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The Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015: Meandering & Struggling in the Fields of the Gods


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.

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Van & Jen in the middle of the town square.

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Falling for Sapa.

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Last minute mileage:  Going around the indigenous communities around Sapa the day before the race.

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.

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Let’s do this!

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.Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

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.

Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

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.

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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).Frontpage-Curve11054440_359402114258582_6717057081370314136_n

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.

Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2015

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.

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Jenny, our proud 10K representative.

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The need for speed


 

Ever since I can remember, I always get antsy when a work takes a lot of detours to get it done. I can’t seem to take people who move like there’s zero gravity. I get impatient when vehicles in front of me start halting to a crawl. Or when a phalanx of runners start blocking the road and take groupies like they’re in a street dance number. In my mind, I was moving like Mercury and cutting through people, streets and buildings and reaching my destination in a flash. In the real world, it would take me eons to accomplish what I had set out for. Even if I’d like to finish ahead of time, a lot of other factors beyond my control would weigh and eventually slow me down.

 

That’s what I love about running. You feel like everything rests on your shoulders (and two legs and the other major muscle groups aiding them). If you fail to make the cut and miss being qualified, you have no one to blame but yourself – for being unable to train properly and consistently, for letting the rain and the wind dampen your spirit or for letting all those negative emotions flood your being, sucking out everything with it.

 

But it took me years to harness and unleash my speed demons into my runs and races.  I never learned how to push myself and overtake the runners in front of me.  I felt that finishing my races within cut-off time was more than enough, considering many were quitting or going beyond the cut-off time.  Not that I wasn’t competitive.  But I was content being the middle-aged runner among the midpackers.  I thought that being able to run, almost injury free and finishing it was more than I’ve envisioned and yearned for.

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Speed time with Fatima, Rob, Bon & Dennis at the Marist oval.  2014

But I knew something was trying to break free as I neared my mid-century life.  Perhaps, it started when I chanced upon the book Advanced Marathoning.  In it, I learned about VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy in a more structured and comprehensive narrative.  So I learned a great deal on the physiology and science of running, now how was I to apply them on the track and the road?

 

I tried to follow the training log for the slowest group and still modified (read:  cheated) its grueling and demanding training schedule.  The most lung busting of the routine is the speed run which has greatly improved my breathing where I usually struggled.  There were also workouts to increase the lactate threshold and VO2 max, which I still haven’t optimized as I’m still prone to cramping.  But overall, I’ve put on some speed and was less to walk or slow down.

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I still have to do a podium finish or qualify for the Milo finals but the strides I’ve made this year have made my finish times more predictable and controlled even in the absence of a pace watch (I just need to finish 160 strides in a minute to know I’m within acceptable pacing).  Who would have thought, I’d still be breaking PRS at age 50?  So I perhaps, there could be something exciting that still awaits me.  No matter, I’m just here for the ride of my life.


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To be foolish & young or to be wary & old


Note:  This is my 8th article for Frontrunner magazine and it came out on December 2014, a month after Purgatory 30KM, our preparation race for CM60 a few weeks later.

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So here I am trying to descend the final 10 kilometers of my first mountain/trail run since my knee surgery at the Purgatory 30km.  The views are sweeping and commanding, the mossy forests exude a certain virginal character I’ve never set foot on before in my life and the trails are strips of soil covered in dry pine needles that one misstep can send one plunging into the valley below.  And I did slip a few times, only saved by my trusty trekking pole for the nth time.

I remember the times (was that just over a year ago?) when I could glide down these endless down hills that I felt tough and invincible.  Descents are usually the secret weapon of average trail runners like me who can hardly hike up the hills without pausing and catching our breath.  So after that difficult and almost eternal climb, it’s a respite to just fly off and take on the finish.  Later in my brief trail running history, I learned that I’m one of those ‘gifted’ ones who could embrace those tricky and complicated down hills and just plunge down like there’s no tomorrow.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration actually but I know of runners who really take more time going down than up.

That’s not me.

Even if I’m a bit thrashed already, I can easily convince my legs to start moving and let gravity take control until the terrain flattens finally.  Eons ago, I had no qualms of soaring down along dark paths where the other side is a deep ravine lit only by my headlamp while chasing the impending cut-off time.  That was just like two years ago when I felt more confident and firm on my steps, which is not to say I didn’t slip, slide or fall.  I did actually and a lot of times but I easily picked myself up and just kept going.  The fear of falling off a mountain track into a 100-foot valley hardly entered my system.  Maybe I was foolish or clueless or too brave for my own good but with every triumphant finish, I was more challenged and just kept stacking up the ultra distances.P1130133

Just how time flies.

Over a year since I had my knee surgery (which my Orthopedic surgeon blamed from too much descents) and my uneventful recovery, I had become more concerned of my mortality and physical limitations.  When before I was light footed and flitting, I had become more careful in my foot falls, making me a tad slower in my moves.  It has to do I guess with age (though, I was already 47 when I was doing my daring ‘moves’) or perhaps I’m still in my adaptation stage since I’ve concentrated of late on the road and less on the trail.

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Jumping for joy on my first Ultrarace after a bout with dengue at the halfway point of I Shall Return 50K at the Leyte-Samar bridge. 2011

No matter, I’m thinking this would be a slow brew before strength and skill would finally kick in.  But once I get my groove back, it’s not going to be the same endless adventure of weekly trail runs and spontaneous recons.  No more foolish (agaw buhay) and careless behavior on the trails though the feeling of freedom and flight would never diminish.  None of the spontaneous hikes into wherever my feet would take me but the excitement would still be there.  I guess I can’t afford to go through the same ordeal I went through last year while waiting for the knee to recuperate.

If anything, I’d learned that no matter how addicting, one need not be in the trails every weekend to be a strong and fast trail runner.  Strength and speed can be honed in the gym, the road and running clinics.  Yep, even if the nearest hills are less than an hour by foot from our doorstep.  It’s not that I suddenly abhor the mud, those skin-lacerating cogons and getting toasted (until you forget your true shade), it’s just that I don’t have the convenience of time and crossing out a full day to explore Balabag or Deadman’s trail a whole Sunday.  Just like that, the demands of the clinic seem to outweigh the call of the mountains.

Or maybe I’m just getting old, you know – gathering wisdom (while gathering dust) and acting more with my mind than via my instinct.  Whatever.

I think I’ve reached my peak 2 years ago when I can tackle ultra-trail races, challenging terrains, inclement weather and still show up at the finish line in one piece.  I’m now in my cruise/maintenance mode – still taking on the trails and mountain races without pushing my body to its mortal limits.  It’s a journey that sees no end except to pause and take in all the spectacular sceneries, every now and then.  Sorry, there’s no stopping this old goat, a 49-year old mountain goat, if you will.

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Call me grandpa when you let me eat your dust along the trails, I don’t mind.


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A Blazing Story of the Running Goddess


Note:  This is my 7th article for Frontrunner magazine and is an amalgamation of the various sexiest and colorful female runners I’ve encountered on the road.  It came out during the magazine’s special issue on Women.

by Kitty Cat Runner

Before I came into the spotlight, the local running world was drenched with sweaty, smelly guys whose only purpose in life was to cross that darn finish line, claim their loots and go home.  I know it was that boring and remised of color and spectacle.  And no one took notice of their feats, how fast they were, how hard they trained and how much time they’ve sacrificed to achieve their goals.  Soon enough, running was already running the danger of being relegated into the dustbin of sports history…

Until it suddenly gained a new found life around 2009 – that’s when my running career came roaring in.  Yes, yes, I was there when the new wave in running suddenly surged and I grabbed onto it like a blazing comet and took charge of my new found career – the running diva of the new millenium.  Seriously, it was never in my plans but the running universe was in search of a nova star – somebody who’ll bring the fun back in fun runs, be the mistress of marathons, the diva of dashes, the siren of sprints, the flame in the darkness and desperation of despondent runners who fail to make the cut-off time (but still insist on getting that medal).  So I stepped up the plate and became the ambassadress in running as the sexy and stimulating muse of road races.

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Base training, VO2max, lactate threshold – just what the hey are they?  I came here to relish a street party and trumpet my showbiz running career.  Sorry I have no plans of finishing early and what?  Deprive my time to meet and greet my fans along the route?  I value them like my plastic jewelry collection and they’re the reason I wake up really early in the morning and abstain from my Saturday night life so they deserve more than my snob and animosity.  I don’t want to hear another item of distraught fans jumping off the Manila Bay and disintegrating in its grime and flotsam.

So here I am shimmying across Roxas boulevard with its flank of garish sputnik lamp posts and I feel like I’m sashaying across the red carpet as cameras snap and cheers & claps erupt from the curious onlookers and even fellow runners.  What can I say – they know a true diva when they see one.  So I reciprocate them with my feigned smile, calculated hand waves and blown kisses at every turn.  As the finish approaches, I make a conscious check of pretty old me – no running mascara, check, no messy hairdo nor sweaty armpits, check, check.  I have taken on this role of road muse and intend to play it to the hilt.   I mustn’t disappoint my gaggle of male admirers who would be watching every move I make, every step I take.  Sting could even be one of them.

Of course, as a part of showbiz royalty, threats abound – those cheap, catty, copy cats, they abound like stray cats in the night, ready to pounce and grab the glitter off my running streak.  But they won’t thrive – the outfits, the make-up, the drama – they either look like second rate courtesans or some out-of-job mascots.   It’s would take them a lifetime to even approximate my class, stature and influence.  But they can be plain mean and vicious.

Once my Facebook status only reaped a measly 300 LIKES and I thought I was losing my touch.  Where have all my minions gone?  Even worse was when a picture of me in one unflattering angle suddenly popped in the internet and spread like wild fire as those despicable netizens had a party taunting, chitchatting and making fun of their running goddess.  Such blasphemy.  I wallowed in misery but only for a day, for the next day was another chance to reinvent myself.  It’s all about keeping them interested, intrigued and seduced in my little universe.  And that I got in spades.

To be sure, I do have my share of bashers.  All that vitriol and negative vibe and back stabbing – they keep mushrooming everyday in social media, in hushed whispers and team drunken get-togethers.  And yes, my sparrows do inform me their chatter revolves around me and my pink universe of waterproof make-ups, scented moisturizers, rainbow-striped calf guards and fancy visors.

But you can’t knock a shining shimmering icon like moi – for I do have my fan base of deranged maniacs, dirty old running men (D.O.R.M.), awe-struck admirers and legion of stalkers – drooling at the sway of my hips, anticipating every jiggle of my puppies and at every pose I strike.  I hear they even have their secret Facebook page where they decode, decipher and discuss about me and my lesser starlets, the way fishwives would do on the docks of Storm’s End.  And who said men don’t gossip.  Duh.

Yep, it’s been quite a reign – longer than any queen can imagine.  Soon enough, I will be retiring from the road and I will be passing the crown to one of my wannabes, who have been forever breathing behind my neck.  I’m really considering taking on the dreary world of trail running.  I think they are in desperate need of a trail nymph to bring some sparkle and fun along those dark treacherous paths.  Anyway, it’s been quite a ride.  Better leave while I’m still at it.  To my legion of fans – I want them to always remember and cherish me, hopefully not for the wrong reason (Banana girl, who?) but as someone who inspired them to run and enjoy life in all its sparkle, color and world peace.  I thank you.