“It’s just another trail run”, so I thought. Without reading the details about the race except for the part about how much to pay for registering at “Pilipinas Akyathon 2014: The Sky Race” slated on February 8, 2014, I quickly filled out the event’s online registration, booked me a 3 day hotel accommodation at Baguio City and was off to the nearest bank to deposit the amount of P2,400.00 as payment. Only after reading a few more details later about the race because I was getting anxiously excited about my first trail run at Mt. Ugo did it slowly dawned to me that I might have made a big mistake at signing up. The Pilipinas Akyathon which was organized by Philippine Skyrunning Association (PSA), a non-stock organization that promotes the sport of high altitude mountain trail running or skyrunning has organized Pilipinas Akyathon 2014 as the first of the 3 leg Asian Mountain Race Circuit. The other two legs were to be held at Mt. Fuji, Japan and at Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia.
I checked the final list of participants and saw that there were only 159. There were foreign runners coming from Singapore, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, Chile, France, Malaysia, Japan and Uruguay joining the fray. This mean this trail run event was not similar to the usual trail running event I was able to participate in the past. This event was actually for the more experienced mountain runners. The word “experience”, I meant, refers to those who can run steeply inclined slope and other stuffs that make a trail route highly technical for breakfast or before taking one. Last year’s Akyathon was won by a French runner, Clement Dumont who is returning to defend the title, while the last year’s over-all Asian Championship was held by the Japanese runner, Dai Matsumoto.
Ever since reading about the other events featuring Mt. Ugo in the Front Runner Magazine, I was always curious about Mt. Ugo and long to take a crack at trail running at this mountain. However, most of the previous events were mainly ultramarathon in nature and their gun starts were held at Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya where I am not so familiar with in terms of getting to the venue and looking for accommodation. That is why when a 36km run at Mt. Ugo and with a gun start at Itogon, Benguet about 30 minutes away from Baguio City, I thought joining this event was the best idea ever.
My fascination with Mt. Ugo has something to do with the Indiana Jones part in me. You see, Mt. Ugo is somewhere along an old Spanish route that was used by Spanish missionaries in crossing from eastern part of Luzon to the western part of Cordillera where Ilocos region lies, to shortened the trip that was used to be done by sea during the early colonization period. This area was known to be perilous because aside from the mountain locked terrain, it was held by several headhunting local indigenous communities collectively called Igorotes by the Spaniards. I was imagining there might still be old relics like “visitas” along the way. I was also lured by the idea of crossing hanging bridge that stood a hundred feet above the Agno River and seeing mountains lined up to welcome runners traversing more mountains on the way to the summit of Mt. Ugo, which nestles at 2,150 MASL.
I should have gotten an idea of what sort of event this was from a past experience with the organizer. It turned out that the Philippine Skyrunning Association was also the organizer of the 4th Camaya Coast Aquathlon along with the Triathletes Association of the Philippines (TRAP), which I also participated in the past. In the 10k trail run event I pitted with the more experience runners with some having run the 100k category of The North Face 100. That event was actually intended to gather triathletes locally and from abroad to compete in different categories just to keep these athletes in groove since there were not a lot of events for triathletes being held at that time. I held out just fine but I probably stood out a lot like a sore thumb for being the least likely to survive such event without a proper training. I was just glad then that I did not signed up to a category, which had aside from trail, mountain and beach running had a swim portion included. Still, I was not feeling daunted about the Akyathon. The promise of respite from work and a weekend in Baguio was more than just the mere motivation for me to vanish my hibby jibby about the race.
The race began at 6:00 am at the barangay hall of Tinongdan, Itogon, where the runners plunged into a knee breaking 1.7 kilometers steep downhill paved road run. While negotiating this portion of the race, I was already dreading the thought of me returning here and running the opposite direction uphill going to the finish line. Below after a few meters away awaiting the runners was a hanging bridge suspended a hundred feet above Agno River. Mentally I checked the box in my head of an accomplished expectation. Across the hanging bridge began the real “akyathon”. Even the kilometer marker here was set to 1. Most of the way from here was a series of uphill trail roads and ravine-ridden path traversing one hill to another. Seeing that in spite of having run already several kilometers the first kilometer marker we met states only 3km. This produced a disheartening effect on me. Even the length of each kilometers seem to stretched farther than the kilometers I am use to running on road and in some other trail run I had. At this early juncture of the race I already felt I was in the tail end of the race partly because I am still nursing a plantar fasciitis and so I tread very carefully and deliberately. The other reason I was taking my time was that I confidently calculated mentally that even with my slow pace, with a 5 hours cut-off time to reach the summit of Mt. Ugo, I could still make it there with even a less than an hour to spare. But as the trail began to bare its true nature, gravity seemed to pull me down. I felt weighted and unable to push forward faster than I know I can. At around the 7km marker or roughly 8.7km (including the 1.7 km length from the starting point) the locals from Barangay Lamot had sighted the Japanese runner Dai Matsumoto who was already heading back from the summit. At the nearby hydration station while I was eating sweet potato the Japanese made a brief stop over to take in hydration and soon was hitting the trail again with me eating his dust. He finished the race first with a time of 3:21:09. Another Japanese passed me by as I crossed a rice paddy. Yoshihito Kondo finished the race second with a time of 3:28:14. Last year’s champion Clement Dumont whom I didn’t noticed along the way finished third with a time of 4:00:14. Farther up road I came across the former UST Mountaineer, Majo Liao a female runner who took the second place champion in the female category with time of 5:16:06. She actually went back to summit Mt. Ugo much later in February for a 100 kilometer run and bag the championship in that event.
The time I predicted I will summit Mt. Ugo suddenly seem to grow distance as time slowly dwindled away along with my strength. A female Malaysian who seemed to share my dissipating ability to go on after coming behind me and telling me she did not ever experienced anything like this in Malaysia in spite of there also having several mountains was soon racing ahead of me inch by inch, foot by foot until I can no longer see her in front of me. There were now other runners returning from the summit. Each time I passed one of them they were telling me the summit was near. But the more the path seemed farther and the path getting steeper. At that point I no longer believed anyone’s word about the distance. In the last few hundred meters before the summit the battle to reach the summit was fought inch by inch. I was so spent that I actually decided early on to retire from the race. I was just looking for a place to pee, rest and perhaps cry a bit. But the promise of a shaded area complete with some “amenities” waiting at the summit lured me to persevere further. By the time I got to the summit I was probably late by 5 to 10 minutes from the cut off time. The marshal in charge was quite insistent of the strict implementation of the cut off time. I did not anymore challenged or attempted to plea for consideration unlike the other runner ahead of me and got to the summit just a minute late from the cut off time. I thought, with me not anymore in the race to finish the return trip from the summit to the finish line before 3:00 o’ clock in the afternoon I could rest for an hour at the summit. But having me as the last runner to reach the summit, the marshals along with the medical staffs began packing up their things in preparation to descend and sweep the trail for other runners. I was told that I only have about 5 minutes to rest, go to the summit marker, savor the moment and have my photograph taken. Too wasted to move from the spot I chose to collapse, I declined to even take a peek of the peak’s marker. Saying I will do so the next time I’m back for a revenge climb. Although deep inside me I already made a promise not to return and repeat my defeat. I was then given a guide to accompany me (and maybe to make sure I go down whole and safely) on the way down of the mountain. I seriously asked the marshal before he went ahead if there were easier and an alternative way to go down the mountain and back to the finish line I can take since I’m no longer in the race. Unfortunately there was none. I had to endure the same hardship the other runners who were still in the race had to go through. So as soon as I recovered a little, the rest of the people on top of Mt. Ugo and I began our descent. As it turn out the way down was much easier. I also had the opportunity to finally enjoy the breathtaking view of the mountains, trees and terrain, which I was not able to notice while climbing up because most of the time I was staring at the ground and ravine. At the 14th kilometer marker or perhaps the real 21st kilometer of the race we rested to eat a much delayed lunch. Having no packed lunch for myself, I dug in on the race volunteers, marshals and medical personnel’s provision of smoked fish, rice and hardboiled egg. On the way down we chance upon three runners who did not even made it to the summit. One was suffering from cramps. He later told us on our way back to Baguio that he was carried piggyback by the town councilor himself and felt embarrassed about it since he is quite a large person to be carried by an elderly government official. The two others accompanied us until just before the hanging bridge maybe the 34th kilometer of the race when both runners disappeared on us. We learn later that they both took a motorcycle going back to the finish line. By the time I finally reached the finish line it was already past 7:00 pm. All of the other except the three runners we met on our way down had already left. I was the last runner to cross the finish line. But in spite of being last I was still granted my finisher’s medal and I was glad for it. I left the race venue not feeling defeated. I don’t even feel I need to go back to redeem myself. There are just mountains that one can’t scale or in this case race that can not be finished within the time allotted without the proper preparation for it. In April I will attempt to redeem myself again in Nasugbu, Batangas in the event Salomon Xtrail 2014 maybe if I do managed to redeem myself it won’t be far fetch it return to Mt. Ugo with some form of vengeance in mind.