The Bataan Death March race was started in 1989 to honor servicemembers who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II who, after surrendering to Japanese forces, were forced to march for days through the scorching heat of the Philippine jungles.
This event attracts more than 6,000 participants for the marathon or the 14.2-mile honorary march and is run entirely within the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.
I finally had the opportunity to run it this year after first hearing of it about 10 years ago when my friends Marc Witkes and Cathy Tibbetts participated.
“What was remarkable about Bataan was the survivors who attended the event,” Tibbetts said. “They told stories of what it was like and the hell they had gone through. After the war, they returned home to little, if any, fanfare. The Bataan Death March race finally gave them the recognition they deserved.”
Dot Helling became interested in the event after a friend talked about his volunteer experiences working the medical tent.
“The best part of the race was the people, the diversity of the participants and the amazing ability of the disabled soldiers to go 26 miles with prosthetics, no limbs or on crutches and enjoy the experience and have an amazing outlook on life despite their disability,” Helling said.
Within the two distances offered there were light and heavy divisions. In the heavy division, participants were required to carry a 35-pound pack. Many military personnel, most of whom marched the entire distance, participated individually or on teams.
This event was like no other race I have ever done. The runners were definitely the minority, and we quickly discovered that it really wasn’t about racing as much as it was about honoring the sacrifices these soldiers made.
“The most difficult part was getting out of the starting area. (The runners) were the last to go, and it took 40-plus minutes just to get to the starting line,” Helling said. “And then there was the sand. Everyone told us about the sand pits, but they were just a small part of what was probably 60 percent sandy surfaces.”
Amy Collins of Las Cruces has run the race many times since 2003. I struck up a conversation with her at the start when I spotted her wearing a Durango Double shirt.
What interested Amy about this event is the “reason behind the run.”
“I have done lots of races, and Bataan is truly different,” she said. “To honor those who have served, to be among those serving ... it’s something you can’t put into words. I love the challenge of it and the fact that it is less about the ‘run’ and more about the event from the morning ceremony to the encouragement among marchers.”
For Helling, the event was so much more than a race.
“It wasn’t a marathon for me,” she said. “It was a journey through time and memories and the parts of New Mexico that I had never seen before. It was really an incredible place.”
Bataan has become an annual event for Collins.
“I want to continue to be a part of this amazing event,” she said. “The course itself is one of the hardest I have ever done. I love it, and I love running with the Wounded Warriors.”
Reach Marjorie Brinton at email@example.com.