The Bataan Memorial Death March: “I Need More Cowbell”…and My Car
by Captain Kate Nelson
This is my story and as a proud member of the US Army I feel contractually obligated to begin my story with, “No shit, there I was…”
So no shit, there I was, in the middle of the Bataan Memorial Death March. The March is a 26.2-mile ruck in full military uniform, carrying 35 pounds that puts the ruck marchers though a range of emotions both physically and emotionally. But it is much more than a challenging race.
Marchers woke up around 3am because the hotels are far away, traffic getting there, and parking. In the parking lots everyone had their own pre ruck rituals; some stretched, some slept, some smoked cigars, some taped their feet, some questioned their decision-making process that brought them to a pre-dawn parking lot, and some drank a 5 hour energy shot. We made our way to the starting corrals around 5:30 for the opening ceremony. This is when the General welcomed us and told a history of the actual Death March and the Philippine ambassador spoke (he was about one breath shy of thanking each and every one of the marchers by name). They read the names of the survivors who were there and the names of the survivors who had died since last year’s race. We all saluted them, the national anthem was sung beautifully while a helicopter flew overhead. Quite an American way to start the day!
It was time to start the race, my group walked a step and stopped and repeated that for about 40 minutes. At this point I had been awake for about four and half hours. Finally, I was at start line as my frustration set in to see that there was a bottle neck. I wasn’t sure what was causing it until I got to it. They had the survivors on either side and every single racer shook their hands before they took off running. It was an emotional start and if this doesn’t fill you with motivation and pride then don’t continue reading because this story it’s not for you.
Miles 1-5 (ish):
The first mile and a half you are not in control of your pace you just go with the flow no matter how fast or slow those around you are going. As I got to Mile 2, I realized that I was going way faster than planned, but I was motivated. I spent the next 3 miles with my head held high thinking that I was going to crush the world’s record for fastest ever ruck march. I was unstoppable!
Miles 6-10 (ish):
At this point my pinky toes started to feel hot which means a blister was forming. That was not something I wanted to deal with for the next 20 miles but I didn’t care. Not because I am tough, but because I hate my pinky toes and secretly hoped that those toes would fall off. I think I would be better off without them, but I am not a medical professional. They are a weird shape and curl under my feet. I can get blisters on them by sitting. At about mile 8 I saw someone with the same deployment patch that I wear with pride (5th Special Forces Group) and we began a conversation. The thing about an SF patch is that all the groups are the same patch. I guess they did that because it is a conversation starter, “What Group is that?” and one thing is for sure every Green Beret that I have served with loves talking to strangers while working out (this is an example of sarcasm).
After our conversation I came up behind two people and a dog. Both people were wounded warriors doing the half marathon. The guy had a prosthetic leg and the woman, who couldn’t have been over 23 years old, had one leg amputated up to the hip and was using crutches. I did what I do to every wounded warrior racing; if they looked like they needed motivation I would give encouraging words and if they were kicking ass I would tell them. I told these two that they are doing awesome and they said, “You too!” ME? Awesome? Nope. Ever since I told people I was training for this race people have told me I was “Awesome” or “Badass” or “Super Pretty” or “Ridiculously Intelligent” now that’s all true, of course, but it doesn’t feel right when you see those actual badasses racing after all they have been through. I challenge you to take some crutches from someone (not while they are using them, don’t be a jerk) and fold one leg up and walk around your house for 45 seconds. Now consider what they are doing, they are not walking on flat easy terrain. For 13.1 miles there is sand, loose rocks, hills, roads and so on.
At around mile 10 the game changes and I knew it because I did this race before. I stopped to go to the bathroom and get my mind right. I don’t know where White Sands Missile Range gets the budget to do this, but every year for the race they transport Mount Kilimanjaro in and jam it between miles 10 – 18. They think it is a good idea for us to go STRAIGHT UP the mountain. This part sucked and my overall pace and motivation reflected that.
This is the top of the mountain and there are medical tents, water, music and free cheeseburgers. I took a break and crammed a cheeseburger directly into my stomach. The guys next to me were having the world’s most interesting conversation about bananas that I don’t feel comfortable talking about. It wasn’t dirty… I just won’t be able to properly convey the content of this conversation even if I used every word I know. The guy on the other side of me had one leg and said “Wanna see something funny?” My answer to that question is always “Yes.” He called a volunteer over and said that his foot hurts and needs some tape or something. The young lady said, “Let me see it.” So, he took his leg off and handed it to her.
Only in the military is this hilarious… she didn’t laugh, but she did make a sound that I could only describe as shock and a moderately annoyed. I was putting my ruck back on and the banana brothers were talking about needing some pain killers. One of them said to go to the med tent but the other guy said he didn’t want to because they take your name. He was afraid that they would give it to the timers so they would put an asterisk next to your name, “He made good time but this guy took pills so he is weak.” Then out of know where a lady who was clearly not currently in the Army but was probably a WW2 nurse said that she has a baggie of pills if we wanted some. We took them (we because now I am involved somehow) and agreed that taking pills from a stranger is okay only if you are on the top of a mountain.
Miles 15- 19:
Now I am motivated because of the downhill. I put my head down and full-on ran for 4 miles with one short break to stop and puke up the cheeseburger. The spot I picked was a good one because someone puked what I believe was a hotdog and an orange slice in the same spot. I was passing people left and right and I felt un-freaking-believable! Then at mile 19 I started fast walking and that is when it happened. I took a step and as my foot touched the ground, I felt a splash of liquid and what could only be described as a piece of my toe coming off to explore the inside of my boot. It hurt so bad for an instant, I said “Shiiiiiiiiit” out loud and then I was good. 15 steps later the same thing happened to the other foot. Taking my socks off after this was going to be like opening presents on Christmas you never know what you are going to find. But what can you do, so I just kept going.
Miles 19-20.5 (ish):
There were a lot of people on the road at this point working security and motivating us. The guy with the too small tee shirt, mullet wig and cow bell was there playing his heart out and not letting up once as he does every year in multiple spots. It is interesting that when a stranger tells you good job and high fives you how motivated that gets you. I love it, but what I don’t love is when one of them says “Almost there!” when there are 6 miles to go. Mathematically they are correct however I just want to throw something at them if I had the energy.
If you ever want to see the instant a motivated person gets deflated stand at the 20.5-mile marker because this is where you turn into the dreaded sand pit. 2.5 miles of ankle-deep loose sand up and down hills. But this wasn’t going to get me down. I am going to sprint these 2.5 miles no problem. And to my surprise, I did. I went as fast as I could I was flying! I was sweating so badly that my ruck sack had pit stains on the straps. Turns out I was going at the speedy pace of 19-minute miles. It felt like I was on a treadmill, running and running only to be in the same spot when I was done. But at mile 23 is the water point where they give you cookies.
After my well-deserved cookie I just wanted to finish the race. At mile 25 a little kid gave everyone a small American flag. This does something some put it in their hat, on their ruck, or hold it and they pick up their pace a notch. There is power in carrying an American flag with you. At mile 25 my watch died which means that I have more endurance than technology.
Mile 25.7 (ish):
You cannot see the finish until about this point when you go around the corner and suddenly you see everyone cheering. People waiting for their mom or dad. People who beat you in the race and instead of saying “you kicked my ass” you say, “Here I come!” And then there they are, the wounded warriors who are cheering for ME (and everyone) hours after they finished. They are smiling and yelling for YOU. This tells you everything you need to know about them… Pure Badassery at the highest level. I grabbed ahold of my ruck put my head down and I ran faster than my bloody feet could handle. I was not going to let these guys down, I am finishing at a full sprint, toes be damned.
I finished the race at full stride to the cheering of strangers that I will never see again like a champ. I gave my 25 pounds of rice to the food bank donation, took my victory picture and walked over to get my second free cheeseburger of the day and a beer. Time to go to the hotel and take a shower and a nap. I cannot not take any more steps.
…and also, I have forgotten where I parked.
Captain Kate Nelson is an intelligence officer in the United States Army. She is a combat veteran and previously served downrange with the 5th Special Forces Group, and was also previously assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. She received her commission via Officer Candidate School after rising to the rank of Sergeant. A graduate of Chaminade University, she completed two master’s degrees and is currently a candidate in the Doctor of Business Administration program at Temple University. Captain Nelson’s articles in The Havok Journal represent the personal experiences and opinions of the author and are not official publications of the United States Army or the US Government.