How to screw up a DNF – Bataan Memorial Death March Race Report

My readers, I have failed you. I am in Charleston for work for the remainder of this week and although I tried mightily to remember my camera cord, I did not succeed. So that means that you’re getting lots of pictures I stole from other people who hopefully don’t mind. You’ll get the race report first this week and the actual journey out to New Mexico second, because, quite frankly, T-Rex Runner don’t care. She don’t give a shit.

I would say that race morning was a new record in how early I had to wake up to get there, but thanks to the Disney Marathon, it was not. Nonetheless, I had to be up at  4 am so we could leave Brian’s house by 4:30. Fawn and Brian aren’t exactly morning people, so I don’t blame them for hating me. I was a little nervous because opening ceremonies for the race started at 6:30 and you HAD to be there to see them or you weren’t allowed to start the race.  Because the race is held entirely on a military base (White Sands Missile Range, boom), they recommended getting there extremely early – try 4 am – to make sure you were in place in time. This is my nightmare. When we pulled up to the base around 5 am, there was a huge line of cars stretching for miles and all you could see was red lights. I started to panic a little.  Fortunately, all was not lost and we made it through the gate in about 45 minutes.

Brian won't stand near me because it's early and he's angry. He also doesn't eat carbs, which could be part of the problem.

As soon as we got to the soccer field where the opening ceremonies were being held, I was blown away. There were thousands of active duty military in uniform carrying their ruck sacks. Many were grouped into teams of 5, which is how most of the participants complete the course. There were also a ton of wounded warriors participating in the march – talk about humbling!

You can see the sunlight hitting the mountains in the background. Also, where does one purchase a flag of that size? I would like one for my home.

The active duty military marching in the heavy division (carrying 35 pounds in a backpack) were in the first corral, then the active duty military in the light division (not carrying anything) and the civilians in the heavy division were in the next one, then the runners, then the honorary march participants, who were going 14.2 miles.  This seemed like a strange set up to me at first because I am used to corrals being set up with the fastest people first – I didn’t realize that this was just for opening ceremonies. While milling around the start nervously, I saw Larry Macon, who I met at Callaway Gardens and who remains one of the coolest guys ever. I just had time to go to the bathroom and get back to my corral before the ceremony started, where I miraculously found John!

It kind of feels like I've known him forever, except this picture was taken within 3 minutes of meeting him for the first time.

John is a friend of Lauren’s, and she was SO excited to find out he was a Maniac too. So we’ve emailed back and forth about different races and were even at Little Rock together, except my refusal to wake up early enough for a race picture prevented us from meeting. John is really fast and was going for a sub-4 marathon. I, meanwhile, just wanted to survive the thing and make my flight. Not sure if you can tell from that exquisite picture of me, but by this point, I had been sick for almost a week with severe bronchitis- I just didn’t know it yet because I’d been too busy to go to the doctor. Oops.

The opening ceremonies were pretty amazing. A bunch of paratroopers dropped literally right in front of us on the soccer field. My cousin’s husband is a paratrooper, and I am now even more impressed. Furthermore, while I realize this sounds dumb, did you know they carry guns while steering all through the sky? Crazy. Probably necessary though.

When was the last time you were at a marathon where paratroopers dropped in? Don't worry, I'll wait.
Oh you know, just breaking out the gun he was keeping in his pocket in case he landed.

This video gives you a sense of how powerful the opening ceremonies were.

The ceremony also included a flyover. Yes, a flyover. Like at the Superbowl, but meaningful. Also, their timing was impeccable.

I wonder how much it would cost to be allowed to go on a flyover. Who wants to hook me up?

One of the last things they did was a roll call for the regional survivors of the original Bataan March and those who had died in the past year. Three local survivors were in attendance, and many had died in the past year. Most of the men are in their late 80s or early 90s now, but their voices were sharp and clear when they said “here!”

One of the survivors 🙂

With that, the race started. John and I weren’t entirely sure what was happening since we thought the groups in front started first, but apparently they were just placed there for the opening ceremonies so they could have the best view. Fair enough.

The last time I would make a happy face for the next six hours

I really had no goal for this race besides finish in one piece and catch my flight in El Paso. In order to accomplish this, I had to finish in no more than 6.5 hours. Seems easy enough, right? Well, let’s review:

  1. I had contracted some illness, possibly the bubonic plague, small pox, or dysentery, and been sick with it for nearly a week. No medicine because I’m an idiot tough. Hadn’t run since St. Patrick’s Day.
  2. The course is widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest in the country. 21 of 26.2 miles are run on sandy trails. This is nothing like a road.
  3. The course makes you go up and over a mountain range – 7 miles are continuously uphill.
  4. The forecast high was 86 degrees. There are also no trees known to live in New Mexico, apparently.
  5. Most of the participants “march” or hike the course instead of even attempting to run it.

All told, I wasn’t terribly confident, but the first 7.5 miles or so were pretty ok. For one, the scenery was absolutely incredible. It was like something out of a movie.

DO YOU SEE?

This part of the course was on a dirt/sand road that was reasonably well packed. You could run, just not terribly fast, if you watched where you stepped and made sure to stay on the “good” parts of the road. However, as we turned to start heading up and over the mountain, I knew that completing the entire distance was not in the cards for me. My entire body felt incredibly weak. It seemed like I was floating. I could not fathom the idea of continuing to do this for 18 more miles, knowing that the hardest part of the course was yet to come. At this point, I made the difficult decision to do the 14.2 mile race instead – the Honorary March. This would mean I would DNF – Did Not Finish, in runner terms – in a marathon for the first time ever, but to me, it was the right decision. I was sick, hot, and feeling like I was going to collapse for no really great reason aside from just being run down. I heard some guys ahead of me talking about how the split was coming up, so I anxiously awaited it. Meanwhile, I texted my mom, Fawn, and AJ to tell them I was going to do the honorary march instead.

The people marching in gas masks were apparently fine, just not me.

When I got to mile 11, it seemed strange that I hadn’t come to the split yet. I mean, the honorary march was only 14.2 miles long, so how much farther could it possibly be? So I asked someone. And he informed me that the race split off 3 miles ago.

I do not think it is possible to put into words the sheer panic and horror I felt at this news. It was now too late to turn around, because by the time I was done, I would have ended up running 20 miles. And by that point, why not just finish the whole thing? I didn’t cry, but I thought about it. Instead, I just put one foot in front of the other and kept walking up that stupid mountain. Yes, walking. There was very little running to be done at this point since it was all uphill in the sand. I didn’t feel bad. No one around me was running either. Alas, God was conspiring (with himself?) to keep me from my DNF.

That’s not to say there weren’t some cool sights along the way. We got to see a little area that was set up to simulate a town in Afghanistan so soldiers could practice their tactical maneuvers and whatnot.

Let's play "find the mosque!"

When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do the honorary march anymore, I tried to text Fawn and let her know – but now I had no service and I was able to see that the only person who had received my last text was T-Rex Mom, who was rejoicing since she was adamantly opposed to me running in the first place. The problem was, she had texted Fawn talking about how I wasn’t going to do the full marathon and Fawn had no idea what she was talking about. For some reason, I couldn’t get a text out on the top of a mountain, but I was able to call Fawn and tell her I had no choice but to march on, literally.

Eventually we started coming back down the mountain, which was not as much of a relief as you’d think. It was now even hotter and the “downhill” aspect of the mountain was still pretty rolling so you went up and down. There was a long dry stretch of over 3 miles with no water station, which honestly should be a crime in any marathon, let alone one as challenging, hot, and dry as this one. Fortunately, I saw a border patrol agent who also happened to be a paramedic (don’t ask) pulled over on the side of the mountain, and he gave me water. Then he took one look at me and said I should definitely not keep going because I looked like I was about to fall over. I think this was mile 18, and he was right. He took my pulse and it was maxed out considering my medication. So I sat in his suburban for awhile, cooled off, and pondered my choices. I could be driven down the mountain on an ATV by another border patrol agent, which would have been cool. I could finish the race and hope for the best. Or I could go to the next water station and reevaluate. I chose the latter, since I couldn’t imagine quitting at mile 18, because I’m dumb like that.

At least there was pretty scenery. By the way, those poppies only bloom every few years. I win.

I made it to mile 20 and kept trudging. By this point, I was running very little, and I was about to enter the Sand Pit. The Sand Pit is a mile long stretch of ankle deep sand (or higher) that is loose to the point of it feeling like you’re walking in a sand dune. It is miserable. If I thought it was hard to walk/run in the sand before (it was) this was nearly impossible. My feet just slid to the side with every step. I truly felt like I was in a death march, but all the while, I just wanted to make my flight. That was the only thing I cared about. I don’t think I’ve ever been that focused in my entire life.

This is my nightmare

Somewhere after the Sand Pit, in the last couple of miles, I just sat down on the side of the road and refused to move. I couldn’t anymore. I was so exhausted and depleted, thirsty, sunburned (despite carrying sunscreen in my backpack on FOUR separate occasions). If someone had come up to me right then and offered to take me off the course, I would have accepted. Two miles from the finish. I have no shame. Eventually, I got up and started to walk very slowly. A guy came up to me and said “I’m going to walk it in, want to walk with me?” So I said sure, and Brian from Indiana and I became BFFs for the next two miles. He’s not a runner, but this was his third time doing the race. He’s in the Army Reserve, so he is on a team that comes out and hikes it each year.  The problem was that the team had disbanded because one of their members got hurt on the course, so they all just continued on their own paces. We talked about races and the military and life, and at Mile 25 I told him that if someone offered to drive me to the finish, I would take it and I wouldn’t even care if I didn’t finish. Honestly, I still think that’s true. I was that tired.

At mile 26, you could see the finish line, but we weren’t back on pavement yet. I have always insisted on running in the last mile of a marathon, minimum, no matter what, but in this one, I refused to run until I was on pavement. The good news was, my time was somewhere around 6:19, so I still had 11 minutes to spare!

Brian is in the grey. I'm the one who looks like death.

As soon as we finished the race, you were able to shake the hands of the survivors, who were all sitting down in a line under a tent. The problem was I could barely stand, and I knew I would fall over if I tried to wait in line to shake their hands, so I couldn’t. I feel bad about this, but the medical guy took one look at me and tried to put me in the medical tent. I just kept saying “I HAVE TO FIND MY FRIEND! I HAVE TO GO TO THE AIRPORT!” like a crazy person, over and over. The guy was forcing me into the tent when Brian came to my rescue and we walked as fast as we could to the car so we could leave for the airport.

I had prepared ahead with a ton of baby wipes for cleaning up after the race since I knew I wouldn’t have time for a shower. I would apologize to the people on the plane, but I actually think I did a pretty good job and it could have been worse. At least that’s what I tell myself. Of course, once I got on the plane (with pretty much exactly 11 minutes to spare before boarding) I couldn’t sleep. I was so tired and so sick that I couldn’t.

So, here’s what I learned during this race:

  1. It’s really, really stupid to run a marathon when you’re sick;
  2. It’s even more stupid if that marathon happens to have one of the most challenging courses of any race;
  3. It’s completely absurd if you suck at booking travel and don’t plan ahead for things like “running through sand” and “crossing a mountain range;”
  4. I will never run in another race that touches sand at any point, no matter how short the distance;
  5. There are few things that can take the place of incredible scenery during a race;
  6. There’s no such thing as too many water stations, but there is definitely such a thing as too few; and,
  7. Our military is amazing.
As miserable as I was during this race, there is nothing more inspirational than stuff like this.

As for the DNF? Well, a few days removed from this experience, I am now glad I finished this race, but just barely. Honestly, it was a stupid thing to do, and if I had been paying more attention, I would definitely have been better off taking the shorter course. That being said, I can cross another state off my list. Whatever, T-Rex learns the hard way.

10 thoughts on “How to screw up a DNF – Bataan Memorial Death March Race Report

  1. Thank you for your report. Between part 1 and part 2, I am more committed than ever to complete this race as soon as possible.

    My first marathon was Marine Corps Marathon. I’m a “fashionably late” finisher. Hello? Could I pick something any harder? Obviously, yes, I could, but as I’m a former Marine, MCM had to be number one. I know that due to my race commitments for spring 2013 (half marathons… I’m only “half crazy” …………for now. After the Route 66, I have this instatiable need to be a “double agent”), I know that the upcoming Bataan Memorial March is out of the question.

    I guess I just need to book myself out for 2014 and pray some survivors are still there. I need to shake their hands.

    1. I’m glad you commented on this. Between my new PW this weekend, which made me think about Bataan (my former PW), and your comments, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this race and upon reflection, I got a lot out of the experience. I felt absolutely horrible, but everything else about it was great. You will not regret doing this race! God willing, some survivors will be there to shake your hand. And hey, Marine Corps wasn’t exactly a bad choice 🙂

  2. So I just found your blog today, linked from Running Around the Bend, and I did this race too (the full in 2012 with a pack, and the 14 mile memorial march about 6 weeks ago without weight). The first survivor you show in a pic is Oscar Leonard, I just got to meet him and talk to him a lot this year. He’s still strong and kicking! I ended up running most of the full in 2012, but there were tons of people without packs and tons of people walking around me — think I was going at about walking speed! Not sure I ever did a full review, but this was after the finish:
    http://carinaruns.blogspot.com/2012/03/holy-moly.html
    I can only imagine how you felt after realizing you’d missed the split. What a tough race and warm day to be sick. You’re a machine for finishing! Can’t wait to read more of your blog.

    1. That is so cool, Carina! Thanks for identifying Oscar. The surviving vets absolutely amaze me! Your race report, even if you didn’t do a full recap, is really inspiring. I can’t imagine finishing with a huge open wound from a pack or even doing the event with a pack at all. You’re awesome!

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