It was a year in the making. It was last year when a fellow Team Kulit Jen Aggangan opened up the possibility to the whole team of joining the Vietnam Mountain Marathon. Many were interested, of course. But in the end, it was me, Van and Jen who went through with the circuitous online process of registering for the race, searching for the most sensible and viable flights and accommodations, plying and preparing for the trails, finalizing on equipments, gears, nutritional requirements – the works.
We landed in Hanoi, woozy from a red eye trip and promptly explored the bustling city into wherever our weary legs might take us. The next day, we were off into the northern town Sa Pa, the venue of the VMM 2015. After 6 hours in a sleeper bus, we found ourselves wandering around the mountain village which used to be one of the hill stations the French had set up during their Indochinese occupation. And their influences persist to this day – from the neo-classical architecture to the everyday baguette bread. To say that Sa Pa exudes a more European feel would be an understatement – we felt suddenly transported to some Swiss principality tucked on the hills of Indochina. Or something like Baguio city in the ’70s.
Race kit claiming took place the next day and on our third day, Van & I were at the starting line for the 42K participants. Gun start was at 7:30 am with the rains welcoming us and persisting throughout the morning. After a kilometer of rolling terrain, the runners disappeared down a muddy trail where the consistency of the earth got mushier and more slippery as the elevation dipped. The 70K group (released at 4:30 am) and the 42K lead packers had successfully molested and cumulatively produced a descending treacherous path, more fit to slide on than run in. And so it was a slow train of runners, groping for whatever stable structure is available but eventually sliding, slipping and goofing around. Many a time, we just slid the path and let gravity take its course. Fortunately, my Salomon SLAB was more stable than Van’s ratty Columbias which was threatening to separate from its sole. So even with the trekking pole, Van required my aid to survive the mudfest.
A few decent descents later, the assaults began but the stunning sceneries more than made up for the struggles – what with endless green valleys of terraced rice fields, towering blue mountains and rambling rivers at every turn. We just kept moving while the sun hasn’t completely come out and the rain was ever present to keep us cool and calculated. The countryside feels familiar and tropical except that they have the four seasons up here (I was in search for oak trees donning their red and orange foliage but all I saw were swaths of giant bamboos). China, by the way, is just a little over them mountains, just to remind us that we’re already in the temperate zone.
If only to emphasize that we were still in ASEAN territory, we were led through the rice fields and were made to walk through its irregular, unstable and narrow dikes (pilapil). If one is a bit wary, he can always wade through the watery paddies and many did as we passed through brooks and small waterways. It was a brief chance to cool down and wash off the mud that had accumulated from hours of rain. The valley of rice fields gave one a glimpse of how far one is to venture by looking at the runners miles in front and struggling through the next race path.
The trails soon gave way to roads as we passed through living communities with people doing their daily business. No drunkards drowning on gin along the streets nor fish wives brandishing those poker cards. What we saw instead were the Hmong ethnic minority, mostly in their native fineries minding the fields while the children helped or frolicked. They were shy, curious and innocent of the world outside. Even in the presence of a mechanical rice grinder, the place still feels unspoilt and isolated and we were light years away from modernity.
Around noon, a heavy fog had shrouded the surrounding areas but we kept trudging and enjoying the cool ideal weather. Last year they say was damn hot and so we thanked the heavens for a perfect trail weather, even with diminished visibility. After an hour, the fog finally cleared up to reveal stunning vistas of thickly forested mountains where our guide the day before told us of roaming sun bears, jungle cats and boars. Fortunately, the path stayed within the valley area across more terraced rice fields (they seem to have perfected this art form from our northern ancestors).
Soon, the ground started to rise and never let up. The final climb was steepest and a bit technical so we mined and fed on our recent trail experiences. We recalled those endless ascents to reach Dayap elementary school, the final assault after Miyamit Falls and many of our more challenging local trails. And we were off and running. From the fourth major peak, it was almost like a free fall as we put our quadriceps into beast mode. Dusk was starting to set in so we kept going, hoping to see a glimpse of that thatched colony of the Sapa Eco lodge but to no avail. As soon as we saw the hill from afar, we started flying like bats from hell (and overtaking a few runners). We already have our own Philippine flag securely perched on our trekking pole but the final path leading to the finish hoisted all the national flags of the participants. I spotted ours and promptly retrieved it. The flag was huge but to wave it proudly while crossing the finish line of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon was pure heaven. Some of the Filipino 21K participants and supporters saw it and joined us for one glorious moment in the Filipino running community.
P.S. The next day before the awarding ceremonies, it was the 10K runners turn to go around the rolling roads and trails of Sa Pa town and Jen was the lone Philippine representative.
Photography courtesy of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon and David W. Lloyd photography.