The first year I moved to the Philippines I was made aware of a 100km race organised by The North Face (TNF100). It was being held that year in the Sacobia area of Clark, the old US Airforce base where I was now positioned for work.
I’d never heard of races covering such vast distances, and although I had a lot of experience in the outdoors and mountains through my time spent climbing in Wales, Scotland, Alps and Himalayas the thought of running through those mountains was unthinkable. I had heard of fell races in the UK, runs like the Bob Graham round in the Lake District for example, and people running the Welsh 3,000ers. However I thought those are for elite athletes only. I had run the London Marathon once, with very little preparation, and found that hard enough. To do 2 marathons back to back, or even more, over mountainous terrain was a scary thought!
I have however always been attracted to feats of physical and mental endurance. In school I was never much of a sprinter, or an athlete. Infant I had PE classes. I did however realise that was better suited to endurance sports rather than those requiring brute strength and power.
I made a promise to myself each year after arriving in the Philippines that “this is the year” I will do TNF100. I always found an excuse not to do it, I didn’t have time to train, was too late to register, hadn’t got enough experience. In reality I was making excuses because I really believed that type of distance was beyond my capabilities.
Then in 2014 I fell into the company of some of the Ultra-running community in the Philippines through an expedition to connect the 6 provinces of the Cordillera. I entered my first trail race encouraged by them, and soon did my second ever marathon, and first ever trail marathon, the Banaue-Batad Marathon. Despite my lack of training and experience I managed to place in the top 10. I was inspired! I soon entered the Miyamit Falls trail marathon (MF42). I had some knee troubles but finished in a reasonable time. Now I was hooked! I set my sites on my first ultra distance trail race, Clark-Miyamit 50 miles (CM50).
Going 50 miles, completing two marathons back to back, through mountains, jungle trails and volcanic sand was a wonderful experience. Hitting the finish line in just under 15 hours I was thoroughly satisfied and pleased with my performance. Despite me only participating in a few trail races and being at it for 3 months I had already completed 2 trail marathons, and an ultra distance as well. So what was next? No more excuses, it’s time to step up to the plate and see if I can last 100km. Ultimately I now had my sites on a bigger goal, to qualify and complete the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB) one of the most prestigious international trail running events in the world.
Rather than entering TNF100 for 2015, instead I picked to try the race known as “4 Lakes”. It’s part of the King Of The Mountain series of trail races which comprises of the Mount Ugo Marathon, 4 Lakes, and Hardcore 100. Car problems prevented me from competing in Mount Ugo, but I was determined to make it into 4 Lakes. I needed the UTMB qualifying points, and it was now or never, time to prove to myself that I can make it to the finish line in a 100km trail race,
The 4 lakes course takes you from Kayapa on a tour of some of the finest scenery the Philippine Cordillera Mountains has to offer. Starting around 800m ASL and topping out at Mount Ugo around 2,150m ASL it continues on a roller coaster of hills passing by several other peaks and lakes before finishing back at Kayapa. 100 kilometres and 5,000 meters+ of total ascent. This is not an easy 100km trail race. Most believe it’s harder than the TNF 100 courses.
There’s a 28 hour cutoff, which seems a little generous. I think 25 hours would be a little more challenging, but still achievable for “mere mortals”. My aim was to complete the course in 20 hours or 19+.
The trail running community in the Philippines is quite close knit, and so I was happy to see the usual familiar faces at the starting line. Gun start was 4am, and from the starting line to the peak of Ugo is almost one continuous long assault. 21km of uphill slogging. The final 1km to the peak is very steep and tiring.
I made a big mistake, going out too fast. The pace felt comfortable for me, I checked my watch and I was doing 7km an hour pace. I was at the peak of Ugo in 3 hours, and in 15th place. I was feeling good and I felt I had a chance of doing a pretty good time. However, I had burnt myself out too early on. On the descent through the Old Spanish Trail section where I should have been running and banking time I was too tired to run. The trail is a little technical in places and my feet felt heavy. A trip could be fatal and I just couldn’t get my legs moving.
I reached the 3rd aid station at 32km in reasonable time, a couple of hours ahead of the cutoff time. I was feeling not too bad, but I knew the dreaded steep Amelong Labang climb was ahead of me. This is only a short 2km section at the most, but involves a relentless almost vertically steep assault. To gain the start of this climb a rickety hanging bridge needs to be crossed that was swinging so much and had guard rails so low I almost toppled over it. It was on this climb I was overtaken by several people who had started out slower and saved their energy for later in the race. This was the strategy I had employed to get effect in CM50 where I worked my way forwards passing people who had crashed and burned. Now it was time for me to be on the receiving end of this strategy.
from km 42 at the top of the second major climb (radio towers you can see from Kayapa) it seemed to drag on forever to reach the 50km half way point. I was seriously considering quitting when I reached Dayap, I really didn’t want to be doing this anymore. I felt much worse than I did during CM50, and I was barely even half way through the race. I had gone from being pretty confident of a sub 20 hour time at the top of Ugo, to now seriously doubtful I was going to make the 14 hour cutoff in Dayap Elementary School at km 56. Nearby Castillio village waiting shed I stopped for a while to wait for Elle to catch up. I hit my lowest point in the race around this point, I didn’t want to continue and I was wondering if I would make the cut offs. I needed some inspiration. I knew Elle couldn’t be too far behind me by this point as I had been overtaken by many people. After around 10 minutes she appeared at the bottom of the trail where it meets the highway. I told her, if we are going to DNF and miss the cutoff we will DNF together.
By this time it was getting to the hottest part of the day, and we had to climb up past the first lake and descend a steep slope before climbing up again to Dayap Elementary school. We had around 12km to cover. It was seriously hot and exposed with little shade. We stopped and lay down to cool down on the shaded grass everytime we passed a tree.
We reached Dayap (62km) after 12 hours. 2 hours ahead of the prescribed cutoff, but it was now seriously doubtful I would put in a sub 20 hour time. Infact now I would just be pleased to finish before the dawn of a new day.
At Dayap we refilled and refuelled. I felt pretty good coming out from Dayap for a few km heading towards Banao. I was soon stretching out ahead of Elle again, after 2 hours I was in Banao. Darkness had already fallen. I was feeling pretty tired now, but there wasn’t much further to go, I figured the worst was over, and so long as I kept on moving I was pretty confident I could make it in 24 hours or less. I hung around at Banao for around 20 minutes waiting for Elle to catch up, and then waited another 20 or so minutes while she warmed herself up with some soup. Rashel, Elle and myself headed out of Banao and I agreed to stick together with them. Soon though again I found I was stretching ahead of them. I stopped and waited a few times but was getting cold now it was damp, foggy and dark. I decided to just push on, the thought of being out there when the sun came up again wasn’t filling me with happiness. I found my way back into Dayap and decided that I would hang around until the 20 hour mark. I had been going 19 hours and 30 minutes by this point. There was 18km left to the finish line and I figured 4 hours would be enough time to do it. I got around 30 minutes sleep, another group of 4 guys came in behind me and had some food and restocked. I woke up just as they were going to leave. Elle and Rash were nowhere to be seen. I quickly put my pack back on and headed out ahead of the 4 guys. The next 5 or so km was pretty steady downhill, but I knew there was still one last climb up through the mossy forest to go before the final 10 or 12 km of downhill to Kayapa and the finish.
The mossy forest seemed to go on forever. I was out here on my own, it was dark and damp, my head torch would catch trees and I would have to double take thinking they were people. Sometimes leaves on the trees caught my head torch and I had to stop and check whether it was a marker ribbon, as the yellow ribbons looked similar to leaves in the dark when illuminated by my headlamp. The batteries in my head torch were starting to loose power I saw my head torch was dimming slightly so I stopped to change the batteries, taking care not to get bitten by leeches that inhabit the mossy forest. This section is only 5 or 6km but it seems much further. I was feeling pretty tired and annoyed. I just wanted to be over with this damn forest! I kept checking my altimeter, counting down the meters until I knew it was all downhill.
I exited the mossy forest to a windswept grassland nearby the trail we had headed up some 20+ hours earlier going to Mount Ugo and the village of Domolpos. Finally I was on the home straight, all downhill from here! I was feeling very tired and the sleep deprivation was catching up with me. I stopped several times going down this hill just to curl up and get 10 minutes rest. There was a bit of pain in my left knee that made running down hill difficult. I tried to jog as much as I could, counting down the kilometre marker posts to the finish line. I reached the 2km marker post, and was exhausted. I could see the head torches of 3 or 4 other people gaining ground on me coming down the mountain side. They were moving quite fas, clearly feeling stronger than I was by this point. I could have pushed on the last 2km and made it ahead of them, but I just lost the will to really compete. I didn’t care anymore about my position in the race, I just wanted to finish. Beside the 2km post there’s a waiting shed. I turned off my light and crawled inside. I was probably asleep for round 20 minutes until the guys I had seen coming down passed me. They didn’t know I was inside. After they passed I forced myself to my feet and looked at my watch. I had 30 minutes to make the last 2km and finish in less than 24 hours. Eventually I reached the national highway, only a few hundred meters to go. Unlike in my previous races where I hit the finish line running, I couldn’t even find it in myself to run to the finish line. I strolled into Kayapa Elementary school and saw the finishing line banner. A few other runners were lingering around, and there was Jonel Mendoza, the RD standing there beneath the official timing clock.
Never before have I been so relieved to cross the finish line and be over with the race. When I finished CM50 I felt elated, happy to finish my first Ultra marathon, I crossed the finish line with a huge grin from ear to ear. This time I just wanted to sit down and collapse in a heap and sleep. After being on the go for 23 hours and 55 minutes I was pretty much spent. I grabbed my blanket and sleeping bag, and fell asleep right there at the finish line. I was probably asleep for about an hour then the sun was coming up and overtime someone crossed the finish line I woke up to see if Elle had made it.
Finally after 26 hours Elle made it to the finish line, 2 hours ahead of the official cutoff. I was so proud of her achievement, and owe her a lot for uplifting me and inspiring me to push on when I was at my lowest ebb during the race.
I’d finally realised my goal of finishing a 100km mountain trail race. But the story doesn’t end. Where as several years ago the dream was to finish 100km, now this achievement just seems like a passing pit stop on my way to even longer distances. Even before setting out on 4 Lakes I already had my heart set on qualifying for UTMB. So what’s next? Well, the next logical step after 100km is to go for 100 miles, that’s 160km. The thought is worrying, I know how I struggled through the last few kilometres of 4 lakes, what more having to do that plus 60% more!
Well, that’s the new test, Hardcore 100 miles trail race. It covers 100km around Mount Pulag, and then from kilometre 100 we will traverse the first 62 of 4 lakes in reverse back to Kayapa. The cutoff time is 40 hours, which is a little bit tight for comfort, but then again it gives me an aim and forces me to really push on. Lessons learnt from 4 lakes will serve me well in H1. So there it is, the next goal, the next pit stop on my way to UTMB, May 22nd 2015. Just a few weeks away and I have to go through all that pain and discomfort again, and then some. 4 Lakes may have been the toughest physical challenge I have done to date, but for sure it is to be surpassed.