Da Agony of da Feet!
If you gauge the popularity of a particular trail by the number of people who hike the route each year, then the most popular trail in southern New Mexico may well be the desert looping route out through the White Sands Missile Range. It sees close to 6,000 hikers annually, an average of over 100 per week.
Yet this hike sees the bulk of that use all happen on a single day each March...
Held primarily as a day of honoring the heroic trials of the prisoners of war who were forced to march by the Japanese during WW2, this event brings together military and civilian individuals and teams to face this day of scenic and challenging desert track. It is a unique experience.
The marchers are sent off on their day by some of the remaining survivors of that original forced march, and are welcomed upon the completion of their efforts by those same folk, along with a large contingent of supporters at the finish and along the way. This is a fully supported event, much like a regular marathon (which, in fact it is, being 26.2 miles long!). From the mornings early breakfast, to the route's water stops (banana, oranges, Gatorade, water)... with a hotdog/hamburger break at mile 14 (bring $ for this)... to the after event meal, there is a sense of support and comraderie.
Most of the route is out and across dirt and gravel track, with sections of mushy sand and repeated uphills, including one major uphill loop around the route's high point. The scenery of the surrounding mountains and the distant views of the Organ mountains provide a great setting for this special day. There are also some sections traversing over pavement; make sure you are conditioned not only for the mileage and hills, but also for the walking/running on those paved road areas.
The event does provide for a shorter loop (15 miles) that is considered the "honorary" route. There are two classifications of hikers: Light and Heavy... heavy carrying at least 35 pounds of gear.
This time of year the mornings can be cold; plan accordingly. The event breakfast begins at 4:30am with many getting on site around 3am. There are ample open field areas set aside for tent or trailer camping; take advantage of that and save yourself the early morning efforts. The hike departs around 7am after 30 minutes of opening ceremony.
While a very few runners show up to bang out this route in a sub four hour marathon effort, for the most part this day is all about honoring that sense of sacrifice, effort and mutual support. The hikers trudge through the day, some using the entire 14 hours. Aid and medical stations are kept busy throughout the route tending to the needs of the hurting marchers.
Even though you can only access this hike once each year, it is worth considering making the effort.
No Mama... No Papa... No Uncle Sam...
History of Bataan Death March
The Bataan Memorial Death March honors a special group of World War II heroes. These brave soldiers were responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines. The conditions they encountered and the aftermath of the battle were unique. They fought in a malaria-infested region, surviving on half or quarter rations with little or no medical help. They fought with outdated equipment and virtually no air power. On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers were surrendered to Japanese forces. The Americans were Army, Army Air Corps, Navy and Marines. Among those seized were members of the 200th Coast Artillery, New Mexico National Guard. They were marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died. Those who survived faced the hardships of a prisoner of war camp. Others were wounded or killed when unmarked enemy ships transporting prisoners of war to Japan were sunk by U.S. air and naval forces.
Memorial March began in 1989 The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the memorial march in 1989 to mark a page in history that included so many native sons and affected many families in the state. In 1992, White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard joined in the sponsorship and the event was moved to the missile range.
In 2003, for the only time in its history, the memorial march was canceled. Operation Iraqi Freedom required extensive deployment among the units that usually support the march and event could not be safely and efficiently conducted. Since its inception, the memorial march has grown from about 100 to some 5,700 marchers from across the United States and several foreign countries. While still primarily a military event, many civilians choose to take the challenge. Marchers come to this memorial event for many reasons - personal challenge, the spirit of competition or to foster esprit de corps in their unit. Some march in honor of a family member or a particular veteran who was in the Bataan Death March or was taken a prisoner of war by the Japanese in the Philippines.
Check out the official site of the event for more information. Cost in 2010 was $65 for individual.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.