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Walking Bataan: The Hardest Miles

Survivors of the Bataan death march overcame one of history's most grueling walks. What kept them on their feet? and could you do the same? every year, more than 4,000 people hike through the New Mexico desert to find out.

The men of Bataan didn’t have SERE. They didn’t get electrodes and manuals
and simulations. In fact, it was only in the midst of WWII that the idea of
teaching mental survival–as opposed to hard skills–became widespread:
Outward Bound was started by educator Kurt Hahn in 1941, when he heard that
young merchant seamen, torpedoed by German U-boats, weren’t surviving at sea
as well as their older comrades. They couldn’t cope with life, Hahn thought.
They lacked self-reliance and tenacity. Hahn devised a month-long training course
out of Aberdovey, Wales, that was a mix of cross-country routefinding, expeditions
across mountain ranges, small-boat instruction, rescue practice, and athletic
competitions. It was like stress-inoculation training–similar, in some
ways, to actual physical immunization. Bump into the edge of your possibility,
endure, and end up stronger for the next difficult encounter. Hahn’s motto was
simple: Plus est en vous. There is more in you than you think.

After walking a mile or two down a sizzling paved road, around mile 18, my
feet are on fire. It’s worse than going uphill. My trekking poles click on concrete,
my legs feel like lead. In my own sort of survival mode, I’ve resorted to listening
to Justin Timberlake on my iPod. I can stop, of course.

Catch a van ride back to base and call it a day. Drop my pack, finish without
weight, and get disqualified from my category. My physical pain is, in some
ways, totally pointless: I’m not trying to stay alive. Adrenaline isn’t surging
to my heart, and emergency glucose stores are not flooding my muscles. The human
instinct is to avoid pain, of course, but if pain is simply part of the path
to survival, it must be ignored.

I manage to ignore it for 15 more minutes. When I pass a water stop at mile
20, I decide it’s time to get help. An olive-green tent sits next to the road,
plastic windows snapping in the wind. Soldiers lie on a row of cots in front
of it. I drop my pack, sit down, and start untying my boots.

A medic squats in front of me. “What’s the problem, ma’am?” Ma’am. I tell him
about my blisters–a couple here, maybe a couple there.

We pull off my socks, then try pulling off the duct tape and Band-Aids. They
stick to the blisters. The tape has caused new blisters next to the old blisters,
and those blisters have also grown blisters. Some of them are as big as quarters.
I’m amazed, and disappointed, at how wimpy my feet are–which reminds me
of Ben Steele and his third sock. I’ve gone through six socks in seven hours
and I have two dozen lesions.

“Um, let me get someone else here,” says the medic. Another one comes over.
She grabs a third. He calls the guy who’s in charge of this tent. That guy runs
to get his camera. After heated debate, they carry me inside the tent and lance
a few of the biggest blisters. Stuff squirts out.

The whole process takes an hour. For some reason, it bothers me–though
it hardly matters whether I finish in 8.5 hours or 9.5 hours. The athlete in
me sees people walking by while I’m getting babied. The sage in me knows that
I’m walking, and walking isn’t racing, and it’s about the journey rather than
the destination. The momentary patriot in me thinks about the old men, and how
they marched and marched and didn’t know where the end was or what it was. They
just put one foot in front of the other until even their fingernails and nosehairs
were exhausted.

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