FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- For the first time in history, a woman has taken the top spot in the Fort Jackson qualifier for the Bataan Memorial Death March. Sgt. 1st Class Janina Simmons, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, took first place Dec. 1, 2018 in the qualifying competition.
Simmons completed the 16-mile ruck march in two hours and 52 minutes, carrying 25.8 pounds in her rucksack. By around mile 12, she had overcome all of her competitors. She remained in first place for the last four miles.
"I just tried out [for the Bataan Memorial Death March] to see if I could beat my old time," Simmons said. "I was just trying to beat three hours." She said she was glad for the training opportunity.
Simmons advanced to nationals last year as the third overall finisher in the Fort Jackson preliminary with a time of three hours and four minutes.
"[Simmons] is really down to earth," said Cindi Keene, Fort Jackson sports coordinator. "She's an awesome Soldier."
Simmons, currently a senior drill sergeant leader at Fort Jackson's Drill Sergeant Academy, won't advance to nationals because of a scheduling conflict; she is going to Ranger School. Though she's "a little sad" that she won't be able to move forward, she says she's "cool with [it]."
Simmons said the national competition is rough; competitors ruck over sand and some of the hills span for miles. She would have competed as the top member of the Fort Jackson team at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico March 17.
Qualifying for the national competition is a big deal; of the 31 Fort Jackson competitors, five failed to complete the ruck. They stopped at the eight-mile turnaround point, Keene said.
Fort Jackson has entered in the Military-Coed Heavy Division since Keene launched the post qualifier competition roughly five years ago. The top female and first four male finishers in the qualifiers advance to the 26.2 mile ruck in New Mexico.
At nationals, each team member begins and finishes the trek with 35 pounds of material in their rucksacks. They can redistribute the weight between teammates in the midst of the march.
This year also marked the highest rate of female participation at Fort Jackson. Eight of the competitors were women, up from last year's six. For the Fort Jackson qualifier, women are only required to carry 25 pounds. Men carry 35 pounds. Simmons said the 25.8 pounds she chose to carry seemed light.
"I could have kept going," she added.
To prepare for the qualifier, Simmons rucked with up to 70 pounds on a number of occasions.
She did a lot of running, too, including some half marathons.
Her typical weekday workouts last two hours, she said. She wakes up by 3 a.m. for morning training.
On weekends, she often extends her workout time to roughly three hours. Simmons was prepared for the march, but she wasn't competing for the prize.
"I wasn't trying to win," Simmons said. She reported wanting to gauge her physical training progress.
She kept the competition friendly, even chatting with a former drill sergeant candidate as they plodded on together. She plans to give Fort Jackson's team some tips for the upcoming competition.
Fort Jackson has a reputation to uphold, Keene said. "[Bataan Death March competitors] know who Fort Jackson is," she quipped. "They look forward to us coming out there every year."
The installation has earned bragging rights, Keene added. Its teams have placed in the top three every year since joining and have won twice.
"There are tons of teams," Keene said. Participation has grown to roughly 8,000 annual marchers between all competition categories. Keene started the qualifier at the installation, "to give the Soldiers another national competition to attend."
This year, Fort Jackson will be represented by the top four male placers and the second female finisher: 1st Sgt. Cody Marthaler, with a time of two hours and 55 minutes; Capt. Chase Johnson, with a time of two hours and 59 minutes; 1st Sgt. Tito Vazquez, with a time of three hours and one minute; Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Currea, with a time of three hours and two minutes; and Capt. Becca Rosenblatt, with a time of three hours and six minutes.
They'll have to close the gap in their times before March.
All team members must cross the finish line within 20 seconds of each other.
The national competition commemorates the original Bataan Death March which began April 9, 1942.
On that date during World War II, U.S. and Filipino forces surrendered to the Japanese. It ended months of battle for control over the Philippines.
U.S. and Filipino military members -- 75,000 of them -- marched 65 miles to prisoner of war camps across the Philippines. Thousands died on the march to crowded camps across the archipelago. It is one of the many notorious Japanese atrocities of the war.