Friday, February 22, 2019

The Larry Project (Phase 1)

I didn't see in Larry Apolinario the same spark I saw in John Ray Onifa. It was  Kevin Jauod, the race director of Tracing Iraynon-Bukidnon Trails (TIBT), who convinced me to initiate The Larry Project. Larry's first race was the inaugural TIBT 2017 in Laua-an, Antique (his hometown) where he crossed the finish line a few minutes behind the champ John Ray in the 21K category. We couldn't afford to support both Larry and John Ray so Stingray (John Ray) had to be the first to try it internationally. Meanwhile, Larry joined a few races (both road and trail) in Panay and Negros but none of these races were marathon distance. When I found out that his personal best in 21K was 1:17, it was my cue to launch The Larry Project. A few hours after I posted my solicitation call on my Facebook wall, donations started pouring in including a $100 pledge from a friend in the US. I immediately booked a roundtrip ticket for Larry and registered him for Pilipinas Akyathlon (49K). It was going to be his first ultra distance. I then messaged Jonathan Sulit of Talahib Eco Runners (Larry's team) for additional support and they were able to raise more funds than needed to cover Larry's new trail running shoes, living allowance in Baguio for 7 days and his registration for KOTM's Old Spanish Trail (50K) which was scheduled 7 days after Pilipinas Akyathlon.

The initial game plan was just experience and exposure but when I checked the start list and saw no formidable contender we had to change our mission: we'll take the top spot! I summarized exposure and experience for him in front of the course map. I taught him basic course map reading, focusing on warnings against possibilities of straying off course.  I taught him how to utilize the elevation profile and the placement of aid stations in strategizing. 

summarizing exposure and experience in the form of a map reading lesson
(photo courtesy of Limuel Lajo of Talahib Eco Runners)

He did succeed in not straying off course and not mistakenly following the 21K route. But I forgot to tell him that on road sections one may not see as many trail markings as hoped. I could only advise him that in sections where he is in doubt, it'd be better to wait for another fast runner to confirm whether they are on the right track. And so he did. He was a strong bet in the race, consistently leading the pack until that fateful section where he had to wait for the runner following him. It was the last 5km of the 49-km course. At the last aid station the two of them were cheerfully having their last fill. The news was relayed to us at the finish line that they both had agreed to leave AS5 at the same time and sprint their way to the finish line. Then he had his first lesson on cramps! And it cost him 7 minutes for the championship title settling for second spot at the time of 6 hours and 35 minutes. He hated himself for the cramps but I just told him that things could have been worse. For a first timer on many levels, it was a perfect play. Some experienced racers go off course or trip and fall. That would have been too hard for him to forgive himself if it had happened to him.

Awkwardly, he seemed to have gotten the hero's welcome at the finish line instead of the top finisher.

But there was no time to celebrate as another 50K was coming up. After a day's rest, he was again conditioning his muscles on the track oval of Benguet State University. Coming into the KOTM Old Spanish Trail  50K, we were both confident. I pointed out only two names to watch out for: Al Telias and Edgar Puruganan. Although Larry crossed the finish line about 45 minutes ahead of Al Telias in the Akyathlon, Al had the home court advantage as he was not only the course record holder for the OST but also the champion of the same course in the last three consecutive years. In the first two hours of the  race, owing to his poor headlamp, Larry had to stick close behind Al Telias, who had better lighting equipment. When the first rays of the sun showed, Larry broke loose never to be overtaken again. In the end, Larry set a new course record clocking in at 6 hours and 39 minutes in the 56-km Old Spanish Trail.

Larry winning the OST 50K of KOTM series and as predicted, Al Telias and Edgar Puruganan were the only challengers. (Photo credits to Ken of Wild Spaces)

That was the story of glory and might of Larry Apolinario's first ultra distance and first race outside Western Visayas. But I was left wondering why there was no sign of jubilation on his face. He was just constantly on his phone talking to his family and friends not of success and victory but mostly of when he was coming back home. Later on in the evening I told him to thank our major sponsors through Messenger and I was, to say the least, shocked to hear him say 'Napasalamatan ko na to nung Akyathlon a!' I just composed myself and told him 'Mas okay ang paulit ulit na magpasalamat kesa sa paulit ulit na manghingi'. Then I realized it was essentially a difference in perspectives. His was the traditional version where the main motive for gratitude is benefit. Mine was to express gratitude to someone who had intended to help regardless of the benefit. Then I asked myself, what benefit did Larry get out of his back-to-back podium finish? Many of you who are able to read this may say, it's the priceless experience! Fame and popularity matter the least to Larry who's a community-oriented Iraynon from Antique. We never asked if the experience was really priceless for Larry. He's a simple country boy who believes in the principle that when there's hard work there should be reward: material reward. He ran 100 kilometers within 10 days and for what? For a mug? A trophy? I thought all these would matter to him because they do to me. Little did I know that he's from a different world. We have the luxury to appreciate experience because we're through appreciating money. But that's not necessarily the case for Larry. Winning for him means taking home something to celebrate with his community.

Back at home, batchoy made for a simple yet great celebration

I regret a bit having to subject Larry to such physical struggle and then not giving him the reward he had expected. It was basically our victory that Larry had won for us. It was what we dictated he should be happy about. But as far as Larry was concerned, it was just a waste of his time and energy. 

We did explain that there would be no cash prize but he gave it the benefit of the doubt that just maybe there would be at least a thousand pesos. In hindsight, it may have been better if we had just handed to him the whole amount we had raised. That wouldn't have changed the facts. It wouldn't have made Larry any less fast than he is. Larry would still be one of the fastest trail runners in the country; one of the few who could pose a threat to John Ray's supremacy. The only difference is that it would have made him and his community where he serves as a barangay kagawad happier.

It would have been exciting to see the two of them again (for the third time) in the same course. Sadly, Larry was no longer allowed to take a leave from school to join The Cordillera Mountain Ultra. He had been absent for a long time. 

It was an epiphany of sorts for me. It made me realize that just like many of us, I had been swallowed by the pervasive system of what was once a marginalized community. This community has come to confuse raw sports with financial capacity. I was reminded of the movie 300 where Leonidas asks allied soldiers what their professions are and he gets a potter, a sculptor and a blacksmith in response. Like the Spartans, who were born and raised to fight, many Filipinos in the hinterlands have the physical gifts fit for an international trail racer. But the thing is, the glamour and hype of the popular trail races in the country have made us believe that our office workers who can afford science and technology to somehow transform them into runners is all there is. We have volunteered to shun the thought that there are legit elites out there just waiting for  that coveted prize money as opposed to the clamor of Facebook fans. They don't have the star quality so leave them to Milo Marathon, we say. 

It was humbling to be part of The Moalaboal Highlands Endurance race whose prize money attracted the elites of the Visayas including the Milo Marathon queen Mary Joy Tabal.  Believe me, our trail running idols don't stand  a chance against them.

I have nothing against lawyers or doctors who've made names in the local trail running scene. In fact, I respect their dedication and discipline. Their perseverance is inspiring. It inspired the teacher in me to train and keep believing that someday I could also step on to that podium. 

There was a time when a 17-year old mountain boy  Josiah Ballagan would speed past Ryan Blair (without cheating). It's what's inside that envelope that makes the real elites come out.

Maybe I just miss the time when Josiah Ballagan would go neck and neck with the Kenyans and The North Face Adventure Team for the 15,000-peso prize money in the TNF 100 trail race. Sadly, these days, even medals have been preceded by environmentalism. I like the idea of a no-frills trail run. It has led to healthier lifestyles of our office workers. But this shouldn't stop the original idea of sports: where the mightiest is honored and rewarded accordingly.

(not Larry's message...this is of another elite runner)
When there's nothing up for grabs. It becomes more of a recreation than a sport. It becomes a mere pastime for the office workers who have extra cash to enroll in a gym and buy foam rollers . The real athletes lose interest.

Honestly, it's easy to discover gems among local runners. You just have to have the right formula! And removing cash prize from the equation is probably not the way to do it. With this, I have resolved to just channel support for Larry to races where the dedication and hard work of our athletes are reciprocated with some reward. And that's The Larry Project Phase 2.  

Fortunately, there are still races in the Visayas that acknowledge the hard work of real athletes. If you want to see the real elites and how you fare alongside them, join this race.

YOU deserve a holiday!
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