Except that there’s no peak to speak of, a landslide had cut off 2 kilometers going there. And there’s really no Frodo or Sam between me and Van because during this 80-km journey, we took turns taking the lead and burning the miles. It’s the landscape, really, which recalled the barren desert scape of Mordor laden with shifting river and lahar lands, endless hills, mountains and ascents plus one stunning and enormous waterfalls to conquer before reaching the turn-around and going back to where it all began – the Clark Parade Grounds.
Checking out the runners at 12 midnight (1 hour before the gun start), I can safely say that Van & I were the most well ‘stocked’ with our backpacks brimming with provisions, including 2 liters of frozen Pocari Sweat each while others were as minimal as one can get. We were here the year before, of course, but we just did the 60KM edition (which had a 16-hr cutoff). This time it’s the ultimate badass distance of 80 kilometers (18-hr cutoff) which I finished in 2012, so why the apprehension and uncertainty?
The race had already reached an international level (meaning it’s become a qualifying race for some of the most prestigious trail races including the UTMB, once the required points are reached) that we found ourselves running side by side with around 30 foreign participants. A total of 180 had registered yet around 140 only started (135 finished), if only to give one an idea of this race’s reputation. 2 kilometers from Clark, we entered the lahar area, crisscrossing mini-rivers and sand hills. Van took the lead while I glided along in the dark. [brain: so this is what we shall pass through later in the afternoon, if we ever make it on time – will we get scorched and go cuckoo, as last year?].
7 kilometers and 55 minutes later, we reached Aid Station (AS) 1 and everyone seemed hot to trot. We told ourselves that we just had to keep burning the miles while the sun is still out and the energy is still on a high. So we went up, up, up through that endless stairs, thickets, cogon passageways and wherever the reflective markers led us. At least thrice, we had to use all fours to make the descent but the dark melted one’s perspective and one hardly notices how steep he’s going down. [brain: let’s see how you’d do with the sun in its scorching, searing presence on the return trip].
Passing through the Sacobia River, one had to sashay around obstacles of rocks and mild valleys. My once powerful lamp I purchased a month ago was suddenly waning (I forgot that its extra large battery required charging) that I had to let Van light our way. AS 2 (KM18) was near the passage into the cogon and corn fields, leading to the Sandbox area and skimming the SCTEX. Soon, we were descending and entering barangay Sapang Uwak. The ascents began but less than an hour later, we reached AS 3 (KM23) at 4:30 am. Quite fast by our standard but by the time we ventured towards AS 4, Van was getting bored and sleepy. I, myself, was also feeling the fatigue and the struggle of those endless and very steep climbs. But we persisted keeping our slow but constant pace and sustaining ourselves with enough water and food to last a day.
Finally after an eternity (5:45 hours), we saw the colorful AS 4. We hardly stopped and kept on conquering more hills on the way to the peak. Mr. Sun was already in its full glory but we were shielded by the hills around as we kept enjoying the cool weather and the stunning views even with the increasing elevation. There were a few rolling terrains but we knew we were ascending, one step at a time. The lead runners started packing the trail and we knew we were near the turn-around. News reached us that 2 kilometers (a total of 4, really) had been cut off due to a landslide and I knew that we will be making the cut. I reckoned a total of 1 hour had been deleted from our race.
To while away my time, I counted the runners coming in to determine our standing. At the turnaround point, I placed us at 110th so I told Van that we should get in at least into the Top 100 (let’s do some tuhog-tuhog). It was more of a joke, really but the guy had a resurgence of energy, especially with the endless downhills that when we got to AS4, we had reached 93rd place. The ranks would keep shifting, for sure but that second wind definitely boosted our waning spirits.
AS4 was led by singing diva Benj Termulo who helped us rest and replenish before going down to the wondrous and surging Miyamit Falls. The cool dip, including some customary washing and removal of the accumulated pebbles, never failed to bring new life and energy after 48 kilometers of continuous struggle. We left AS 4 (or 30 kms to go) with 8 hours and 15 minutes to go – that’s less than 4 kilometers per hour.
I had to take the lead at this time since Van’s energy had diminished after that cool dip (I know, very strange indeed). And so the endless search for AS3 started. With the inclination of our descents in full view, I could hardly grasp the difficulty and complexity (read: rocks and rocks abound) of these same hills we trotted on with gusto a few hours before. It was daunting at first but we got the hang of it – gliding down fast then walking up to burn the miles, as fast as our knees and legs can take.
Sanctuary in the form of AS3 finally came with Joma Sison, prodding (blaring at our ears, actually) us weary runners that we have 23 kilometers to go at 6 hours before the cutoff. We had definitely slowed down by this time, reduced to walking with minimal jogging going to AS2. KM 18 (AS2) to KM 7 (AS1), I knew, would be the most harrowing with around 3 steep long climbs and passages through high grassy lahar alleys, river ways and slippery downhills with the searing sun following us. So we kept the pace going.
This was perhaps the most positive stress (Will we make the cut?) I needed to help me push myself and follow Van who’s back to his vibrant self (Yes, it’s the age. Period). He told me later that he just wanted to end our little ordeal, faster and sooner. During our race, we hardly exchanged words except when we needed to eat, piss, rest a bit (more of me) and make some calculations and estimates on the time and distance (still me).
The final few kilometers leading to Puning Spa (near AS1) was as endless, long and boring as I had imagined it to be but with the soft sand to navigate on, movement was slow and dragging. Soon the concrete road came and we were flying towards KM 7 and we knew in a matter of 2 hours, we will be cleaning our shoes and hanging our feet.
The journey along planet lahar was cooler than I had perceived. It was around 4 pm and the shadows of the hills had blanketed our way but I was still lazy to run. I told Van I’d run once we reached the Clark vicinity. We were already savoring our accomplishment at this point. Once inside Clark we managed to jog and trot a bit then dash into the final 300 kilometers to the cheers and congratulations of the waiting crowd. We reached the finish line at 16:53:45 ranking 98th and 99th.
And yes, it was gratifying, life-affirming, glorious and precioussss as I dreamed it would be…
Casualties of war: Minor sunburns on the neck, legs and face (though I imagined Kris Aquino agonizing in pain if it happened to her), chaffing galore on the nether regions and the soles of both feet (I used my old Asics road shoes since my Salomon felt tighter from all the trainings and races prior).
Congratulations to Atty. Jon Lacanlale for keeping the fire burning in the local trail running scene with CM50 and all its variations. Our profuse gratitude to all the Aid Station marshalls for keeping us sustained and taken care of during the race duration (special mention goes to Benj, Chips & Joma). Thanks to BoyP and Team Marupok for all the trail training sessions (text text soon) and our Milo Apex R2 QC group for our tri-weekly trainings. Special shout out goes to all the old and new acquaintances and friends we met on the trails and the mountains. I guess I’m back but first I got to find me a new pair of trail shoes with a wider toe box.
Special thanks go to Dr. Evelyn Ponce & Dr. Doodsie Mallari for our medical clearances.
Thanks to Alfred and Simon (congrats on your new CM50 PRs!) for the endless post-race stories and keeping me awake during the 2-hour drive home. Alf & Van had dozed off once we hit NLEX. And for my ever sleepy partner, Van for struggling to maintain our sanity and strength in the face of monotony, fatigue, rising temperatures and fluctuating elevation during the race.
Gorgeous photography by Running Photographers, Raceday, Arnold Banaay, Marvin de Guia & Adrian Aquino