Text and photos by Bobby Timonera
MARILOG, Davao City (MindaNews / 17 Nov) – “Victory favors the prepared.” I read these words emblazoned at the back of a runner’s shirt midway of my 25-kilometer race during the Datu Salumay Invitational Trail Run in the beautiful mountains here last Sunday, November 11. I felt like hearing a pastor giving a sermon directed solely at me.
It was the most challenging race I ever ran – it was more like slow walk than run. More difficult than my climb to Mt. Apo nine years ago. More painful than the 100-kilometer ultra I joined in Dumaguete.
And I only had myself to blame. As the Navy SEALs would say, “It is better to sweat in training than to bleed in battle.”
I’ve been running the mountain trails in my hometown of Iligan City shortly after I started the hobby way back in 2012. I enjoy the greenery and the beautiful vistas, the chirping of the birds and the sound of flowing water in the rivers and waterfalls. In contrast, running on paved roads means smelling the diesel fumes and breathing the dust.
But I hadn’t joined any trail races in all those years. The marathons and ultramarathons I ran were all on concrete roads. I’ve long wanted to, but never got the chance, until last Sunday.
So when my teammates in the Iligan Trail Runners said they wanted to join the Datu Salumay Invitational Trail Run (fondly called DaSal, which translates to, aptly, pray) in Marilog, I signed up.
Some of us in the group, me included, had run the TDR80 ultramarathon staged by the Team Davao Runners (organizer of DaSal).
Marilog, after all, is one beautiful spot in the highlands that I get to see every time I travel to Davao, either driving our car or riding a bus. It could well be Mindanao’s summer capital. The climate is cool, the resorts sprouting, the mountains majestic, and the vegetable plantations the envy of veggie and plant lovers. Atop these mountains, I’ve seen awesome sunrises and sunsets with a sea of clouds below us. Ah, to run in these mountains!
But there’s one small hitch. In the past few months I’d done little running, for various reasons – travel, work, health, personal matters.
My usual mileage is 40 to 50 kilometers a week, or 160 to 200 kilometers a month. But when preparing for a long race, I’d usually run more than 200 kilometers a month. That’s low, of course, compared to elite runners and serious hobbyists who would easily do more than double..
The two months prior to DaSal were among my lowest: 39 kilometers in September, 41 kilometers in October.
Most of my teammates joined either the 50k or 80k races of the Mapawa Trail Run in Cagayan de Oro just two Sundays before. They went through the requisite training in the previous months. They decided to join DaSal’s 25k race as their “recovery run” after Mapawa. My teammates agreed this won’t be a run for the podium. Meaning, they won’t be running to compete. This will just be a fun run for sight seeing, to enjoy beautiful Marilog.
This appealed to me.
We agreed we’d take it easy, stick together for our pictures, and finish the race in 7:55, or just close to eight hours so we could get the finisher’s freebies. An easy 25k road run for us amateurs, after all, could be done in three hours or less. Running the same distance in our small mountains in Iligan would take us five to six hours. Three couples in our group even ran together, like having a date in the mountains.
I’m the photographer in the group. In our trail runs in our hometown, I’d usually bring a small point-and-shoot camera in our runs. Pictures of us soaking at the foot of various waterfalls, running past fruit and flower plantations, posing as a group with fog-covered mountains in the background, are the envy of fellow Iliganons, who can’t believe there are such beautiful places just in our backyard. Alas, these places are not accessible by car.
For DaSal, I decided to bring a bigger camera for even better pictures. So my Sony a6000 was inside my bulky belt bag, all half kilo of it with the kit lens. It was, after all, supposed to be an easy trek.
I was so upbeat when the clock hit 4 a.m., the start of the race. Even though there was a light rain, we gamely turned on our headlamps and hit the trail looking like a queue of fireflies in the dark.
But early in the race, our group could not stick together. Apart from the husband-and-wife tandem of Freddie and Anch Blanco who were beside me, the rest of our group were either in front or at the back interspersed among the various runners navigating the single trail and causing a major traffic jam.
A steep muddy downhill route while it was still dark, where the organizers installed ropes for us to cling on, was our first taste of torture.
Then a series of rolling terrain offering beautiful sceneries greeted us. There was one spot up a mountain that the organizers called the “Sea of Clouds,” which offered a breathtaking view of the fog below. I was feeling great this time, snapping pictures of every runner I came across, either the ones who passed me, or the ones I passed.
Before DaSal, I was no believer of the trekking pole in the trails. Real trail runners needed no poles, was my mindset, in the same way that it’s sacrilege for coffee lovers to put sugar and cream in their brew. But, I ended up picking up a sturdy stick to help pull myself up the uphills, and negotiate the slippery downhills.
Four hours and 30 minutes from the starting line and I was just at the Km 12 mark. It was a steep climb up a second-growth forest. I walked so slowly it was the slowest part of my race. My left knee started to act up, with pain on the inside part, and seemed to be locked in place. My toes on my right foot, too, would no longer follow my brain’s command. It took me more than 47 minutes just to traverse one kilometer, stopping every now and then to catch my breath and to rest my legs. It was at this point that I read those words on a runner’s shirt: “Victory favors the prepared.” Aaarrrgggh!
At eight hours, the cutoff time, I was still at Km 18, walking at a snail’s pace, my spirits down knowing I couldn’t have my finisher’s medal and shirt.
Then I heard one runner talking on the phone, and breaking the news that the cutoff time was moved to 10 hours. Wow! We can make it!
I was upbeat once more when we reached a community of tribal people, just a little past Km 19, where organizers offered cold watermelon and water. The locals said it’s just four kilometers more to Bemwa Farm, which is owned by one of the DaSal organizers, Marlo Farrolan Yap. We knew that from the farm, it would only be 2.5 kilometers more to the finish line.
I asked how’s the terrain to the farm. “A little uphill, but not as much,” was the reply. So I left my stick behind, and even ran a few hundred meters.
As far as I know, I was the only one not wearing shoes among the DaSal runners. On paved roads, I could run barefoot. I did the 64k Ultra in Camiguin barefoot all the way, and three road marathons before that. But now I run mostly using huaraches, or running sandals, popularized by Mexican Indians who were featured in the book “Born to Run” published a decade ago. I have huaraches made out of Spartan slipper soles for road runs, and I have DIY sandals with better traction for the trails.
But for DaSal, I wore a pair of Luna Sandals, the Origen 2.0, with soles from a tire and Monkey Grip Technology footbed that’s supposed to have a good grip of your soles even in slippery conditions.
I’ve been using it these past few months in our trail runs in Iligan. I like it. On not so technical terrains, I’m fine with it. I’m okay with it even crossing creeks.
But the uphill climb towards Bemwa Farm was so muddy it was like an uphill rice field. The tire soles may grip the soil, but the footbed couldn’t handle the mud. So my feet were sliding frantically on the sandals’ surface. I oh so missed my stick; I had to find another.
At last, I reached Bemwa Farm, the rows upon rows of lettuce plants, flowers of various colors greeting me. What a sight to behold!
There was a marshal sitting on a table with a big water container beside him. I sat beside him to relax. That was already almost 10 hours since gun start. Oh well, I just have to finish the race, medal or no medal. I’m not quitting.
The marshal confirmed it’s just 2.5 kilometers more to the finish line. A short distance, indeed, so I didn’t bother refilling my water bag.
As I trodded on, I passed by another marshal who guided me to pass through the red gate. “The finish line is behind that hill,” he said, pointing at the peak. I assumed there must be a path around the small mountain to get there, and left my second stick behind. Almost there, this should be the easy part, I thought.
To my dismay, the orange ribbons that served as our guide on the trails pointed me towards a path thick with tall grasses, and a steep uphill climb all the way to the top. It’s even muddier than the approach to the farm, and was so steep, the organizers placed ropes to help us pull ourselves uphill. I began to suspect that there really was no foot trail there originally, but the organizers just wanted to torture us and directed us to that path.
And then it rained. At least, my camera was safely wrapped inside my belt bag.
There were a few runners up ahead of me, but I couldn’t catch up with them. So I was left behind all on my own.
I needed all my energy left for this climb, so I brought out a sandwich. After a few bites, I noticed the dryness in my throat and I felt like choking. So I pulled out the hose of my hydration bag and started sipping. But my water bladder was empty!
I have allergic rhinitis with a post nasal drip that makes my throat feel dry. So every time I buy snacks by the roadside, I always buy a bottle of water, to keep me from choking on my food. After finishing my sandwich and finding my water bladder empty, thoughts of death by choking crossed my mind. At least I would die while doing something I really love, crawling up this beautiful mountain. For a while I thought of texting my wife, a cardiologist. But I didn’t want her to worry, she being so far away, probably saving somebody’s life in the ICU, while I choked on my food.
So, what now? I tried to calm myself, and did my best to climb faster so I’d catch up with the other runners. I willed my feet to take control of my mud-greased slippery sandals. Each and every step had to be planned, where to land each foot, my right hand gripping the rope, and my left grabbing branches or roots. It was here where I gripped a branch with thorns. Will torture never cease!
Near the peak, I finally caught up with the other runners.
So I asked, “How far will this climb go?”
“This is it, then all downhill from here.”
“Really? I’ve been hearing that several climbs ago! I’m out of water.”
“You don’t need water here, because it’s easier,” he assured me, apparently familiar with the route.
But then they moved faster once more, and I was left alone again. The downhill trek, though required less strength, was just as difficult, so I was as mindful of every step.
One mistake and I’d careen down the muddy slope. I picked up my third stick. But the other runner was right – I don’t need water in the downhill trek.
The panic totally disappeared when the terrain leveled, maybe a kilometer remaining. I slowly walked all the way to the finish line, where my smiling teammates greeted me. They were all there, most of them finishing within the eight-hour cutoff time, the rest of the time worrying about whatever happened to me.
I finished it in 11 hours and 33 minutes. But the organizers were so gracious they still gave me finisher’s medal and shirt.
I think I was the last to cross the finish line. I wouldn’t know, because only those who finished under eight hours were in the published list of finishers. I’m sure there were several runners behind me, but I learned that the organizers diverted their route, skipping the most difficult part because they’d be stuck in the hill as evening approaches. But I’m happy I passed through the most difficult part, and made it.
Will I come back to join this race again? I’m not sure. Tempting. But all the long races I’d run, I didn’t return to any.
Let’s see what happens next year. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)