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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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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 Lost Files Series: October – November 2012


[These writings were done during my October-November 2012 visit at the U.S. The draft just surfaced a few weeks ago when my brother Fred and his family visited us for our parents’ 50th Anniversary celebration.]

The Lost Files #1: And my First International Marathon goes for a PR

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this is it…

The plan was to do New York but after failing twice, I knew it was time to visit the East coast after 6 years and reconnect with family and friends. And perhaps, do my first international marathon. Chicago was the next option but a day before my visa arrived, applications closed promptly.
My to-be home base would be New Jersey so Baltimore figured in the picture easily. I was to arrive 3 days before the event so somehow I’d still be in my fittest running state, that is after battling sleepiness (never had a shut eye during the flight), jet lag and acclimatization (late fall had descended by mid October).

The day before the race, we went to the M & T Stadium to claim my bib and the race’s official lime long sleeve shirt. I also bought knee-length compression shorts only after experiencing near freezing temperature and incessant winds. Now I’m getting nervous. We stayed at my cousin Allan’s house in Virginia, just 30 minutes from Baltimore

starting cold and early...

starting cold and early…

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my jittery smile at the start…

My brother and I appeared at the starting line an hour before to take pictures and survey the scene. Around 5,000 runners in various get-ups and outfits were there, including differently-abled contenders in hand-pedalled go karts and various contraptions. I had 2 layers of upper and lower running gears but was stiff as a block of ice. I just needed to heat up inside, I told myself, and I can slowly get my stride in order. It’s been the same story – I go too fast at the start, try to find my pace and just take on the remaining kilometers with earnest gusto and eagerness.
So there I was among the lead-packers as we raced up the city’s marvelous ascending main avenue – a quirky mix of brick and modern structures. The crowd’s fevered and fervent spirit kept the runners electrified and moving. I tried to take in all that energy until I realized I was catching my breath around KM5. I tried to slow down and just enjoy the ride, hardly being able to shield my legs and feet from the numbing cold.

At that point, I felt I had put all my preparations and expenses to waste – it was time to throw the towel. And what was I to put in my FB status? So I kept trudging into the rolling streets of Baltimore, the city zoo and various parks and open spaces. I was still waiting for the heat to kick in but after KM20, I gave up and just go with the flow of marathoners. We navigated through offices and commercial temples, both new and restored along the picturesque Chesapeake Bay.
We started at 8 a.m. and even with the sun already up and glowing, it was still a cold shivering affair. Thank God for the crowd and high school bands interspersed along the city streets, cheering and pushing us with some invisible force to the finish. And easily transforming it into one memorable street party.

the final struggles...

the final struggles…

I surprised myself when I reach KM32 (Mile20) at around 3 hours. Suddenly visions of a finishing my first international marathon with a personal record (PR) started swirling in my head. The race map had shown Mile 16-22 (a good 1 hour) a steep ascent into the finish line and so I kept anticipating it, expecting to walk and slow down when the going got tough.

But it never came. They were mean ascents alright but nothing that could have pulled me down. Buoyed by blaring street music and positive vibes from the crowd who had lined up the main avenue descending to the finish line, I kept hammering the pavement and pulled myself to a glorious finish. And it’s all documented by my little brother Fred who had strategically positioned himself 200 meters from the finish line.

metal-biting moment

metal-biting moment

Now these are what marathon memories are made of. And yes it was a personal record (PR) at 4:17:36. You might also want to check out my Frontrunner article on the same subject. Check out this link.

The Lost Files #2: Bimbler’s was no Bluff

Eight days after my Baltimore Marathon triumph (t’was a PR of 4:17:36), I was back for my second race in the States. This time it’s a trail run and 8 kilometers longer that my marathon. So when my brother drove me to Guilford, Connecticut one chilly morning, he figured that I’d finish it in less than 6 hours, considering my latest full mary time. I was also hoping he would be right but at the back of my mind, I knew it was going to be one harrowing ride.

578997_4884288903192_63899419_nJael Wenceslao, who had his share ultraruns in the States, helped me choose this run. My first choice was the Fire in the Mountain 50KM ultra but when he noticed the lead packers finishing within the early 6 hours, he knew it was one tough nut to crack. Bimbler’s Bluff had early 4-hour finishers so it was the wiser choice.

Or so I thought.

I learned my lesson from Baltimore so I showed up totally bundled up from head to toe. I’m the only visitor from the southern hemisphere so the outfit divide was quite obvious but what the hey…299434_4884284183074_1965776543_n
Around a hundred runners left the starting line and headed towards the forest. The route had some mean up hills but glorious down hills, as well. Early on the race, I started feeling the heat within as the molting began. First to go were the darn gloves followed by the bonnet then the jacket. After a fast start, I began to find my stride and let others outrun (and outchick) me. Quite frustrating really but I’m taking on this race 10 days on vacation mode and did I mention, 10 pounds heavier. 197618_4884282343028_283425629_n
But I never imagined it to be that bad. Let me count the ways:

a. Stone mines.  It was supposed to be just early fall but our trail had been littered with fallen leaves all over that one can hardly distinguish flat soil from strewn angular rocks. So a single wrong step could mean one nasty sprain. Those missteps just kept happening that I stopped counting. I never learned how my American counterparts were able to pass through those ‘mines’ like fairies flitting towards the summit. Suddenly, it was no longer fun anymore.

b. The cold. After a few kilometers, I had stripped to my compression pants with shorts and singlet over my long sleeve shirt but with the towering trees shading us from the sun, the cold breeze persisted. So while many of my co-runners were sweating in their shirts and tank tops, I was struggling mildly from the cold air and breath shortness.

c. Rudderless runner. I have always pride myself of having a good sense of direction and while all the wide route was well marked but their candy-striped red and white ribbons, I still got lost 4 times during the 50-km distance (losing a good 40 minutes). How did it happen? Probably, I got dependent on running behind a group that when left to my own devices, I suddenly felt rudderless and lost. Or when I got too immersed on the lovely autumn colors of the forest or my MP3 songs.

A single false glance or missed ribbon and I’m in alien territory. The longest time I wandered off was when I followed someone who himself was also lost. Anyway I just need to remember next time that in the States, trails and paths are intertwining and convoluted so the possibilities (to get lost) are endless.

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how to survive my first ultra-trail run abroad…

After the last time I got lost, I knew there was no way I could redeem this trail run. The only goal by then (8 kilometers away) was to finish within the 10-hour cut-off time. And so I surged forward, albeit still tripping on the stone traps and shivering but already keeping a sharp eye on the those candy striped flags

Going back to the finish, I realized how steep and slightly technical our furious start had been that morning. It was a minor hill so into the finish, I was basically just free falling and enjoying the final kilometers of our adventure. I clocked in at 8:08:36 and #117 out of 136 runners. I had wanted to be ranked in the mid pack somewhere in the 70s but it was not to be . Maybe next time, I could do better…hmmm.

The Lost Notes #3:  MAROONed for 5 days

It’s been 16 hours since the blackout started here at my brother’s house in New Jersey courtesy of hurricane Sandy who devastated mostly the Eastern part of the U.S. mainland. In the many times I’ve visited the States, it’s my first time to experience such a major catastrophe. 3 days ago, I was in Manhattan for a few days and I had a blast (as always) enjoying the sights, pulse and people of New York City. Now we got news that waters at Battery Park have reached 13 ft. and the Hudson and East rivers have overflowed.

upside down look at life...

life from the upside…

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Days before, I did some morning runs along those scenic river paths. Now, I’d hate to imagine how the newly revived public spaces (former railroad tracks) look like now. One of their most anticipated celebrations might hardly take place, actually. But I sure hope that within 5 days, New York City can get back on its feet again or else, the NYC Marathon is bound to doom for 2012.

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when the warm-up never led to the race…

Back in the home front, we were able finish our hearty dinner before the lights disappeared and continued with some much needed and unexpected family time – playing scrabble and hanging around sans the noise and disturbance of modern day gizmos. We had enough water and energy for my brother’s UPS (uninterruptible power supply) though we kept it at a minimum for who knows up to when this calamity would last. Even if clouds hovered above, the winds have dwindled and we even got to walk around the development to check out Sandy’s havoc. Here, it’s only 2 trees which toppled and no major harm to Mina house.

My training regimen has been in doldrums. Two weeks before, I did only 2 long runs after my 50K trail run while last week, it’s been down to one. It’s already Tuesday but I haven’t hit the pavement due to this storm. Since yesterday, I’ve been running up and down the stairs followed by some stretching and yoga poses just to keep the fitness level up.

It’s going to be a challenge but I need to rack up some serious mileage soon. I’m totally envious of my co-runners’ training runs in the Philippines as many of us are preparing for the C2C 200KM and the CM50miles. For me it’s CM50 a week after I arrive in Manila followed by the Quezon City International Marathon 2012, a week later. And I’m still weighed down by the same issues – jet lag, under training and acclimatization.

Yep, I do intend to run far and long here without getting too adapted to these conditions so I won’t have a hard time reverting back to tropical mode in 2 weeks. Wish me luck…

 

P.S. New York City Marathon, after some push and pull between organizer and the mayor’s office, didn’t push through on November 2, 2012 but many of the registered runners still ran along Central Park’s 4-mile road 6 times just to complete the 26 kilometer distance, more or less. I was there to party with the runners who many still donned their NYCM bibs.

On November 25, 2012, I took on the first Clark-Miyamit 50-mile trail run and was able to finish it at 17:12 or 48 minutes before cut-off time. A week after that, I took on a pacer’s duty (4:45) for the QCIM 2012 but with a lot of push was able to finish my 9th full marathon at 4:23:36.


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Frontrunner Article #5: The Stockholm Marathon chronicles: icy rain, mutant jellyfish and dill pickles


the Nordic dream...

the Nordic dream…

The winds and torrential rain never let up, lashing on the poor runners as we struggled around the flooded stretch of Roxas boulevard.  Am I ever going to make it to the finish?  That was 2 years ago during the Manila eliminations of the Milo Marathon.  Now it’s happening again, minus the flooding.  In its place were stings of cold winds in a marathon dominated by Europeans and took me 9,000 kilometers across the globe. Am I going to surrender after travelling this far?  Hell no.  Suddenly, the legs stiffened…

Two days before, the sun was a perfect glowing ball as I ambled around Stockholm’s quaint streets and tony avenues to claim my race kit.  A day later, the weather was swelteringly warm but cool breeze from the surrounding waters made the walk towards the stadium a pleasure.  A local band dished out 80s tunes as I wolfed down the pasta dishes during our pre-race carbo-loading gathering.jgf6hu82

I landed in Stockholm on my own after staying and conditioning at a friend’s home for 2 weeks in another Swedish city in Malmo.  I shared a hostel room with 9 other travelers so I learned to fend for myself and find my way around Stockholm’s complex metropolis of winding streets, bridges, waterways and engaging views of both sea and mountains.

with my hostel mates from Spain, Germany & Argentina...

with my hostel mates from Spain, Columbia, Mexico & Germany..

Going to the starting line on race day, the runner is given various options of free rides on all public transportation.  I opted to make the 20-minute walk to calm my nerves and decide which outfit to use.  Reports of mid afternoon rains had me in my favored minimalist set – my MIM singlet and NYCM shorts.  A last minute decision to ditch my rain poncho and long-sleeved base layer was a nifty move that saw me through this race.

race kit claiming when the sun was still up...

race kit claiming when the sun was still up…

twice across the loop and then some...

twice across the loop and then some…

proudly Pilipino!

proudly Pilipino!

quite hard to imagine running in this kind of costume but it's one sure way of getting the most photos...

quite hard to imagine running in this kind of costume but it’s one sure way of getting the most photos…

Around 22,000 had registered for the Stockholm Marathon 2013 but not everyone showed up at the starting line (only 16,755) and even less would make the 6-hour cut-off time.  Still, we were divided in 5 waves and took off starting at 12 noon under a perfectly cool overcast weather.  This is after all the Nordic territories where the sun hardly shines, even during summer.  So the going was good, the breathing was a bit struggled but I was adjusting nicely to the semi-fast pace in an ocean of wall-to-wall runners.  Meaning to stop in the middle was to be trampled flat.

bag station

bag station

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we started at 12:10 along with the other last waves...

we started at 12:10 along with the other last waves…

There are enough distractions to take one’s mind from the incessant plodding – tree lined boulevards, interesting architecture, charming castles and a jovial crowd at every turn.  A slight drizzle made for a more enjoyable romp as we felt refreshed and rejuvenated.  We were now entering the old city and skimming the shoreline with its killer views of the waterways, cliff side hills and nearby islands.  We crossed 5 bridges with only mild ascents in the first loop (a 30-m sharp uphill wasn’t as tough as I’d imagined).

ready, set...

ready, set…

and off we go!

and off we go!

So far so good.  Maybe I could keep up this pace and score a sub-4 as I stayed close to the giant balloon of the 3:45 pacers.  We took on the second loop, this time entering the green reserves and the Djurgarden – both wide spaces where one can glimpse the river of runners snaking across from the far verdant distance.  A good 9 kilometers of thick forest growth outlining the open meadows soon gave way to the city’s asphalt and cobblestone jungle as we took on the same route as the first loop.

a verdant respite from the cityscape...

a verdant respite from the cityscape…

Out of nowhere, the rains came hard and strong and with it washed away my visions of a sub-4 finish.  At first, I was remembering the many runs I’ve done in the rain and tried to enjoy it in the face of the fierce winds.  Just then, the cramps came, taking on both the inner thighs.  Probably triggered by the dipping mercury, the hardening came and clung to me like some mutant jellyfish.  It’s the first time for me in a race and I had no idea how to remedy it.  Medics abound along the way but to stop and get a massage and some liniment would slow down my already diminished rate.  Besides, it’s never a guarantee of it not recurring, a few kilometers later.asm4

one of the few ascents in the route.  this first pass was manageable but the second one had lashing icy winds to contend with.

one of the few ascents in the route. this first pass was manageable but the second one had lashing icy winds to contend with.

I didn’t travel this far just to be weighed down by some muscle hardness.  Thus, it was decided to keep burning the miles – running and trotting while walking in between or maybe, most of the time as my personal videos would attest later.

Scenes on the final kilometers included local rock bands with their growling guitar licks and young girls doing some joyous number in carnival headdresses and bikinis while many runners were slowing down and dropping like flies.  I saw one splayed along the asphalt road while medics hovered around.  That’s not going to be me.  And so I dug deep into the recesses of my memory.  My most recent encounter with rain was in the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya during the H1 where I was wet to the bone while struggling on muddy, ascending trails with just my headlamp to light the way.  Now this was a far better condition, with water hitting and passing through my minimalist ensemble.  Glorious rain on a glorious day.

push it...push it real good.

push it…push it real good.

And so push I went, ignoring the cluster of discomfort – emerging blisters, dying toenails and faltering strength.  Instead, I focused on the sights, the people and the positive vibe the city was dripping with. Soon, the Olympic Stadium beckoned.  The 1912 structure was the site of the Summer Olympics during that year and was a fitting welcome to those who had survived the 42.195-km experience.  Wet and fatigued, I sprinted on the tartan track with guns blazing and spirits soaring.  Runners were entering the stadium in droves as their final struggles were flashed on the big screen and their names reverberated across the colossal venue.

I did it!  now where are the showers?  brrr...

I did it! now where are the showers? brrr…

names of finishers were flashed on the stadium screen.

names of finishers were flashed on the stadium screen.

sweet wet success!  mwah!

sweet wet success! mwah!

It would have been a superb finish without the relentless rains but last year, they say, was much worse with temperatures nearing the zeroes.  So I thanked the heavens for these tender mercies and surviving my 12th full marathon.  At 4:14, it’s 3 minutes shorter than my Baltimore finish last year.  It’s probably the wads of dill pickles and mints I gobbled up during the run.  Or just that overflowing warmth and cheering I got from the lovely folks of Stockholm that made the difference.  Tack sa mycket, Sweden!P1030434

shiver mi timbers!

shiver me timbers!

P.S.  It’s the final scene of me walking back towards downtown after changing my top but still dripping wet in my old shorts.  Every now and then, I would shiver but the high of achieving something great still superseded the minor inconveniences  (e.g.  a grumbling stomach even after downing solid food at the finish line).  Then a light bulb moment happened (ting!) – now, this can get to be a yearly habit.  Stay in a hostel, roam the city and run one destination marathon.  And I can go cheap, really.  No plush hotel rooms, no expensive tours, no classy dinners overlooking the city.  I can easily subsist on cheap rooms, walking tours (I’m getting good with maps) and street foods.  And I won’t feel a bit deprived and less privileged of enjoying the place.  Now where do I begin?   Paris, Berlin or London?  Maybe Chicago or Vancouver.  The possibilities are endless and the kilometers never end.

Here’s a compilation of the Stockholm marathon experience running to the song ‘Alive’ by Empire of the Sun.  Do watch it at 720p for that HD experience.  Most videos were emailed to us while others were extracted from marathon.se.  Wait for 1:01 of the video for some Pinoy surprise.  And please be patient with my walking scenes (probably 60% of the race), I was just warming up for the big surge ahead.  Hehe…enjoy!

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The Sweden Chronicles and then some


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It started taking shape just a year ago when former co-dentist (now a full-fledged Oral Hygienist in Sweden) Badette Larsson and family vacationed here.   She invited us (it eventually came down to just me)  to visit them at Malmo, Sweden.  Finally, after securing a Schengen visa, a two-way ticket to Copenhagen, Denmark (a steal at P46,000) and being one of the last registrants for the Stockholm Marathon (they re-opened registration on Feb. after some runners backed out), I was off.  From Copenhagen, Badette welcomed me and we took a 10-minute train ride that traversed a bay and led us into Malmo.

stepping on Swedish soil...

stepping on Swedish soil…

P1030111I had 2 weeks to acclimatize and condition before the big race so I ran around the Bunkeflostrand area 3x a week, exploring the various subdivisions (no snooty guards, nor gates here), the shoreline, swamps and hills along well marked trails at 10 am onwards.  In between, I shopped (Ikea and other malls were just a bike ride away), helped in the house, doing laundry and washing dishes.  I also met up with Uffe & Badette’s circle of friends and close family, along with other Filipinos there.  Many times I wandered aimlessly around downtown Malmo, appreciating the well preserved towns, modern architecture and immersing in both food and culture.  It’s easy to move around since Swedes are a warm people who could dish out good English, not to mention a good looking lot.

First day of exploration...

First day of exploration…

Leaving the Larsson house for some adventure...

Leaving the Larsson house for some adventure…

wooden bridge to cross the stream...

wooden bridge to cross the stream…

I heart Bunkeflostrand...

I heart Bunkeflostrand…

greens and blues...

greens and blues…

I could run here all day...

I could run here all day…

the sacred and the modern...

the sacred and the modern…

At Kungsparken with Uffe...

At Kungsparken with Uffe…

Malmo!

Malmo!

Soon, I was on my way to Stockholm and deposited my stuffs (after walking from the airport and pulling my wheeled luggage) at the Best Hostel at Skeppsbron, an island dotted with castles, museums and medieval bridges.  Our room is shared with 12 other travelers from around the world and it felt surprisingly safe with everyone respecting each other’s bed space and privacy.  Two days before the big day, I explored Stockholm with its numerous fortress islands, castles and waterways.  Being the capital, it’s more grandiose and touristy with museum and palaces at every turn.  I was usually dead tired when I reached our room so I always have a great sleep in the company of strangers.  The marathon commenced at 12 noon and under chilly rain and howling winds, I was able to improve my personal record.  (Pls. wait for the actual account in a few months.  In the meantime, you could read the full text in the current issue of Frontrunner magazine)

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quaint city scene...

quaint city scene…

Coasting along Skeppsbron...

Coasting along Skeppsbron…

Awesome Stockholm!

Awesome Stockholm!

sweet Stockholm moment...

sweet Stockholm moment…

When I got back to Malmo, Badette was on leave so we booked flights and a nice hotel room in – surprise, surprise – the fabled city of Prague, Czech republic, most unknowing that the Charles river and bridge (the main city attraction) had been inundated by rising flood waters.  But there were enough sites to visit in their medieval Old Town, Prague castle and Wensceslas Square.  It’ a lot of tram rides, walking and hiking.  But the scenes are to die for, especially the panoramic view of the city from the castle.

no, that ain't the Philippine flag...

no, that ain’t the Philippine flag…

this strangely looks like Disneyland.

this strangely looks like Disneyland.

Ever-bustling Old Town Square

Ever-bustling Old Town Square

flooded attractions

flooded attractions

no entry to the Charles bridge...

no entry to the Charles bridge…

Amazing view from the Prague castle...

Amazing view from the Prague castle…

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When we returned to Malmo, Badette still had the time to drive me around the modern districts of the city and even the southernmost tip of Sweden (I drove during parts of the journey).  I was able to also take in Copenhagen, just a train ride away in one day.

The Turning Torso building by Calatrava

The Turning Torso building by Calatrava

that's Badette and Jane at the far end...

that’s Badette and Joan at the far end…

when the sun comes down, the temperature drops

when the sun comes down, the temperature drops

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copper chameleons...

copper chameleons…

silence and solitude with Badette

silence and solitude with Badette

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Gardening chores in between...

Gardening chores in between…

that's the bridge leading to Denmark

that’s the bridge leading to Denmark

Alfresco, Swedish style with the Larssons...

Alfresco, Swedish style with the Larssons…

Malmo in black & white...

Malmo in black & white…

No doubt, it was a memorable and even-filled vacay but the most unforgettable ones are times spent with the Larssons who took me in their abode and made me feel at home.  Up to now, I still dream of Uffe’s homemade barbecues and meatballs and their swiss bagoong (Kalles kaviar).  Tack så mycket, Sweden!


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Snippets of my Stockholm Tour/Marathon


jgf6hu82

Last June 1, 2013, I did my 12th Full Marathon, and it was a windy, freezing finish at the Stockholm Olympic Stadion.  It marks a lot of firsts not only in my running but also travel history. 153250-846159-381530

P1030462a.  It’s my first time to travel alone and stay in a hostel.  Inside some old non-descript neo-classical building at Skeppsborn (the old city in an island) in Stockholm, Best Hostel was reached after a series of winding stairs reminiscent of some old French film.  I was deposited inside a large room filled with IKEA double beds along with 11 my co-hostel occupants, both of the male and female of species.  I never imagined I would be able to get a good sleep, especially before the marathon but I did – no irritating phone/electronic gadgets in the middle of the night, none of the sudden blinding light inside the room and hardly any human sounds like snoring or farting.  It was a polite, civilized and safe 3 days for me, which perhaps helped me in my run.  I never imagined of travelling Europe on a bargain but it can be with a little imagination, fewer expectations and some creative research.

new friends from Spain, Colombia and Mexico...ole!

new friends from Spain, Colombia and Mexico…ole!

a short walk from the hostel...

a short walk from the hostel…

b.  Europe on the Cheap.  Food, travel and shopping in the Swedish capital can really burn a hole in one’s pockets so I found some nifty ways to maintain my Stockholm budget on check.   Subway and Falafel are sandwiches of western & eastern origins, respectively but they were my go-to meals for they were both filling, yummy, healthy and inexpensive.  I did one boat tour on the city’s many islands and islets and was able to visit the Vasa Museum (an old ship ressurected to its titanic glory), the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, Djurgarden and the various design/furniture stores– all impressive and worthy sites. P1030608

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sign o' the times

sign o’ the times

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one verdant shot…

But for most of my time roaming the city, I relied on my two feet to take me from one destination to another.  The old city (Gamla Stan) with its winding streets was just a few meters away from my hotel and the city center was only a 15-minute walk.  But what I enjoyed the most was getting lost in Stockholm and finding quaint surprises at every turn – the seaside street going up the hill with its panoramic view of the city and the quiet streets near downtown with its small shops of lighting and furniture merchandise,  come to mind.

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c.  Running 42.5KM at 12 noon.

recon walk...a day before the race.

recon walk…a day before the race.

Pluses:  Ample sleep in normal cycle (10 pm to 7 am) – now try that in  Milo/Condura Marathon

Normal Schedule in the bathroom and the dining table

Cool, cloudy weather, at least at the first 10 kms.

Awesome sights and exuberant cheering Swedes in every street corner

Well stocked hydration/food stations with well-manned medical teams

Minuses:

Cold, rainy weather from KM20 onwards, thus, the gloomy atmosphere

Cold, cold, cold especially after crossing the finish line and the body started cooling downasm2

More details  of this on the September issue of Frontrunner.

d.  Finishing a Personal Best in the face of inclement weather conditionsasm6

4:14:25 – it’s unexpected, surprising and bewildering since I battled cramping and did a lot of walking during the race.

tack så mycket, Sweden!

Do watch this video for a close view of my struggles in the streets of Stockholm.  Music is ‘Alive’ by Empire of the Sun (yup from the movie title by Steven Spielberg featuring a young Christian Slater, pre-American Psycho).


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Frontrunner article no. 3 – Running Cold: Hard Numbing Lessons in Acclimatization and How Mark Zuckerberg pushed me to my limit


My throat and lips were parched, the fingers and my face I can hardly feel, the toes were quivering on their own and I was ready to call it quits along the city’s deceptively continuous ascents. And we’ve hardly reached 7 kms. That’s 35 kms. to go but the cold was just too much for someone who just flew in from the tropics 3 days before. Btw, I weighed 140 lbs. with nary a fat to pinch on.

this is where I shall run...yaay!

this is where I shall run…yaay!

 

retrieving my race bib a day before...

retrieving my race bib a day before…

I registered for the Baltimore Marathon after failing New York and Chicago. It was no surprise since my brother lives 4 hours away from the Maryland area. I figured that before I bloat (from all the mouthwatering food) and undertrain (sleeping was most glorious there), I would fly in a few days before the race while I’m still in tip-top condition. It was the fall season so the weather would be most perfect for someone who has survived some of the most damning tropical road conditions.

at the starting line early...brrr!

at the starting line early…brrr!

one jump shot while I still have the power...

one jump shot while I still have the power…

It was a wonder for me why the marathon had to start at 8 am – that’s 4-5 hours later than a local race gun start – will we get fried if we ran up to 12 noon? Until I showed up at the Starting Line 30 minutes before and had a hard time parting with my fleece jacket and bonnet. The plan was for me to run in shorts (over compression tights I bought the night before) and long sleeve tops (over my MIM singlet) and just start peeling the outer layer once I had warmed up 5 kms after. At least that’s how I had envisioned it.

this is it!

this is it!

and we're off to the races, races...

and we’re off to the races, races…

Still reeling from jetlag, I positioned myself near the starting line (for my brother to take great pictures) so once the horns screamed, I found myself in a sea of fast runners going up the hilly boulevard. It was a jolt that I fully latched on, taking in the wondrous mix of neo-colonial and glass-and-steel architecture of this surprisingly exciting city. Well, until I realized I was gasping from the cool breeze and the endless up hills. It was no longer amusing but I knew that once I’d reached the 10-km (6 miles) mark, I was going to get into my groove.

So I slowed my pace a bit until I saw the 3:15 pacer group behind me. I had been overexerting it too early but I hardly felt any overheating perhaps, due to the biting cold. Since I had no pacing device on, I settled to a more comfortable stride and removed by long sleeve top only to take in the assault of the chilly winds. I was hoping for my body temperature to settle in and adjust, as well. But it never happened. Up to the finish line, I would suddenly shake and shiver while my singlet remained sweatless (or maybe, it just dried up too fast for me to even notice).

We entered the city zoo and traversed through some old growth forest areas which may sound like an oasis if you’re racing it in say, Tacloban. But in the northern hemisphere, it means absence of any sunlight and puffs of cold air every now and then that you’d go scampering towards the solar sources. Finally, we were moving along open parks, expansive public spaces and avenues but since majority of it faces the picturesque Chesapeake Bay, I hardly experienced any warmth and solace during the run. The fresh stinging breeze wouldn’t let up so I learned to embrace and enjoy the remaining miles ahead. I didn’t travel this far just to trash a ‘perfectly’ great marathon. Truth to tell, I was dreading what I would put in my Facebook status for the running universe to gawk on. “Survived my first international marathon, not my best run but had a blast!” just wouldn’t cut it.

I had vowed to dedicate this run for my beloved nephew ‘Kiko’ who has special needs so DNF was out of the question. 32 kms (20 miles) into the run, the path goes around the giant lagoon where runners were circling around like some flawlessly choreographed balletic number before going through the neighborhoods where the folks have come out to push the runners into their final miles. All that genuine positive energy pushed me like no energy gel or 2nd wind could.

and the outside layer comes off...

and the outer layer comes off…

The elevation graph had shown Miles 16-22 insanely ascending so I braced for the worse, already planning to walk when the up hills got tough but it never got that challenging. A few walks I did but hardly felt any sign of bonking, so the recovery was swift and sure. Into the final downhill assault, the city had come out in full force – marching bands, costumed dancers, full blasting music and well-meaning wishers carrying placards that will get you laughing and sprinting (‘run like you’re being chased by bees’, ‘I thought you said 2.62 miles?’, ‘worst parade ever’ and my favorite, ‘smile if you’re running commando’ ).

so near, it's stirring the blood in their veins...

so near, it’s stirring the blood in their veins…

one medal-biting moment...

one medal-biting moment…

proudly wearing the national colors...

proudly wearing the national colors…

exhilaration + triumph + hunger pangs

exhilaration + triumph + hunger pangs

My legs had fatigued, my feet were still unfeeling and the shoulders were stiffening like hell but the festive electric atmosphere easily drowned one’s sorrows and grumbles for only a few minutes away was rest and redemption. And so I raced like it’s the end of the world. I found my brother Fred strategically tucked among the waiting crowd, gave him a triumphant pose before crossing the finish line. The goal was to do a 4:30 but fate had another plan and gave me a PR of 4:17:38. Yep, it was definitely an all-time high in my running career. More than the PR, it was about digging oneself out of some unforeseen predicament and making a glorious comeback. Good morning, Baltimore!

an all-time low for me...personal best time for 2012!

an all-time low for me…personal best time for 2012!

Special thanks go to my brother, Joseph Frederick for driving me from New Jersey and back and to my cousin Allan Melliza for the accomodations, food, support and pasalubongs.  I just realized I’m one lucky dude.  Cheers!

still found the time to explore the wondrous city after...

still found the time to explore the wondrous city after…