Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mt. Pinatubo 50km Trail Challenge 2013

The Mt Pinatubo 50km was organised by Sir Jovie Narcise, who also organised other extreme races like the Bataan Death March 102km and 160km.  Joining this race was a very last minute decision as I knew traveling there involved taking buses and jeeps.  Also, it was just a week after Vietnam Mountain Marathon 70km run.  I was most certain not 100% recovered but I thought since the race would be starting at sea level before rising to a max of almost 900m, I should be alright with the cut-off time of 11 hours.  How wrong I was!  Although this was not an extreme race, it was still hard!

Elevation Profile of the Mt Pinatubo - It Isn't Really That Bad!

Traveling to Race Start
Traveling to any part of Philippines (less to cities like Manila and Cebu) was difficult.  Alex, a runner I first met in TNF Philippines in 2011, picked me up from the airport.  We went for lunch before he drove me to the bus station.  From there I would take the bus to Tarlac City before changing to a jeep to go to the homestay next to the race start.  The bus ride took about 3 hours plus so it was dark when I reached Tarlac City.  Jeeps were abound in the area.  I looked around and wondered if I should get something to eat at McDonald or continue my journey.  The McDonald was crowded so I signaled to a guy who rode his jeep over.  I handed over a piece of paper containing the details of my destination to him.  He nodded and I jumped into the jeep which was just big enough to put my luggage.  The journey took more than an hour, through winding roads with areas that looked to be flooded.  By the time I reached the homestay, it was past 9pm!  My host showed me to my room and apologised that they had no water and electricity due to a typhoon that happened yesterday.  (Only on my way back while traveling in the daylight the next day, did I see the devastation that the typhoon did to the village.  Tress were uprooted, electrical posts were blown down with the wire strewn across the road.  :(  )  I quickly laid out my gear and set my alarm at 4am before going to sleep.

I woke up at 4am, ate the salad box I bought at Changi Airport yesterday, changed to my running gear and headed out to the race start, which was about 500m away.  The street was dark, brightened only by my headlamp and by other headlamps belonging to other runners (presumably staying in other homestay around the area).  I saw a dim light.  Looked like someone was putting up the race start banner.  I walked into the building next to it.  There were a few people at the table with lighted up candles.  Bibs were laid out nicely on the table.  Runners began to report to the volunteers.  After signing in, we were given our bibs.  Then we stayed around to wait for the race start at 5am.  I didn't think there were any overseas runner except me as most were talking in their own language.  Then I heard someone saying that the race would be delayed to 5:30am so that the sky would be brighter.  After the brief, we took a group photo at the race start before the RD flagged us off at around 5:30am.

Salad Breakfast (L Top); Race Registration Point @ Barangay Hall; The RD - Sir Jovie (R Bottom)

My Bib - 151 (L Top); Race Briefing; Race Start (R Bottom)

 At The Start Of The Race Briefing - Photo by Sir Jovie!

There were a total of 3 aid stations at 8km, 17km and 25km (mid-way).  With the out-and-back course, I told myself I should reach the half-way mark of the 50km race at 11am (5:30hrs from start of race).  The first 800m of the race was on concrete road as we had to run towards the river.  Then it got interesting.  We had to cross this huge river!  It was was difficult not that it was huge as the water level was only ankle to knee deep.  It was difficult because of the current!  We had to hold each other and crossed the river together.  But it was fun.  Very fun for me.  Also, there were no trail markers for the race.  We just had to follow the direction of the river in order to reach the crater, the turn-around point.  Then I realised I was actually either running along the river, cutting across the river or on the river bed itself!

 Running Across River, Next to the River and on the River Bed!

 Group Photo After The Epic River Crossing - Photo by Doodsie S. Mallari!

En Route to Mt Pinatubo Crater

I was enjoying myself running along the course.  Actually it was more like jogging than running, especially with so many crossings of the same river.  Luckily, not all crossings had knee deep water.  But what they had were lots of sand.  Or perhaps they were the volcano ashes?  I was not sure.  Initially, after a few crossings, I would take off my shoes to remove them.  But it was futile as there were many more crossings to make.  So I just ran and ran and ran, until I felt my shoes were too heavy before I stopped to remove them.  Once done, I continued.  Since I was running along, next to or on the river, there was no shade.  Lucky, there was no sun (or perhaps it was still too early for the sun to come out).  At around 6:30am I saw something small in a distance and its only 17mins later that I reached the truck containing the water and food!  It was incredible that I took 1hr 47mins to cover just 8km.

Mobile Aid Staton @ the 8km Mark!

Scenery to Next Mobile Aid Station!

More River Crossings - Photos by Benj Termulo (top) and Micmic Michael T Flores!

I took a gel with plain water and pushed on without topping up my bottle since it was a cool day and the next water point was about 10km away.  The journey from this point onwards was more or less the same as the previous segment.  Lots of crossings and running over small rocks.  The locals also came out by then.  Most, if not all, were walking barefooted, including the kids!  In fact, all of them were even walking faster than I was jogging!  :(  By then, I was getting tired of crossing the river as I felt a lot of energy was needed just to thread across the river due to the current.  After almost 3 hours of threading across the river and river bed, I still couldn't see any truck with water supply.  It was impossible not to have reached the 17km mark - I told myself.  But there was nothing I could do except to continue.  Otherwise, precious time would be wasted.  Soon, I came cross this area where a big signage at the "entrance" forbid people shouting within the "enclosure" as doing so would have an effect on erosion - or something like that.

 Climbing Down From The River Bank And Into The River - Photos by Benj Termulo!

While The Terrain Looked Smooth, The Small Rocks & Pebbles Got Into The Shoes Easily!

 Some of the Terrain Was Uneven and Rough!

After a short while, I realised why.  Soil on both sides of the cliff would detach and slide or fall suddenly downward, like avalanche but in this case, it was soil instead of snow.  And then I saw a runner running towards me!  Yes, he was running and hopping around rocks.  I powered on, determined to reach the crater but it was tough.  Small pebbles and rocks were moving inside my shoes and I could feel the skin rubbing uncomfortably against it.  Then I saw another runner and another runner and a lady runner.  They were all pretty agile despite the uneven terrain.  I trudged along slowly and come towards an opening!  There was a shed in a distance away.  I reckoned I should be near the crater as my watch showed 10:30am!  After I passed the shed, I came to a dead end.  I had to climb down this rather steep slope, which I successfully maneuvered down.  I then peered to the other side of the slope and saw that I could have just walked on the river bed instead!  With the time ticking closer to 11am, I tried my best to bash through the thick vegetation.  The rocks were slippery, making running impossible.  More runners went past me on their way back.  They encouraged me and said I was very close.  Sometimes, their close was based on their running ability to cover the distance between where you were and the destination, and not the actual time taken by you.  :(  I eventually managed to reach the turn-around point at the crater lake at 11am!

 The Last Stretch Before Reaching the Crater Lake!

Crater of Mt Pinatubo and the Crater Lake!

On My Way Back - Photo by Rommel Go!

There was no volunteers at the turn-around point.  So I was unable to refill my bottles, which were both half empty.  After a quick picture, and washing of the shoes and socks in the lake, I made my way back to the start line.  Besides trying to make the cut-off at 4:30pm, my other mission was to ensure I reached the Manila Airport that night before 11pm.  Otherwise, I might miss my flight home.  Since this was a out-and-back race, it was not difficult.  Also, it was impossible to get lost - I just had to follow the river.  On my way down, I met Sir Jovie.  He might be sweeping the route to ensure all runners were accounted for.  Not long after, two Filipino runners caught up with me and I tried to keep pace with them.  It was always nice to have someone to follow or run with.  I rest when they rest; I stopped to remove the pebbles / stones when they stopped to do so.  As I could be quite blind when I ran (or jogged), i.e. not noticing a better route in a vast river, it was great to know where the more experience runners would run on.  I managed to follow them until the part where the current of the river became stronger.

At some point, we heard helicopter flying above us.  I was told that the area was used by the US Marines and that they could be in the middle of an exercise!  I didn't keep watch of timing, choosing to follow the two Filipino runners.  But slowly, the distance between us grew further and further apart.  I was too weak to walk across the river fast enough without risking myself falling into it.  Soon one of the runner disappeared.  I managed to catch up with the other one when we stopped at the mobile aid station!  I poured some water over my head as it was getting hot.  After I refilled both my water bottles, we moved on.  We were told that we were about 4km away from the finishing!  It was a great motivator as I had not look at my watch at how long we had been out running.  My new found friend told me that we would need to go onto the trail at a gate marked "2".  So we kept walking and walking and walking till we heard people running on the trail next to the river covered by tall grasses!  We quickly cut across when the terrain allowed and saw three other runners running past us!  Sir Jovie was also not far behind!

By then, we were about 1.5~2km from the finishing and just past the 4:30pm cut-off time.  :(  While the time indicated that I could have covered 23km, I certainly didn't feel that way because I was walking most of the time.  I managed to run whenever I was on the trail but when I had to cross the river or river bed, I walked.  Then I saw villagers not far from the river and reckoned it should be the last crossing before the home stretch!  I was too excited and too eager to thread through the river and almost fell into it.  Luckily another runner extended his arm and I managed to steady myself.  After both of us got up from the river, I urged him to follow me but he was too tired to do so.  I ran very hard for the last 800m, caught up with another guy just before crossing the finishing line with a time of 11hrs 24mins!  Although some of us completed the race beyond the 11-hour cut-off time, Sir Jovie was still giving out the finishing award and tee-shirt.  It was a great gesture.  I sounded off to Sir Jovie to consider going back to the previous year's cut-off time of 12-hour so that back of the pack runner like myself could have some time to enjoy playing in the crater lake.  :)

Being Presented The Finisher Medal With The RD, Sir Jovie - Photo by Sir Jovie!

Read after the race that due to the typhoon which swiped through the area the day before, some of the ground were either too soft or unstable.  This resulted in the 4x4 support vehicle not being able to reach at least two of the areas to replenish the runners.  This was most unfortunate.  But luckily, as most trail runners would attest, trail runners always prepared ourselves well for all races (unless we didn't have our check-in luggage).  We made do with what we had at that point.  In this case, I believed the volunteers tried their best to reach us whenever possible.  For me, it was a tough race with difficult terrain.  Not all trail races with flat or little elevation were easy as every race had its own unique challenges.  It is up to the runners to face up to the challenges and complete the race which makes it fulfilling.  The Mt Pinatubo 50km Trail Challenge should be on every trail runner's (at least those within Asia) list of trail race to complete as it was the most satisfying way to reach the crater of Mt Pinatubo!  But be sure to run fast in the first 25km so that you could spend more time in the lake.  Otherwise, you would end up like me, having a miserable 5mins.  :p

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