University Park

Army ROTC cadet beats out all others in high-terrain desert marathon event

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you saw Army ROTC Cadet Sean Schoch working out in layers of clothing at the Intramural Building recently, it wasn’t because he was trying to cut weight. The Penn State student was preparing himself for the brutal heat in one of the most extreme marathon-length runs in the United States.

Schoch, of Sparta, New Jersey, took first place in his class at the Bataan Memorial Death March, held each year at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The Bataan March is a standard-length marathon through incredibly challenging high-terrain desert. Runners and “ruckers” must climb and descend Mineral Hill — where they will encounter snow — and then wind their way through miles of loose sand while enduring a rising heat as the day grows long.

The junior international politics major did it with 35 pounds on his back and finished in just 4:54:57, 26 minutes ahead of the No. 2 finisher in the ROTC category. Only two military and five civilians posted faster times in the “heavy” category, where ruckers carry weight.

Sean Schoch poses for a photo in the New Mexico high desert. Credit: Olivia RichartAll Rights Reserved.

Despite the feat and beating out ROTC cadets from across the country in the heavy category, Schoch is not a frequent marathoner. In fact, he said he’s only done a handful of 26-mile marches with weight on his back. He’d also never practiced in sand.

The Bataan Memorial Death March commemorates the surrender and subsequent imprisonment of U.S. and Filipino forces during World War II.

As the sun rose over the Philippines on April 9, 1942, two U.S. Army officers and their jeep driver approached Japanese lines carrying a bedsheet as an improvised white flag. They had been sent by Maj. Gen. Edward King to begin the process of surrender of approximately 75,000 American and Filipino defenders on the Bataan Peninsula. What followed later became known as the Bataan Death March. Tens of the thousands of prisoners of war marched 60 to 70 miles from Bagac in the Bataan province, suffering heat, brutal conditions and treatment, and a train ride in unventilated boxcars. Thousands would die in the journey and more later at Camp O’Donnell in the city of Capas. The survivors wouldn’t be freed until the end of the war in 1945.

Particularly hard-hit were families of New Mexico soldiers. From the 1,816 men who made up the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery, 829 would never return.

In 1989, the Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University organized the first Bataan Memorial Death March. The event now attracts nearly 8,000 marchers who brave the widely varying temperatures and challenging terrain of White Sands Missile Range in south-central New Mexico.

Cadet Schoch, despite having almost no experience in competitive racing, said his time in Army ROTC helped prepare him for the grueling task of running the White Sands course. After he graduates next year he said he plans to commission as a 2nd Lt.

“After those first two years in ROTC, I realized I was pretty good at rucking,” Schoch said. “I went to Air Assault School — which is an Army training school — after my sophomore year and there’s a 12-mile ruck there. I did well in that. I did very well at the ruck at Ranger Challenge, which is a military skills competition in New Jersey for the entire northeast.”

Schoch began to search for races online and settled on the Bataan March as it seemed like the pinnacle of the marathon-length races. To prepare, Schoch made sure to not over-train while still getting plenty of miles under his belt. He also relied on the ROTC-related physical training.

In March, Schoch and Cadet Olivia Richart flew from Philadelphia to El Paso then drove to Las Cruces. They got to the Missile Range at 4 a.m. on race day (March 17) and Schoch lined up with the other runners in the freezing pre-dawn cold.

“In the desert, at that time, it was about 30 degrees because the sun wasn’t up. It was very cold," said Schoch. "Then the sun started to rise above the horizon and it’s so flat out there that it lit everything up. Within 10 or 20 minutes it went from 30 degrees to what felt like 60.”

During the pre-race ceremonies, the 8,000 or so runners heard from speakers and survivors of the Bataan Death March and learned about the race’s namesake.

“It was a good time to reflect on the actual Death March and what all of those men went through,” Schoch said. “Thinking about it, standing for an hour and a half in the cold isn’t that bad.”

As the race got underway, Schoch hit the first 7 miles of flat, sandy trails with speed. His splits were around 9 minutes per mile in that section before he began his ascent of Mineral Hill.

“We gained about a thousand feet in elevation for those (next) seven miles. So I slowed down there pretty drastically. I actually had to come up with this plan where I would count for 12 seconds and run for those 12 seconds, then in my head I would count for about 4 and I would just take a break and walk. So, that helped keep my heart rate down just so I could make it up the full seven miles up to the top of the hill.”

Runners new to the race got a surprise at the top of the mountain at around mile 14.

“What was crazy was at the top of this hill there was snow. We passed a certain point and started seeing our breath and there was snow. That was cool but it was a little intimidating.”

On the way down the mountain Schoch crushed all 2,000 calories of food he brought along and nearly all of his water. At mile 19, he reached an area known as the “sand pit.”

“That honestly might have been the hardest part of the race because I had just got done running up and down a mountain with a pack on and I was super tired and I just hit several miles of these trails where you just can’t get any traction.”

But Schoch also realized he hadn’t seen any other military personnel with rucksacks and he had been passing people all race long. The thought of winning kept him going he said, and he tried not to get cocky and comfortable and slow down. He said he could see out in the distance where the finish line should be, but the sandy trails wound back and forth, messing with his perception of how far he had to go. Finally, he hit the last break station and had just a mile to go.

“For that last mile, I just thought about finishing, taking off my ruck, seeing my girlfriend, and those thoughts kept me going. I got through the finish line, they weighed my rucksack to make sure it made the weight and they gave me water bottles and I just found a tree and passed out.”

After a post-race nap and hamburger, he began talking with service members who told him he had placed first among all ROTC cadets in the race for the heavy category and the third fastest time compared to all military personnel.

“It was cool connecting with some service members from all across the country of different ranks and different experiences and ages. Because at that race, we were all just competitors together.”

Though following the race he said he never intended to run it again, the days following had him reconsidering. Now that he has a win, Schoch said he thinks with more training and experience he could be an even better competitor. He managed to get through the desert race with no injury, not even long-lasting soreness. The real damage was on his back, he said, which was rubbed raw from his pack sliding up and down for 26 miles.

To get across the finish line so quickly, Schoch said he had plenty of help from the Penn State Army ROTC community. Particularly Schoch thanked Col. Richard Garey and Master Sgt. Jason Diaz, former Penn State professors of military science; Sgt. 1st Class Brian Moore, one of his instructors involved in the Ranger Challenge and who took an interest in Schoch’s pursuit; Staff Sgt. Chris Moyer, who ran the Bataan March years prior; former cadets 2nd Lt. Timothy Olson and 2nd Lt. Jack Ryan, both former Ranger Challenge captains; cadets Noah Vanblarcom and Olivia Richart; and Lt. Col. Aaron Felter and Capt. Vincent Nicosia, current professors of military science at Penn State.

Schoch said he plans to commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry after he graduates next year.

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Last Updated April 26, 2019