DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 19 March) – We call them “upHELLs”, those uphill roads that is sheer torture for runners and force you to slow down.
When I saw the elevation profile of the Team Davao Runners 80-kilometer Ultramarathon (TDR80) scheduled for March 14-15, I thought, “Wow, what an upHELL route that is!” Its highest elevation is 826 meters above sea level (masl), near the finish line at Eden Nature Park and Resort. I’ve stayed at Eden a few times before, long before I started running. Maybe a couple of times I was the one on the wheel, and I couldn’t remember the road to be that steep; it was an easy drive.
I survived the 42k Dumaguete Adventure Marathon (DAM) in 2013 with a maximum elevation of 720 masl, so I convinced myself that surely I will survive this one too.
After I and my teammates in the Iligan Trail Runners finally registered for TDR80, we attacked the upHELLish routes of our hometown relentlessly. It was perfect timing as, when I turned 50 two weeks earlier, we did a 50k run, half of which was through the mountains. We’ve often done trails that’s more like mountain climbing than running, sometimes even creating new or reopening long forgotten trails. We would find ourselves traversing the steep slopes crouched on all fours.
The race starting at 10 p.m., cutoff time for TDR80 was 16 hours, or 2 p.m. the next day. If I finished the 64k of Camiguin 360 in 10hrs 13mins (though my GPS app counted it at 66k, including detours and the extended route to the finish line by the beach), maybe I should be able to walk the last 16k in almost 6 hours, however steep the climb?
In Dumaguete, the race with the highest elevation I had joined so far before TDR80, we hit the highest point around Km 25, but it was a gradual climb that started at Km 7. Then it was all downhills and flatlands, except for a short minor climb, all the way to Km 42.
A different beast
TDR80 is a completely different beast.
For the first 42k – from downtown Davao near Marco Polo to Panabo City and back until you turn right for that road to the airport – you run a completely flat route. When you reach this halfway point, you get a false sense of accomplishment, telling yourself that, hey, I’m half finished!
Then you get into a rolling terrain as you approach the airport, some parts of it actually runnable. Look, Ma, I can run uphill!
Then the shock hits you at Km 55, when you can’t run the steep 1.5k climb along Davao’s Diversion Road, despite the beautiful overlooking view of the city. But somehow, you pull through.
Then comes relief as you are rewarded with a 2k stretch of downhill, and your spirit bolstered with 11k more of flatlands.
As you turn right at the Mercury drugstore in Toril, you start feeling the road incline slightly. But with almost all energy spent, you just have to walk, and feel thankful for the few slightly downhill roads, and run those parts.
Then the ultimate ambush comes.
At Km 72 on my Garmin (I can’t believe the organizers said that point was just 70k!), the nonstop climb begins. Sometimes, your eyes will fool you into thinking that there lies a downhill road beyond the slope. But as you reach the corner you realize that this part has absolutely no downhill at all – as in zero, nada, zilch – all the way to Eden.
So for the next 10k, you can do nothing but walk, walk and walk, as the cars and motorcycles whiz by. An easy drive indeed, but a torturous route on foot.
Two evenings before, during the race briefing and carboloading dinner, race director Grant Gutierrez told us that when you start that final climb, that’s when you regret why you joined the race, that’s the time when you start reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries. As we jokingly say in Cebuano, “Na hala, nganong mi-intir!” (Why the heck did you join!)
But then, on a jolly note, he reminded us that among the reasons we joined the race is to make friends. And at this stage of the run – or, um, walk – we don’t really have a choice but to make friends, as we walk .. ever … so … slowly … under the heat of the late morning sun. This is the time to share with fellow survivors a small patch of shade by the roadside and swap stories of the hardships of previous races, the time to share extra cold drinks and food you have in your support vehicle, the time to help runners with cramped legs or aching feet, the time to encourage weary runners to keep pushing.
Even when my left foot started hurting around the Km 60 mark, shortly after that steep downhill portion of the Diversion Road, I never thought of quitting at that time. It hurt more if I walk, but I can suppress the pain when I run. So I just kept on running in the flatlands.
Should I quit?
When I had no choice but to walk the last upHELLish 10k, it felt like someone hammered a nail on my left foot. But that’s one thing we runners do best – we can suppress the pain and run until we’re done, and then we go limp just like that, almost unable to walk anymore. I have to admit that a few times, quitting did cross my mind, especially after taking a short break for water or food, while silently cursing the organizers why their measurements are a wide two kilometers off my Garmin’s mark. (That’s your fault, Bob, coz your Garmin counts everything, including the distance across the wide highways as you go for the toilet in the gas stations, or get stuff from your support vehicle.)
And so I kept on walking and walking the steep climb to Eden. Oh Eden, so near yet takes forever to reach! Shall I suffer the same fate as Adam who never made it back?
When we reached the entrance to Eden, I and my teammate felt a surging sense of triumph, only to be told that wait, the finish line is down there, some 300 meters from the entrance! We ran the last stretch together, mustering all energy we had left.
After getting my medal and finisher’s kit, I joined my family and my teammates in the cool tents. Suddenly, my body staged a sitdown strike. It refused to carry me any further.
RD Grant approached us and said: “You guys come back next year, okay?” To which I replied: “I’d rather commit suicide!”
I told myself I’m never joining this upHELL run again. But the second-timers and the threepeaters told us that’s what they said, too, after their first TDR80.
To barefoot or not
I actually attempted to run TDR80 barefoot, as I ran all my races since mid-2013 barefoot, including the 64k Camiguin 360 and three marathons, even on the rough mountain roads and the hot asphalt pavements at high noon in Dumaguete.
But maybe 80k is 80k. Maybe I lacked training. Or maybe Davao’s downtown roads, although perfectly fine for vehicles, are just too rough for my gentle soles. I had to stop running barefoot at 12.5k because of the pain, knowing that there’s almost 70k more to go. I wore my version of a minimalist footwear instead – Spartan slippers with the straps replaced with a more secure one.
I know that someone has finished this course barefoot all the way. But that was the legendary Manuel “Nong Maning” Vizmanos, who’s been running barefoot in Davao’s streets for decades. Sorry, Bob, you’re not legend material just yet.
To be with other runners
It definitely pays to run alongside other runners, strangers or not, so you can talk to someone and share war stories, and someone can push you when you’re on the verge of quitting. I ran mostly solo in the two marathons in Cagayan de Oro in 2013. I ran the second half of the Camiguin 360, solo, too. And yeah, it felt more tiring.
I ran side by side fellow barefoot runner Ed Manaban in Dumaguete, from start to finish, thank you very much, and it sure felt more fun even if we endured the rocky roads and the trail and the hot asphalt roads at noon. Even if we were almost at the tailend of the race.
Three of us from our team ran together at the TDR80 starting line, as couple Zenchen (the 250k man) and Haze Lagapa sprinted away as soon as the gun fired. Tata Borja and Grace Espiritu paced with me, but Tata eventually got bored with our slow pace and broke away at halfway.
So it was just Grace and I till the finish line, and every now and then paced with other runners from Davao, Surigao, Butuan and other places. It helped, too, that my family and Grace’s partner were in our support vehicle, doing everything they can to comfort us. Little things like handing out cold watermelon slices or buko juice, pouring cold water on our heads, even massaging our legs after the run.
When you do an ultra, those races longer than the marathon’s 42k, do yourself a favor and get a support crew with a vehicle. This entails more expenses, yes, but you can pool resources together as a team. Marathons and shorter races, I’d say you can survive with just the support stations set up by the organizers. But in ultras, unless you’re an elite runner, you need a support crew.
In the Camiguin 360, we relied mainly on the official support stations spaced 10k or more apart. A few times we ran out of water and had to ask from the support vehicles of other runners. And when I reached Km 50, my vision flickered that it got me scared I’d collapse on the road. I was told it could have been due to insufficient intake of food and fluids.
This time around, we filled our support vehicle with lots of water and ice, Gatorade, buko juice, watermelon, bread and some salty food. And so I ate and drank a lot, that sometimes I felt so heavy to resume running. But at least I didn’t get the scare of a flickering vision, and there was no reddish urine which you get when dehydrated. But yeah, I prefer fresh cold buko juice to Gatorade.
Too slow or too fast?
In previous long races, I didn’t care too much if I’d be at the tailend, knowing I’m a slow runner. As long as I finish within cutoff time and get my medal and finisher’s shirt, fine with me.
But in TDR80, we were overtaken a few times by this lady who did nothing but do a fast walk. Our slow run of course was much faster, and so it was easy to overtake her. Then at the support station, we’d eat and drink, sit down and relax for a few minutes. But this lady would spend just a few moments at the stations, check in, pick up something to eat and drink and resume walking.
Then when we go back to the road, we find her already ahead of us! We’d overtake her again, run fast and leave her behind by a wide margin. But again, when we rest in the next station then hit the road, she’s ahead again.
This happened a few times. A classic case of The Tortoise and the Hare. She became our driving force to run faster, and faster. Such that before we reached the Km 40 mark, we felt so exhausted already. But glad that we couldn’t see her anymore, and didn’t see her again until maybe an hour after we hit the finish line.
Grace and I finished it at 13:30, which means it was almost noon, tied at 54th place of the 95 runners who made it to the 16-hour cutoff. There were eight more who didn’t make it to cutoff, and four did not finish.
Not bad at all to be somewhere in the middle pack for my first 50-mile race, but at the expense of a swollen left foot that took a few days to heal. After all, it gained me the bragging rights to say: “I did a 50-mile race when I was 50 years old.”