Bataan 2019: There Were Tears

I have purposefully waited to write this “results” post for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March. It has taken the past 36-hours to process the event and what ultimately happened. The mental, physical, and emotional roller coaster of the past 48-hours has been difficult to process. A rundown of my experience during the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March follows.

The pre-dawn ceremony led by a state politician, the garrison commander of White Sands Missile Range, and involving three of the remaining survivors of the original Bataan Death March started promptly at 6:30 AM. Of course, those participating in the march had been shivering in the freezing cold (literally, it was 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below up until the starting cannon went off) for several hours. However, spirits were light as the motivational speeches were capped off by a parachute demonstration from the Special Operations Force’s parachute demonstration team The Black Daggers. About the time the jumpers landed, the Husband and I kicked off our walk to the sound of a cannon firing a large blank into nothingness.

We were happy to start walking. The morning chill slowly gave way as the sign crested the horizon. I couldn’t help thinking about the beauty of it all. Over 8,600 people of all ages, races, sexuality, military status, and motivations starting a grueling course as the day officially began. We were all out there for something and, hopefully, it was enough to carry us through to the end.

For the first two miles, we were on hardball (concrete road) and bunched together with everyone else. Those with the idea to compete for real times were bouncing around from one gap between marchers to the next. Young and old alike jostled each other for more room to stretch their legs. Oddly enough, this entire dance was very polite, filled with “excuse me” and “on your left/right” and people happily stepping to the side to allow these jack rabbits to move forward.

The first checkpoint was at Mile Marker 2 with water, gatorade, oranges, bananas, and, most importantly for those too shy to go in the desert-line, porta-potties. From this point until the Mile Marker 8 we marched along a hard-packed (ish) sand trail. Fortunately, the organizers doubled the width of this trail since last year making it less claustrophobic and easier for the speedy marchers to maintain their pace while slower marchers could stay out of the way with less crowding. They also wetted the sand (or maybe that was just the weather) and compressed it so there was less knee/ankle twisting than last year. The Husband and I maintained an easy 19-minute per mile pace throughout these first 8 miles without any issues.

Mile Marker 8 was a giant checkpoint with medical facilities and the standard hydration tools found at most other checkpoints. It also acted as the split for marchers: keep walking to the left and you’re on the Honorary Route (14.2 miles) while going to the right sends you out to what I call the Lollypop portion of the route (the 12 extra miles that’ll put you at 26.2 miles at the finish line). We took an extended break here to evaluate our status, eat some food, drink some water, and decide our route.

I felt good at this point. There wasn’t the tell-tale pain of potential injury, just the standard fatigue associated with long walks through the desert. My hopes were high that we would finish the full 26.2 mile course. With just under one-third of the march completed, the day was still bright and full of optimism. We agreed that we were both in good shape and headed out to the Lollypop.

Once we went under Highway 82, a steady incline presented itself for the next 4.5 miles. Fortunately, this incline was on hardball until the Mile Marker 10 (ish) so no slipping or sliding on rocks or sand. We maintained our pace of 19-minutes per mile throughout this portion of the course. Our legs and joints started to protest near Mile Marker 10, but nothing appeared to be serious at that point.

After exiting the hardball and making it through the strategically place fundraiser setup by New Mexico State University we continued on towards the halfway point on a semi-firmly packed sand road. It was about this point I realized something was wrong. Around Mile Marker 11 (a mile into the sand road), my left hip flexor began to hurt whenever I place weight on it. The pain was more of an annoyance than a hinderance and I chalked it up to standard long-distance marching pains. I let the Husband know what was going on but specified, “this isn’t a stop and quit thing, but I want you to know…”. He asked some follow-up questions (it’s that medic inside of him) and requested I let him know if it got worse.

At Mile Marker 13 (halfway’ish point) we took an extended break to hydrate and eat. The pain in my hip flexor had become more steady and worrisome. I had yet to start walking with a noticeable limp, but I was trying to figure out if it was simply the way in which I was stepping or if the pain was universal regardless of my footfall. No solution to the pain had presented itself. I began to dwell on the problem which, I’m sure, didn’t help all that much. The optimism from earlier was quickly eroding into true concern and fear.

We continued on, maintaining that 19-minute per mile pace as we pushed through the halfway checkpoint and trudged our way around a small mountain back to the hardball. Each step became more painful and less manageable. I found going uphill was easier than downhill and the softer sandy areas of the road hurt less than the hard packed areas. No adjustments to my footfall seemed to help consistently ease the pain. By Mile Marker 15 I knew I was in real trouble. Of course, I let the Husband know what was going on and his crinkled brow told me he was going to be keeping a very close eye on me.

At Mile Marker 18, we found ourselves back on the hardball we had walked up on our start around the mountain. It was here that I had to do a gut-check and decide whether I could make it through the full course. I had a noticeable limp and was in a pretty constant state of pain, not just when I put weight on my left leg. My hip flexor was throbbing and a grimace had plastered itself across my face. I was in real trouble.

We stopped for a bit just past the checkpoint to hydrate and rest. I tried stretching my hip flexor. With my left leg straight, I tried leaning to my left and found myself nearly collapsing due to the pain this movement caused. Interestingly, squatting wasn’t a problem nor was doing the same action on my right leg. I was now scared. We were two-thirds of the way through the course, we were well past the point of being on our way home. It was was only 8 more miles. There was no way I wouldn’t be able to finish the course. It was just two and a half hours of walking left. Surely I could handle that, right? After about 15 minutes, we got up and resumed the march.

Within 100 meters of starting again, I had to stop. A couple of seconds of relieving the pressure on my left leg allowed me to go another 100 meters. This pattern continued for the next half mile. After the sixth or seventh painful pause, it dawned on me like a ton of bricks smacking me upside the head: I wasn’t going to be able finish.

I barely processed this realization before telling the Husband I was done. He asked if I was sure and I confirmed my statement. I couldn’t make it. Internally, I realized I had failed. I tried choking back the tears that forced their way up to the surface. I was only partially successful.

In my life, I have rarely outright failed at anything I have pursued. In the Army I failed Air Assault school due to an unforeseen fear of heights when attached to objects grounded in the earth (read: I don’t like really tall ladders or the edge of buildings). As a contractor, I failed to be promoted to a supervisory position (twice). As a civilian, I have failed to complete a 4-year college degree, because I have never completely bought into the reason for obtaining such a degree.

On Sunday, March 17, 2019 I voluntarily withdrew myself from the Bataan Memorial Death March due to being too weak to complete the course.

A big shout out to the White Sands Police, Border Patrol, and volunteers for getting me safely off the course. Their professionalism and understanding of the situation is without comparison.

Until Monday afternoon, I wanted to crawl into a deep, dark hole curled up in a little ball ignoring the world. I guess you could describe it as sulking. Processing this entire experience and all the things that went right and wrong has been just shy of overwhelming. I know I will be back next year to finish this damned course.

What was your experience at the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March? Any pointers for training up? Did you finish? If not, what went wrong? Drop into the comments and share!