TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Participating in a death march, even a memorial one, may not sound appealing to some people, but that’s exactly what Tech. Sgt. Nikki Webb, a native of Stanford, Kentucky, will do March 25.
The self-proclaimed “not athletic” noncommissioned officer in charge of resource management for the base chapel at Travis Air Force Base, California, plans to participate in the 76th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
“I’ve always wanted to do a marathon and I thought this would be the perfect one,” said Webb. “I’m always up for a good challenge.”
According to the BMDM website, the march is 26.2 miles through high desert terrain and sand. The event has been held every year since 1989 to honor the service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, many of whom died during an approximate 65-mile forced march known as the Bataan Death March in April 1942. During the march, thousands of Filipino and American Soldiers perished after they were subjected to harsh treatment from Japanese guards.
One moment, Webb said she’s really looking forward to, is meeting survivors of the Bataan Death March. Seven survivors will attend the event, including retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon. Skardon, now 100 years old, survived the death march and three years as a prisoner of war. He later served during the Korean War and retired from the Army in 1962. He is the only survivor who participates in the memorial march every year.
“It will be so amazing to meet them, talk to them and hear their experiences firsthand,” said Webb. “We talk about how important it is to be resilient, but they epitomize resiliency. They probably thought they were going to die every day and somehow found the strength to survive. I’m looking forward to meeting them and saying ‘thank you.’”
“I want to thank them for having the strength to survive, for fighting to return for their families and for everything they’ve done for our country,” she said.
Webb will be joined on her journey by one of her childhood friends, Tiffany Lipinski. After deciding to participate in the BMDM, Webb asked Lipinski to join her.
“Nikki has had a strong desire to do a marathon for quite some time and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share in that bonding experience with her,” said Lipinski. “I also enjoy participating in races that celebrate and honor our military and family members, both past and present. The Bataan Memorial Death March is a perfect event for that cause.”
“I am extremely proud of Nikki’s decision to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March and of all the hard work she has put into her training,” she said.
To prepare to complete the 26.2-mile route, which features numerous hills, steep climbs and miles of sand, Webb has relied on a variety of different training methods.
Along with hiking and running a few times each week, she also does spin and combat-ready classes at the Travis Fitness Center. On weekends, she goes on long hikes, often in the hills of Pena Adobe Regional Park in Vacaville, California.
She recalled a recent hike in the Redwood Forrest that was kind of a preview of what’s to come.
“We were hiking in the Redwood Forest and we took a wrong trail at about mile 19 and wound up hiking about 24 miles,” she said. “I also twisted my ankle and had to hike the final three miles through rain and hail.”
Webb also ran out of water at mile eight, so she had no means of hydration for about 16 miles.
“I learned after that experience that I need to pack more water and more snacks as well,” she said. “While finishing that hike was amazing, it was painful. I still have blisters on my feet and a sore back. Because that was the first time (I hiked) that far.”
Webb said her and Lipinski plan on completing the BMDM, which begins at about 7 a.m., on March 25, in 7 hours and 30 minutes. She also said, no matter how difficult the march becomes, failure is not an option.
“I want to prove to myself that I can do a full 26.2 miles and quitting is not an option,” said Webb. “It’s also about me doing my part. This memorial march is a small fraction of what the Soldiers who marched in the actual death march endured. No matter how much I’m dealing with, whatever I’m going through, it will be nowhere near as difficult as it was for the survivors of the Bataan Death March.”
“Participating in patriotic races means a lot to me and I am so excited to get to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March,” added Lipinksi. “I will be thinking of the American and Filipino Soldiers, those lost and those that survived, as well as all our veterans and current service members. I will be thinking of those I knew who have lost their life while serving, as well as their loved ones they have left behind–our Gold Star families. I will start and end the event incredibly thankful.”
Webb and Lipinksi will join a record number of marchers at this year’s event as 8,380 people have registered, an increase of more than 1,000 from 2017 according to Lisa Frankson, a recreation specialist with the White Sands Missile Range Garrison Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation office and the BMDM director.
Event participants can march as individuals or in teams in light or heavy categories, she said. They will have about 13 hours to complete the full 26.2-mile route. Anyone who fails to make water point 10 at approximately mile 21 will be pulled off the course.
Webb stressed, while some people may experience being pulled from the course, she and Lipinski won’t be among them.
“The course will be challenging, but we will finish,” she said. “There’s no other option.”