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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