By Len Butler, USARECApril 24, 2014
WHITE SANDS, N.M., (April 24, 2014) -- Six hours 58 minutes -- that's how long it took Sgt. 1st Class Jason Connor to cross the finish line of the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, N. M., March 22.
It was a personal best for the Mesquite recruiter, who shaved more than an hour from last year's finish time.
But even more satisfying to Connor is the reason he participates in the march -- to pay tribute to those Soldiers of the 1942 Bataan Death March.
The annual memorial to honor that special group of World War II heroes who were responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines in the early days of the World War.
On April 9, 1942, tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to overwhelming Japanese forces and were marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles. Thousands died on the trail. Those who survived faced the hardships of a prisoner-of-war camp for the duration of the war, while others were wounded or killed when unmarked enemy ships transporting prisoners of war to Japan were sunk by U.S. air and naval forces.
Participants in the Bataan Memorial Death March feature teams and individuals who run the course or march. Connor chose to run "light," wearing running clothes. Others marched "heavy," shouldering 35-pound rucksacks. Most are either veterans or are still serving in all the branches of the military. Many of the participants are disabled combat veterans, some with prosthetic legs.
The grueling 26.2-mile course featured different terrain, alternating between pavement, dirt and sand and varying elevation. Connor, who is not slouch when it comes to endurance sports, admits, this is the only endurance event where he had to convince himself not to quit. Finding unique inspiration, he pushed through to finish strong.
"My mentality is what kept me going; the thought of the Soldiers who died who walked much longer than me, with no food or medical treatment," he said. "The toughest stretch of the course is the last four miles, the part of the course with the deepest sand. But at the same time, this is the portion of the course where you hear the most encouragement from the other runners and that is motivating."
Connor became involved in endurance sports while at Fort Richardson, Alaska, his first duty station. Prior to coming to Mesquite, he was a recruiter at the Mountain View Center in northern California where he described the area as a "hub for endurance running, trail running and long-distance cycling.
"I would regularly run a really tough trail called Mission Peak," he said. "It was only a 2.5-mile trail that would take me about an hour [to reach the summit] and then I would blaze down in about 15 minutes."
While he left the hills and trails of California behind, Connor still maintains his fitness and manages to remain a top competitor in his age ground in the local running scene. He still runs when he can, but he's discovered an alternative to logging in all the miles on the trail that helped him overcome the White Sands course.
"I attribute success to my normal fitness routine, which consists mainly of Crossfit six days a week. I have been doing Crossfit for a year now and [next April] am going to the Level-One certification, so I can become a trainer.
"With that said, I did not train specifically for this event. I believe that doing mostly Crossfit prepared me because [the program] is so varied," he added. "Every single day we do something different and it is always functional, meaning the whole purpose of Crossfit is to make you more efficient at everyday movements in addition to preparing you for the unknowable--like a 26.2-mile march."
Connor plans to return to White Sands next year and looks to field a team of recruiters from the Mesquite Center. He said it didn't take much convincing to inspire his teammates to take up the challenge.
"Basically all I did to convince them was describe to them how awesome it is and how it feels to finish because at the finish you feel like you have really accomplished something."