A little over a month after my lingering DNF at this year’s TNF100, I was back in the mountains (actually just a few ranges away) to tackle another 100KM trail/mountain race, The King of the Mountain, 1st edition. This time I was determined to finish an ‘easier/simpler’ race to ease and erase the TNF wounds – or so I thought…
Last May 25, I was on my way to Benguet via Baguio in the company of runners/mountaineers. The only guys I knew were Ronnel Go (ang Poon), Wilnar Iglesias (ang Idol) & Meljohn Tezon (Boy Praning) but soon enough I warmed up to Jones, Xerxis, Maj. Ron, Bryan, Che & Alen. I had no idea what their aliases were (one was known as ‘Peacock’) but I was soon pondering what I’m going to be called with all this trail running. By 2 pm, we finally reached the bucolic town of Kayapa, Benguet (11 hours after). We dropped our bags to our designated lodging and proceeded to the town stage where the KOTM orientation was being conducted by RD Jonel Mendoza. 25 runners will be doing the 60KM (Spanish Trail) while 26 of us will take on the 100KM (Four Lakes) challenge – how many will survive and who will surrender? Read on…
Food, particularly fresh veggies was cheap and aplenty so before we retired, we had an accidental Carbo-Loading Party when some of us underestimated the quantity of the dishes they ordered. There we were feasting on greens, chicken and beef dishes like it’s 1999. We retired early, feeling bloated and fearful of not waking up (from acute pancreatitis/bangungot). But the weather was just comforting that we were able to doze off for 6 relaxing hours – quite a record prior to an ultrarun, at least for me.
By 3 am, we assembled in front of the Kayapa townhall where the race was to start and finish. After the singing of the national anthem and a fervent prayer, we shoot out in the dark – a good 5-km concrete road going up and out of the town. Aided by our headlights, we entered an ascending trail head in Pangawan. The lead pack consisted of 5 runners which included Wilnar. Less than a kilometer away were Jones & Xerxis whom I joined along with Boypra & Ronnel.
The elevation continued to rise on our way to the Mossy Forest, populated by giant ferns and age old tress – one can easily expect a Rivendell elf to leap out of the woodworks instead of the dreaded ‘Limatik’ (the local leech). None of that happened but one wondrous foggy scenery after another.
A few kilometers after the Indupit junction was our first water station – Bundao (KM 12.5). It’s still a bit dark when I filled up my half-filled water bladder and kept moving – a combination of power walking and hiking in the uphills. Soon the landscape revealed itself as the first streaks of light welcomed the glorious new day. By my side the horizon was a sliver of gold and a splash of blue amidst a sea of clouds hugging the slopes. We were winding along the face of the mountain into the next, moving with ease on grassy paths much like the terrain in Mt. Pulag.
We soon entered a pine woodland whose angle and terrain resembled so much like the TNF100’s and with Maj. Ron by my side, everything was just one long dejavu. Fortunately, the ascents weren’t as continuous and punishing. At KM19, we found our 2nd aid station at Domolpos to replenish our provisions on our way to the Mt. Ugo summit. We had our pictures taken for the summit shot and for the race recorders. It was a lot easier going down where we retraced Domolpos then taking a different track leading into the KM26, the 3rd aid station.
After a short break, we entered the Spanish Trail, a winding downhill path along steep pine forests one can hardly see the snaking valley below. Some of the descents were quite technical by my standard that it took me some time to navigate the boulders and narrow waterways. Suddenly, from behind, 60KM runner Philippe who was taking a break came surging down. Some alpha male goat started charging on him and he was running for dear life. We went down the hill like marauding pirates, only we were the target.
Once the terrain flattened, our horned nemesis disappeared. Our destination was still hundreds of meters below but we missed out on many of the ribbons that Philippe and I had to try different routes and just shout out when we had found a ribbon (and the designated path). All that shouting soon brought us to another group of runners who were also finding their way around searching for that elusive ribbon. Ronnel & Maj. Ron were there taking a break and waiting for their ‘lead’ runner to notify them of the right way. Soon we were trotting together towards KM 36.5, my favorite of all the stops.
It was at the Kayapa Proper East Market and Rey Jimenez was there to welcome us with refreshments to quench our worn-out bodies and soul. I should mention of their halo-halo made from hand shaved ice that had me longing and dreaming hours after. I had to catch up with our group since I was left behind finishing off my cool dessert.
We passed by a river and one of the many hanging bridges and 2 kms later we were way up a hill where one is afforded an imposing view of the neighboring peaks and river system. Just glorious and punishing. We kept going up like there was no tomorrow. Rey had warned us of this, so somehow the endless climbs felt less traumatic but still the knees can only take so much. Good thing, Mr. Kampuger (Ronnel) and Maj. Ron were experiencing early signs of their personal monster – cramping. We were forced to take our regular breaks while the 2 recovered.
Thoughts of going faster and leaving Ronnel & Ron behind did swirl and sway in my competitive head. Fortunately, they remained just that – thoughts. In the latter part of this story, I realized that we had conserved intelligently and prepared our bodies for the battle ahead.
Later the downhills were just ideal for my favorite speed descents that I had to do it – running down along one line while swaying the hips sideways. It looked cartoonish but I was waaaay down there in no time with Ronnel by my tail.
A few meters of uphills along the main road and KM56 beckoned. It was 4 pm or 1 hour faster than my TNF time for the KM56 cut off point. We stayed for 30 minutes to refresh, revive and rethink. Ronnel was considering adding 4 kms. into his mileage to jump down to the KM60 category which I promptly shoot down. I told him we were gonna finish this little adventure together. I also requested him, in the face of all our breaks/rests, to take me to a Top 10 finish. He knows this is my little revenge run and I’d like to savor its sweetness to the very end.
It was almost 5 pm and near dark when we hiked up into another endless climb along grassy trails and vegetable gardens until we ended up in the first lake, Lake Buaca with its mist covered brown waters. It was eerie and mysterious. The sun was on its final leg. We passed along generally rolling meadow paths with giant cows lazing around until the path started rising again. Soon we found ourselves on top of a hill overlooking a valley with the twin Nayao lakes below. It was getting darker as we descended on some steep non-existent trail. I think I slipped and slid not a few times but we made it down in one piece.
We went up a wooden gate and found a fork with no visible ribbon to guide us. After 3 frantic calls (signal was weak in the area), we took the path going up by the felled pine trees. Later, the group following us led Maj. Ron and Alen took the other trail and ended back at the finish line in Kayapa. The path was in total darkness now as we kept plodding up with Ronnel leading the way. With the sun out of the picture, the guy has got his mojo back and I had to keep up with his continuous pace until we reached Dayap Primary school, the KM64 pitstop. We took our rest & meal and prepared for the road ahead. We knew it was to be a bumpy one but not as we had imagined.
With our headlamps to light the way, we descended an irregular stony road, again with no end in sight. I’m imagining on day time, it would appear as one endless highway to hell. Bless the darkness as all paths look the same – flat, negotiable and safe – when in fact most of them were just strips of slippery earth with deep ravines just a few inches away. Expectedly the road started to go up again with most of it hardly passable – either it was just darn steep or unstable but one learns to cope in the dark with a lot of perseverance and patience (and a lot of prayer & rest in between).
We were still circling the face of the mountain going up and down, passing through a series of obstacles – wooden fences, hanging (and swaying) metal bridges, shallow (slippery) brooks and basically eroded paths one had to jump across. Factor in the cool breeze which one hardly notices but do stop for a moment and your body temperature plummets to shivering. That’s what we felt during our food breaks at our chosen waiting sheds.
I really detest a route which one passes through and has to go back to on the way back – meaning downhills become uphills and vice-versa. So there we were descending into the center of the earth – tumbling, sliding and falling on slippery mud tracks with the crash of the rushing river from below. I was imagining – will we be able to climb this up on our return journey? Then it came back to me – all those rest/breaks indeed prepared me for this night’s real ordeal. I had underestimated this part of the race.
Soon we came upon the returning runners in pairs – BoyP & Xerxis, Wilnar with the guy from Hong Kong, Andre, andJones & Joe. Che had gone on alone. Imagine that and she’s the only surviving female in the pack. Finally by 11:30 pm, we reached KM74 (Banao) where we took our long break as Isko Lapira, the Terminator pampered us with piping hot noodle soup, coffee and servicing us like returning knights. Ronnel even got his 5-minute nap while I huddled in a thick blanket to relax my worn out feet. Out there, the blackness revealed all the stars and planets in their brightest. Heaven in my mind’s eye.
30 minutes later, we were back on the road paved with rocky intentions. The break had done us good. Our footsteps were more sure and determined as we went up and down the long and winding road. We were travelling faster than I had imagined, and the anxiety had dissipated. It’s like a new power had taken over us and we were stronger and unstoppable.
We still took our breaks with Ronnel leading the way as he showed off his downhill skills. Around 4 am, we reached KM83 (Dayap Primary School) to log in and replenish. Then we proceeded up then down on the road to KM86 (Pangawan). I have little appetite by then as I had grown tired and sleepy but Ronnel shared with me some magic gel he got from Ambow (Allen Gaspar) and we were soon up and about.
Flushed with renewed energy, we took the continuous uphill trail with little difficulty. The sun had started to peek out of the giant fern canopy when we entered the Mossy forest. The run through even on spent legs never failed to stir some inner awe for the second time with the finish line a few breaths away. From Indupit, it was a treacherous descent that even if enervated, we had to plod cautiously lest we find our face in contact with the rocky terrain.
Finally, we saw the Talecabcab waiting shed, our marker that the end is just 5 kilometers away. By this time, the downhills had become manageable and the path ideal. I left my buddy and glided down along the mountain path. I waited for him in the flatlands but started moving again when I caught sight of him with Ariel in neon green. How’d he catch up this fast is beyond me. No time to ponder on it so I just kept gliding down, well, until he thundered past me – so there goes my top 10 dreams. But suddenly, out of nowhere Che emerges (she got lost somewhere). I mustered enough energy and overtook her while tailing Ariel in what to me was simply a neckbreaking pace.
I turned on my MP3 player for some push and drama while traversing the winding final kilometers. A final 300 kms. uphill and then I’m running down a dream – a surging finish to my 100KM trail race. I had done it, with flailing trekking pole to boot as I crossed the finished line. 27:49 qualified for a #10 finisher out of 14. 12 had either DNFed or leveled down to 60KM.
P.S. Upon checking my casualties of war, I was surprised to see that my feet were in perfect condition (no blister, chaffing despite being soaked in water for a long time) and the legs – just mild locking sounds on the right but that’s it. I could walk/jog straight after the race (while most everyone was doing the ‘astronaut’ walk, reminiscent of my post BDM 160 ultrarun). Now you know why I’m loving trails and mountain runs.
The eye-popping pictures were courtesy of Rocketbong Alindada, Jonel Mendoza, Meljohn Tezon & Cheryl Bihag.