White Sands, New Mexico.
The morning started early at White Sands Missle Base. We were instructed to be there by 4:30, and had a continental breakfast at the starting area. By 5:15 I decided to walk the half-mile back to my car and rest for a bit before the 6:30 opening ceremonies.
The ceremonies opened with the color guard and the National Anthem, as we prepared for the event ahead of us. Much of the field was military, wearing full uniforms. In the "Heavy Division" corral they were checking their packs, weighing to make sure they had the full 35 pounds in them. I had switched to the light division to give my knees a break. I'll try the pack next time.
We were told about the rigors suffered in WWII by those who were surrendered to the Japanese and marched for days, many dying along the way, some surviving only to be blown up in unmarked boats by our own unknowing forces. Veterans of that march were with us, now old men who continue to keep that memory alive.
An inspirational speech by Director of the Army Staff Lt. General David Huntoon was followed by a very solemn roll call of those Bataan survivors who have died just in the last year.
The opening ceremonies ended with this, written by Frank Hewlett in 1942:
"The Battling Bastards of Bataan,
No Mama, No Papa, No Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn!"
Then came the start. They led veterans from Bataan to seats in the start corral, where they would greet us as we moved to the start line. Then came a moment that had tears streaming down my face--soldiers who had lost limbs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam were led out as a group to start the march with us. Pride in those who sacrificed so much, sadness that we get into wars, or joy that because of those who served and lost so much make it possible for us to be free all came together at that point.
We started the marathon on the base, on pavement for about two miles, then we started off across the New Mexico desert. Loose sand was kicked into the air by the 5300 people, and we were off on a dusty trek. At an easy trot, I was passing a lot of people, and after about an hour I was out where the field was a little more spaced out. Still, at over 4900 feet elevation in sand and dirt it was slow going.
We continued on that surface through a flat section until about 8 miles in. Then we turned onto a road, and before we saw the 9 mile mark had started up a long, gradual hill. The hill would end just before we turned off onto sand/gravel near the 13 mile mark. Now it was rolling a bit, but still generally uphill for another mile or so.
Near 14 miles they were having a barbeque where you could buy hotdogs and hamburgers. Next year I'm taking money with me. I stopped there and sat on a cot to dump the sand out of my shoes for the second time, then continued, starting a generally downhill section that would tie back into the paved hill we had climbed, somewhere just before 19 miles. I read the name on the back of a soldier's cap--Huntoon! That sounded familiar. I turned around and saw the three stars on his uniform--it was the general who had spoken at the opening ceremonies. I stopped to shake his hand and ran along with him for a while. We talked for around a mile, comparing marathons, talking about my son-in-law in the Guard, and working our way along the course. The downhill got a little steeper and I went on my way. The wind started picking up even more--New Mexico is one of the windiest places in the country. As I turned onto the pavement, I was cruising along nicely, and for a few minutes entertained the thought of finishing in under six hours. Then at around 21 miles we made a right turn onto the gravel/sand and headed uphill for about half a mile. We approached the top of the hill, thinking it would soon get better as we headed down. Wrong. As we turned off to the gradual downhill, we were in the loosest sand of the day. Running and walking was about the same speed, with no push-off in the loose sand. It was about a mile before it firmed up and we were back on the more firmly packed surface.
The course was taking its toll, especially on the young soldiers wearing backpacks. I encouraged several of them as I went by, frequently talking them into coming along with me for a while. The wind picked up even more, sand blew into my eyes and I felt the grit in my teeth. We headed straight into the wind as we approached the 25 mile mark, then on around a few more curves and approached the finish. At the 26 mile mark I tapped a guy who was walking and said, "Come on--only two tenths to go." At 26.1 we picked up another guy, then a woman, and four of us ran across the finish line.
I learned a lot that day--the sacrifice that others made, the toughness of so many people, the importance of a leader to set an example. And I came to a fuller appreciation of those who have sacrificed so that we can be free.
My finish time was 6:16, a good time for my condition and for that course. The final finisher, wearing a 35-pound pack, came in around 14:44.