[Note: Sorry dear readers, but just like the H100 race, I DNFed many times writing this entry. Good thing, I found my second winds, thus the late arrival. My apologies.]
It took place in the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya & Benguet – one of the most picturesque and well-preserved places in the country. Perhaps, one of its enticement was its near isolation from the rest of Luzon where travelling may take hours just to get to the main highway. I’m quite fortunate to have been part of the longest trail race in the Philippines (and the only 100-miler at that), even if I surrendered at KM 85.
Welcome to the Hardcore 100 Ultratrail Race – definitely the baddest and the longest trail race in Southeast Asia. Consider the statistics. 160 kms of mostly mountain trails, 46-hour cut-off, 4 UTMB points, 3 nights & 2 days covering 2 summits (Mt. Pulag & Mt. Ugo). One would be at a loss for words in sizing up this kind of adventure. One can easily get discouraged once faced with the enormity, extent & difficulty waiting in front of him at the starting line.
So there I was along with 42 other runners (including 7 from our Southeast Asian friends), prepared to run, walk and move in our goal to make the 3-cut off times (at KMs 62, 102 & 160). And be part of the maiden run of the Hardcore. Definitely, it was not the most ideal of conditions with rains commencing just before the 12 midnight gun start showering the weary and apprehensive runner. For in the face of the some of the most treacherous uphills and insane descents, the mercury had dipped near the zeros. Factor in a slippery rain-bombarded track which could easily spell disaster or death with just one misstep a tired and sleep-derived runner may find himself in.
Let’s Do This…
We’ve seen the elevation graph and we’re well aware of the early continuous ascent as I, along with my ‘pacer’ Kirk joined the cavalcade of headlamps climbing into eternity. The darkness has a way of shrouding the extent of one’s Calvary so we can concentrate on moving continuously, one heaving step at a time. The route was familiar since this was the final few kilometers of the Four Lakes 100km last May but done the other way. We passed through the mossy forest and descending into the highway towards KM14 for our first aid station. We took in some solid foods and resumed our trek.
We kept moving with enough gusto and energy, unmindful of another major ascent (Ambasa Pass) on the horizon and the persistent rains. At KM22, I was surprised to chance upon Singapore’s Terence Chan whom I met & befriended during last year’s BDM 160. He joined us on our trek up and also shared some caffeine tablets with Kirk who was already feeling woozy. It was still dark as runners started distancing themselves from each other but the trails were quite familiar covering mountains and hills into our KM28 stop at Banao Elementary School. It was a comfort to take shelter in a covered structure as we took in some sustenance of camote, noodles, etc. Kirk was weary of his ankle injury and kept inspecting it.
Rivers + Mountains
And then we were off again – into a favorite route that encircles numerous hills with the rushing rivers on the other side. Crossing those wobbly hanging bridges, we traversed the rivers many times, I no longer have any idea which side we started. The rivers were replaced by mountain ranges as the trails kept going up. I have some idea how Napo Tuyak was to be reached (from the previous recon) but on race day when conditions are at their most trying, the travel becomes one arduous climb, hardly rolling into more uphills one loses count eventually. I almost gave up in anticipating that final ascent into the clearing until it came.
A few more breaths and we were in Napo Tuyak. It was a relief to finally reach KM44 where some 20 runners later would be denied of access into Mt. Pulag due to lack of time. With Benj, Kirk and CJ, we set out into what I believe would be the most exasperating part of this race. The trail going up Mt. Pulag is a seldom used one except for the hardy local people in the area. Yup, we hardly found any living soul along the way. Soon enough we would find out why. Welcome to the newly christened Hardcore Trail.
Napo Tuyak to Summit: Are we there yet?
We had reconed this route already and were anticipating the continuous climb, moving from one hill to another, from one mossy forest to the next but the major mountain was simply out of sight. I was trudging with Kirk, Benj and some other lost souls, struggling through flowing water ways, boulders and slippery moss covered trails. I was half expecting a mini-leech to clamber by me but it never happened (were we going too fast?). Our spirits were already faltering but the peak seems out of reach and just doesn’t get near us.
After hours of getting soaked to the bone by rains, sweat and all sort of secretions, one just keeps going, unmindful of the lesser bother of these conditions because what matters is getting to one’s destination before getting cut off. Many have prepared for this for months – physically, psychologically and financially. And with just a smidgen of negative factor, one could easily throw it all away. Well, I hardly saw that during the race. Everyone was just damned determine to get through the hurdles and hopefully finish the race in time.
Peaking by the Peak
Finally, it came. First it was the grassy fields then the imposing Mt. Pulag summit. We promptly reported to the peak officer (Aga Dulin) who directed us towards the camp site area leading into the downhill trail towards the ranger station (KM 62!). The weather conditions had cut out an extra 3 kilometers going up and down the summit. I moved across the ice cold rushing waterways with eagerness and enough speed to ward off the winds and the cold (in fact, my right middle finger is still slightly numbed from a minor case of frost). I had done this free fall during the recon when the weather was much worse. I turned around to see Kirk by my tail as we made our way down along the rocky and slippery trail. Luckily, no bad slips happened, considering our exuberance and pace.
We reached Babadak station by 4:45 pm (or 1:15 ahead of the cut-off time). We learned that around 20 runners had not been allowed to go up Mt. Pulag upon reaching the Napo Tuyak station too late. Those who reached KM 62 were treated to coffee, soup and solid food. It was a great time to recover and revive our lost strength by the crackling fireside. Perhaps, we were too tired or did too many things (I stayed in the bathroom too long) that by the time we left Babadak it was already 6:30 pm (or 11:30 hours to reach KM102).
Bold & Brassy Trek to Balete
We were welcomed by an assault of cold winds and rain that suddenly I longed for our former warm and well stocked quarter at KM62. But we had no choice but to keep going. I was regretting not borrowing one of the jackets of those who had decided to stay at Babadak. More than once, we tried retreating just to check if we were on the right track. It was quite endless and under total darkness (many times, I found myself at the edge of a cliff) that we started to wonder if we had missed an important fork and have entered the twilight zone. I was walking/jogging ahead of our group in anticipation of our approaching aid station but it never came. We were looking at 2 hours to reach KM76 but 3 hours later we were still in the dark literally with nary a trace of a lighted community ahead.
By 10:30 pm (or 4 hours later), we finally reached Balete. We nourished and replenished ourselves and set out towards the narrow trail snaking down many mountains and hills. I hooked up with Gigger (Benedict Menesis) in our mission to reach Banao (KM91), the last station before KM102 with the clock furiously ticking like some berserk timebomb. I was quite fortunate since Gigger had the good sense and direction in finding trails where markers had become sparse or maybe, the dying rays of our headlamps would no longer suffice.
Dark News, Dark Trails
Soon enough, Che & Jojo had joined us with Gigger guiding us now on the never-ending sharp ascent out of one of the valleys. The crawl was slow but constant and I was loosing hope if we would ever find our way out towards Banao and have enough power to get to Dayap before dawn breaks. I’m not sure how it happened but we started searching our way back and tracing the tracks we had passed during the late morning. You could say we were lost already. We used the waterway as our guide, going back & forth until we found the area where the trail disappeared (courtesy of a mini-landslide). But I guess everyone was dogged determine to find their way back so we crossed the steep obstacle and found our way back little by little.
Gigger was minding all the trail markers and it seems we were on the right track but the guy was flying like some bat out of hell that I had a hard time following him while still monitoring Che & Jojo from behind. Soon, we were back on the river complex, skirting zigzagging trails and crossing swaying bridges with the rushing water just meters under our feet. Eventually, Gigger’s light disappears in the ocean of darkness and I waited for Che & Jojo who was now leading us into Banao.
Dimming Lights, Dimming Hope
At around 1:30 am, we were tracing our way back still with the river noisily rushing at our right. Jojo was still finding some markers but some of the areas seem very alien to us. Did we even pass this way? It felt that we had gone beyond the race route, what with deep gorges and waterfalls I never noted during the day. Now I’m more convinced that we were in the twilight zone. Cue in TV theme…
At 2:30 am, Che and I finally decided to abort our mission. Besides, even if we reached Banao, we won’t have the chance to even travel back to Dayap for the 6 am cut-off time. We went back to where we had begun and realized how far we had wandered off (and perhaps, we were really on the road to Banao). We just wanted to seek some shelter but there just wasn’t any after an hour or so. It was raining. And we were both drained but we had to keep moving to sustain the body heat. We found the majestic rice terraces and decided to just settle someplace where our butts could rest. It’s already 4:30 am. Perhaps, the place would come alive by sunrise and some good soul would bring us to the highway where we could take a vehicle going back to Kayapa. But as in anything in H100, things aren’t as simple as they seem…
Attack of the 1-inch Leeches
I woke up with a colony of mini-leeches (limatiks) feasting on my legs. I panicked and sprayed Che’s alcohol on them. They eventually fell off and soon a new battalion would make their next assault. And why weren’t they even attempting to scale Che’s legs just across mine? Another H100 mystery (or maybe I’m one ‘hot guy’ as a stalker had messaged once). Soon, I got tired and just let ‘em bloat before finally falling off as nature had intended.
The return to Kayapa could fill up pages of this blog – one involving reluctant folks manning the rice terraces who directed us toward Cabayo – the nearest pick up point towards the highway; a two-hour trek joined with George Javier in the midst of glorious vistas and untouched tropical jungle; a 2-hour motorcycle ride on mostly slippery mud trails whence we needed to disembark a few times and me, burning my right calf from the muffler.
We reached Kayapa by mid-afternoon and learned that only 12 had made the 6 AM cut-off at Dayap, including 2 foreigners – Shine and Hendra plus friends Aldean, Wilnar and BoyP. The leaders including James Tellas and the formidable Atty. Jon Lancanlale had already crossed the finish early. I freshened up, gobbled some of that rice meal at the Boulevard place and waited for the 12 gladiators to trickle into the finish line, hopefully before the 46-hour cut-off time.
100 Ways to Say Goodbye
Night started setting, as well as the biting cold while everyone was positioned by the Kayapa Barangay stage, awaiting for the race to come to a close. Most ‘strong’ contenders were unfortunate to have missed the 6 am cut-off that morning, including Kirk & Gigger who missed it by a few minutes. But no one was in a sullen mood, even 160-miler grand slam contenders Bong & CJ Miles. Each had a story to tell and a million memories of the H100 adventure. Everyone was in agreement that this was the mother of all beasts and vowed to make a revenge run next year.
But one story stands out. Mr. Rocky Go, the sandal-wearing (Waharuchi) Ilonggo who came with Aldean and ran side by side with Alain, both of whom thought they were running with an elite contender. And so they stuck with each other throughout the race. Maybe they were both colored blind and so the red flags looked yellow and follow they did. So instead of heading to Mt. Pulag on day1, the two had proceeded early to Mt. Ugo, the mountain to conquer on day2. Suffice to say, they DNFed happily upon realizing their epic fail. It’s a story which keeps making the rounds and still elicits enough guffaws and hoots from everyone to listen over and over.
Soon the group of Koi, Aldean & Shine triumphantly make it with Mia Constantino following. She’s the only female contender to have survived and she ranked 6 even! Wilnar, Bob, Hendra & Ron eventually make the cut with the sands of time slowly trickling in. On bated breath, the crowd patiently awaited until they let out a roar as a battered but smiling BoyP showed up at the Barangay Hall. It was a fitting moment to a race which never had a lack of cliffhangers, excitement, crushing defeat and triumphant victories. And we will all remember this…thanks for the H100 memories!
Photography courtesy of Gey Enriquez, Nick Paskin, Pinoymountaineer.com & Frontrunner