Bataan 2019: After Action Report

I have been dwelling on my performance at the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March for the past week. I failed to complete the course, dropping out at Mile Marker 19 due to an injury to my left hip flexor. A lot of questions have been swirling about my brain since I made the decision to drop out.

A great view from the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March course.

How did this happen? Why couldn’t I suck up the pain for another few miles? When did my body become so weak it couldn’t walk 26.2 miles? What happened to my mental and intestinal fortitude that this kind of pain couldn’t be overcome? Why did I fail?

Well, there are a lot of answers to each of those questions, but my failure boils down to a single reason: a complete lack of preparation. I did not follow a training program nor did I increase my activity in the months leading up to Bataan 2019. I continued my sedentary, office oriented lifestyle without a second thought to my lack of activity contributing to failing at completing a life goal (bucket list item, if you will).

Selfie 2-Days Before the March

When I was 20 years old and in the Army, I could pick up a rucksack weighing 50 pounds or more and walk for hours without anything more than sore legs to show for it. When I was 27 years old and a security contractor in Kosovo, I finished an 8-hour shift at work only to sprint to my room to grab a 40 pound pack to join the 2011 commemorative Bataan Memorial Death March being held on Camp Bondsteel. I was late to the start line and still didn’t finish the 12-mile course last. Since returning to the United States in 2012, my physical activity (and ability) has steadily declined.

My day-to-day lifestyle contributed to my failure on March 17, 2019 in the deserts of southern New Mexico. A lack of strength, flexibility, and endurance resulted in an epic failure. How do I fix this with my office job, heavy travel schedule, and general laziness when sitting on my couch?

  1. Purpose and Motivation: My purpose and motivation is to complete the Bataan Memorial Death March course in order to check it off my life goals (bucket) list. Thus adding my name to the short list of people who have completed the event while honoring the original veterans forced to march more than 50-miles in the Philippines to their prison camp. Pride plays a part in all of this as well. I can’t forget these things as I work to improve myself enough to complete the Bataan Memorial Death March.
  2. Planning: Walking into the Bataan Memorial Death March without a plan has proven to be a recipe for disaster. Having a training plan oriented towards the challenges of the event, incorporating targeted activities into my daily life to build strength and endurance, and understanding what I need to do to improve my flexibility all fall within the grand plan. As a project manager, this should have been my default stance for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March – epic fail.
  3. Mental and Physical Strength: As mentioned in #2 I have to spend the sweat equity to improve my physical state. I don’t improve as quickly as I used to and I don’t recover as quickly as in my 20’s either. With this in mind, my planning needs to incorporate the time to build and recover properly. This is a no-brainer improvement but needs to be stated nonetheless.
  4. Patience: I have never been a fan of delayed gratification. I simply don’t like waiting (#millennial, I guess) for benefits or improvement and I become discouraged when I don’t see these things quickly. Transforming my mid-30s body into something better is going to take time and the sooner I accept this fact, the better off I will be overall.
  5. Positive Mental State: I cannot waiver from an “I will finish the course” state of mind. I’ve always been a pessimist/negative oriented realist which drags down my motivation and negatively impacts those people around me. Going into next year, I need to work on improving my mental state before, during, and after the event. If I can’t convince my mind that I will finish the course then how is my body going to push through the pain and barriers?

I have moved past kicking myself for not finishing the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March and into my preparations for the 2020 event. I will continue to reflect on this years march as a source of information and motivation, but I will focus on transforming this negative result into a positive learning experience. Next year, I will succeed.

What did you learn from the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March? How will you do better next year? Any lessons to share with the world?

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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!

Bataan 2019: Killing Time and Having Some Fun

Driving the 3-hours from Albuquerque to Las Cruces for the opportunity to be among the first to pick up our race packets is a chore of joy. It cements the fact that we will be participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March and begins the mental preparation of 26.2 miles through the deserts of White Sands Missile Range with thousands of other marchers. However, since the march is on Sunday and initial packet pickup is on Thursday it leaves a couple of days to kill.

We discovered last year, there is plenty to do in southern New Mexico – particularly in and around Alamogordo. There is the Space Museum, Missile Museum, White Sands National Monument, Toy Train Museum, and several other sites we visited to fill the time between packet pick-up and the march. It was a year of discovery in 2018 while this year was the year of debate – which of the activities we did last year would we do this year and what new things could we find to pass the time?

On Friday, we woke up early (but still later than a normal day) to drive out to Salado Canyon Trail just northeast of Alamogordo for an out-and-back hike to Bridal Veil Falls. If you’re in the area and want a truly “beginners” level hike, I highly recommend the 30-minute drive from Alamogordo to the trailhead and this hike. The trail was built out by the New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association along the path of the Alamogordo Sacramento Mountain Railway so it is a fairly flat path with gentle slopes to climb or descend. The views are spectacular! There is a lot of history in this area and everyone should take a moment to contemplate the trials and tribulations of those men and women who came before us.

Coming back from our short hike, we stopped in at Plateau Espresso outside of the satellite New Mexico State University campus for a little caffeine pick-us-up and a warm sandwich. Talk about a friendly group of people and awesome atmosphere! If you’re ever in the area you should definitely stop in and grab an Americano and panini (or gelato which looked sooo good!).

Wrapping up the morning, we stopped in to visit “a couple of nuts” at McGinn’s Pistachioland where we had some pistachios and the Husband sampled some wine. The two women attending the store were lovely and very helpful in selecting wines that met the Husband’s high standards. Such a quirky place, but definitely worth dropping in to see.

Next was the 30-minute drive to White Sands National Monument. One of those places you can visit a hundred times and still have a good time the next time you stop in. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s a bunch of gypsum sand all piled up in the middle of a flat, brown desert. HOWEVER, walking barefoot on the cool sand during a hot day and enjoying the quiet company of someone you love is always a good time! Another high recommendation if you find yourself in the area!

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, watching a movie, and reading. Quiet time – this is a vacation after all – is such a rare commodity in day-to-day life that we find ourselves taking advantage of our broken routine time to just sit and relax.

Saturday was a purposefully planned quiet day. In the morning we made the trek up to the International Space Museum to peruse mankind’s efforts to understand space. For me, this is also a nostalgic trip reminding me of the summer’s I spent in Space Camp in Alamogordo. I was one of dozens of kids who would invade this place during the summer and gawk at the rockets, missiles, planes, and shuttles. Imagining what it would be like to be in the now glass protected space suits and blast off into the unknown on missions of discovery and exploration. Now, the Husband and I read the plaques and take in the information about the exhibits more than dreaming of being an astronaut, but it is still a good time. This year we also took in a Planetarium show (which I highly recommend).

The rest of the day is for March preparation – making sure the Camelbaks and filled, poncho-liners are where they should be, and post-event recovery drinks/foods find themselves into the car.

How do you pass the time leading up to the Bataan Memorial Death March? Any favorite local places to visit in the days before or after the march? Share in the comments!

Bataan 2019: Packet Pickup and Butterflies

Cheesy selfie outside the hotel

This is the second year the Husband and I will be participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. We enjoyed the dehydration, exhaustion, frustration, and camaraderie so much we have come back to complete the full 26.2 mile route. Fortunately, we wised up a bit from last year and are both marching in the Civilian Light division (I tried Civilian Heavy with a 35 pound pack last year and failed).

Last year, we drove into White Sands Missile Range at about 7 in the morning for an 8 o’clock packet pickup. Accessing the base was easy enough, navigating the perfectly perpendicular Army designed roads was simple, and parking wasn’t difficult to find. The building in which the packets were being housed was too small for the less than 100 people who could be called “early-birds” let alone the 10,000+ participants who picked up their packets in the days that followed. The Husband and I went with the “in and out” strategy – no lollygagging, over engaging the volunteers, or trying to pick up on the atmosphere. It was a rush job for us since neither of us are friendly with large crowds.

Bataan Memorial Death March 2019 – Packet Pickup

This year, the organizers upgraded, big time! Packet pickup is at the Las Cruces Convention Center just off the New Mexico State University campus. Big enough to accommodate all the marchers at about the same time, it easily allows a participant to be relaxed, engaging, and in the moment. As is our custom, we arrived early enough to watch the different vendors/sponsors setting up their promotional booths. A short walk down the street to Starbucks for much needed caffeine killed the extra time and got us in line with about 15 minutes to spare before processing began. Other than some confusion as to which steel railing lined lane (or line, not sure what they classified as) participants should queue in (last year, if I’m not mistaken, the volunteers processing participants were based on the first letter of the participant’s last name), the process was very smooth.

We processed through within 15-minutes of the volunteers starting their work at 2:00 PM. Ten minutes after caching our packets in the provided light bag, we finished our souvenir/collectable shopping and were in the car heading to Alamogordo, New Mexico to check into our hotel. Last year we found we liked the small town atmosphere (and hotel accommodations) of Alamogordo much more than the slightly busier (and much larger) town of Las Cruces. Let’s see if this year goes as well as last year!

Unfortunately, much like last year, the Husband and I fell flat on any training plan. I’d like to say something along the lines of “everyday life has just been a bit hectic and blah, blah, blah, excuses…” but the truth is we just didn’t commit to the task at hand.

Now, we are doing the full marathon route this year. We will not be first, but we are unlikely to be last. We are not racing. It may take 16-hours to complete, but we will finish and we will be back next year. I am nervous about the distance, the heat, and my body’s difficulty with hydration, but if the Husband won’t quit on a bum-knee then I don’t have much of an excuse.

Are you at the Bataan Memorial Death March this year? What was your experience picking up your race packets? Do you prefer Alamogordo or Las Cruces or camping out on White Sands Missile Range?

Bataan 2019: Why we voluntarily walk 26.2 miles

On March 17, 2019, the Bataan Memorial Death March will occur. This will be the second year The Husband and I participate in this event and we are beside ourselves with excitement. To most people, it seems odd for a couple to use precious vacation time for the opportunity to walk on dirt roads through the high-desert of White Sands Missile Range for 26.2 miles. Upon finishing, we will be in pain, exhausted, and dehydrated. Our reward? A certificate of participation and aching bodies.

I wrote about this last year as well, but I still get confused, even bewildered, looks from coworkers, friends, and strangers when I describe the event so I want to touch on why we have decided to make this an annual pilgrimage.

By Ле Лой – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43326904

Let’s start by looking past the pain, heat, and dust – this event is a memorial to tens of thousands of prisoners of war who were forced to march more than 60 miles without adequate food, water, or medical care in the Philippines during World War II. If they failed to walk, they died. Those who made it showed incredible strength and a will to survive most people will never have to face in their lifetime. This is more than just a marathon, it is a salute to those who would not be defeated; it is a testament to the fortitude of human beings under immense stress; it is a payment of respect to the survivors and the hundreds who didn’t live to see Camp O’Donnell.

My own experiences in the Army motivate me to participate in these types of events. I have witnessed true courage under the most high-stress and dire conditions. It may seem weird to the uninitiated, but taking part in the Bataan Memorial Death March is more than a personal badge of honor, it is a show of respect to those who served and sacrificed before me. By showing a willingness to experience even a tenth of what they went through, I hope the survivors will see they are not forgotten and their sacrifices do not go unnoticed.

Bataan Memorial Death March

A more grounded element of my motivation is the challenge of the event itself. A majority of the route takes advantage of semi-improved dirt roads that snake through the mesquite and scrub brush of White Sands Missile Range. These roads consist of loose, deep sand churned up by thousands of people slogging along its course causing feet to sink deeper into it with each heavy step. Ankles, calves, knees, and quadriceps are pushed to the limit with steady inclines in this sandbox environment. The physical challenge is one thing, but each step drains a person’s mental commitment to finishing the course. I have always avoided the easy path, thinking of it as cheating. You can’t grow as a person by doing everything the easy way, you have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and into new territory otherwise you’ll atrophy.

Pre-Event Selfie – 2018

Finally, this is a bonding experience for The Husband and I. Last year, we found ourselves at each other’s throats off and on, but it is understandable given the pain we found ourselves in. Despite some hostility (we still love each other very much), we managed to complete the Honorary Route (14 mile course that excludes the lollipop section that starts at checkpoint 8) without killing one another or causing serious bodily harm to each other. Between these bouts of pain and dehydration fueled fits, we talked, laughed, and enjoyed the experience together. To be honest, I think the Bataan Memorial Death March would be a great couples counseling session for anyone who wants to see their partner at their rawest.

So, that’s a glimpse into why I participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should consider taking part in it at some point in their life. You can learn a lot from yourself in the middle of nowhere.

To register, head over to the official Bataan Memorial Death March site and click the “Register” button. Prices just went up at the beginning of 2019 with another planned increase in February. Don’t wait, only the first 5,000 participants are guaranteed a full race packet, it’s got some good stuff in it!