MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Christine and John Thornton are avid hikers, but they never envisioned the day when they would take part in an actual marathon.

That changed last month when the Mahopac couple took part in the 27th annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. The 26.2 mile marathon, which was held March 20, memorializes the original 1942 march in the Philippines during World War II, when Filipino and American troops on the Bataan Peninsula were forced to make a 65-mile trek to prison camps. Many died along the way.

The Thorntons learned about the event from their niece, Jessica Tabacca, who is a civilian employee for the government and is stationed at White Sands.
“[Jessica] did the 2012 Memorial Death March with 16 original survivors participating, and told us afterwards it was something we might be interested in doing,” said Christine Thornton, 69. “She knew we hiked frequently in the Catskills and walked daily. It was not until after she volunteered at the 2015 Memorial Death March and reminded us about doing it that we made the decision in April 2015 to do the marathon.”

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The proceeds from the marathon are donated to a variety of veteran-support groups, including Wounded Warriors—a group that Christine and John support, making the decision to participate a little easier.

To prepare for the event, the Thorntons walked 6.5 miles daily and once a month embarked on a 26.5 mile walk.

“But in the beginning of March, we wondered if our preparation was for nothing when we both became sick and did not walk for the three weeks before departing for WSMR,” Thornton recalled. “Fortunately we were both ready to march the day of the marathon.”

Thornton has lived with her husband, who was 73 when they did the Memorial March, in Mahopac since 1978, and noted that participating in it was a particularly exhausting endeavor.

“We had never participated in any marathon before, and probably would not do this march again,” she said. “It was an exhausting and strenuous march. We had to gather at 6 a.m. for ceremonies and the temperature was 36 degrees F. At 7:30 a.m., participants, approximately 6,700, were sent out in groups. We were in the ‘civilian light’ category.”

Other categories for participants included wounded warriors, military heavy, military light, civilian heavy and honorary. There could also be five-person teams within each category. Those designated “heavy” carried 35-pound ruck sacks on the march. Honorary participants did a 14.2 mile marathon. 

“Before doing the marathon march, we had read accounts of others who had done it in previous years,” Thornton said. “It was described as more difficult than any other marathon. Within a couple hours of the start, the temperature climbed to 68 to 72 degrees. Besides walking through 4-to-6-inches-deep desert sand, we had to climb a mountain to be able to circle it and descend. There were frequent water and Gatorade stations, some with oranges and bananas, throughout the march.”