It is only fitting that Anita Rockett considers the Bataan Memorial Death March the pinnacle of running 45 marathons around the world.
The annual event commemorates the forced march of an estimated 70,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Several hundred died each day from brutal treatment along the 70-mile trek.
Rockett, who is marketing director at Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, survived a boating accident when she was 19 that almost severed her right leg. She recovered from her injuries, but it was running that helped turn her life around and eventually led her to the "hardest race you'll ever run, but the beauty of it is that the Bataan survivors are there at the finish line … your spirit comes together at that moment, and that's what makes Bataan so special."
Her journey began in 1972 while water skiing during Labor Day weekend on a lake in South Florida. She was floating in the water behind the stalled boat that had been pulling her.
When another boat came in close vicinity, Rockett leaned back and lifted her ski tips above the water as a warning signal to other boats. But the driver of another boat was focused on the skier he was pulling and drove over Rockett, shattering her ankle and almost severing her right leg at the knee.
She was fortunate that a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon was on call when she arrived at the hospital emergency room where he successfully reattached the bones and nerves in her leg.
However, she was in and out of surgery for the next two years while learning to walk again.
At one point, Rockett put down her crutches to show her doctor she could walk on her own again. But he expected more, and when he imitated her pronounced limp, Rockett was devastated and broke down in tears.
"He would not let me quit until I learned to walk without a limp."
His tough love and encouragement helped Rockett continue to mend, but she had dropped out of college due to the accident, still couldn't bend her knee and lived with pain every day.
True inspiration came two years after the accident while watching the 1974 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. There, Rockett saw a skier who had overcome an injury that shattered her leg. She had no chance of winning a medal, but Rockett saw her victory in making the team.
"It was a pivotal moment for me to understand that it wasn't a sentence that I had to be disabled. I could either choose to be disabled the rest of my life or I could choose to live life, and I decided I was going to make a choice to live life fully."
Rockett moved on with her life, to include having a family and creating a successful business, but the marriage ended and led to the split-up of her business.
"I was sleepless, restless -- life was not good."
The call to run came from her 9th grade son who discovered running when he tried out for the cross country team. "Mom, you ought to run. Running is good for your soul."
Rockett bought a pair of shoes and mapped out a 3-mile course around the neighborhood in her car. But it wasn't until two weeks later at the end of another sleepless night when she made a decision at 4 a.m.
"That's it. I'm going to out and I'm going to run."
It took her 54 minutes to jog that 3-mile run and walk, "but I got hooked on running, absolutely hooked … the best gift my son ever gave me was the gift of running."
The next year, Rockett marked the 25th year "of having my leg" by running her first marathon at the inaugural Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego.
"It was such a profoundly moving experience when I crossed that finish line. It was such a metaphor for life. There was the decision to do it, and the blessing of being able to do it."
Rockett would do it again -- 42 more times the next eight years, to include the first marathon of the new millennium in New Zealand, and her personal Holy Grail -- the Boston Marathon.
But there is one marathon that Rockett said remains apart from all others -- the Bataan Memorial Death March.
Rockett said she initially ran Bataan "because it was there." Her running mates in El Paso warned her about Bataan being the toughest race she would ever face, and Rockett confirms that "everything people said about it was true. I've run some hellaciously difficult marathons, but I'm telling you, Bataan is by far the most grueling course ever."
Rockett said she knew she was on a special course when she saw mounted horsemen on the mountainous portion of the run where she expected to see medics. After the grueling mountain climb, Rockett said it was with relief she began the descent.
But instead of smooth sailing the rest of the way, Rockett said she hit the sand pit about the same time she hit the proverbial wall around the 17-mile point. The sandpit is a long stretch of the course composed of soft, sinking sand that Rockett likens to quick sand.
Rockett said at this point the body is depleted of energy, you're running mostly on determination, you've got nothing in reserve, but the finish line is still a long way to go.
But Rockett found that she was surrounded by motivation. Around her were Soldiers resolutely marching forward wearing uniforms, boots and 35-pound rucksacks, while Rockett said she was donned in running shorts and a $100 pair of comfortable running shoes.
"It's what carries you along when you hit the wall and you feel like you just can't take another step and want to give it up. They're right there with me. You start talking to each other and the sense of camaraderie gets you through that stupid sandpit."
And once clear of the sandpit, Rockett said you begin seeing signs of the installation and you know you're close to civilization and close to home. And when she finally reached the finish line, she and fellow runners were greeted by survivors of the Bataan Death March.
"You're just so honored that they're honored by the fact that that you recognize their sacrifice. It's a stirring juxtaposition of what they went through, with just your slightest sense of the agony they endured. Your spirits come together at that moment and that's what makes Bataan so special."
Rockett Tips for a Better Bataan:
- Pace yourself when running up the mountain. Don't give up all your strength there because you still have a long way to go after that.
- Don't feel defeated if you walk a bit. I've never run a marathon that I haven't walked somewhere during the race, and I still ended up with a medal. It's OK to walk.
- Don't forget to just simply enjoy it!