a trail runner from Tucson. We’d talk little bit, then one of us would run ahead, and then we’d do it again. It was nice having some company during those last few miles, even if we didn’t say very much.
Then suddenly, we came up on the final mile marker – and less than two minutes later we were done. I got to shake hands with three Bataan survivors after crossing the finish.
I spent a little while talking with Renée in the finish area. We reflected on why we love running, and how it gives us great perspective on some of the challenges life puts in front of us. She talked about the trail running scene in the Tucson area, and about some of her recent events, including some 50 milers. Then too soon, it was time for her to catch her ride home, and for me to head back to Las Cruces to clean up.
This wasn’t my best run. But taken as a whole the trip was well worth it. Learning about the nature of White Sands, as well as the last 70 years of history here was something. The experience of running alongside soldiers in fatigues, some with packs was humbling. I spoke with one of these guys at the finish. He kind of shrugged and said “well I feel a bit better after getting my IV”.
Just forget any whining I did about the hills, wind, or the sand, okay?
charts and graphs for running geeks
The splits tell the story of a runner fatigued and not properly trained. I’ve run harder courses faster. I did not taper well enough, so woke up on race day with tired legs. Once on the course I went out faster than I should have. Yes – there were hills, headwinds, and sand. But I’m convinced I could have broken four hours with a more sensible regimen.