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My Journey to Tarawera: The Wild Mud Chase


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Tarawera was never in my radar early last year.  My default plan for a destination race was a full road marathon with Berlin and Chicago in the running.  But then, my brother who’s an active road biker in New Zealand phoned me about Tarawera and that some of his buddies were joining and in the less than an hour, I made the decision to take on it.  So am I gonna do a 60K or an 85K?  A little research and some advice from Jael (with a lot of guidance from Filipino Tarawera finishers) and my 85K registration was finalized.

After finishing some road business (the Milo Marathon & Milo Lucena 21K), I plunged into trail training with DBB’s Mt. Batolusong 50K and CM50 as the highlights.  A few cramming time on the trails, mostly with Team Marupok on the hills of Montalban and by February 6, I found myself at the starting line of the Tarawera Ultra Race, albeit 5 pounds heavier.

The last statement demands some clarification.  I started my vacation a month before the race but I’ve mapped out a detailed training schedule to make sure I won’t go off the fitness level grid.  Unfortunately, after coming from a busy, stressed out environment (I was rushing patient cases days before my departure), all I wanted to do was relax and reconnect with my brother’s family.  After all, I was on vacation mode, right?  Add up my poor sleeping habits and the irresistibly luscious dishes my sister-in-law kept feeding us and you have one out-of-shape, unrecognizable me.

Fortunately, I registered for the SMC 10K run in Sydney (52:26) and the Hutt River Trail Marathon in Wellington (4:36) to ensure myself of some mileage.  In between, I squeezed in more kilometers while touring & walking Sydney’s labyrinth of streets and back alleys plus more jogs and runs along Bondi and Blue Mountain.  Wellington was more tricky with its numerous hills and windy environment but the minimal slow runs I did was augmented by indoor workouts.20160205_135942

We arrived at Rotorua a day before the Tarawera race in time for the race kit claiming, briefing and sports expo where I also reconnected with Filipino runners Arlene, Kirk & Kian.  Four more New Zealand-based Pinoy runners were also there to bring Team Pilipinas to a total of 8.  Tarawera is the second race in 2016 of the Ultra-Trail World Tour calendar and the presence of some elite runners made for an intimidating situation for undertrained and unfit me.  Those thoughts kept me awake that night with only a maximum sleep of 3 hours and soon, it was time to prepare and head off to the start.

 

And we are off.  The Tarawera race started quite late at 6 am with runners from the three categories bunched together.  It was a dark and rainy slow start as all 1,300 runners negotiated the crowded trail inside a pine forest for the first 4 kilometers.  I dove into an ocean of bobbing headlamps, trying to pass runners who have been overwhelmed by the numerous hills and slippery terrain.  The light rain on my face and the slowly revealing silhouettes of giant trees and ferns all around made for a fairy tale setting.  Still infused with enthusiasm, I attacked the race with gusto with enough walks on the uphills.

Leading to the first aid station, the terrain started to descend and kept on it as we circled the edge of Lake Tikitapu.  It was my golden hour as I glided down with ease among zigzagging paths laden with soft mud of ideal consistency – soft enough to absorb the pressure but not too sticky to accumulate and cause sliding.  Or maybe, the leg muscles were still strong to help me counter any forces which can lead to a nasty fall.  16.4 kilometers later, we were sprinting towards the beach side of the lake as hordes of well-wishers and volunteers welcomed and cheered for us at our Blue Lake station.24901093855_ea1b8b72a1_z

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The next aid station was only at KM22.8 and relatively flat but it was the next aid station (Okataina Lodge) at KM39.4 which took light years to reach.  The third leg of this race at 16.6 kilometers is without a doubt the longest and has the two steepest climbs before descending into some mean technical downhills.  Even if I was a bit spent, I just had to suck in the endless climbs and muddy landscape lest I fail to make the 1:50 pm cut off.  The women and senior runners I overtook earlier started gaining on me but I just stayed in my glacial pace until the ground started to tilt down and I was soaring.

Weather predictions expected the rain to cease before noon but by 12:30 pm when I left Aid Station 3, the light shower kept pummelling the trail and would continue up to the early evening.  The next leg offered a rolling slope with intermittent views of the lovely Lake Okataina.  The route slithers around the still water of Okataina and a steady pace can be had while keeping an eye on the deep yawning gorge below.TUM_2016_001089

By KM 49.2, I was welcomed by a groovy bevy of hippies and hefty slices of pizza at AS 4 (Humphries Bay) so even if I was drenched to the bone, I was on a high.  The Tarawera Aid Stations even if at times are too far in between are a welcome oasis of fruit slices, yummy sandwiches, hot soups and energy gels & power drinks.  And they are manned by some of the most enthusiastic volunteers in the planet while garbed in various outlandish motiffs – Santa Claus town, Star Wars space station, etc.

The fifth leg was a good 8.1 kilometers but with the expansive and mysterious Lake Tarawera (our third and last lake) on my right, it was a pleasurable jaunt.  Many a time, I would try to hook up with a train of runners running moderately but consistently while sharing war stories.  It was a worthy distraction from the cold and fatigue plus it burned the miles, unnoticeably.  We were at the tail end of the race and many of the men were already planning to quit or downgrade to a shorter distance.  It was the women who were more enthusiastic and kept me going.TUM_2016_005103

The last 4 kilometers leading to the 60KM finish line was a series of winding paths eventually tracing the course of the Tarawera River.  With the rushing waters in the background, I linked with Mac who related to me the running scene in New Zealand.  He is witness at how Kiwis of whatever gender, age or size prepare and train systematically and regularly months before their races.  I told him how many times I saw Wellingtonians run, walk or bike to and from work with their backpacks on. It’s no wonder that many of us were left biting their dust come race day.TaraweraFallsLg

The rains never ceased so the swollen river led us to 2 raging cascades before the behemoth multi-layered, grandiose Tarawera Falls.  I was in awe of its gushing waters in full display but we had the final cut-off to catch.  85KM runners should leave the 60KM mark on or before 5:50 pm.  We arrived at 5:20 pm but we had to leave soon so there was little room to change to a new base layer and grab some snack.  Along the way, I grabbed Mac and Kirk (who had arrived earlier and was having issues of making the 6:20 pm cut-off at KM 72, for 100KM runners) to join me on our 85-KM quest.

With no cut-offs to chase, we settled to a more relaxed slow pace even if a pang of guilt for not pushing myself hovered like some dark cloud.  The rain and the impending cold was simply zapping what’s left of my enthusiasm.  The final 25 kilometers was supposed to be the most runnable portion of the course but there I was making small talk with two guys and we have settled to just finish the race. So walk we did along a wide corridor flanked by tall pines on both sides, as dusk settled in.  Fortunately, Mac’s pace was rather brisk that Kirk and I had to catch up with him every now and then.  The path was now grassy and a welcome relief from the previous muddy and rolling terrain, pre-60K.24272726244_d5bfad522a_k

At the Titoki station, we stayed longer to ward off the cold (with piping hot soup!) and take to the portalets which were remarkably well-stocked and most welcome at this part of the race instead of digging some hole in the dark forest.  We left the station with the dark slowly bleeding across the land.  The rain had ceased and it was a bit foggy as we settled into a walk and jog routine.  Soon, we were traversing an isolated road as we swapped more stories and experiences.  The final kilometres was a trot in the dark highlighted by a purple-lit cage bridge, a ‘floating’ aid station manned by multiple Princess Leias and two steep sandy uphills.

Finally, traces of civilization appeared into view – street lights, houses, distant sounds.  But it would take us almost an hour before the finish line beckoned.  We came charging in as one flank with me holding the dinky Philippine flag over my headlamp.  Among the 85K finishers, we were at the tail end but the cheering crowd and supporters were as animated and enthusiastic as they were in the morning, as Race Organiser Paul Charteris gave us a warm hug.  Many of the 100K finishers, by this time were finishing in small groups, as midnight slowly crept in.  Less than an hour later, our lone Filipina runner, Arlene Agulto, finished her 100K adventure while Kian finished his hours earlier.

And so culminates our journey which circled three lakes, explored forest reserves, entered enchanted territories we only used to dream of.  This was New Zealand in its untamed, harsh and natural state we had experienced and immersed in that day.  And for many of us who have found bliss and fairyland, this seems just the beginning of something big, incredible and exciting.  See you soon Kiwiland!

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Photography by Marceau Photography, Joseph Iric Mina & Tarawera Ultramarathon

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Third time’s a charm, Dagupan (or the looong road to a Milo qualifier)


My road to a Milo qualifier began years back but 2 years ago when I knew that a 4:10 Marathon finish was not feasible along Pasay and Manila’s chaotic streets, I started setting my sights via a 21K race. The aim was to finish 1:55 or less, which at hindsight seems doable since I’ve done two finishes within such time. So in 2014, when I crossed the Milo Marathon thrashed and crawling, I knew my next chance to run the Milo Finals was the Milo Lipa eliminations which was happening a few weeks later.

It was during this period when we engaged in some mean speed training at the UP oval via the Payasso class of Jon Las Bruce’s group (Milo Apex classes have finished by July). So we were quite confident with our footfalls and pacing when the gun exploded at Lipa that rainy 4:30 morning. Unfortunately the race was hounded by brownouts, lashing rain and surprise uphills into the final kilometers. I had some cramping issues as well leading to the finish line which I crossed at 2:01. So it’s back to the drawing board.13700097_10210399653845796_687803459353473732_n

Last year, I had another devastating finish at the Milo Marathon courtesy of some twisting cramp periods going to the finish line so I plunged into a summarized 21K training program under the guidance of Coach Alfred Delos Reyes. The program is a healthy mix of strength training, speeds and long runs. It shook my system (t’was my first foray into speed running) but I was confident as hell when I showed up at the starting line of the Milo Lucena after travelling for more than 5 hours. The race travelled around the city’s rolling streets as I bounced with confidence and a qualifying finish dancing in my head.

The last 8 kilometers included my favorite downhills so I was flying until my major adversary reared its ugly head. I was dragging my cramping self into the finish line but when I saw the clock at 1:55, I lost all hope and just forced a 1:56:05 finish. Had I put on some extra strength and slashed 6 seconds, I would have finished at 1:55:59 and get qualified. Oh well.

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Coach Alfred’s 21K Training Program

On October 1, 2015, I turned 50 and extended by Milo qualifying time to 2 hours.

Early this year, I was able to finish a 21K road race at 1:57 in New Zealand so when I paced for the RU2 32K race, I knew I was going to bring our runners to the finish at my designated 3:15 assignment. This never happened of course. I ended up stopping and reviving myself back in the final 10 kilometers c/o of my good old buddy, Mr. Cramps. It was a wake call for me.

So even before I could recover, I was back in training mode with 5 weeks into the Milo Dagupan 21K Eliminations. It’s the same ole program from Coach Alfred but this time our strength workout was the dreaded 45-minute Insanity program, as Van had devised, coupled by a 4K jog after. Speeds were with the guys of Coach Al’s Functional Gym led by veteran runner & friend Bon at the Marikina Oval and one time along a steep hill. Short runs were done in an adjacent rolling village while Sunday long runs took place at the UP oval.

My final long run tipped at 19 kilometers (2:01) but I was thrashed the last 2 kilometers so I was questioning my race readiness. The last week was more relaxed but preparations like booking for a room, road mapping and nutrition took up most our time.13887061_10210585953903181_4745321482711515430_n

And so Van and I showed up at the starting line 30 minutes before the 4:30 am start. Even if sleep was short and shallow, I was feeling quite relaxed and excited to test all the preparations and training we’ve done for the last 5 weeks. And we were off, starting to a slow but steadily accelerating pace. Soon we were hitting 4:45 so I had to temper it to 5:15 -5:30. The route was technically flat save for more some minor bridges and one major one. In the early part, we had the road to ourselves but soon, we were relegated to the border of the road.

The going was steady with water stops every 2 kilometers. I was struggling a bit in the turn around but just kept going. 10.5 kilometers was reached at 57 minutes (averaging 5:31) so I was calculating, we have an extra 6 minutes into 2 hours if we could maintain the same speed in the second half.

That was wishful thinking, of course. By this time, my struggle wasn’t muscular but more on the breathing so it was time to turn on the music and move to the beat. Pace would dip into 5:45 and even once into 6:00 but when the second and third winds came, I tried to rack it up to 5:15s just to even out the slow periods. Van played the perfect pacer, mostly just shadowing me when I was in the zone and running by my front when I was losing steam. His quick foot exchange kept me chugging along.

The return journey was mired by walking and blocking 10K joggers we had to dodge. Van worked double time to clear my path as signs of an impending cramping started to show up. In the final 2 kilometers, cramping worsened but I’ve somehow learned to manage it – slowing a bit and varying my steps. I was a bit shaken but I knew I had this damn race in the bag and true enough when we reached the finish line, my clock read 1:57:50! There were no cameras to capture that instant which was two years in the making. But that moment signaled a turning point in my running career – after 7 years of running, I’m finally a Milo Marathon Qualifier. Cheers!

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A League of Milo Apex Running School alumni.

Here’s my music list for the last 10 kilometers: New Song (Howard Jones), Can’t Hold Us (Macklemore), Modern Love (David Bowie), Hey Soul Sister (Train), Super Bass (Nicki Minaj), Running Down a Dream (Tom Petty & the Heartbeakers), Master & Servant (Depeche Mode), Telephone (Lady Gaga), She Bangs (Ricky Martin), Let My Love Open the Door (Pete Townsend), Fancy (Iggy Azalea)13775778_10154319754749687_3116944021621885468_n

Postcript:  Two weeks after (July 31, 2016), Van & I ran the 40th Milo Marathon which took the old 2014 route passing (almost) the whole stretch of Roxas Boulevard, going to Buendia and BGC and back.  It was a relaxed pace for us, maintaining the 6:00 min/km.  On the way to BGC, I started slowing down but bursts of 2nd winds got me moving again.  Along the return trip in Buendia, I started taking walk breaks, urging Van to go ahead but he kept pushing me and played pacer up to the last meter.

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Signs of cramping developed during the last 5 kilometers with me my modifying steps and taking walk breaks.  The little devil never intensified but fatigue had apparently already set in so the jogging got slower but my very patient and encouraging pacer kept nudging me on, reminding me that we’re almost at the end of the road.  Finally in the final 200 meters, I tried to preen and look great running as photographers from everywhere started appearing.  Maybe it was a combination of mental fatigue,  fear of a full cramping episode and thrashing I was experiencing that I managed to just strut a normal jog (It was hard to feign normalcy when all sort of discomfort are emerging all over one’s body).  I told myself, at least, I wasn’t crawling the pavement like some wandering octupus.  4:53:15 was our final clock and yes, it was one marathon we both enjoyed.  Cheers!

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Btw, this 40th edition featured many trained and mean runners missing their qualifying times.  Maybe it was the humidity at the start.  Some veteran runners were just gunning to make it to the cut-off time with a few missing it.  Now this is reminiscent of the 2010 edition, really.  Here’s how my Milo Marathon stack up:

Milo 2010 5:49

Milo 2011 4:52

Milo 2012 4:24

Milo 2013 DNS due to dengue

Milo 2014 4:36

Milo 2015 4:30

Milo 2016 4:53

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Photography by RuN AnD ShooT, Pinoy Fitness and The Running Photographers