Back when I was a young kid in the military, I ran/marched the Bataan Memorial Death March. Twice. It was about as brutal as it sounds. Though, of course, not even close to the brutality of the actual Bataan Death March. Here’s my memory of the race, with a couple pictures I found in a box. It’s not really a review of it because what can you say about this race? It’s a military sponsored race, no frills, and it was an amazing experience that I appreciate way more now that I’m older and have kids and a civilian life.
Let’s see, why did I do it? Well, like I said, I was a kid, in the military, and they told us that if we went and did this race on behalf of our squadron then we would get a free trip to New Mexico without having to take any leave. In essence, we’d still be getting paid but we wouldn’t have to work our regular jobs. That was a good enough reason for me! Train? Naahhhhh. Why would we train? We’re in decent shape right? When you’re 18 old, that’s the sort of thing you can do.
We went as a 5 man team. The details are a little hazy all these years out. Remember, this was back when things weren’t documented like crazy with cell phones and pictures that were instantly uploaded to the internet. Nobody even used the internet to look up events like this. It was word of mouth and fuzzy details from a couple of soldiers who heard from other soldiers. That sort of thing. In fact, we based most of our info from this British Army guy we knew. And all he knew was that there was a bunch of German soldiers showing up and he was pissed because, as he put it, “They bombed my granny!”
So we hear we have to show up in full battle dress uniform (boots, cammo, cover, and up to 30 lb pack). No big deal. We wore that every day, minus the pack. It’s funny how you don’t think of doing 26.2 miles in that gear as being a big deal. We never even thought to ask questions about the course, the terrain, the elevation, nothing. Who cares?! This was free leave!
Turns out the terrain was brutal. Up and down sand dunes, then a giant paved hill about 1/4 of the way into the marathon. Like I said, I don’t remember specific details, but I remember that on the way back down that hill we passed out Tylenol between us – Tylenol and fig newtons. Our feet were raw after running sand dunes in combat boots (the second time we all knew better and taped our feet beforehand). There weren’t water stations that I remember. We had the water with us on our backs, no CamelBaks, just water bottles loaded into already full rucksacks. At some point during the trek we came across survivors of the original Bataan. The men were sitting in wheel chairs as we went by. We shook their hands. It goes without saying that you don’t really view your suffering the same at that mile when you put it next to what they went through. At the finish line we were given a coin. Then I walked off somewhere and washed the dirt off my face. Found all of my buddies crashed out under a tree. One guy was eating a hamburger. Another guy had a beer.
It was all pretty simple. Run/walk/march 26.2 miles with a pack, in BDU’s, meet some veterans/former POWs, get your coin, wash your face, go home. You gotta love the simplicity. Again, I’m not sure how it is now but back then there wasn’t fanfare going on with that type of event. My buddies and I have thought about going back and running it again, but I’ve always held out. I like remembering it like we did it, back when we were a bunch of young kids in the military. Back when preparing for a 26.2 mile trek through a desert missile range meant going out for drinks the night before.
I recommend doing the Bataan to anyone who hasn’t done it. It’s a great experience, and I think they still have survivors showing up. Read up on the history before you go, especially now that we all have the handy-dandy internet. And hopefully they still have you all going past the huge warning sign for the unexploded ordinances. That’s a race photo op if I ever saw one.