Back to Bataan
By Eric S. Caruncho
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 16:53:00 09/18/2010Sport, Marathon, People, history
THERE are marathons. There are ultra-marathons. And then, there’s the Bataan Death March.
Quickly gaining a reputation as the toughest race in the Philippines, the aptly-named Bataan Death March (BDM) is an annual 102-kilometer slog that retraces the route of the infamous World War II debacle from Ground Zero in Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga.
Now on its third year, BDM promises to be an even greater challenge for “the few, the proud, the brave” next year. The race organizers plan to extend it to 151 kilometers, retracing the final journey of the original survivors of the death march to the Japanese concentration camp in Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.
If you have to ask “why,” you’re obviously not ready. But if your question is “why not,” then perhaps you have the makings of an ultra-runner, for whom the full marathon distance of 42 kilometers is just the starting point.
The Bataan Death March is the brainchild of retired Major General Jovenal D. Narcise, better known to the local running community as the Bald Runner through his blog “Bald Runner” (www.baldrunner.com).
“We wanted a nice gesture to remember our Filipino heroes,” says Narcise, who at 58 has a blood pressure of 110/70, a resting pulse rate of 50 to 60 beats per minute, and the same 29-inch waistline he had when he was a cadet at the Philippine Military Academy – all thanks to his high-mileage, clean living lifestyle.
“In the States, they have been holding the Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon in White Sands, New Mexico for the past 20 years, to honor veterans from the state. It has become internationally popular, and they have a ‘heavy’ category where runners run with a 35-pound backpack.”
Back home, local runners had been competing in the Araw ng Kagitingan ultramarathon relay on the anniversary of the Fall of Bataan.
“With the advent of ultramarathons worldwide, I thought, why not an ultramarathon?” says Narcise. “To make it more competitive, I thought of making it a 100-kilometer run.”
Under the International Association of Ultra Runners, the federation that regulates ultramarathon events, the standard ultramarathon distances are 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers and 100 miles. Narcise had had a bit of experience organizing races as an army commander, when he was in charge of the AFP’s Gintong Pangarap marathon. With his own funds (taken out of his retirement benefits), Narcise organized the first Bataan Death March in 2009.
“The standard cut-off time for a 100-kilometer race is 15 hours,” he says. “We decided to make it 18 hours for the BDM.”
To avoid the hottest part of the day, the race started before midnight. Out of 85 runners, 82 managed to make it to the finish line, with the fastest runner finishing in a little over 9 hours.
The second BDM held last April had even more participants, with 120 finishers, including 13 international competitors from the US, Singapore, Japan and France – all of whom heard about the BDM and signed up for it through Narcise’s blog. Despite the absence of any corporate sponsorship, the BDM is shaping up to be one of the premier annual events on local runners’ calendars.
Narcise isn’t just dreaming, however. He has organized local endurance athletes into the Philippine Association of Ultra Runners (PAU), which is federated with the International Association of Ultra Runners based in Morocco, a group that includes 40 member countries. Under its auspices, he has organized monthly ultramarathon events. He even sponsors his own Team Bald Runner, a core group of 15 elite athletes.
“My cause is just to promote the sport and raise funds for my athletes in Team Bald Runner,” he says. “I have 15 elite athletes I’ve been training for events. I support their registration fees, some subsistence, some out of town trips. They have been consistent in the top 3, top 5 in road races here. I brought two of them to South Korea last month for a 100-kilometer race. One of them placed sixth in the Jeju International 100K Run, setting a national record of 9 hours and six minutes. This is a good start.”
Through his blog, Narcise has become a pied piper of sorts for local endurance athletes and enthusiasts alike, providing training advice, anecdotes from his own experiences, commentary on local races, and miscellaneous information on diet, nutrition and training.
Originally from Laoag, Ilocos Norte, Narcise’s own running path started in 1968, when he was a pre-med student in Baguio dreaming of entering the Philippine Military Academy.
“The university doctor examined me and found that I had weak lungs and a heart murmur,” he recalls. “He advised me to start running. My original motivation was to pass the physical exam so I could enter the PMA.”
The running seemed to help his constitution, and he continued to run as a cadet.
“In the PMA, I had no talent for sports, just running,” he says. “I placed in the top 20 in a 20- kilometer race, out of 80 cadets.”
His running was interrupted, however, when he was assigned to Mindanao as a fledgling army officer, right in the middle of the MNLF rebellion in the mid-1970s. By the time he returned to Manila three years later, the first running boom was in full swing.
“I was running only 30 minutes a day when I entered a race from Camp Allen in Baguio to Fort Del Pilar in 1980,” he recalls. “I placed in the mid-pack but my brother, a sprinter, placed in the top 6. I asked him how he trained and he said he ran from his house in Diliman to Fort Bonifacio every day. I went and bought several back issues of ‘Runner’s World’ magazine, and that’s how I learned about scientific training for long distance running.”
He paid particular attention to the work of Arthur Lydiard, the legendary New Zealand coach who basically wrote the book on training for long distance running.
The following year, he placed second in the same race. “I began to appreciate the scientific approach to training – you have to develop endurance first, then speed.”
His career path took him through various commands in the military, but physical training became a constant in his life.
“When I became an army commander, I decided to set the example. Soldiers drink, smoke and indulge in other vices, but once you introduce running to them, they become disciplined. But for them to do that, you have to set the example. Clean living was the reputation I had among the soldiers.”
Narcise ran his first full marathon in 1980, and from then, there was no looking back. He continued to run local and some international marathons until his retirement three years ago, when he discovered the wonderful world of blogging. He started Bald Runner in 2007 as a way to share information and experiences about training. It has since become one of the more popular sites for local runners, especially on ultra distance events.
“In an ultramarathon, you are trying to find your limits physically, mentally and psychologically,” he says.
Obviously, a 100-kilometer run isn’t for everybody, but for those who are willing to put in the necessary training mileage, ultramarathons can often be easier than the marathon.
“In a marathon, you’re trying to finish the race within a set time,” he says. “In an ultramarathon, it’s different. You need somebody to talk to. You share food. You socialize. You develop camaraderie. The atmosphere is less competitive. You compete with yourself, the route and the elements, not against the other runners.”
In ultramarathons, it is also necessary to eat during the race to replenish the body’s nutrients, to hydrate, and to take walking breaks in between running. The Bataan Death March provides typical Filipino fare, including boiled bananas, boiled sweet potatoes, and a bowl of steaming mami or arroz caldo at the 50-kilometer mark, although many runners also bring carbohydrate gels, power bars and sports drinks.
All of these make ultramarathons less of a grim and determined death race and more of a shared bonding experience. Be that as it may, Narcise says prospective ultramarathoners should build up their weekly mileage to at least 50 kilometers a week, slowly building up to 80 to 100 kilometers a week as they near the event.
“I encourage my runners to have back to back long runs on weekends, ideally 15 to 20 kilometers on Saturday and a longer run of 30 kilometers on Sunday, or vice versa.”
“My vision for the sport is that maybe in eight years, the ultramarathon will be a regular Olympic event. By that time, maybe we can develop good ultramarathon runners. The Japanese are now the number one ultramarathon runners in the world. Why not Filipinos?”
That would be sweet revenge indeed for the original Bataan Death March. •