Monday, November 16, 2015

KIBUNGAN MOUNTAIN MARATHON 2015: The Chronicles of a Warrior

THE race of the year for me
The 2015 Kibungan Mountain Marathon has been my only trail race this year and it was totally worth the wait! I am not an avid racer: I pick the races I join. You won’t see me in road races and in trail races which are primarily flats with a twist of sunbathing or sand swimming. So I was heartbroken when I missed the KOTM this year due to geographic constraints. Thankfully The Kibungan Mountain Marathon was put off to a perfect time!

My three races before KMM (source

The Road to KMM

I quit my job in April this year and set out on an epic 90-day journey in Benguet—The Ultra Trece de Benguet (UTdB)! It is an uninterrupted 350-km trekking loop covering all the thirteen municipalities of Benguet. The initial plan was to learn from the Igorots the values and skills of a farmer and apply these lessons when I start converting my father’s 14-hectare coco farm in Leyte, which was ravaged by Supertyphoon Yolanda, into a vegetable farm. And on the side, write a book about my journey. 

Learning how to plow the fields in Tacadang during my UTdB
When I finished my journey in August, however, I found it irresistible to share some of the beautiful places I went through to a few friends who know the ideals of environmental conservation by heart. So I started organizing treks. These treks are designed to change the game of Philippine mountaineering—it is no longer about peak bagging and peak bragging; it is about training to be strong in order to find more time to appreciate the beauty of the whole route through nameless peaks. And to do this, you need to be stronger than the ordinary Filipino mountaineer. So I only invite friends who are mountaineers-turned-trail runners and their referrals. 

The average mountain climber will call the uphill before this spot in my KKB Traverse a 'killer trail' and pass by this grandeur at night because he has willingly succumbed to the myth that the killer trail had to take up the whole day time. 
Two of the routes I have shared are the KKB traverse—a 75-km trek covering the municipalities of Kapangan, Kibungan and Bakun with an elevation gain of 5100m. The other one is the Timbak Ultimate—a 45-km trek starting from the long hanging bridge behind JangJang Eatery in Bokod, passing through the scenic trails along rim of the Ambuklao Reservoir on to the hidden terraces of Kabayan overlooking the meandering Agno River and culminating at the summit of Luzon’s third highest peak in Atok.

doing the pilot Timbak Ultimate with my trail runner friends
These treks and my extended stay in Benguet were my training this year. They have conditioned my leg muscles and synched my breathing with high-altitude air. I was just waiting for the right trail race to come. And when KMM was ultimately scheduled on a weekend where I had no scheduled trip, I had no scruples registering for it.

Victory Favors the Prepared

I have met quite a few runners who come to a race with a backpack full of excuses. Bad trip di ako nakapag-training para dito; Tsk Tsk may ITBS pa ako; di ako nakatulog; pagod pa ako sa Ultimate namin kahapon; Pano ba to? May hangover pa ako; Pucha, parang tinatrangkaso pa ako. And I’m always like ‘Sige! Ikaw na malakas!’
Others enjoy a post-race meal of shoulda, coulda, woulda. Sus kung di lang ako nag-cramps; Sana gumamit ako ng trekking pole; Dapat nagbaon ako ng tubig!
I am not a big fan of alibis so when I join a race, I check who the organizer is, I research about the route and I prepare for it. When I joined the TNF100Ph in 2013, it was my first ultra trail marathon and so I had to do something about my cramps which had always hurt my performance in my earlier minor trail runs. I took yoga lessons, I researched about electrolytes and the different foot landings, and I climbed mountains at least three times a month.So I finished strong with the coveted visor cap. 

My first ultra trail marathon
When I learned about the exposed flats of TNF 100 in Thailand in 2014, I regularly ran at the Cebu City Sports Complex track oval. And I took programs in functional training at Epic Performance and Fitness Solutions (the Focus Athletics of Cebu). I attended more yoga classes and I did a lot of rock climbing in Cantabaco. So I finished the 50K distance in less than 8 hours. 

Finally when I joined the Old Spanish Trail of last year’s KOTM, I had my regular runs in the rolling hills of Canyon Woods in Batangas. I regularly did slacklining and even played basketball in the afternoons at one of the courts in the park. I borrowed a friend’s bicycle and rode it for a hundred kilometers through Batangas, Laguna and Cavite in one day. And a week before the race, I trained and acclimatized with Koi Grey, Josiah Ballagan and Kevin Jauod in the mountains of Ballay, Kabayan, Benguet. And it was my strongest finish then (6th overall).

training at high altitude with the beasts
This time, when I saw the course map for KMM, I knew instantly that it was THE race of the year for me. I was already familiar with the route. I trekked from Sagpat down to Mocgao and on to Santol, La Union twice in 2009. In my UTdB, I exited Kapangan at Tawang and climbeb up to Cabbututan down to Tableo and Badeo before moving on to Tacadang via the death-defying trails of Sitio Amalinis. In my recon climb for my Tacadang Trek in August this year, I took the Kibungan Central-Sitio Polis trail. Basically, the only segment of the route that I had not set foot on was the ascent from Sitio Polis to Bokes. In spite of this familiarity with the route, I still had to do a minor recon run three days before the event. I slept at a friend’s house in Polis Junction and I ran from Bokes to Tableo and back. It took me four hours so I knew I had to say goodbye to my hopes for a sub-8 finish. In my recon run, I was able to budget my time and energy for each segment of the race. And I also tried running downhill two footpath steps at a time to save energy. I arrived in Kibungan Central two days before the race. I made a lot of friends in my UTdB. So finding a family to adopt me for three days in any town in Benguet is never a problem for me.  I used to have this ‘Di ako nakatulog nang maayos’ excuse before so I knew I couldn’t risk sleeping in a room with at least ten runners and a lot of nocturnal noises. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was a joint available. 

The couple in Kibungan Central who took me in for three days. They are the grandparents of the nurse I met in Tacadang.
Because I knew there were gonna be a lot of uphells and because I knew how long the route was gonna be, I packed a lot of electrolytes and trail food. Because my heart rate gave way before my legs did during my recon run, I had to avoid my three suspects—caffeine, lack of sleep and cranking the shank—in the last two days before the race.  I learned in my KOTM last year how water depletion could injure my ankle so I made sure I had enough water in my hydration pack and an extra 500ml bottle in case my hydration pack betrays me just like it did last year. I never ran out of hydration throughout the whole course of KMM. Also, two weeks before the race, I had my 75-km KKB Invitational Trek which involved an elevation gain of 5100m (2100m in one segment on the third day). I was joined by strong triathletes and ultra trail runners who pushed my uphill maximum. It was also during this trek when I was finally able to communicate with my shoes. I used to slip and fall on rolling pebbles and mossy footpaths with my Montrail Fluid Flex on. But after a few treks and runs I learned to tame the pair. And for four days after the KKB Trek, I was exploring the trails around Camp Utopia in Kapangan.

The beasts in my KKB Invitational

I am not a strong racer. There are a lot who are much stronger than me. I have just come to terms with the fact that unlike ultra road marathons, an ultra trail marathon is not principally about strength. It is about planning: it is about acknowledging that an ultra distance on an uncharted path means a lot of chances of you slipping, stumbling, getting exhausted, running out of hydration and ultimately, finishing badly. Some strong sprinters give all their road marathon strength right after the gunstart only to stumble and get injured at a technical downhill. Tactical advantage and ample preparation give me my strong finishes.

I will never strike anyone as a strong racer. (Photo by Aris Dela Cruz of Team Malaya)

The Rutang-Ina Race Day

Almost everyone was in their warrior get-up at the assembly area so I felt intimidated and shy to mingle that I did my yoga stretches in unnoticeable corners with my unremarkable clothes on. I left my running shorts in Manila but I have no chafing issues with my training shorts and that’s all that mattered comfort-wise. 

I knew I was running with a bad headlamp so I was very careful with my downhill at the gunstart. I let everyone who wanted to overtake go ahead. But I still fell on my buttocks once when I stepped on a moist rock concealed in the grassy trail. The initial phase from the municipal hall down to the hanging bridge below Sitio Polis was basically devoted to avoiding injury. It was during the uphill after the bridge when I turned on my warrior mode. Uphill climb has always been my strength. I think the only uphill climber I respected in this race was the third placer for the 21K distance who could have finished stronger if he had not spent the first segment of the race sharing in someone else’s light.
I overtook two 42K runners in the first uphill segment and another one who suffered from cramps at Tawang. When I reached the Tableo aid station, the marshal told me ‘Ui, bilisan mo. Kaaalis lang nung third. Wala pang one minute!’ The prospect of a podium finish gave me a shot of adrenaline but just when I was ready to swing into high gear, a new face was approaching the AS. And he was not one of those I overtook. I was like ‘Huh? How did that happen? With that sustained speed and that length of time I was unchallenged, no one should be overtaking me anymore! This could only mean he is a super saiyan!’ But I gave the super saiyan a try. I used the two-footpath-steps at a time technique but he was still closing in on me. At the part where we had to go over a wooden barricade, his toecap was practically right behind my heel. So I had to let him go ahead. And when he broke away, Oh man! The form and the dexterity were just out of my league! Then I slowed down again. I was continually updating my friend through SMS on my way down to Mocgao. It felt like I had a pace buddy even though I was alone. It made me forget about the little pain that the downhill portions gave my left knee.  At the turnaround in Mocgao, the original third placer had to cool down in one of the bathrooms in the village as the saiyan sped back uphill. After a little chat with the marshals I had to resume my run. My descent to Mocgao was just a fast trek because whenever I attempted to run, my left ITB would hurt. My friend told me to be careful not to exacerbate the pain and to save some energy for the uphill and I had to agree. It could have given me a DNF if I had pushed it. Three fast downhill runners came in during the first 500 meters of my turnaround ascent. But I knew I just had to keep my normal uphill trekking speed and I’d be able to widen the gap between me and them. I was surprised with myself. I was not pushing my limits uphill, in fact I was still texting my friend for updates on who I just met coming down and who I hadn’t. But I was not feeling any exhaustion even under the noontime heat of the sun. I never stopped in this uphill segment which many of the runners cursed. I only stopped at the waiting shed from Mocgao for cellphone signal and a little chat with a few runners.My final stop was when I came back to Tableo AS. I was recharging for the flats ahead and the downhill to Tawang. And when the uphill resumed after Tawang I was unstoppable again. My KKB Traverse Trek really paid off. When I reached the road segment in Bokes (the final 10km), I texted my friend “DisisitPansit. Tutuhugin na ako ng mga road runners!” And he kept reassuring me Tiwala lang!—a funny coincidence with Team Malaya’s trail signs that read Keep the Faith. Finish the Race.
Everyone needed this
This final segment was the most difficult part for me. It was more of a psychological battle than a physical one. The municipal hall was already vivid with colors from Sagpat. One could estimate a line less than five kilometers long between the two end points. This gave me my final adrenaline shot. I had to put on a Koi Grey mode—Takbo kahit pilay—like I texted my friend. But to my frustration, it was a convolution of flats and downhills on hard spiky surface. I couldn’t do more than a fast trek whenever I saw a bend far ahead. I was just utterly demoralized. Knowing that this was more or less ten kilometers, I budgeted my energy according to how I did it in my 10-km training runs in Cebu City Sports Complex. In addition to the demoralizing sting of the isaw-like road, I was constantly being chased by the phantom of a runner who I kept looking back to but could never see. I always hallucinated that he was just around the bend behind me. So I kept trying to run on flats and downhills whenever the pain disappeared even for a little moment. It gave me speed but it punished me physically. Even when I reached the concrete road 200 meters away from the finish line, I still looked behind for the phantom. Only when the siren signaled that a runner was approaching the finish line, did I know for sure that I had bagged the fourth place finish. No excuses! No shoulda, woulda, coulda! This has been my BEAST performance!

Run time to turnaround point - 5hrs20mins; Run time for the uphilly segment to the finish line- 5hrs15mins
The Fellowship of the Warriors

It was only during the race when most of us were slapped with the face-palm realization that it was not our regular trail race. I think I was the only one who was not taken by surprise. I already knew the physical demand of the route so I was in my complete battle gear. Some were running with little or no trail food. Some even came with just a belt pouch for one water bottle. Many gave their maximum energy during the first segment of the race only to force themselves to accept the bad news that the long deep descent would translate into an unimaginable uphell after the turnaround point. That’s when we knew that we had not joined a trail race: we had entered a battlefield! 

The war zone (from JP Alipio's handheld GPS data) 
We had no choice but to back each other up. There was little room for competition and a lot for cooperation. We came in as strangers but we fought the battle as comrades. On my way down to Mocgao, James Tellias, the overall champion, was trekking up and he tapped me with a ‘Magpondo ka ng pang uphill. Alam niyo naman ata kung gano kahaba binaba natin.’ Shortly after, Kristian Joergensen  greeted me with a ‘Good job, bro!’ In my mind I was like “I know, right?” We were all aware of the battle we got ourselves into. So we could only give each other a warm congratulation for having survived up to any point in the route. In the afternoon, one heroic 21K finisher drove down the road to give the weary 42K runners some hydration. On my part, I would remind the other runners of what lay ahead like ‘When you get to the part where the trail gets cut by a wider trail, don’t follow the wide trail. Look for the red ribbon hanging straight ahead!’ and ‘May water source dun sa welcome arch ng Mocgao. Hanapin niyo lang or magtanong kayo kung may makita kayong locals.’And when asked ‘Malayo pa ba ang turnaround?’ ‘Hindi. Dun lang sa nakikita mong green na bubong na yan. Dun ka na mag full charge!’ But as much as I wanted to give one other runner some comforting words to his exhaustion, I just couldn’t give him false hopes. So when he asked if he was close to the turnaround, I had to tell him Malayo pa! He had to go through the four stages to acceptance before he read in defeat what his GPS said ‘20km na a!’ I just shrugged and said ‘Malayo pa talaga bro’ cuz it really felt far for me. And when Rashel Pena was running down she congratulated me with ‘Ang saya mo!’ The route would really teach you to count your blessings. The most genuine congratulations were given at the finish line. The finish time never mattered. We were just proud of each other for surviving a war…even prouder of some of the 21K runners who fought their own battle for more than twelve hours. Kudos to Stephen Felices, the race director, who decided to make the cut-off time negotiable! We all deserved that medal and trophy.

Lest we forget
The Organizer and the Racers

It was not the normal race briefing full of reminders and guidelines. It was a you-know-what-you-subscribed-for kind of briefing. ‘Run at your own risk’ was the general reminder. The RD was not strict with the gear and nutrition. He even changed the gunstart. He couldn’t give a categorical answer as to what the cut-off times were for the 21K and the 42K. There wasn’t any fiesta at the few aid stations. The ribbons were not evenly distributed. It was a very good candidate for a tirade from critics. Fortunately, there were no participants who have a lot of achuchuchu after a race. These were experienced trail racers who don’t rely on ribbons for guidance. They knew how to cross-reference the trail with how the RD and the elevation profile described it. These were runners who knew how to find food when they felt hungry, to numb their throats when they felt thirsty and to find a stick when they needed an extra leg. They were not the runners who would whine after losing his way on a trail and say Ako sana nag-champion! They weren’t the runners who would complain that the trails were not runnable. These were runners who simply read the name of the event and surmised what the word, MOUNTAIN meant in Kibungan Mountain Run. 

Whiners go to this bar and complain about warm beer
These were warriors full of positivity! Instead of complaining that we had actually run longer than the event details had stated, we were happy that it turned out we had just run an ultramarathon. Instead of making a fuss of the changes in the gunstart and cut-off times, we were grateful that we didn’t have to negotiate with a precarious trail for a long time in the dark and even more grateful that all the finishers got their medals and trophies—their well-deserved badges of valor. Anyone who was brave and strong enough to finish the race deserved a token.

So to Team Malaya, a big THANK YOU for a legit mountain marathon!

And to all the mighty warriors of the The 2015 Kibungan Mountain Marathon, Congratulations to all of us! And just like what Stephen said “See you in The Kibungan Massacre next year!”

After that bloody Digmaan, I pretty much deserve this Mandirigma Burger!


  1. congrats brader. Nagtetext ka pa during the race. Nainjury ka dahil siguro wala ka pahinga before ng event. Lakas mo!

  2. respect to all 42k warriors! glad to have met you in person, sir! i've read some of your entries in the past and I never thought that the author was the 4th placer :D

  3. I just saw this. I am from Badeo, Kibungan and we have a piece of land in Amalinis. I used to climb the 110-degree rocky mountain between Ay-ayagan and Amalinis. It's good its one of your routes.


YOU deserve a holiday!
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