Thursday, October 12, 2017

Race Report: Bataan Memorial Death March

I've been to Texas several times in my life, especially having grown up in Kansas.  Most recently, I was in Austin back in February for the Austin Marathon.  I've been to the Dallas and Fort Worth area several times, San Antonio a handful of times, and Houston and Austin a couple times apiece.  That covers the five largest cities in the state.  I've also driven through North Texas on the way from Wichita to Albuquerque, where it passes through the fragrant cattle ranches of Dalhart, Texas.  But I had never been to West Texas, the extreme western reaches of the state, where the climate is more desert like than anything else, and the elevation is highest in the state.  In fact, it's so far west that El Paso is actually closer to San Diego than it is is to Houston!

Decked out for the march
But why West Texas?  Well, El Paso is the closest major airport to the area where the Bataan Memorial Death March takes place, in White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).  This year is the 28th year of the memorial march, but more importantly is the 75th anniversary of the actual march that happened in the Philippines.  This is not really a race... it's an experience.  In fact, one should not go through this event not thinking about it as a race, but more of as a way to pay homage to a bygone time.  Through my participation in Broadway Barkada, I was connected to Ben de Guzman when I was in DC in 2014 to perform at the Kennedy Center for the "After the Storm" concert, a benefit for victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated parts of the Philippines that year.  Ben (a college friend of Broadway Barkada founder Liz Casasola) serves on the executive committee as outreach director for the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, or FilVetREP for short, and reached out to me about my potential participation in events commemorating the Bataan Death March.  It just so happened I was already planning to participate in the 2017 march, so this worked out quite well.  This being the 75th anniversary, I thought it would be important to participate as there were few survivors of the march still living - even fewer Filipino survivors.  More importantly, my great-uncle, Ulrico Causing, who was a soldier in the Philippine Army, was a casualty of the Bataan Death March, perishing at the age of 21.  I would be running in his honor.

Through communications with Ben and other members of the FilVetREP team, I agreed to participate in their gala honoring Filipino veterans and celebrating the recent signing of bill into law by President Obama, recognizing Filipino veterans from World War II (who, at the time of the war, were considered Americans, as the Philippines was then a Commonwealth under United States rule) with the Congressional Gold Medal.  The gala would occur in El Paso the night before the march.  Additionally, FilVetREP was the primary contact for march organizers with the Filipino community, and through negotiations, they were able to include "Lupang Hinirang," the Philippine National Anthem, in the opening ceremonies to be performed for the first time in the 28-year history of this event.  I was given the honor to represent Filipinos by performing this song for all those in attendance.  My participation in the march became even more important, and more meaningful!

I had a super early flight on Saturday morning that took me to Atlanta, and then a lengthy layover before my flight to El Paso.  I took advantage of my Priority Pass Select membership and spent a couple hours at The Club at ATL, having a light breakfast, before heading to my gate several terminals over.  Upon arriving at the gate, the plane had begun boarding, and I could already tell, a majority of the plane were participants in the military and ROTC divisions of Sunday's Bataan Memorial Death March.

I got into El Paso at about noon, and called the DoubleTree in the downtown area just as we landed so their complimentary shuttle would be ready to pick me up as soon as I exited the plane and walked out the door.  And wow, it was HOT when I arrived.  I had left New York City and its just above freezing weather and landed in El Paso, where the temps were easily into the 70s.  Being that we were in the desert, it was a dry heat.  The shuttle was waiting outside to bring me back to the hotel just as I got outside, and I was checked into the hotel by 12:30.

El Paso from the Wyler Tramway
The rest of the folks I was meeting up with for the day's events were still out at White Sands, repping FilVetREP at "in-processing," where participants could retrieve their bibs for the race and get official Bataan Memorial Death March merchandise.  I had arranged for one of these folks to retrieve my bib as I wasn't going to be able to get myself all the way to White Sands to get my things on Saturday with all the events happening that day after my arrival. In my research prior to leaving for El Paso, I found out that one of the local sites, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, was having a special event on Saturday afternoon commemorating its 16 year anniversary of being open to the public as part of the Texas State Park system.  The tramway is located on the eastern side of the Franklin Mountains that look over El Paso, and sits at an elevation of 4,692 feet.  The gondola ride up the side of the mountain brings visitors to the top of Ranger Peak, another 1,000 feet up.  On a clear day, visitors can see 7,000 square miles around, covering three states and two countries. Today's celebration marked the busiest day of the year, and everyone was to use a shuttle transporting visitors from a senior center's parking lot along the steep main road to the bottom of the tramway, as the tramway's parking lot was being used for food trucks and entertainment.

Well, it was a disorganized mess - despite taking an Uber all the way up to the site, State Parks police were only allowing the shuttle to transport visitors back and forth, and the line was growing ever longer.  The shuttle bus - SINGULAR shuttle bus - was a VERY slow ride, so people were waiting in line in the oppressive 85º Texas heat for upwards of 30-45 minutes, probably up to an hour for some. I finally got my way up to the bottom of the tramway, and immediately headed for the food trucks... of which there were TWO.  Literally, there was so much space up there, but the parking lot was being used by two food stands and the majority of the rest of the lot was underutilized for a tent, an entertainment area, and a few tables exhibiting the Texas State Parks and other local organizations. After getting my fill of some food, taking in the beautiful view, and enjoying the Mexican folk dancing by local dance groups, I decided to head back down as the lines for the tram itself were another hour of waiting. I got some great photos of the views anyway, and I was losing time needed to prep for the gala that night.  Instead of waiting for the shuttle, I joined a few other fit-looking folks (likely college students?) and hiked my way down the road... well, ran most of it.  Thankfully, despite the low cellular signal, I was able to get an Uber to pick me up at the senior center's parking lot and take me back to the DoubleTree.

My framed certificate!
Upon arriving, I showered and got dressed, and then met up with Ben and Christy Panis Poisot, FilVetREP Regional Director from Houston and organizer of this year's gala. I was able to soundcheck with DJ Noel Manuel before the event, and then get situated before the program began with me singing the American and Philippine national anthems with the presentation of colors, an invocation, and remarks from Major General Tony Taguba, Philippine Consul General Adelio Angelito S. Cruz, and World War II Veteran Remigio Cabacar.  Dinner was served while speakers made their remarks, which was followed by the entertainment portion of the program, which continued with me performing two other songs ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "New York State of Mind" as well as dance performances by the Filipino American Association of El Paso (FAAEP) Folk Dance Group performing the Tinikling and the Tigua Indian Social Dance Group performing a Native American “Eagle Dance.”

Step and repeat!
With Philippine Consul General Adelio Cruz
With WWII Veteran Remigio Cabacar
While many continued to take advantage of the gala's dancing part of the evening, I called it an early night, as I was going to wake up SUPER early the next morning to get into the van shuttling us to WSMR by 5:20am, as it was about an hour drive there, including the security checkpoint as cars enter the military installation. I set out all my clothes and got into bed by around 11pm, getting a good six hours of sleep, and then more sleep on the drive out in the van provided by FilVetREP.

Massive US flag waves over the
opening ceremonies area
Upon arriving at WSMR, we were surprised to see many folks already parked or just waking up from camping overnight onsite.  There was a slight chill in the air, but being in the 50s, I was quite content with the weather, having escaped temps nearly 20 degrees lower.  The klieg lights lit up the pre-dawn sky, especially on the grounds where the opening ceremonies were taking place.  The area for the opening ceremonies was filling up quickly.  7,200 people were signed up to participate in the event, the most ever - they had upped the registration totals specifically for this 75 year annivesary.  Something like 6,304 marchers were present to start the march.  Our group of FilVetREP folks organized ourselves near the front, and I found my seat on the stage alongside the American national anthem singer and the three officers speaking.


My seat on the opening ceremonies stage

With Patricia Campos, singing the
Star Spangled Banner
The solemn opening ceremonies began with the presentation of the colors. After taking their place on the grounds, I came up and sang "Lupang Hinirang" in front of a crowd of probably somewhere around 9,000 to 10,000 people (marchers plus onlookers and invited guests), the largest audience I've sung in a different language for.  Shortly thereafter, Patricia Campos, a local singer and radio personality from Las Cruces, came up to perform the "Star Spangled Banner."  For both of our performances, you could hear a pin drop - with the booming speakers going back to the people all the way in the back, and the Organ Mountains in the distance reflecting back the sound, the echo could be heard miles around us, and the reverb would last for another 5-7 seconds.  It was exhilarating to be up there and to sing the Philippine National Anthem, something that had never been done in the 27 prior years of this event.  I wasn't nervous... though after I sang, I felt like I couldn't stop shaking... I had just made history.  Or maybe it was just the desert morning chill in the air as the sun hadn't risen yet.



My vantage point when I sing Lupang Hinirang

A marcher rucks in honor of my great-uncle.

Major General Taguba speaks
As the sun began to peek over the horizon, WSMR Commander Brigadier General Eric Sanchez and WSMR Garrison Commander Colonel Dave Brown both spoke before the invocation was given.  Major General Taguba also made some remarks to the marchers.  And ritually, the names of original march survivors who had passed since last years' memorial march were spoken - it was very sad to hear so many names - the mistress of ceremonies Cammy Montoya read three pages worth. It became very real to understand that as our veterans get older, their time with us gets shorter.  I could see some people in the VIP areas surrounding the stage get quite emotional over this portion of the event.  Cannons were fired from nearby, and the opening ceremonies ended with the US Army Special Operations Command parachute team, the Black Daggers, jumping from a plane high above our location with both parachutists landing squarely on a target on the field with such precision!  Finally, we were off to the starting line, with World War II survivors there to cheer us on, and the Wounded Warriors to be the first to step to the line.

The march begins!

The cowbell guy!
I found Mr. Cabacar near the sidelines and took a photo with him before I stepped off and began my march.  It was pretty crowded at first, making my way on the east edge of Ripley Street around those who were walking, and I rounded the corner onto Martin Luther King Jr. Ave, with the morning sun in my face, distorting my vision.  About 3/4 of a mile in, the infamous cowbell guy was there, doing his thing, cheering on the marchers baring his unintentionally (or intentionally?) exposed midriff leading the charge.  I had to take a quick picture, of course!

Morning sun on the horizon.
I secured a 10:25 first mile, which was obviously labored due to the high elevation that I wasn't used to.  While the first 1.5 miles of the race kept us on a nice steady 100 foot downhill coming down from 4,300 feet up, you could definitely feel it.  We made a turn onto Wesson Street heading northward, as we transitioned from asphalt to gravel.  We passed by a parked helicopter as we then made our way to the first long section of sand.  Right around the 2-mile mark, we reached our first water station, and also passed by the White Sands Missile Range Museum and its notable missile park, displaying a variety of the 50 or so missiles and rockets tested at White Sands since 1945.  We then began our long northeasterly trudge through the sands - at first, slightly downhill until the 5 mile mark, featuring various levels of sand depth.  With the temperatures starting to rise incrementally, and the air still thin from the elevation, I already began to feel the effects of doing cardiovascular exercise.

A little over a mile into the march 
The Missile Park, a surreal garden containing more than sixty
 examples of missiles and rockets tested at White Sands since 1945. 
Our first taste of sand, with the Organ Mountains in the background.
A helicopter in the distance, as two women march by.

Fields of brilliant yellow
wildflowers alongside the course..
Throughout these first few miles, I began to play a little leapfrog with Shelby and Jan, two friends from Roswell, and Loyd, a FilAmTri member formerly of New Jersey who had moved to Texas recently.  We got to know each other through some walk breaks as we made our way up into the mountains over the first few miles.  We passed fields of beautiful yellow poppies, as far as the eye could see.  Someone who had marched in previous years said this was the most brilliant they've looked in all the years that the Bataan Memorial Death March had run through this area of the missile range. I was also in awe of the so many awesome marchers competing in the heavy division - these "ruckers," who not only were marching with their minimum 35 pound backpacks - some were doing it in crews of five, making sure that each other was ok and able to keep up at a similar pace!  There were young college ROTC kids and service members, both men and women, many passing me at a blistering pace!

Lots and lots of sand...
Honorary to the left,
marathon to the right
At around the mile 6 mark, we turned a corner, and began to run in the southwesterly direction with the brilliant vistas of the Organ Mountains framing the landscape in front of us.  This was also where the course began to go uphill, and boy could we feel it.  Seemingly, the sand was also a little more viscous, and despite my gaiters purportedly keeping sand out of my shoes, I could feel a buildup of granular debris in my left foot.  We were about an hour and a half into the march as we went west, and in the distance, we could see an outcropping of vehicles - lo and behold, it was the 8 mile mark, and Owens' Road... and also the place where marathoners would turn right and honorary marchers would turn left.  After getting our bib scanned,  we got to utilize the aid station, which was very well stocked. A bunch of cots lined up along the side of the road, and I stopped quickly here to take the sand out of my shoes for the first time - and boy, was there a decent amount!  I was wearing my New Balance Zantes that has multiple layers of mesh in the forefoot, so the sand was going to get in regardless of the fact I had gaiters on to keep sand from coming in above my ankle.  It had even seeped into my socks, so I had to take those off and clean out between my toes and shake out the sand grains from in my socks' fabric.  I quickly got the shoes and gaiters back on and continued down Owens' Road, which provided us a short 1/2 mile downhill - a nice respite from the uphill we had been experiencing.

More impressive views of the Organ Mountains
The tough 1500 foot climb from mile 6
to mile 13. The asphalt reflected the
sun's heat, making it feel even worse! 
But little did I know - that was just the start of it.  As soon as we got past U.S. 70, we were on an uphill battle along WSMR S Rt 280 that would take us from about 4,300 feet in elevation and 8.7 miles into the march all the way up to 4,900 feet and 11.3 miles - ALL on asphalt.  The gradual march uphill and the soaring temperatures, with the sun beating down onto the blacktop was making it feel even hotter than actually was, and for once, I (along with others) were wishing to get back onto the sand.  Meanwhile, back at the 10 mile mark, the leaders of the march were coming out of the loop in the mountains and emerging back onto the road, nearly eight miles in front of us.


The much needed aid station at the
top of that grueling hill, finally
coming off the road!
We turned left into the sands at roughly the 11.3 mile mark, and continued to head uphill practically up to the halfway point of the race.  By then, we reached the highest point of the race, at 5,408 feet in elevation.  That's 1,356 feet of rise from the lowest point on the course.  At this point in the race, the sun was relentless, and we were only halfway through our march - with 3 hours and 10 minutes already having elapsed. We reached another checkpoint at the top of this hill, and suddenly, the sandy path began to elongate and feel easier to run on.  Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me, but there seemed to be more areas of clearer trail - basically, less deep sand.  I zipped through the next three miles as we lost 600 feet of elevation.  And then for a mile, the course elevation started to roll a bit.  I met fellow Marathon Maniac Heather along this part of the course; as it turns out, she was cheering along the Miami Marathon course back in January, handing out frozen treats late into the race - and we had several mutual friends!  There were parts of this area where the downhills were pretty steep, so I had to be a little more gingerly with the way I was proceeding downhill.  The section of rolling hills was short-lived, as we came upon the 18 mile mark, and the trail gave way to the asphalt once again.  I stopped for a much needed bathroom break, and also took some time to remove sand out of my shoes for a second time - and it was necessary, as there was a lot more I had to take out.  After I thought that I took enough sand out, I unclipped my gaiters from my shoes, and proceeded to run downhill along the road, to try to make up some time that I had lost and passed quite a few folks.


"Warning. Entering active test range.
Areas potentially contaminated
with explosive devices." 
There were actually quite a few marchers still making their way up the road, so I felt bad that they were going to have to experience another 8-9 miles of rough terrain and unrelenting sun.  I was 4 1/2 hours into my race, and we had reached the noon hour.  I barreled down the asphalt road, making my way back to where the honorary marchers and marathon marchers had separated, which at this point for me was the 20 mile mark, meaning I still had a 10K left to go - and the hardest part of the course still yet to come - the dreaded sand pit.

Only a few miles left to go...
We went further down Owens' Road, and then turned right back into another sandy trail, turning into the path where the infamous Sand Pit lay.  I stopped at the four-wheeler that marked our turn in, manned by two border patrol agents (agents actually acted as roving security and emergency action personnel throughout the race), and reattached my gaiters knowing this was the part of the race I would need these the most.  The mile and a half Sand Pit put us in the most difficult trail to maneuver in, where the steeply banked arroyos filled with sand would sink our feet ankle deep.  We trudged through as best as we could, wiping sweat from our brow, and just thought, "left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot," as we zig-zagged through the high desert terrain.  When the sands became less of a problem, we breathed a sigh of relief - we had just gotten through the worst of it.  All that remained was just distance.  A long straight shot of two miles lay between us and the stone fence that surrounded the White Sands community.

The heat is EXCRUCIATING.
But this two mile section was tough.  My energy was completely zapped from just getting through the sand pit.  Despite its relative flatness, I took more walk breaks between short jogs and got to the 24 mile mark at roughly the six hour mark.  Though I was a little disappointed I was unable to finish under the six hour threshold, I had to remember - these conditions were TOUGH.  Unbearably hot, dry desert air, high elevation, uneven terrain.  It wasn't about the time I'd finish in - it was about the fact that I could finish, and the experience I had out there.  The last two 2.2 miles took us right alongside the stone fence, a fence that seemed to go on forever and ever.  In the distance was a water tower where we would go around, and would actually have the ONLY actual shaded part of the race for a matter of feet.  I just kept on as best as I could as I approached the 26 mile mark, and then I ran it in, as we emerged out of the sands and back onto the road.  On either side was metal barricades, as people cheered me into my finish.

Shaking hands with a Bataan survivor
Barely a hundred feet away from the finish line, all of a sudden, the ever present sun darkened a bit as a small, fluffy, white cloud covered it for the first time the entire day.  As I ran with both the Philippine and American flag in each hand, I looked up and shook my head, yelling "NOW you decide to cover the sun.  THANKS!"  I crossed the finish line in 6:37:14, thrilled to have completed what easily was my most difficult, but most memorable race.  I quickly greeted 96-year-old retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, one of the last remaining survivors of the Bataan Death March, before going on to find the rest of the FilVetREP group, many of which had finished the honorary march an hour or two earlier.

I took my shoes off to reveal even more sand had accumulated in my left shoe.  So, the gaiters weren't effective with mesh-covered running shoes, but I knew that from the start.  I got some much needed shade and sustenance, before we got back on the road to head back to El Paso.  But before we left, we had to find out the status of one of the members of our group, who had been left in the medical tent, possibly dealing with heatstroke, but we later found out was a nasty stomach bug.  She ended up in the hospital at Las Cruces, but with lots of us worrying for her health - she ended up turning out just fine, and was able to return home the next day - a little worse for the wear, like the rest of us having dealt with such rough conditions under the desert sun.

With WSMR Commander Brigadier General Eric Sanchez and
WSMR Garrison Commander Colonel Dave Brown
Victory headstand in the high desert!
Upon arrival back at El Paso, I quickly took a shower, and then was able to ride in the shuttle to El Paso Airport so I could retrieve my rental car for the next 24 hours.  I got back to park the car and then immediately headed out for dinner with the remaining FilVetREP folks at Los Bandidos de Carlos y Mickey's, a well known Mexican establishment in the area.  Dinner was great, as was the conversation, though I started to feel a little fatigued, and got back to the hotel to quickly repack my bags as I had an early morning planned on Monday.

After a rough night of sleep, I woke up feeling pretty awful, but got my stuff together and went off on my planned Monday adventures.  My plan was to see two national parks that were about 1 1/2 hours and 2 1/2 hours east of El Paso, respectively: Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  I managed to get to both, with nap breaks in between, and had a nice time checking out both places despite how bad I felt.  Carlsbad Caverns was especially fun, as I descended an elevator 750 feet below the surface to the caves, and then hiked a two mile long circuit with various elevation changes.  Looking back, it was kind of risky to be doing what I did under the conditions I was feeling, but I'm a man with an agenda!  I drove back to El Paso late that afternoon to get my flight back, very close to running out of gas in my car before I finally got to one closer to El Paso.  These remote locations have no gas stations for miles... literally.  120 miles between gas stations along this road.  My fuel tanks were at E and blinking at me before I finally was able to put a gallon in just to get me to the airport.

Reaching Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The "Big Room" of Carlsbad Caverns, 750 feet underground.
And then the airport... well, when I finally got back to the El Paso city limits, I was able to get signal on my phone.  And that's when I realized the first leg (El Paso to Phoenix) of my flights back to New York was severely delayed by about 2 1/2 hours.  At that rate, I would just miss my connecting flight in Phoenix.  So, while standing in line (I had to check my bag for the flight back as I couldn't fit my framed Certificate of Participation for the march into my suitcase), I managed to rebook my second leg as a flight to Washington DC, where I would connect to a flight to LaGuardia arriving at 9:30am, about four hours later than planned.

At that point of the day, I was just feeling amess.  My throat was super sore, I was starting to feel feverish and chilly at the same time... At this point in time, I realized I had gotten some late-onset heatstroke symptoms, and my immune system was in bad shape.  I got my bag checked and my new boarding passes, and then met up with some FilVetREP friends who were at the airport at the same time, either experiencing similar flight delays (or in the case of Ben, a cancellation... sorry, dude) or just a late evening flight.  We stuck around at the Starbucks in the airport for about half an hour before I went through security to get to my gate.  I got to Phoenix in one piece (still feeling awful) and then trudged through the long terminals to my connecting flight to DC.  I was able to sleep that entire overnight leg, and then got to my last connecting flight after notifying my boss that I was arriving late and feeling pretty sick, so I was not going to come into the office.  I got into LGA at 9:30am, as planned, and then headed straight home to be in bed for the next two days.

Looking back, this was most definitely the toughest marathon I've ever done, which was followed by a really taxing recovery period.  While 7,200 were registered for the race in multiple capacities (either marching the full 26.2 miles or doing the honorary 14.2 miles; either military, ROTC, or civilian; either marching individually or on a team; and either rucking at least 35 pounds or without), only 6,304 started the march.  In the end, only 5,598 completed the march, which meant that 706 people (11% of the field) were unable to finish, many needing medical attention due to the extreme conditions.  Of those that finished the full marathon and didn't ruck, the average time was 8:35:31, so I finished it two hours faster. And some were out there for an incredible amount of time; the last finisher was a Wounded Warrior, who crossed the finish line 15 hours and 14 minutes after the start of the march.  This one was truly one to remember, and one I highly recommend for people to participate in - whether as a novice or experienced marathoner - to pay homage to the many veterans who had fought for our country in World War II.  75 years later, and there are very few survivors from that war left, so it's paramount to get into this march before time takes them away.

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