“SMILE! Smile, Al,” repeated Gie, my high school classmate and long time friend until I could muster a half-faked smile. I had been running for more than eight hours since 10 pm of the night before and I just told him that I thought I was starting to get tired mentally. Like a true friend and efficient support crew to my bid to finish the 2011 Bataan Death March (BDM) 102 km Ultramarathon organized by Bald Runner blogger and retired general Jovie Narcise, Gie thought of ways to cheer me up and take me to the finish line. Although all three of us—he, his wife Trix and I did not have a clue as to how long it would take.
Twenty four hours ago, we were relaxing at Villa Imperial, some 17 km away from the starting point of the historic race in Mariveles, Bataan, having arrived early Saturday morning at 1 am with another runner and good friend Rey. I suggested getting there early so that we would all have enough time to race—me to be able to feel fresh and ready for the longest race of my life, them to get all the shuteye and energy they will need to do dirty job of supporting an ultramarathoner. Rest, rest and rest was the only thing in my mind as the DNS last year was still very fresh, a decision I made to allow my sprained ankle to heal completely. If I seemed like I was overtraining last year, I was definitely lacking in the mileage this time around. All the more reason I was very nervous although ever hopeful of achieving a dream of finishing the race even if it takes a miracle!
Both excited and nervous
After a day of eating, sleeping, eating and sleeping again, the team headed for km 00 and got there around 8 pm somewhat surprised at the big turnout of runners who also decided to be there early. I forgot about the race for the meantime as I started greeting, saying hi to familiar faces in the Philippine ultramarathon scene and exchanging stories of how one got hooked on running and how our love for the sport brought us all together that drizzly night.
After checking in, I found myself in the company of friends and teammates posing for that souvenir shot. And after a brief program (which included my singing of the Japanese national anthem—which I still think was the scariest part of the whole night!), we were off to chase after our BDM dreams.
Having told my support that my strategy for the race was to not have a strategy at all, I chose a comfortable pace with familiar runners as we warmed up for 2 km before starting that 5 km ascent. I would remind myself that my number one goal was to finish the race within the cut-off time of 18 hours injury-free. Second on my list, if I get lucky, was to finish it in 17 hours or less to qualify for the 2012 BDM 100 miler. IF I really get lucky and a miracle happens, maybe I could hope for a 14 hour finish? Maybe…
Thanks to the two test runs done in January and February where we were able to run the actual race route in two parts, the roads even at night didn’t seem completely alien to me. I would stop every 5 kilometers, meet my crew, eat and/or drink and then take a 5 minute walk break. This would go on no matter which runner caught up with or overtook me until I reached that pit stop at km 50 in Abucay in under 6 hours. Heeding the advice of runner friends, I took my time and ate, changed running gear and shoes and that all important quick massage from Gie (can’t thank you enough bud!). In fact, I may have taken too much time (about 30 minutes) as the number of runners (10 before km 50) who were in front of me grew to about 20 when I got up and started to tackle the remaining 52 kilometers. No matter what, I stuck to my pace and went on with my 5 kilometer run and 5 minute walk “strategy.”
To my surprise, I started overtaking one by one the same runners who went past me when I took that long rest. And by kilometer 65, it was just me and all these thoughts about running itself, family and friends going through my mind until I would meet Gie and Trix for the mandatory and agreed upon rest period.
Gie asked me to smile after probably seeing that I was getting physically and mentally fatigued. Trix quipped that I was still all right since I was still talkative at every stop. And after one more stop, I told them that after 8 hours and 34 minutes, I just equaled the erstwhile longest run I ever did—70 kilometers in Pagudpud in August of 2010 with 11 minutes to spare!
All in the mind
I stopped for another long rest of changing shorts and shirt and quick massage at km 75 which started to rejuvenate and got me ready for the last 27 km of the race. Still doing 5 km run-5min walk (my team would check up if I was still doing ok after every 2 or 3 km but a thumbs up sign from me meant that we would stick to the original plan), I was surprised, almost shocked, to find two runners taking a break near the km 80 marker while I was running to meet my own support team. And after another 5 km, I was able to catch up with the last runner I would ever meet during the race and shared some of the food and drink we had in the support vehicle. And for the first time, I started believing that I would finish the race without a doubt! Now that only 17 km was standing in the way between me and the finish line in San Fernando, Pampanga. Was there a moment that I thought quitting was the better option when I was very tired? Probably. Was there a moment that I wanted to give up on my dreams? Never!
Going the extra mile
It was at km 90 that I told my crew (in between munches of gel shots, fruits and sometimes cookies) that I would need for them to stop every 2 km and that I would be employing the 5 minute run-1 minute walk Galloway method from then on. With race time at 11 hours and 45 minutes, I knew I was pressing my luck in wishing to finish in under13 hours with 10 km to go but I gave it a try anyway.
Gie and Trix had really been such an excellent support crew that I was inspired to continue running even if I could not see a runner overtaking me anymore so long as I could maintain my pace. I told them I probably did all I could including going as fast as running a 5 min per km pace for a few more kilometers because of them.
And then it happened: I crossed the finish line! And suddenly, the exhaustion, the pain–everything disappeared! What followed was this strange yet good feeling that I was able to finish this race. Although if you asked me at that moment, I wasn’t really sure how I did it!
To someone who wasn’t even sure in the beginning that I would finish the race, the 7th place finish was an icing on the cake!
Many people define dreams and miracles in different ways. For me they are made of 12 hours, 49 minutes and 23 seconds of gut-wrenching hard work, inspiration and, above all, a big fighting heart!
Big thanks to Jovie-san for the opportunity to challenge myself, his team for the perfect race an ultramarathoner can only dream of, my friends, family and fellow runners for the inspiration and to Gie and Trix for never tiring to support, encourage and believe in me. I hope to see you all again next year!
See official results here.