Bataan 2018…The Day After – Part 1

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Well, the Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 has come and gone. I can now officially say that I have participated in one of these outstanding events and I couldn’t be more proud of that fact.

Unfortunately, my husband and I were unable to complete the entire 26.2 mile route as we had planned. Instead, due to reasons made clear through the rest of this post, we completed the 14.2 mile Honorary Route. I am disappointed we were not in a condition to finish the full route, but I am also very proud of my husband for digging deep and making it through the shorter Honorary Route. I am also proud of myself for not giving up when it was made clear that we wouldn’t be doing the full course.

So, what happened?

We arrived at White Sands Missile Range around 3:20 AM in order to avoid the long lines of traffic in the hours ahead of the opening ceremonies at 6:35 AM. This was a good idea. Starting around 4:15 AM the line of cars could be seen from the parking area we were comfortably situated in. The husband tried to take a nap while I walked around to calm my nerves. I don’t like large groups of people and I knew I would be on the course with over 8,400 of them so I needed the calm, quiet hours of early morning to keep the anxiety levels down. It was a successful exercise.

By 5:15 AM, the husband had abandoned all hope of any restful slumber and we began our final preparations for the march. Popping the trunk of the car, we slathered ourselves with SPF 50 sunscreen in an attempt to stave off heat injuries and weeks of painful peeling. We even shared with the older gentleman parked next to us as he related how sunscreen was the one thing he had forgotten. A short, light conversation later, he departed and we put our racing bibs on. Since we both wore button down hiking shirts, this was more of a task than we assumed it would be. Getting flimsy pieces of wax/plastic coated paper to remain taught and straight with four safety pins is challenging in the dark at 5:30 in the morning. However, this was success #2 for the day.

By 6:00 AM we had found ourselves in our respective corrals (me in Civilian Heavy and him in Civilian Light) per the warnings of the literature we had been given (anyone not in their corral by 6:00 AM would not be let on the course). Unfortunately, this guidance proved wrong. About 50% of the marchers wee still at their cars or, more likely, waiting in line for one of 3 dozen porta-potties that lined the west side of the field the corrals were located in. It did not appear as if the organizers were about to bar 50% of the field from participating so those who followed the instructions simply got to shiver through the chilly desert morning.

At 6:38 AM the opening ceremony began. Fairly standard content: welcome message, posting of colors, national anthems (Filipino and American), invocation, motivational speech, F-15 flyover, symbolic roll call – you know, standard stuff for anyone who has every been to a military ceremony of any kind. Other than starting a couple of minutes late (sacrilege for any commander), this also went off without a hitch.

The husband continued to shiver through the wee-morning hours (he really doesn’t like any temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) as we waited for the other corrals to empty and our respective starts. Seeing a lack of organization and accountability, he moved into my corral so we could start together and not have to try to find each other in the sea of people that were the marchers. Since we ended up near the back of the pack, I don’t think this had a negative impact on anybody’s march.

An hour and a half after the opening ceremonies, we set foot on the course at 8:10 AM. Admittedly, we skipped meeting the survivors of the Bataan Death March (you know, the event that this memorial march is named after) and opted to see them at the end of the long walk. The husband didn’t want to be last and I was a bit antsy from the 3 hours of pointless standing I had just put myself through so I upped the pace to a respectable 14 minutes a mile. We soon found ourselves coasting by people who had been released in the corral ahead of us (Civilian Light). All was good in the first mile because it was a wide, 4-lane road and the marchers were spread out (left-to-right) with plenty of room for individuals or teams to maneuver around those going slower.

At the start of the second mile, things got a bit more cramped. We went off road to circumvent a large grass field and the foot pounded trail was only 2-3 people wide and showing signs of 7,000+ pairs of feet having already pounded over it that morning. A few more passes of slower movers and we hit Water Point 1 and mile marker 2. Both of us were doing good as we grabbed some cups of water from the volunteers (great people!) and bobbed and weaved through the mass of stopped or barely moving marchers gathering in the middle of the course (a theme that repeated itself many times over in the miles to come).

IMG_2715Miles 2 thru 5 were ultimately uneventful. We maintained a good pace (about 4 miles per hour) and were doing quite well navigating the masses of people without getting pushy. Remember, we weren’t looking to complete for a medal, but we also didn’t want to get stuck at a pace that put us on the hardest part of the course during the hottest part of the day. So we pushed on.

Miles 6 and 7 got interesting really quickly. At around mile marker 6, the terrain begins to slope upward. It is a slight incline. It isn’t a mountain nor is it steep enough to really notice at first, but it is there. Then you realize, “oh crap! I’m on a frickin’ hill!” Next thing you realize is that you’re slogging through 6-inch deep sand with enough give in it to require additional energy for each step. Coupled with the maneuvering around people who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings or placement on the trail and your energy starts to drain quickly.

At some point in Mile 7, the husband twisted his knee pretty hard which resulted in a grimacing look of concentrated effort. Underneath that concentrated effort was an internal monologue of cursing, berating, and hate towards me for pushing the pace on a hill in deep sand. Fortunately (for me), buried underneath the pain and momentary dislike for my presence was his undying love and affection for me (otherwise I may not have come down from that hill). Finally, around 10:30 AM we passed mile marker 8 and rolled into Checkpoint 3/9.

This was the moment for a decision to be made.

I turned to the husband and asked the very serious question, “if we continue on the course, will you be able to complete it without a high possibility of a serious injury?” As he contemplated, I asked myself the same question and came to a very abrupt conclusion: I wasn’t going to make it even if he could. At some point after mile marker 6, I had stopped sweating as profusely as I had been and my hands looked like over-stuffed sausages. I tried to make a fist and couldn’t get my fingertips to touch my palms (something I can usually do without thinking about it). The pack I was wearing was cutting off circulation to my arms and dehydration was beginning to set in with 18.2 miles to go. I wasn’t going to make it the full length of the course.

He answered my question with a negative, an apology, and some tears welling in his eyes. I wrapped my arm around him and smiled, letting him know what my answer was going to be even if he was good to finish the course. We sat on the side of the road for a while longer before picking up our packs and turning left towards the Honorary Route instead of right for the full course. Our day was over (except for the 6.2 miles to the finish line in order to get off the course) and we were disqualified marchers.

I swear to anyone that reads this, Miles 9-14.2 were each longer than any of the miles before them. In the first 8 miles, the mile marker signs were frequent and motivating. Mile 9 felt more like Mile 11 and Mile 13, I swear to you, was actually Mile 17. They were so far apart and took so long to get to I became very frustrated with the world.

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The Husband somewhere around Mile 12

Admittedly, my mind had already moved from Mile 8 to the Finish Line by the time we stepped out of Checkpoint 3/9 so the thought of 6.2 miles of walking (somehow uphill a majority of the way) in the same sandy conditions we had just come out of was not putting my in the best of moods. Somewhere around Mile 11 I was pissed at the world and ready for it all to be over. The husband wasn’t doing much better and together in our collective misery we made it to the Finish Line. Crowds of people cheered and encouraged us through the last mile and we gracefully shook the hands of the survivors as we crossed.

In the end, I didn’t even weigh my pack because we were already disqualified by not completing the full route. We were both disappointed, in pain, and ready to be rid of any clothing/equipment we didn’t need without being arrested for indecency. Unfortunately, the Finish Line was about 3/4 of a mile from the Start Line which is where our car was located. Such a rough end to a rough day.

Check out Part 2 in “The Day After” series of posts to read about some lessons learned from this experience!

Did you march in this year’s Bataan Memorial Death March? Did you complete the course you signed up for or did you make the difficult decision to cut it short? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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PTSD Does Not Mean “Broken”

Post 8 - PTSD
Me in Iraq, circa 2008

As I was running on the treadmill yesterday morning, listening to the band Five Finger Death Punch, my mind wandered back to the days of old when I was in the Army. The picture accompanying this post is of me in Iraq circa 2008. I was a Staff Sergeant, infantry squad leader, and on my third tour of duty in that particular country. The quality of life during that visit to Iraq was much higher than my previous trips to other parts of the country. We had clean water, secure base, relatively clean living conditions, and only one enemy contact (an improvised explosive devise that didn’t hit my platoon or squad). It was a quiet time in our area of responsibility in Iskandariyah and its surrounding area.

With each trudging stride on the treadmill, I remembered the long, grueling runs up and down the “Schoolhouse” route in Korea. This was a favorite route of many Team Leaders (including myself once I earned the position) for its steep inclines and seemingly disproportionately shallow declines that culminated in a beautiful school tucked away from modern civilization. I recalled my brief runs on the small airbase outside of Camp Fallujah in 2004 at the beginning of my first tour in Iraq. Back then I had dreams of Ranger School, Special Forces, and a life of hardship directed by the U.S. Army. My mind flashed forward to Fort Campbell and the near leisurely squad runs I oversaw each morning. I would run the squad in formation between 1 and 3 miles out then turn them around and let them free run back to the company area – requiring each member of the squad to get there before I did. More recently, in Kosovo I reminisced about the midnight run I did, alone, that consisted of, well, running. I simply put on shorts and a t-shirt with my running shoes and started running (very Forrest Gump style). That run lasted about 15 miles and a couple of hours; running up and down the dirt roads that circled Camp Bondsteel thinking about all the things in my life.

Running has almost always been an activity of calm for me despite the fact that I am an “ugly runner”. I don’t talk while running, I don’t engage, I simply run. Nowadays, I am running to lose weight, focus my mind, and (hopefully) prevent pure embarrassment as I tackle actual races throughout the year. I have never been the fastest runner nor the slowest, always existing somewhere in the middle. This is okay with me – I don’t think I ever dreamed of being a world-class athlete, let alone a gold medal winning marathoner. Running is my center and every time I stop running for extended periods of time, I find myself off balance which negatively impacts my life.

What does all this talk about running have to do with the title of this blog post?

Post 9 - Promotion
Me getting my sergeant rank pinned on by two very helpful squad leaders…

Well, I also remembered the sprint I made from a courtyard in Ramadi, Iraq to the wall surrounding a mosque while under readily identifiable enemy fire. For those that don’t know what that means: bad guys were actively shooting bullets from AK-47 rifles in my, and my team’s direction, with the intent to kill one or all of us. The distance covered was about 100 meters and required a slight elbow-like turn halfway to the destination (the scariest part since it required the slightest decrease in forward momentum to avoid falling on our asses). We were completely exposed to the enemy and any step could have been followed by a bullet to a softer part of our bodies.

I recalled the building-to-building bounding (sprinting from one place to another) in a hostile marketplace in the rural outskirts of southwest Baghdad while a sniper and gunman took pot-shots at me and my soldiers. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was falling down around us, everything appeared gray and downtrodden. At one point, in a surrealistic moment,  I took cover behind a vandalized mural of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the open courtyard at the heart of the marketplace. The rain fell around me as I peaked around the edge to better identify where the enemy was firing from. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, my radio seemed quieter, and an odd calm took over the world. I was strangely at peace in the middle of chaos.

My mind brought to bear the memories of jumping out of a helicopter as it hovered a foot or so off the ground over a potato field outside an abandoned, half-built Russian power plant south of Baghdad. Once the bird (helicopter) dropped its babies it quickly rose into the air and peeled away into the jet-black night sky. I led my platoon (as point-man, not designated leader) out of the potato field, onto an asphalt road, across a bridge, and through the front gates of this abandoned complex. My squad cleared the main administrative building while the other squads peeled off to their designated clearance zones. Calling the building that reminded me of most small American schools “clear” (no enemy presence), my men and I moved to clearing the shanty town of plywood buildings that had been used for storage and living spaces that surrounded the admin building. All appeared clear of enemy presence. During this clearance, someone (I don’t remember who), found a “bongo” (snub-nose, typically flat bed truck popular in the Middle East) truck with a solid coating of blood on its bed. It was presumed this was the blood of the American soldiers we had been sent to look for after their abduction by enemy forces at a checkpoint a few miles from the power plant.

Many more of these memories found their way to my mind’s eye during my short run on the treadmill yesterday morning. I started thinking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it seems that the American public expects every veteran to suffer from this problem. It can be seen in movies and television all the time: Agent Booth in Bones was traumatized by the loss of his spotter, Vietnam Veterans have been portrayed as “broken” since the war was actively in progress, and newer movies about Iraq (Hurt Locker (puke), American Soldiers, and others) always contain a large portion of its cast reliving their memories from “the shit”. I know, first-hand, that PTSD is a very real thing and different people have different thresholds for dealing with it.

But what about those of us who don’t actively suffer from PTSD? Are we the exception or are we broken in other ways?

I don’t have nightmares. I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I am not easily triggered into an “over-the-top” reaction to explosions, gun fire, or falling plywood. I don’t drive in the center of the road fearing there might be a bomb buried on the side of the road. I don’t drink heavily, trying to drown my memories and tears. Most importantly, I don’t relive my memories, I simply remember them and an appropriate emotional response occurs.

When I first left the Army, I did have issues with hyper-vigilance and over-the-top emotional responses (typically anger) to minor slights. However, this is more attributable to why I left the Army and the speed at which that happened than anything else (that’s a whole other long blog post). To help with this, I had three appointments with a psychologist at the VA in Tucson, Arizona. I think she found my telling of the stories (lack of emotion, more of a report than a story) more interesting than my reaction to them at that time. I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I didn’t seek any further treatment since I was (and am) fully capable of thriving in day-to-day life without pharmaceutical, therapeutic, or self-medicating treatment.

Despite these facts, it seems that non-veterans and veterans alike assume that since I was an infantryman who was in Iraq for 33 months during some of the worst fighting the country experienced that I should be broken, crying, and constantly talking about the medications I am on to keep me from being a danger to myself or others around me. It is despicable that people assume soldiers are broken simply because they served.

I guess what this overly long post is driving at is: Don’t assume I am broken and should be acting like that guy in that movie who drinks too much, can’t stop crying, and ultimately just needs a hug.

For those people who do suffer from PTSD, veteran or not, find someone to talk to, whether it is a professional or a friend or a family member or a dog, don’t let your experiences and memories run your life. Let it out and seek help sooner than later

Any veterans out there with an opinion on this matter? Anyone know of some good resources for people to use if they suffer from PTSD? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

2018 Goals – Status Check

It has been nearly a month since 2018 started and I have worked the past 4 weeks to make meaningful gains towards my goals for the year. I won’t lie, this hasn’t been the easiest thing to do. Yesterday, I had a couple of wrenches thrown in the machine that is my progress by work. I spent most of last night sorting through different ways to handle the stress introduced throughout the week as well as the bombshells of Friday the 26th of January.

Morning RunDespite unforeseen (yet expected, break that down) circumstances resulting in some financial strain, increased stress in life, and the temptation to slip into my old ways, I still got the house cleaned and laundry started. Win for me. This morning, I woke up and had my cup of coffee, furthered the weekly laundry parade, and headed to the gym. In one hour and six minutes, I ran/walked 5.34 miles on the treadmill with a variable incline. Another win for me. Of course, that euphoric feeling after running did nothing but help me decide that I am going to make it through this first hurdle of the year and, most likely, will come out the other side better off than I am today.

Remember, when life throws a roadblock in front of you, the best thing to do is accept the situation and its circumstances, determine the path forward, and drive on!

In that spirit, I have decided to give everyone a status update on my progress towards accomplishing my 2018 goals. Here we go:

  1. Lose 25 Pounds
    Weight Tracking
    Down 6 pounds!
    • STATUS: As of this morning I weigh 197.4 lbs!
    • I started the year at 203.2 pounds and have been weighing myself everyday, but only paying attention to the Saturday weigh-ins (for progress tracking).
    • I am very happy with my progress on this goal!
  2. Maintain a personal blog with no fewer than 52 posts in 2018
    • STATUS: This is my 7th post this year, definitely ahead of schedule!
    • Writing these blog posts has been thoroughly therapeutic and fun – each week I am looking forward to sitting down and publishing.
    • I recommend that anyone who can, should start a personal blog and commit to posting on a regular basis!
  3. Log at least 180 personal journal entries
    • STATUS: As of this morning, I am at 15 entries!
    • I am write on track (get it?) with this goal though sometimes I feel I’m still not writing enough.
  4. Complete the 10k “Run for the Zoo”
    • STATUS: Training is in full swing!
    • This race isn’t until May so I can’t complete it quite yet.
    • However, I have been running 1-2 times a week (4+ miles) along with high intensity interval training twice a week in order to prepare myself.
    • In the coming weeks, I will be switching from “get my body used to moving again” into an actual 10k training plan – more to come on this front later.
  5. Finish the half-marathon OR marathon in the Duke City Marathon
    • STATUS: Training is in full swing!
    • This race isn’t until October so I can’t complete it quite yet.
    • Once I start a complete the “Run for the Zoo” 10k, I am going to 16 week marathon training program – more to come on this front later.
  6. QUIT SMOKING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
    • STATUS: No change since the beginning of the year 😔
    • This is the most difficult goal for me to accomplish this year. I’ll write a separate post about my smoking problem in the future.
  7. Pay OFF 85% of existing debt
    • STATUS: 5% of my existing debt was paid off in January!
    • I am right on track with this goal and, barring an emergency or sudden change in my life, will be accomplished with plenty of time to spare
  8. Save $15,000 in cash and investments
    • STATUS: I have saved 3% of the total.
    • At this rate, I will only reach 36% of my total goal by the end of the year. I need to step it up and find additional sources of income as well as tighten the belt a bit.
  9. Hike to the top of the Crest (Sandia Mountain)
    • STATUS: Training is in full swing!
    • As a part of my training for the Bataan Memorial Death March, I make a point to be off-road or on trails as much as possible to help me with this goal as well.
    • Planned ascent is November so I still have plenty of time to make this happen.
  10. Read 20 books (of any subject)
    • STATUS: Halfway through two books at the moment
    • I haven’t been focusing on this goal as much as I should – plenty of excuses but no good reasons.

So, there it is, a lengthy post about my progress towards my 2018 goals. There is plenty of work left to do and I remain optimistic that I will be able to accomplish everything on this list this year. There may be some blood, sweat, and tears in the process, but it is all worth it in the end.

Until next time, take a moment to breath for 5 minutes – it really can help!

How are you doing with your 2018 goals? Have you run into any barriers causing you to stutter-step on your path to accomplishing your goals? How do you deal with stress from work? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Rinconada Canyon's end

A Spur of the Moment Walk Through History…

I have lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the past 6 years – having returned to the Land of Enchantment after a 12 year hiatus – and have been doing a disservice to myself ever since. On only a handful of occasions, I have packed a backpack and laced up the hiking boots to tackle an easy to intermediate trail within 20 miles of the city. Most of my focus has been the Embudo Trail in Cibola National Forest along the westside of the Sandia Mountains which act as the eastern border of Albuquerque. The trail connects with a system of trails that lead to the Crest (one of my goals this year) and is challenging while providing beautiful panoramic views of the city.

However, on the opposite side of the city is the smaller (but not small) Petroglyph National Monument. When people think of the West Side of Albuquerque, they immediately conjure images of cookie-cutter sub-divisions, new construction, and wide open expanses of desert. Many of us who live on the east side of the river (you know, real Albuquerque) do our best to not make the journey to the West Side without good reason. Well, I found out today that Petroglyph National Monument is a damn good reason!

I was out doing a favor for a friend who lives on the West Side and decided to stop in at one of the shorter trails known as Rinconada Canyon. This is a short 2.2 mile loop which features over 300 petroglyphs ranging in age from 3,000 to 300 years old. The canyon is quiet despite having higher than I normally enjoy foot traffic. On a cool winter day like today, the wind howls through the canyon, smacking you in the face as you venture in and propelling you out at the halfway point.

There are educational placards dotting the first half of the trail, but you don’t need these to understand the historical significance of this imagery. Whether it was the ancient Pueblo people marking trade routes or Spaniards documenting their presence in the canyon with their sheep, the fact that these images still exist today is awe inspiring. We now live in a world of digital imprints and documentation – however, the nature of this digital storage is that it will decay much faster than a stone or piece of wood thus being lost forever. In 100 years, this blog will likely have left no permanent impact; it will be a blink in the history of mankind and forgotten without prejudice.

If you find yourself in Albuquerque, on the West Side of the river, plug Rinconda Canyon into your phone’s navigation app and take a break from the modern world. Take your time on the trail and think about the lives that the people who left their mark on the landscape led. Can we, despite our technology and modern conveniences, learn anything from these people? Will you make such an impact on the world?

Where have you been recently that made you stop and wonder about the world we live in today? Share your experiences in the comments!