Over 12 grueling kilometers of concrete and off-road, muddy tracks in Sagada, Mountain Province in Northern Luzon, Philippines. That’s what’s in front of me. That’s what I have to conquer. Being my first ever marathon, this number alone can be intimidating. Add to the fact that I’ve been a smoker for the last 20 years. All I carry with me are my guts and a considerable amount of willpower.
They say after you’ve trained for a big event, all that is left is mental attitude. I didn’t have any of those athlete training they do to prepare for marathons, so I really needed a huge scoop of that “mental” thingy they’re talking about. But that’s not to say that I came unprepared. Aside from the 2 colossal mountains I conquered recently – Mount Pulag and Mount Ugo, I also had a taste of what trail running is when I joined a Happy Run at Camp John Hay about 3 weeks ago.
All these are fun but when an event starts giving out Race bibs, those numbers you pin on your chests, you know things are about to get serious. This was the first time after more than 20 years that I’ll be wearing a number again on a sports competition. The last time was a number 98 jersey when I played football during high school. Today, they gave me the number 016 which I was suppose to pin on my shirt during the entire race.
The very thought of that triggered nostalgic feelings as I remembered how athletic I was back when I was younger. Years of smoking and eating unhealthy foods took a toll on my health I guess. Now I need to redeem myself – if that means, changing a lot including my food lifestyle, quitting smoking, and improving other areas of myself.
A travel by bus to Sagada isn’t much fun at all. Let alone travelling all by yourself. A girl was sitting beside me at the back end of the bus so I thought hey maybe I’ll start a small talk with her so I don’t get bored. She looked like an athlete so I started with “Are you also joining the marathon?” The reply was “No, but my boyfriend will”. As soon as she blurted out that boyfriend thing, my mind was like, “You don’t have to tell me that, haha!” But of course I said “Oh cool! Good luck to him!”. Then I put on my headphones and dropped the idea of having conversations with her during the trip. The road from Baguio to Sagada is not what I expected. It’s narrow, and on some areas, our bus has to stop or slow down to allow incoming motorists to pass by. We had two quick stop overs, to get a meal, then off we go to the place I’ve never been before. Sagada.
I was getting impatient or maybe I was just excited to arrive. I kept on checking Google Maps and turned on my GPS to check our current location. About an hour before our estimated time of arrival, I fell asleep. Sensing that the bus had stopped I opened my eyes and saw passengers standing up and packing up their bags. I asked, “Are we now in Sagada?” I heard somebody sad yes, so I hurriedly checked my things and got off the bus.
Arriving at a new town, with nobody to welcome you is a bit weird. This wasn’t my first time to get to a strange new place though, but since I don’t know where to go and have not booked any hotels yet, I was a little concerned and anxious. I asked around where the Elementary School was, and the locals were very helpful to guide me to the direction of the school. I had to be there to attend the orientation and claiming of our race kit. Luckily the school was just about 200 meters from where I got off so I got there just in time for the organizers to explain the 12k route. There were already over 300 participants at the venue when I arrived. After the orientation, we were to sign waivers and claim our race bibs.
There were lots of race bibs on the table. I didn’t know what to expect, but I stood there and patiently waited for my name to be called. When I finally got my number, I was surprised and was honestly glad I got “016”. Does that mean I belong to the upper percentile rank, I thought. Wishful thinking, I suppose. But whatever, I’m happy to have that number. I wanted to start conversations with other participants just standing there waiting for their turn, but then again, I felt intimidated by how powerful their legs look like. Most of them wore proper trail running shoes, while I’m wearing one designed for hiking. They also looked stronger and seemed far more experienced. So I decided I’ll head back to the town and look for a place to stay for the night. I took a picture of the starting line. I imagined myself being there tomorrow, ready to tackle my first 12 kilometers.
It took me a while, going back and forth to check which inn or homestay should I pick. I wanted a proper inn where I can spend the night and some homestays looked a bit off from the outside. Isabelo’s Inn is a building designed to be a mini hotel of some sort, and there were some stores at the ground level so I thought this might be a good place to stay. I walked in and asked for their rate. “350 per night” said the clerk at the lobby. I asked if they had a single bed available just for the night, and she said they still have one left. So I took it, went up, and rested. It was still a little early and I haven’t had my dinner yet, so after about an hour’s rest, I went out to find some place to eat.
My dinner was just rice and Sinigang na baboy. I was on a small restaurant nearby, just big enough to fit about 10 guests. I was alone. It was a decent looking restaurant, with lots of things to sell. After my dinner, I decided to find some place to have a beer. I was getting worried I might not be able to sleep due to my excitement for tomorrow’s event. So when I found one, I ordered two bottles of Smirnoff, and potato fries to pack more calories before the big race. The owners (couples actually) were kind enough to chat with me about the event. I learned that they were joining too, so I had fun talking to them about fitness stuff. After my two bottles were up, I went back to my hotel and finally got ready for a good night sleep.
The Race Day
My alarm went off at 4:15am. I didn’t waste any more time. I hurriedly make up my bed, prepare my things, put on my shoes and got ready to head to the school. It was still dark when I got there, but I saw a group who already started, they were the 42k runners. When I reached the booth, there were coffees and pan de sal being served. I took some for me and enjoyed the freshly brewed Sagada coffee on a chilling morning. The organizers informed us that we had to wait a little more time before gunstart because the fog was too thick and that they wanted to avoid accidents on the road. 25k runners had their gunstart at 5am. At this time it was already 5:15am and we’re just waiting for 12k runners to start. For some reason, maybe because of excitement or maybe because of the coffee I just had, my stomach began grumbling and I thought I could use the bathroom before the race. I don’t wanna be looking for a toilet while on the race, so I decided to go back to my hotel and finish my business.
About 20 minutes later, the sun was already starting to show up and when I arrived back at the school, everyone’s gone. “Oh no!” I thought. One organizer was still there and he welcomed me with “Sir you’re late. Did you sign up already?” I said, “No, I’m good. I’m done signing up, just tell me where to go.” He pointed me to the direction of the path from the school leading to the main road. I was like “Oh god, this is very embarrassing!”
So off I go. Jogging alone. I know they can’t be too far away. I felt a little bit of panic and regret. I should’ve never went back to my hotel. But I also thought, I didn’t wanna feel uncomfortable while running. So I guess I just had to deal with this. After about 500 meters, I realized I didn’t turn on my tracking system on my phone and fitness band. Damn, another mistake! That’s what you get when you’re panicking I guess. So I hurriedly turn on activity Running on my S-Health app. It tracks your distance covered, GPS position, cadence, time you’re running, splits, etc. My Samsung Gear Fit 2 pro also does the same in addition to recording my heart rate during the whole race. So I jogged, and walked, and jogged. Two kilometers into the run, I saw the first groups. I guess you can call the them last groups now since they are the ones behind. I felt a surge of energy in my muscles the second I saw them. I know I didn’t get lost. I’m on the right path. And I’m catching up great.
I quickly got past 10 racers who were basically just walking by now. Then overtook another dozen. Then another. I was practically run/walking so fast that nobody ever got past me. Instead, I kept on overtaking most of them. About 4 kilometers into the race and I saw a very beautiful scene. I hurriedly took out my phone and captured the moment.
This was the first time I ever saw such a beautiful image, it almost felt like a miracle. If the photo is breathtaking, the feeling of being there was ten times more intense. You feel the gentle fog touching your skin. And the sunlight drew a picture as if to declare a brand new beautiful day. A big chunk of my life was spent inside the house. I was just not a natural outdoor guy. I’d rather stay behind my computer, play video games, watch TV, or read books. So you can imagine my amazement when I finally gave in to the outdoors. I have been missing a lot all these years.
I saw my first sea of clouds in Mount Pulag 2 months ago. But this one is very close. You can almost touch it. I mean, I can probably jump off the cliff and glide my way to the clouds. Years ago, I’d only see these in the internet. But on this day, I am witnessing it unfold before my eyes. If I stayed there long enough, the scene would’ve move me to tears. But dont’ forget, I was still on the race. We had to make a U-turn through the first checkpoint. That’s where somebody records your race bib number to make sure you’re following the designated route. I still have approximately 8 kilometers to cover says the app on my phone. I took a quick 5-minute rest to cooldown and hydrate myself, then off I went again, running on muddy trails going back.
By this time I was reinvigorated and was ready to tackle the next route going to the finish line. One by one I was overtaking runners. Most of them too tired already and were basically just walking their way back. My phone would provide me important data such as pace, distance traveled, etc. And it does that every after a kilometer I covered. It was really awesome to hear a voice saying “You have been running for 6 kilometers, your average pace is blah blah..” It felt like I had a trainer following me all along.
Ten kilometers into the race and I’m starting to feel exhaustion. Some trails are flat, some downwards, but the most difficult part is going uphill. It just burns a lot of energy. I reached the second checkpoint and had my number recorded. A quick rest, and off I went again. I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable sensations on my knees. But never mind that, I kept going.. and going.. and going. The trail almost seemed endless.
12 kilometers have gone by and I have yet to see something that resembles a finish line. I understand that the trail may not be exactly 12 kilometers. But I just thought I’m almost near. Getting past a mini waterfalls and a rice paddy, I didn’t realize the hardest part of the race was about to begin. A steep ascent that seemed equivalent to climbing twenty stories up. Most people will crush this easily. But for someone who’s been running for the last 2 hours, climbing even just a dozen steps up is already daunting. Let alone climbing in a hurry. My heart was about to explode when I reached the top. Gasping for breath, I took a sip of my Gatorade and prayed to see the finish line immediately. I imagined we’re past 12 kilometers now, so the finish line should be just a few meters away. Boy I was wrong.
I had to run about 2 kilometers more before reaching the end of the race. By this time, it was already around 8am, and the sun is starting to heat up my skin. My legs are in pain, my feet are screaming it wants to stop. My heart has been pumping blood like crazy the past 2 hours. I felt my body was ready to give up. But my spirit, is unshaken. I know I have to finish the race, even if I have to crawl to the finish line.
Finally, after 2 hours and 50 minutes, I completed the race. I was so proud of myself! I did it alone with no buddies, and I ran past so many other runners. Not to mention I started late. Whew! That was something! I’ve never done anything like this before, so this is very memorable for me. Here am I taking a selfie in the finish line.
I took a picture of my finisher’s shirt, my finisher’s medal and my race bib. For someone who joined a marathon for the first time, these are very important souvenirs. I will keep them for a long time, maybe hang them in my wall for people to see. Haha! That’s how proud I am of achieving a feat and getting something like this.
For so many years I underestimated my endurance. I’ve always thought I’m never gonna make it to sports like this. But hell yeah! I’m still strong. I can do a dozen more marathons in the future. The lion inside me is still very much alive.
I joined this race not just to experience outdoors. Not just for adventure. I was looking for something deeper in meaning. See, I’ve always heard that life is a race – that life is a marathon. This is going to be my first dive into what it feels like, first hand experience to see what the deal is. I wanted to be there. To truly feel and understand the meaning of it. In real life a lot of us are going to start great, full of energy and excitement. But somewhere along our journey, we’re going to hit walls. And these walls will try to stop us. Some are going to bring us down to our knees. Some are going attempt to break our spirits. Some are going to leave us with broken hearts.
Life, is gonna push us around. Most will bleed and cry and wish that they have never been born. Everyone will experience this at some point – no one is exempted. Maybe on different scales or circumstance but as humans, we all are subject to life’s trials. Life is gonna beat you down and sometimes the last blow is so hard it can knock you out cold lying face down on the dirt. The question is, are you gonna give up? Are you going to call it quits and not fight back?
You see, life is teaching us a lesson. The human heart is stronger than most of us would ever think. It can be broken into pieces but it heals and rebuilds itself and come out stronger than ever. The human spirit is limitless. Do not for even a second think that you are weak or does not matter in this world. We are more than what we think we are. Wear your wounds as a badge of honor. Be proud because you’ve just been through hell and you came out alive – you are a badass madahf*ckr! The world needs more people like you. So walk tall, chin up, and eyes ahead! You are now stronger, and better than ever. In the end, the universe will reward you with something you deserve. Just don’t stop moving. Rest if you must, but never give up. Conquer your own marathon.. and I will see you in the finish line.