Benguet Gold Rush: A Dash to the Mountain on Christmas Rush

As I stood at a narrow precipice that serve as trail path leading to Philex Ridge and into the 42k U-turn in about 2 to 3 more kilometers, I stare below the abyss and saw what looked like a portion of the Kennon Road, trees and other mountains all turned seemingly miniaturized because of the height I was standing from. Realizing how high up I had already gone and the tiniest move could send me stumbling down the mountain, my knees began to buckle and my stomach churned. I couldn’t believe I am on top of the Philippines. I’m close to the heavens but I could also get there a lot faster if I made a misstep. My four other running companions ahead of me were taking their sweet time having their photographs taken in complete abandonment of the danger. Perhaps, I was just being too overly cautious after all I have only fallen on a ravine only once and I disappeared for 3 days after falling. After that I got to regularly stumble a lot on trail courses and twice almost fallen again at the ledges of mountains and rice terraces but nothing special. Yeah, perhaps I was just being a killjoy.

Then suddenly from the direction coming from behind me out of the bushes emerged a herd of cows, which seemed to me were surprised to see me staring at them. They were heading our direction without regards whether we were standing at their way and the way in question was a narrow strip of trail path. Amidst these determined but so far slow moving cows was another runner wearing red TNF100 tech shirt, Arel who seemed to be trapped amidst the cow. I thought for a moment, does color red suppose to agitate cows or bulls? Then the picture of running with the bulls at the street of Madrid came flashing in my mind. My heart began to pound like it will create an after shock that would send me off the trail and into the chasm below.

With just five days to go before Christmas I still found myself in Baguio and participating in Team Malaya’s Benguet Gold Rush Marathon held December 21, 2014 with a starting point at Crosby Park in Itogon, Benguet. Benguet Gold Rush was the fourth of the Cordillera series and my third 42k at Team Malaya’s franchise race directed by Stephen Lopez Felices who is a champion trail and ultra-marathon runner himself. Ever since joining The North Face 100 Baguio-Benguet leg, I always wanted to experience the entire race route the 100k runners had. When I participated in the 50k category I at least covered 30 kilometers of it before DNF-ing. The remaining 20 kilometers was a retracing of the route returning to the start/finish area. The 100k category however featured Itogon, Benguet particularly the Philex Ridge in Ampucao that boast of breathtaking views including an interesting landmark which is a sloping cliff suspended above rocky mountain overlooking much smaller mountains below dubbed as the “Rock”. Benguet Gold Rush at least promised a portion of the TNF100 route that I hadn’t experienced before namely the Itogon portion going to Ampucao. In the TNF100 after Ampucao they proceeded to run a series of trails until they emerged at the other side of Sto. Tomas in Mt. Cabuyao, where they ran the same route the 50k ran in returning to the Starting/Finish Area. I signed up for Benguet Gold Rush not just for the experience of running the Ampucao route but also supposedly to prepare for the return bout with Mt. Ugo summit via Philippine Sky Runner’s Akyathon 2015 or Front Runner Magazine’s own run to Mt. Ugo.

At around 4:00 am runners were picked up by a single shuttle service at the Baguio-Acupan Jeepney Terminal near Petron Gas Station at FB Harrison Road. There were expected 21 runners from the 42k category while 45 something for the 21k category. While there were already some runners who opted to camp at the race event venue in Crosby Park, those who could not be fitted in the shuttle took a cab or got to the venue via their own vehicles. After about a 15 minutes ride the participants alighted at a still bathe in the early morning darkness trail ground for an uphill hike to the race distribution and then to the briefing area. The race route was laid out to us with caution that unlike their previous races this one particular was basically a self-contain, self-reliant run with only two Aid Stations place farther apart from each other. Runners were also warned about the narrow trail paths in getting to the ridges and about the possibility of fogs obscuring the path. Since some of the features of the race had already been shown in the organizers’ Fan Page, I think, many of the participants thought about the difficulties of this race and opted instead to sign up for the 21k category or forego the opportunity altogether because of the holidays.

Some of the familiar faces joining this event were Grupong Bente Uno’s Lyndon Datu, Victor Urgel, Frankie Vibiesa, Bentz Veran, Baldwin Li, photographer/runners, Harmon Blanco and Anthony Evan Cruz or Red Knight and the princess of the group Kathryn Joyce Nisperos Perez. There was also Karl Cyril Vejano, Eleazar Hipol Santiago and Albert Pendel whom I also ran with in some of the earlier Team Malaya events.

Since the surrounding was still too dark I was thinking that the gun start would sound off at 6:00 am or when there was an ample light to see the path. But at 5:30 am both runners from the 21k and 42k categories were released. Some runners did not brought with them headlamps and had to run along with those who had while others were left to grope the path. I fell behind the rest of the other runners to light the way for my running companions Lyndon, Victor, Anthony and another runner Julius whom I assumed wrongly from his much senior age and outfit of plain trousers and cotton shirt he was wearing was not used to running much more in trail. I also thought he was the one whom I overheard in the darkness that was injured. We lagged behind the others for a couple of kilometers but when the light had finally made the concrete road discernible I left the group to try to catch up with the other 42k runners. I ran the mostly downhill Virac Road until at the 3km turning point going to Itogon I saw Kathryn, Harmon, Baldwin and other 21 k runners waiting for Lyndon and company. This road was much steeper downhill and therefore I gathered more speed. At the area where Dead Lake was more visible closest I caught up with still other I assumed to be 21k runners. When I arrived at the 5.5 kilometers the first Aid Station and entrance to the hanging bridge where below the bridge was the Itogon Hot spring Resort, I thought I ran 10 kilometers already. The uphill run finally began after crossing the bridge. Somewhere ahead I caught up with Frankie and another runner. Soon after passing the Tailing Dam intersection I entered a woody portion of the route with the occasional view of the other mountains where I chance upon Albert Pendel and Nancy Buenaventura where we had our photographs taken. Then I went on until this time meeting up with the 42k runners Karl Cyril, Dwight and Kristine. I was even surprised to see just behind my heel was Julius whom I left with Lyndon earlier but apparently careened his way without me noticing him. I learned he was actually running in the 42k category. Another 42k runners that I would be meeting up intermittently along the way was Arel the runner who ran in the TNF100 under the 100k category but DNF at the 30th kilometer of the race. This event was his attempt to recapture the moment and take his revenge by finishing the race.

At 10.5 kilometers and at 1,266 MASL, the runners from the 21k after race marshal Joshua Javier handed them a blue band were already circling back to retrace their way back to the finish line. That was when it became apparent to me that those who ran in the 21k had definitely had their chance to experience some tough steep and sometime close to vertical uphill climb of the trail. The six of us from the 42 k category forged ahead. We not only were the last 42k runners but probably represents the other end of the spectrum of 42k runner participants of this event, the less “mamaw” or monster while the other end of the spectrum were the more seasoned ones often dubbed as “mamaw”. It did not help soothe our pride when we later saw that some of the runners ahead of us were not the usual seasoned runners one could imagine could established 5 to 6 kilometers distance ahead of us. Maybe we just took so much sweet time admiring and enjoying the route although my body wasn’t actually agreeing with this attempt to stoke some pride in me.

While resting just beyond the 21k u-turn, I was contemplating of the distance we ran so far. It seems that in paper the distance we ran was shorter covering only about 11 kilometers but in actuality with all the uphill we climbed it must have been more. This is how it is when GPS is being use as a way to measure distance for mountain trail. GPS considers point-to-point and probably not wary about the elevations separating the two points.

While continuing with the run, at my right side I saw the two radars nestled at Mt. Cabuyao and the communication towers at Sto. Tomas. I could just imagine the TNF 100k runners looking at their 50th kilometers cut off seemingly leering at them while they were still on the way to their 25th kilometer mark. At around the 11th or 12th kilometers we hit the road and at the 13.6 kilometers we passed by a tower. This time we were treated to a downhill all the way to the town in Ampucao. There was an Aid Station at the 15th kilometer but it already ran out of water. What remain there were warm coke and Gatorade. Arel had to walk a few meters back to refill his hydration bottles with water he had to buy at a store. From the Aid Station after a few meters of uphill run on concrete road where we met the first 42k runner on the way down and on his way back to the finish line. After sitting out for a while to wait for Arel to rejoin me while KC, Dwight and Kristine went ahead, I hit the trail again alone this time for Arel and Julius hadn’t arrived yet. The path had some lesser woody portions and soon I was making high fives with some of the 42k runners coming from the opposite side of the path returning from Philex Ridge u-turn. The landscape changed and soon I was scaling several rolling hills populated by low grasses and cows. Trees were sparse so I can see 360 degrees around us. I again rejoined KC and company while crossing narrow trail paths. Julius and Arel also soon joined us. We’re somewhere 3 kilometers away from the U-turn and had just narrowly escaped what we thought would be a literal ran with the bulls. There was just a couple more of uphill climbs and soon the u-turn. Arel was lagging behind that I had to stop and see whether he was still catching up well for the red ribbon markers that suppose to guide us along the race route had grown quite few and much farther apart making them hard to find.

I finally managed to get to the u-turn manned by Marvin. I was marveling at the sight at the turning point. I saw Mt. Ugo and the cloud covered Mt. Pulag. There were several other mountains I failed to get the name but probably I had scaled some when I did the Purgatory 30. I couldn’t believe I was standing on top of some of the highest point in the whole Philippines. KC, Dwight and Kristine took off going to the natural landmark the “rock” and had their photo taken while standing or sitting precariously at the sloping cliff then afterward the went ahead to get back on the trail. Arel arrived at the turning point while Julius took off without having photo-op at the “rock”. After several minutes rest it was our turn to have photo-taken at the “rock” then heads off to our epic return to the finish line. Since Marvin was assisting Arel who seemed for some quite a while was in bad shape to make a fast return, I left them and tried to catch up with the others. Later I learned that Arel didn’t able to finish the race and took a ride for Crosby Park at the town of Apucao. I caught up with KC while refilling his water bottle at the town just beyond the Aids Station but soon he took off again. I had to look for another store with water to refill my hydration bladder. Then just before the 21k u-turn I caught up with KC and company again, this time for good. They got lost while trying to follow the red ribbon trail marker. It turned out we were supposed to follow also yellow ribbons. The trip down the mountain and into the Aid Station after the hanging bridge was more tenable because at least the path was downhill. The last 5.5 kilometers however became quite a struggle as the path was uphill concrete road that taxed us of our remaining strength. We left the starting area still dark we finally arrived at the finish area fully draped in darkness of the evening. I finish the race after running for 12 hours and 24 minutes and 40 seconds.

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Storming Tagaytay for T2N

While the slow moving Tropical Cyclone Hagupit or locally known as Ruby had just left the province of Samar for the island of Marinduque and continuing still further westward heading for Mindoro then Batangas in a day or two, its wide reaching storm wall however hadn’t yet made any discernible impact in Tagaytay apart from a forecast of a possible overcast sky in time of the 8th Tagaytay to Nasugbu 50k Ultramarathon on December 7, 2014.

I was, therefore, looking forward to an ideal weather for ultramarathon on an otherwise normally sun-scorching 50k course organized by a notoriously known strict race director, Jovice Narcise popularly referred as Bald Runner or BR for short. T2N was my 5th 50k ultra and my first for the Bald Runner’s franchise. I expected among the difficulty involved in this race was the no aid stations along the race route and a 9 hours cut-off. The expected balmy weather was a sort of let up in spite of BR’s own downplaying of this race’s difficulty due to the course’s mainly downhill rolling feature. I joined this race not only to add this race’s course to my growing Tagaytay series racecourses that I had participated in, but also to prepare to qualify for a possible take on Bataan Death March 102, which to my knowledge, requires a prospecting runner to have already run in at least 3 of BR’s events (although I learned later that one race event will do). I also want to find out how to be totally self-sufficient in a 50k distance.

It did not help my cause that my Deuter 2.0 liter hydration bladder developed a leak the evening before the run that I almost elected to give up running in this event. But there were other more urgent reasons not to run than a busted bladder. I resolved to pack a two liter plastic bottle of water instead on my hydration back pack along with headlamp, Gatorade, light jacket, rain poncho, reflectorized vest, Fit bars and money. On race day, BR’s wife almost took pity on me upon seeing me and trying out for her self to lift my backpack. She offered to have my backpack loaded at her car for safe baggage keeping. But I refused to give it to her saying I was on a self-support and would need the bag’s content along the progress of the race.

The starting point of the race was at Picnic Grove Nature Park about 3 kilometers away from my accommodation, which I walked from at 2:00 am. At the race venue at first there were just few runners keeping themselves warm. Given the impending passage of the typhoon Ruby and the scheduled National Milo Marathon Finals coinciding with T2N, I suspected wrongly that there might be about less than 20 runners that would be braving T2N. But soon runners began arriving. I learned then that National Milo Marathon got postponed and there were runners joining T2N who were supposed to run in Milo Marathon who now opted to register on site. The number of participants grew from 50 to 63. As a result, the number of finisher medals and shirts fell short of the actual number of participants. One of the familiar faces among the participants was Allen Bautista who was taking T2N for the second time. The first time, which happened last June 2014 did not end well for him. 500 meters from the finish line he collapsed and woke up later at the hospital. His story almost mirrored that of Brian a runner Scott Jurek was pacing at Western State 50 Miles Endurance Run who DQ after Brian’s body stopped or refused to go any further with just a few more miles to go before the finish line. Jurek had to assist Brian cross the finish line and into the medical tent. Allen however, redeemed himself at his second take when he won the championship at the end of this race.

From the Picnic Grove Nature Park, we ran along the dimly lit Calamba Road in single file, keeping BR’s instruction. The cold air we earlier complained about became almost indiscernible. We passed by Ligaya Drive the road I emerged from when I joined the 2nd Sungay 60k Challenge Ultramarathon coming from Talisay, Batangas. Soon we crossed the intersection where the right side of the road that led to Sto. Domingo Road or Sta. Rosa Road – the route taken in my second Tagaytay leg under the race Tagaytay to Nuvali to Sta. Rosa or T2N2S. We then passed by where my accommodation, the Golden Room stood forlorn. About a kilometers and a half we crossed the Tagaytay Junction and hit Aguinaldo Highway south bound. BR berated that T2N was the easiest of his 50k run events for its undulating uphill and downhill route. I don’t know whether to be scared now of joining other of BR’s run events for I found the route challenging still especially with the incoming vehicles that threatening to side swipe runners who were required to run at the left side of the road and had to compete with the incoming vehicles for a piece of the narrow highway.

Some members of support group of other runners who where waiting for their runners to arrived at designated distance for their refreshments cheered me on every time I passed along them. Their presence not only provides a sort of encouragement and comfort because at a certain point of the race distance between runners had grown vast, it also meant that there were still indeed other runners behind me.

Without Aid Stations every 10 kilometers along the route like in Run Mania’s franchise, I had no way of determining how much distance I had already logged in. I had 4 salt candies given to me by my former classmate in elementary and every once in a while we chance upon each other in some of the run events. These salt candies were supposedly like those Salt Stick capsules that I take in intervals of at least 10 kilometers. But without any idea of the distance I ended up taking these candies in less intervals than those I originally planned to. My only way of figuring out how far I seemed to have ran already were signboards of a resort village being developed that a teaching colleague of mine was trying to get me interested into investing on and a fast food chain lies a certain distance ahead. Along the way I got to know where entrance to Mt. Talamitam stood which was really near the entrance to Mt. Batulao, a mountain I already had a chance to hike on.

From Palico we took the left side of the road, which was the last stretch of the race that was flat all the way. The finish line was at the Petron Gas Station in Nasugbu that was owned by BR’s 3 star General friend. I clocked a time of 7 hours and 55 seconds and ranked 56 out of 63 runners. So, it seems I can indeed finish sub 8 in a 50k ultramarathon.

Pursuing My First Puerto Galera Fun Run

It took me quite a while before I returned to Oriental Mindoro. The first time was when I attended and monitored a historical conference organized by ADHIKA, Inc. in Calapan when I was still working at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which coincidentally was held in November 28-30, 1999. Then a couple of years back as faculty member of UST College of Fine Arts and Design we had a team building and field trip at Puerto Galera. Last November 29, I had my feet wet again on Puerto Galera’s ground as I participated in Prince Multisport Event’s 1st Puerto Galera Heart of Asia 50k and 25k Run. I registered in the 25k category. I joined the lesser distance category for the following week I was slated to run 50k in Baldrunner’s 8th Tagaytay to Nasugbu Ultra.

Upon docking of the boat at Sabang Beach, Joseph Prince, the race organizer was there to welcome the participants, which turned out there were maybe around 4 other participants apart from me on board. Many of the participants I saw at the Batangas Pier and who left earlier were billeted at White Beach while others who arrived on board other vessels were at the events major sponsor’s Atlantis Resort in Sabang. I booked my accommodation at Seashores Hotel. In both of my earlier time I came to Mindoro I was not really aware which pier I docked after crossing the sea from Batangas Pier on board the bigger Roll On Roll Off (RORO) boat unlike the motorized boat I boarded in my current trip to Puerto Galera. That was why I couldn’t careless whether I was to be booked at White Beach side or Sabang side of Puerto Galera so long as it’s nearer the race starting and finish venue. It just turned out that the cheaper hotels was in Sabang and the latter was much closer to the race event venue, which lies 10 kilometers away. However, I soon found out that the portion of Sabang I stayed at had no resort beach to swim at since the Sabang area was more of a diving resort than for beach combing. Pretty much like Anilao. The bottom of the water was a bit stony and quickly dips deeper with corals. Being more of a diving resort, Sabang had a lot of foreign expats milling around – Caucasians and Koreans mostly. Establishments like hotels and restaurants were built elbow to elbow closer to each other and a bit closer to the beachfront. A small pathway along the beachfront led to the main thoroughfare, which started at the pier. This main street featured more establishments such as pizzeria, grocery store, money changers, hotels, etc. but as soon as the ground started to incline uphill, which was abruptly, the commercial district thinned out as the road led out of Sabang and into the snaking main road going to Puerto Galera proper.

There were 46 runners in the 25 k category although by the time of the race there were only 41 who actually ran. In the 50K there were 50 runners who actually ran but I heard there were supposedly around 60 registrants. Aside from Master Vic Ting a 70-year old veteran runner another senior runner who participated in the 50 k was Vic Esta age 66 whom I previously met and ran a couple of kilometers with at Freedom Run whose course ran from Kawit to Kaybian Tunnel in Ternate. The gun start for the 50 k runners was given at 2:00 am. By the time the 25k runners were given our gun start at 4:50 am, three runners from the 50k had already completed 20k, which took them to the White Beach portion of the island. They returned to the starting venue so that they could take a pee and maybe piss us for not choosing the 50k category to run at and missed a wonderful portion of the race route. We at the 25k will not only met up with the 50k along the Puerto Galera-Calapan Road route but will also share the same U-turn at Tamaraw Falls, which lies 14 kilometers from the starting point at Municipal Hall of Puerto Galera before returning to Puerto Galera town proper at Plaza Iluminada for the Finish Line. At 4:50 am the route was still basically swat in darkness. The Route was a gradual rolling uphill and kind of reminded me of the Tanauan to Laurel, Batangas route of Sungay 60k run, which also had the sea at the left side. In this run as soon as I felt the road inclined upward instead of doing my usual walking the uphill I pushed myself to run the uphill. I was surprised that I wasn’t having difficulty in doing so. From small strides I added a bit of speed and soon I was overtaking couple of other runners. I was actually enjoying the uphill far better than the downhill. The strain I felt in my quads were seem more welcoming than those I felt with my knees on downhill. Aside from the dark road, I needed to be cautious on the downhill since my Adidas Kanadia 4, which was already on its last tour of duty was literally about to tear itself apart along its seams.

As the early morning light finally began dispersing the darkness, it seemed to have coincided with lots of stiffer uphill run along the racecourse. Still pretty much inspired with how easily I was taking the uphill, I soon began racing with another runner wearing a singlet from the Pinoyfitness’ 21K Challenge Run who seem to be determined to show his ware. After a couple of lead exchanges he careened until I can’t see a glimmer of this person leaving me with only his dust to wallow in.   At around probably the 10th kilometers I met Master Vic coming from the opposite side of the road pacing a female runner. In spite of him having awarded me my finisher medal at Sungay 60 he seemed to have not recognized me with my unshaven look. He shouted at me whether I was a Malaysian. I was tempted to say in Tagalog no I am a Korean. Finally I reached the Tamaraw Fall U-turn. There I had my photograph taken by Flat Iron Man then had my coconut juice break. Soon I was back on the road. The initial portion of the return trip to Puerto Galera and the finish line had about one more uphill before it finally gave way to mostly downhill as if I was again back in Cavinti and negotiating the Cavinti-Pagsanjan road of the Caliraya 360 Run Event. It began to rain as the manifestation of a Low Pressure Area (LPA) that was passing the Visayas heading out west which probably the main reason many of the participants did not arrived. They were probably afraid of the rough sea crossing. The rain however, was a welcome development for it greatly cools my body. But my stamina seemed to have been depleted with the running I put into those uphill portion of the race. I began to do walk run. My left foot was also ailing once again although not that bothersome.

I was initially hoping I could land within top ten finishers for the 25k category for when we began I was certain I had overtaken quite a lot of runners. However before I crossed the U-Turn at Tamaraw Falls I counted those 25k runners returning from the U-turn and they already exceeded 10 runners. The 25k distance according to Prince was actually around 27-28 kilometers. In the last couple of kilometers before the Finish Line I passed by the runner wearing the Pinoyfitness’ 21k Challenge Run singlet. He spoke to me of his running out of steam. While on the other hand I pushed on until finally a marshal told be to turn right at the first corner I see. The road led to the sight of the sea. Upon stepping out of the road I saw the finish line farther ahead with the huts and pavilions. I finished the race with a time of 3 hours and 46 minutes and rank 12. I remember the last time I ran in Puerta Galera was during the Amazing Race activity we had at our Team Building with my CFAD co-faculty members. We were running towards another falls. I was initially ahead of my colleague except for one non-teaching personnel who was far fitter than me because he does martial arts while I was not yet into running then. When we reached a waterfalls it turned out it was not yet the one we were supposed to go. So, we quickly scampered and headed up towards the other much bigger falls. But by the time I got there others had already reached it. I failed to get a podium finish and recognition I wanted to impress upon my colleague. Now, even though I did not claim a podium finish nor ended up within the top ten I was happy I had the opportunity to be back in Puerto Galera and ran at its road. Each time I make it to the finish line I feel I achieve more than what I bargain for a finisher medal or trophy – I experienced the place, met people and conquered myself. I grew as a runner and as a person in the process.