The Bataan Memorial Death March is a grueling 26.2 miles at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The event memorializes those who were taken captive by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War 2.
Some 10,000 American soldiers and 50,000 Filipino soldiers were marched over 60 miles to prison camps. They were already emaciated before the incident – due to lack of food, so many didn’t survive the multi-day trek.
The Bataan Memorial Death March has taken place for the last 26 years to honor those who served in the Philippines who participated in the forced march. The course starts on the desert floor for the first 8 miles, and consists of pavement for the first two, but then transitions to mostly sand, with the thickness of beach sand. At mile 8, there is a fork in the road. One may go left for the Honorary March, which is a half marathon, or right for the full marathon. The full marathon route immediately transitions to a 5-mile paved route, uphill. In fact, after mile 8, the majority of the course consists of traversing hills. At mile 20, the course flattens and returns to beach sand. Mile 22 and 23 are uphill again, with the course flattening out for the final 3.2 miles.
This year’s marks the fourth year I have participated in the full event. I register for the heavy division, which requires that participants carry at least 35 lbs on their back, although my pack has always weighed 45-50lbs at the finish line. I figure carrying the weight is the least I can do to acquire just an ounce of appreciation for what the men in the Philippines went through. The challenge the weight presents on the already grueling path is hard to describe.
Considering all this, one may ask why a 41-year old with neck, back and knee problems would choose to do such an event. For one, I believe people in the United States are getting weaker as time passes – due to the comfortable lives we are living. The only antidote to the “wussification” of the United States, and of myself, is voluntary suffering. This obviously has to be balanced with proper training and circumspection regarding risk and reward but, in my experience, the reward for such events that appear “too dangerous” far outweighs the risk. Our negativity bias tends to overestimate the risks associated with such events (more on that in a future article).
Second, crucibles such as the Bataan are a testing ground for resilience strategies. I find that much of society will, at some point, set a goal to do something difficult with the intention of marking it off the list, only to go back to being the person they were before the event, that is to never test themselves again. The net result doesn’t appear to be a gain in such cases. Instead, I have found that regular exposure to personal crucibles is the only way to truly get the benefit. This most recent march, in combination with the Krav Maga tests I have taken, crystallized much of what I had learned over the years of facing those crucibles. It is now apparent to me that it is the accumulation of such experiences that brings the greatest benefit.
The resilience strategies I employed have evolved over the years and, during this most recent event, resulted in a level of joy that I had never experienced before. My self-talk evolved from almost exclusively negative and personal, to more positive and non-personal forms when challenges surfaced. I also utilized meditating on the pain; feeling it at the most intense level possible and analyzing whether the pain was worsening, or a result of injury. If the pain was worsening but was not a result of injury I would temporarily adjust my pace. If neither was the case, I literally thanked my body for the information and refocused on the task at hand, which consisted of maintaining a pre-determined pace and consuming the proper fuel.
I had an intense emotional response at mile 16 when I realized how effective my strategies had been to that point, and that there was nothing that would keep me from the finish line. I experienced those emotions repeatedly on the back half of the course. I had always finished the event in the past, but this time I was going to finish differently. I trained for the event at an intensity that allowed me to work through the pain of carrying heavy weight for long distances, I utilized tempo training with weight, and I practiced the resilience strategies necessary to thrive. Now, everything was coming together in a way I had never anticipated. Ultimately, I completed the event faster than I ever had previously, and 36 minutes ahead of my goal. I finished in the top 11% in my division, and top 7% in my age group.
Like the fork in the road at mile 8, we face many choices during the journey of life. We can choose a path for the betterment of ourselves, those around us, and for society. That is the preferred choice for me. The alternative is just not an option. I can’t wait for Bataan 2019? What will your next crucible be? Hint: QUORUNDAM!