Susan Merrell was on a mission last March when she went to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to compete in the 20th Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon.

The Blue Springs resident didn’t go to the largest military installation in the United States just to run 26.2 miles. She went foremost in honor of Lee’s Summit Bataan Death March survivors Jack Woodson and Billy Templeton and in memory of John T. Kirk, a family friend, and Cornado Espinoza, a Filipino soldier, whose names were printed in block letters on the rear of her uniform.
Susan, who has run marathons on all seven continents, had never heard about the Bataan race before reading a few years ago about some Missouri ROTC cadets who had run as a team in the spring event.

Because of her love of history, the William Jewell College graduate says she kept the New Mexico race tucked away in the back of her mind.

Then a couple of years later, while she and two running friends, Michelle Bautisa and Mark Newman, were trying to select a marathon, the Bataan race surfaced. Susan suggested they compete  in the desert marathon outside Las Cruces, N.M., which pays tribute each year to victims and survivors of the Bataan Death March.
To Susan’s surprise, one of the running companions had never heard about the World War II atrocity in which the Japanese captured more than 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners on the Bataan Peninsula and forced them to march some 80 miles across the Philippine island of Lauzon, where they were  transported on “Hell ships” to Japanese prison camps.

Calling herself an average athlete, the Blue Springs High School graduate didn’t enter the race to see how fast she could run the sandy course. She knew her time, as well as the times of the other 5,000-plus runners, would be slower running in soft, deep desert sand, and at elevations ranging from 4,100 feet to 5,300 feet.

Susan became a “marcher,” as all runners are called, not only to run for the Bataan survivors and victims, but also for the challenge of competing in this unique event, which begins at the main post, crosses dusty and hilly desert terrain, circles a small mountain and returns to the main post through sandy desert trails and washes.

In preparing for the March 29 marathon, Susan and her running pals ran in the sand in two corrals at Longview Lake in Lee’s Summit.

Yes, it was sandy. But didn’t come close to duplicating the desert sand.
Making this year’s marathon extra special was the presence of seven Bataan survivors from the area. They remained most of the day greeting and talking to participants from all 50 states and at least six foreign countries.

“We thought we were (at the marathon) at a significant time,” Susan says, noting fewer survivors will be present at future events. “It just won’t mean the same if no survivors are there.”

The 6:30 a.m. opening ceremony under a clear sky was “awesome,” she says.

“It makes you appreciate our military.”
Among the ceremonial highlights were the honorary roll call of Bataan survivors and the flyover of F-22 Raptor jets, which Susan describes as “awesome.”

There was a chill in the air when the Wounded Warriors – veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – led off the event, which also includes a 15.2-mile route. The morning sun, though, soon erased the morning chill and the winds became brisker.

Susan remembers the temperature being warm, but not “atrociously hot.” However, by the time she finished the exhausting race, “It was getting pretty warm.”

  Where she finished, Susan isn’t sure. But she knows her time: Five hours and 36 minutes.

“This was slow for me,” Susan says of her clocking, which is usually around five hours. But because of the sand and desert race conditions, everybody’s time was probably 40 minutes slower than usual, she notes.

Another reason for her slow time, she admits, was the many stops to shoot pictures of the scenery, runners and other events. These photographs and memorabilia were placed in an album and given to Bataan survivors Woodson and Singleton, who Susan says were constantly on her mind. She also presented each with a 20th anniversary plaque.

Running under the hot desert sun reminded Susan that the discomforts she was enduring wasn’t anything compared to the hardships and diseases the Bataan marchers suffered. In putting herself in their places, she wondered if she could have survived the brutality and sickness they endured.
Susan, though, didn’t escape the race unscathed. Near the end of the grueling ordeal, the long-distance runner and triathlon athlete  says she began “feeling weird and not too good.” But she completed the race, as did her two running companions.

“I would have finished even if I had to walk,” she says.

Calling herself a devout Christian, Susan says she has written “tons” of analogies of running a marathon compared to living the Christian life.
In an analogy entitled “Who Can Become a Christian?” she writes: “Many people have the misconception that only fast runners are allowed to compete in a marathon. That is true in the Olympics, but anyone who has a desire to tackle the 26.2 mile course is eligible. There are no restrictions regarding age, gender, profession, social status or race. There is even a category for wheelchairs.”

The analogy, she says, is this: “The gospel of Jesus Christ is also equally available to all. (Sadly, though not every people group has the Bible written in their own language.) And who can become a Christian? Act 2:21 answers that question. ‘Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Just as a runner is not turned down from entering a marathon, God rejects no one who comes to Him.”