Airman becomes Belgian Hero, completes Tour of Death

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Katherine Holt
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The sound of the finish line could be heard from a half a mile through the deafening throbbing of shin splints, swollen feet and tight ankles.

"When I heard the drums and people cheering at the finish line I knew that I made it," said Airman 1st Class Arturo Nunez, 86th Communications Squadron knowledge operator.

With only 100 yards left of the 62-mile hike, his body wanted to give out.

"Every step hurt, but I knew I couldn't give up," Nunez added. "A guy saw my knees start to buckle and put his arm around me and said 'let's go'."

Though barely putting one foot in front of the other, his body stricken with paralyzing pain and legs covered in poison ivy, Nunez made it across the finish line in 21 hours and seven minutes.

The Navasota, Texas, native got the idea to take on this feat from a local national in his office. Harald Jacubeit, 86th Communications Squadron records advisor, challenged Nunez to "Bornem", Belguim's annual Dodentocht-Kadee (tour of death).

"He looked like he was very fit," said Jacubeit, who has completed the hike three times before. "I have invited other Airmen and only two others accepted. He is the only Airman to finish the hike."

Accepting the challenge with only a month and half until the hike didn't leave Nunez with much time to prepare.

"I tried to get in anywhere from six to 10 miles a day," he said. "I started out walking on the treadmill at a four mile-per-hour pace for one hour. Then I mixed jogging in with the walking."

This training regiment led to the plan Nunez put together to complete the race in the required 24 hours. 

Carrying only a backpack with a first aid kit, change of socks, extra sneakers, a hooded sweater and an extra set of clothes, Nunez started the hike at 9 p.m. Aug. 12.

"I jogged the first three miles just to get out of the gaggle of participants," said Nunez. "After I found my pace, I jogged for 15-20 minutes every hour to keep the blood flowing to my lower extremities."

Around 7 a.m. the following morning, Nunez was at the halfway mark.

"At the half way point you are offered a hot meal for breakfast and a place to rest," he said. "Mr. Jacubeit warned me that the halfway point is where most participants quit, so I set a limit for myself. I ate a quick snack for breakfast, changed my socks, reapplied my bandages and started going again."

Nunez said the half way point is challenging; mentally and physically.

"I kept telling myself that I had to continue, I have to accomplish this."

Hoping to finish the same time with his co-worker, Jacubeit, Nunez tried to start jogging again, but didn't keep it up for long. With 18 miles left to go, he would not jog for the remainder of the hike.

"Around the time that I had 30 kilometers left, the shin splints kicked in and my ankles began to tighten," he said. "I knew then that I was going to walk the rest."

In the end it didn't matter how he finished.

"There was such a sense of accomplishment after finishing the hike," said Nunez. "I had bragging rights now. I did something that not everyone else could do."

Jacubeit agreed that the feeling of accomplishment is like no other.

"Finishing gives you happiness like getting married and having children," he said.

He slept during the five hour ride back to his dorm room and had to call on a fellow Airman to carry him to his room.

"I could barely move my legs to get out of the car once we parked at the dorms. I knew there was no way I would be able to walk up the stairs."

He slept until 11 a.m. the next morning and said he didn't start moving until 8 p.m.

"I felt like I was learning how to walk again," he said. "My muscles and joints were tight and I was taking baby steps to get where I needed to go."

Nunez received a certificate of completion and plans to frame it along with the bracelet he wore during the hike.

Although he is physically fit, Nunez admitted that if he did it again he would start training much earlier and advises anyone who wants to participate in the future to train physically and mentally before they set out to accomplish this event.

"I would definitely advise future participants to start training with cardio and endurance months before the hike," he said. "Physical fitness is only half the battle with this hike though; they also need to be mentally ready for what they face. Only the crazy will survive."

According to Jacubeit the Belgians say anyone who completes this grueling task is considered a hero.

At 6 p.m., Aug. 13, Nunez became a Belgian hero when he completed the tour of death.