“That’s the hidden Mickey, that’s where we will be going up today”, says my trail guru BoyP during our reconnaissance climb for the TNF100. He was of course referring to one of Baguio City’s most prominent landmark from afar. No, not that ubiquitous lion monument along Kennon road. It’s the Cabuyao double radar, our final cut-off destination (Aid Station 8) and yes, they do look like Mickey’s ears from galaxies away. That was a month ago and now I’m on my way to AS8, partly struggling but with enough time to spare. Visions of a glorious finish swirled and swayed in my head. Then something unexpected happened…uh oh.
The North Face 100 ultra-trail marathon has been hanging above my head like the sword of Damocles ever since I failed to finish it last year. It was the new Baguio-Benguet route which got every runner’s tongue wagging ever since only 33% of the runners crossed the finish line. So they maintained for this year the same route to maybe give us DNFers some kind of redemption. I gave up at KM53 last year and reconed KM 53-77, so I guess I have a pretty solid grasp of the whole scenario, right? Well, guess again. Surprises abound in this never ending journey and they never cease up to the final kilometers.
A college seatmate, Dr. Letty Loo-Chan, offered us slashed down rates at the Manor Hotel in Camp John Hay so there we were along with some H100 friends Aldean (TNF100’s #6 man!), Rocky, Wilnar, Ron, Benj, Damien, Jeyson & Mike preparing for the 3 a.m. race. The race briefing at the Azalea Residences hours before had been quite unnerving with around 277 runners from all over the world showing up. It was nerve-wracking and humbling (suddenly, the Philippines is in the ultra/trail world map!) but what got me on tenterhooks was when I realized I had left my race bib in Manila. Fortunately, I had Team Kuliter Reylynne to help get me a new one from Race Director Neville Manaois.
And the quest begins here
At the starting line, everyone was in a high, acquainting mood but soon enough, most everyone had settled into a serious more sober mood. Anxiety & uncertainty were bouncing off from runner to runner. A few nervous smiles and & fervent prayers and then we were off. It was the same rolling terrain we ventured in around the Camp as last year, minus my incessant coughing. In fact, I was enjoying the romp which was already going downhill passing through endless stairways, snaking trails and small roads. The city was nicely lit so there was little struggle finding my way around plus runners abound so I just needed to follow the parade of headlamps. I had forgotten to secure my light with a cap so it was bobbing like hell. It was dizzying but as in any trail race, one learns to make adjustments. Along with pointed pebbles inside the shoes and fermenting blisters…
By 5:22 am, we reached AS2 18.4 kms with the light starting to creep in but barely. I can already make out the trail terrain so there’s no need for the headlamp. Fog was starting to thin out revealing the mountains we had trekked and are about to conquer. Soon, the road began to go up, twisting and turning with no end in sight. Whence last year, I had to keep stopping every few meters, this time, it was an easy continuous trek up varied by some reverse running to lessen the impact on the quads. We were now venturing into pine forests with the elevation rising by the minute.
I joined Earl Warren Nabor (one of last year’s few finishers) as we continued moving on the stairway to heaven and eventually, descending into the sleepy town of Ampucao for our AS3 (24 kms) stopover at 7:55 am. Excited to have finished quite early than usual, we chomped on some camote and continued walking while munching on a saba. The heat had started to take on our wilting fatigued bodies and we were feeling wasted as the uphills commenced first on concrete narrow roads then into concave earth trails under the cover of giant pines. I could no longer keep up with Earl’s strong cadence so eventually I had to let him go.
The Hills Are Alive
The uphills soon gave way to flat terrains along mountain summits leading to another descent into another elevation and so on. The sights were nothing short of stunning as I chanced upon Joey Divino, a rookie but very strong runner. Together, we marveled at the mists shrouding the adjacent mountain ranges and the boulder formations. It always helps to have someone to hike/walk with – kills the boredom and shortens the distance, or so it seems. For sure, the struggle is diluted and one’s antsiness is definitely delayed.
Finally, we entered the canopied world of the mossy forest, away from the heat and the glaring sun. We recovered easily in the face of more uphills and some mean drops that we had to do some rapelling. Around here that Powerpuffer Totoy joined us and picked up the conversation where Joey had left off (though Joey was still a few meters behind us). The topic covered everything from aging, family and personal stories but the AS4 was still nowhere to be found. We were about to venture into showbiz intrigues when trail suddenly sloped up and we were out of the shaded world (and the shady world of Kris & Gretchen).
Rolling in the Deep
At AS4, we hardly stopped except to replenish our liquid and solid provisions and soon, we were gliding down along 11 kilometers of downhill terrain intermittently made of concrete, hard soil and loose pebbles. The sun was in its scorching high last year but this time, with an early lead (and a cooler temperature), a lot of Powerpuff push and good vibrations, Totoy & I were enjoying our descent. If in 2012, I vowed to quit at this part (mostly due to a negative mindset), this year, there was no room for whining and surrendering. I was just bent to reach AS5 the earliest time possible to give me enough headway for the crucial AS8 cut-off at 1 am the next day.
And soon there it was, after grinding the knees to bits, the behemoth of a mountain rock surrounded by a thick tropical jungle and cradling the wispy waters of the Bridal Veil Falls.
A few gasps away more and were at AS5. It was 1:45 pm! We will have enough time for AS8, for sure. Unfortunately, I slowed down our group as I showered and downloaded and chowed on a full meal (salamat Team Bulalakaw, Marupok).
45 minutes later, we were penetrating the dark stone cliffs leading to the clouds. My newly changed white NYCM long sleeve shirt was already drenched and we had hardly done 5 kms. Suddenly, the frying heat, fatigue, bloatedness and sleepiness conspired to bring me to my knees and take respite, a few times. I knew this kind of pace will not finish a race. So I kept moving on with hardly any stops. Finally a clearing ahead and the dowhills & fresh cool winds came. It erased the bad memories of the hellish assaults before. We got to AS6 (KM 64) at 4:25 pm and suddenly the possibility of reaching the summit at 10:00 pm seemed within reach.
We welcomed two kings (of the other mountain) to our cavalcade on our continuous conquest of the concrete road. Rocky & Alain are H100 co-runners who reached Mt. Ugo the day while everyone was conquering Mt. Pulag, thus the King of the Other Mountain monicker. Soon the 2 kings were arguing as Rocky kept estimating the next stop which never came…
The night is dark and full of terrors
Fortunately, we came upon Berns Tan who promptly joined our caravan into the endless uphills (how many times have I used that word?). Soon night and cold started setting in as we changed into our thermal base layer and jacket. Under the cloak of trees & vines, it was tricky to find our way around but with Berns (who had reconed it 2x and is aided by her Garmin GPS) on the lead, we hardly got lost.
It’s a wonder how some runners had the nerve to even remove some flags and blinkers (hello! That’s just P50 at Divisoria) which could mean life or death for a wasted runner groping in the dead of the night. But that’s what happened according to the many marshalls strewn along the path. Fortunately, we had Berns, period (did I say it already?).
We finally reached AS 7 at around 8:45 pm and hardly stopped since we were aiming to replenish at AS8 where we hear the food & drinks were overflowing. Upon my insistence (or rather my roaring stomach’s), we actually had one stop pre-AS7 as I force fed myself to a trail bar. Suddenly, no food would appeal to me. Unexpectedly, my two-layers of long sleeved shirts were no longer shielding me from the gusty night winds on top of the highest peak in Baguio/Benguet. It was a tad late when I put on my jacket. I was shivering like hell and so I pushed myself towards Sanctuary, 3 kms away.
Finally at 10:15, it was there – the imposing Ambuklao Radar Center – beckoning me to rest & replenish. It was a stop I had not imagined to extend. But there I was after downing some soup forcefully, I vomited everything I had consumed for the last 2 hours. I had to take a rest by the fireside to control my shivers and signs of an early hypothermia. Uh oh, is this the end of the road for me? Just 24 kms. Short. That’s a little over a half marathon. I rested my head a bit and dozed off…
A lot of prayers later (along with my prayer brigaders from half a world away), I took an antacid and started taking a rice-potato meal. A few more gulps and I was back to life, enough reason for the medics to let me go. That’s after lowering my blood pressure, as well. I searched for a familiar face from runners resting by the station. CJ Miles hadn’t reconed the last 23 kms but he was willing to join me on the way down. And so it was the two of us taking the highly technical steep downhill trail at 12 midnight. Fortunately, it was well marked with blinkers at crucial turns. And so I flew like there’s no tomorrow.
Regularly looking from behind, I noted of CJ’s lights following me. Over an hour later, I heard him pleading for help. He had fallen off a cliff and was holding on a few strands of cogon. After pulling him out by the cliffside, I was shocked to find another runner. Allan Palomares said he had been following me for an hour. So where could CJ be? I backtracked a bit and asked the tandem of foreign and Filipino runners if they had seen my running buddy. They said it had been Allan who’s been following me ever since I overtook them.
I cursed myself for being too eager to make the descent. I promptly got a stern warning from Mr. Filipino runner for raising my voice. Whether he was threatened or felt I was blaming them for my predicament I never bothered to know. There’s just no time to deal with these macho posturings along the trail. Time was ticking and I had to soar down, eventually catching up Allan. It was a relief to be running along with another living soul in total darkness. The downhills continued with hardly any end in sight. Soon the rushing rivers and the concrete stairs came and finally, the AS9 or 16 kms. into the finish.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
It’s 3:30 am and finishing the final 16 seems in the bag but Allan and I never dawdled. And we were proven right as we entered a series of mazes within enclosed communities, many going up, up, up. It felt like we had entered the Amazing Race, venturing into strange places and unlocking clues here and there. On top of it were plantations where the only way is still going to the stars and so we trotted and plodded, resting a bit when most necessary but hardly stopping. They say it was the final assault but of course, we don’t bite that as we hiked around fields and tree line trails (which we would later learn was already inside the PMA compound).
There was never a lack of the red and white flags but who knew if we were just going around in circles. At night, everything looks the same. Now where’s a Garmin when you need one? And so we’d wake up the marshalls from their tents and ask for confirmation if we were on the right track. Near the final part, we had to ask one marshall to take us to the final aid station because his “800 meters” turned out to be over 3 kilometers.
At AS10, we encountered Doc Doctolero and 2 other runners as we joined them on the final 11 kilometer of this saga. We negotiated the Loakan Airport, traversed it (there were no planes whatsoever) and entered the busy streets of Baguio City. And you guessed it – more ascents with some tilting to the sky. Now who ever said of a glorious soaring finish? – with the TNF100, you thank the heavens that you crossed the finish in one piece.
We entered the DENR compound with more sharp uphills into Camp John Hay where we were made to traverse more hills. At this time, the body had grown tired and the mind weary, one just keeps following the flags, zombie-like. With enough time on our hands, we opted to just walk all the way to KM 100 (making sure we didn’t look too battered or molested). Eventually, we entered the popular Yellow Trail and were welcomed by the smiles and thrilled greetings from the TNF 11-Km. runners. A few more slopes and we were exiting the sides of the Le Monet hotel towards the finish line.
And this is how my journey ends – me, twirling my trekking pole pal in the air to the roar of a few cheering crowds (mostly from friends Team Marupok) and enthusiastic greetings from Ultrafriends as I crossed the effing Finish Line, finally. It was more than enough. I only wanted to finish this race and He granted my wish.
The amazing pictures are courtesy of Quest Multisports (by Aldean Philip Lim), Dan Alvarez Sagayap, Running Photographers & Benj Termulo