Plan for the unexpected

“Adventure is just bad planning.”

Roald Amundsen
Norwegian Arctic & Antarctic explorer (1872 – 1928)

It was Independence Day weekend. I thought I’d do something as groundbreaking as the occasion. I have been planning to do a traverse for a while now. For peak-grabbing purposes obviously. The last time I visited Sagada, I noticed that the place has trails which pass through several mountains (a range!). A triple traverse from Mt. Pilaw to Mt. Langsayan to Mt. Datacan to Mt. Sisipitan would be a perfect lung and quad buster or a much-needed high altitude training at the very least.

Lawyer. Adventurer. Runner. Filipino.
Lawyer. Adventurer. Runner. Filipino.

So everything was set… or so I thought. Good news: I was told by the head mountain guide that I would be the only fifth mountaineer and the first Filipino to attempt the said traverse for this year. Cool. Bad news: For safety and security reasons, no guide would dare accompany me on my traverse because as it turns out, every June 12, the NPA (rebels) conduct an annual parade or procession in the said range. Of course, I’m not stupid to insist. So what’s Plan B?

I went for the 3-hour trek to Mt. Ampacao. Except for the final 200-meter steep ascent to the “real” summit, the terrain was gently rolling with an overlooking view of the Sagada town. My guide, Mario, and I took the reverse trail, which starts at the Lake Danum (“danum” actually means “lake” in Kankan-ay dialect) side and ends at Barangay Demang. Perhaps because it’s not a popular route, I met only two persons along the way — a lost couple named Glenda and Adler Acosta. They were looking for the famous “sunset view,” which obviously was nowhere in sight at 1 p.m. During our descent, we met a group of motorbike enthusiasts. They were on their way to the peak for their annual June 12 excursion to the mountains riding their motorbikes. I don’t really approve of what they’re doing. The bikes destroy the pristine condition of the trails. Also, the fumes contaminate the fresh air of the mountains.

This is Ampy, the stray dog that followed me from Sagada town to Mt. Ampacao summit. Halfway through the climb, I gave it a name, because it seemed like it didn't want to go away. I think I'm starting to miss Ampy. I'm so happy I took this picture.
This is Ampy, the stray dog that followed me from Sagada town to Mt. Ampacao summit. Halfway through the climb, I gave it a name, because it seemed like it didn’t want to go away. I think I’m starting to miss Ampy. I’m so happy I took this picture.

When we reached the town, the roads were jam packed with vans of tourists. Apparently, the whole town is fully booked for the long weekend. I asked Mario where would be the best place to have a good sumptuous dinner. He led me to a French restaurant called Log Cabin Cafe to arrange a reservation. After pre-ordering my meal, I went back to Isabelo’s to get some rest.

Dinner was probably the highlight of this trip. The restaurant staff asked if I am willing to share my 4-seat table with other customers. I didn’t have any reason why I should not. So in the middle of my meal, two French girls, namely, Maylis and Nagisa, joined me. They were two backpackers (equipped with a Lonely Planet French edition travelogue) who at that point had decided to skip the rest of the Sagada sights because they had become frustrated of finding a place to stay and getting around on their own (the Sagada tourism office staff insisted that they should get a guide in going to the tourist spots). The three of us were engaged in a really interesting conversation that we stayed until the restaurant had to close. We talked about my love for mountains and how they think I will love France and the Mont Blanc area. I also learned that they are still university students — Maylis is in her last year of graduate studies (in Finance), while Nagisa has two more years in medical school. They had been spending summers around the SEA and South America regions because their currency has a higher value in the said places. After Sagada, they plan to go to Palawan. I then did not waste time telling them how beautiful that place is and how it had become my second home.

So this trip proved that Plan B can be just as good as, if not better than Plan A. If my planned traverse pushed through, I would not have met Mario (a more experienced guide would have accompanied me instead), I would not have dined at that quaint cafe, and I would not have met my new friends from France. Sometimes, the bumps lead you to a more interesting path. The real adventure lies in the unknown and the unplanned.

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Signs that you are addicted to long distance running

1. You have multiple pairs of one kind of running shoes.

TNF Men's Ultra Guide. Best. Trail. Shoes. Ever.
TNF Men’s Ultra Guide. Best. Trail. Shoes. Ever.

2. You have bookmarked Strava and you have a premium account.

3. Your dresser or medicine cabinet has different bottle sizes (and brands) of petroleum jelly, insect repellant, and sunblock.

4. Your grocery list includes energy bars/gels, nuts, and baby food (even if you do not have a baby!).

5. You buy salt but not for cooking (and in larger amounts than a regular customer would).

6. The skin in your arms and between mid thigh and ankles is darker than the rest of your body. And the tan lines are pretty obvious.

7. Although not necessarily your favorite fruit, you eat banana whenever you can.

8. iRunFar.com is your porn site.

9. You have at least one dead toenail.

May you rest in peace, my toe. LOL
May you rest in peace, my toe. LOL

10. You do not make appointments on Saturdays, because that is reserved for your long runs.

Without agenda

“It’s another long weekend.”

That was the only reason I need to pack and head for the mountains. Besides, I had no deadlines and Bukidnon is just a few hours away. So it was Mt. Kitanglad this time. I initially planned a D2K traverse, but because it rained really hard during my ascent, I figured that it was best to err on the side of safety and save Mt. Dulang-Dulang for my next climb.

Kitanglad mountain range is home to three other top 10 Philippine peaks.
Kitanglad mountain range is home to three other top 10 Philippine peaks.

I was told to message a certain facebook account, which can assist me in obtaining a climbing permit for the Kitanglad mountain range. True enough, I got my permit just in time for the climb even though I arrived at Bukidnon on a holiday (Labor Day). Whoever was on the other end of that facebook account was truly an angel for accommodating all my requests on such short notice.

Other than I bonked halfway through the climb, nothing disastrous happened. Okay, the bonking was totally foreseeable. I reached Malaybalay City at 1 a.m. and my excitement made me skip breakfast. Lack of sleep + empty stomach = bonking. Plus, we were fighting a torrential downpour on our way up, so we had to move really fast. I suddenly felt dizzy and the next thing I knew, I was lying on wet ground to find my bearings. Ha! What is climbing without drama and close calls, right? LOL

Flowers on the steppes of Mt. Kitanglad
My bunker wall graffiti reads,
My bunker wall graffiti reads, “Life begins when you’re out of your comfort zone. I conquered Mt. Kitanglad today. Great life!”

It felt really nice to just climb a mountain. No reason. No agenda. No expectations. I met first-time hikers, biologists/researchers, tourism officers, telecommunications engineers (there are communication towers at the summit) and even firm clients(!!) along the trails. I got to hear stories about mountain legends training in Kitanglad before climbing Mt. Everest, local runners defeating Kenyan runners in Kitanglad mountain races, the struggles of the Intavas community to compete with Sitio Lantapan as gateway for the mountains, and other local anecdotes of pride and humor. I just love the purity of that moment. The genuineness of my encounters is inspiring. This kind of experience grounds a person. This kind of opportunity is rare in the world I live in.

At 2,899 masl, I could not even attempt to get up for sunrise. It was too darn cold!
At 2,899 masl, I could not even attempt to get up for sunrise. It was too darn cold!

Humbled by the great

No one is more hardcore and crazy with the mountains than my guide Walter.
No one is more hardcore and crazy with the mountains than my guide Walter.

My guide, Kagawad Walter Galasanay, has been the president of Mt. Kitanglad’s association of porters, guides, and rescuers since 2003. His record of 1 hour and 37 minutes is the second fastest ascent-descent time for the said mountain. He also holds the fastest traverse time to Mt. Dulang-Dulang at 8 hours. He trained mountaineers Carina Dayondon and Romi Garduce before they had their Everest expeditions. I am truly honored to have the privilege of climbing this mountain with him.

I took the above picture of Walter on our last 6km stretch from the base of Mt. Kitanglad to the DENR office at Brgy. Intavas. We were probably the only crazy people to walk/run that road on that rainy day (everyone else rode a tricycle or an elf truck).

Someday, I will spend every waking morning this way.
Someday, I will spend every waking morning this way.

Where do broken hearts go

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca

Apparently, these days, in Sagada. Thanks to the movie That Thing Called Tadhana, tourism is picking up in that place. I was supposed to forgo this trip. I got a bit lazy researching for good reviews and arranging my itinerary. Besides, I am not even in love, let alone broken-hearted. All I want is to eat yoghurt at the Yoghurt House. It has been in my bucket list  since I saw a segment about it on the tv show Game Plan more than a decade ago. But I don’t usually pass up an opportunity to check off an item in my bucket list, so to Sagada I went.

Like all my other travels lately, this was (again) a last minute decision. With no reserved bus tickets, I had already anticipated that time will be wasted on the road or waiting for a chance to get on the road. What I did not expect though was the people I met along the way. And as usual, they enriched an otherwise ordinary experience.

The great enabler Jenith took this trip with me like as if she's not busy with her PhD. LOL
The great enabler Jenith took this trip with me as if she’s not busy with her PhD. LOL

On our way to Baguio, Jenith and I lined up as chance passengers at the Victory Liner bus terminal. While waiting for vacant seats, we were blabbing in the Visayan dialect, when all of sudden, the guy next to me asked, “Are you from Ateneo de Davao Law?” Like a bolt of lightning, I tried to recall if I said anything offensive or incriminating in the last 30 minutes. But the guy graciously introduced himself as a panyero (a fellow lawyer), so I figured that he might have heard us talking about the results of the recent bar exams. It turned out he is also a graduate of AdDU Law. I mean, what are the chances I will meet one in the overpopulated Metro Manila? More surprising is the fact that he is a pioneer member of the organization I joined in law school. It was like meeting an ancestor! Haha And an even more amazing detail is that he works for the Office of the Solicitor General, the only government office I want to work for. Indeed, what are the chances?!

Respect the place and register as a visitor
Respect the place and register as a visitor

So after 20 hours in transit, we arrived at Sagada. Because of our limited time there, we decided to just try different restos the rest of the afternoon/night. Of course, the first order would have to be the holy grail…

Nothing fancy, just good food
Nothing fancy, just good food
Another item off my bucket list
Another item off my bucket list
i was voraciously hungry. I can't even pose for a shot.
i was voraciously hungry. I can’t even pose for a shot.

Restaurants and sidewalk stalls lined up the road. For a quaint rural town, food here are quite pricey. Even the lowly, bland hotdog-on-stick costs more than what we have in Davao. In this place, I found the local pinikpikan more satisfying than the over-hyped lemon pie, which failed to meet my average palate standards.

I actually indulge in street food for the side conversations, rather than the taste.
I actually indulge in street food for the side conversations, rather than the taste.
I tasted Mountain Dew instead of lemon.
I tasted Mountain Dew instead of lemon.

We stayed at Isabelo’s, which is a stone’s throw away from everything (bus stop, town hall, police station, etc.) The family that manages the inn was very accommodating and friendly. They will help you explore the place like a local. There were times when I found myself helping out with the chores, because I just feel so at home. Some said that we should have stayed at a homestay, but I think Isabelo’s was just as homey (if not more).

The remaining half day was spent exploring nearby tourist attractions. The movie Tadhana introduced every broken-hearted person to Kiltepan View. Famous for its sunrise and billowing clouds, Kiltepan was jam-packed when we got there. You could not take a selfie, without someone photobombing you. The reflective and emotional atmosphere depicted in the movie was a lie, an illusion. How can you reflect if you stand at the edge of the cliff like sardines?!

Kiltepan sunrise
Kiltepan sunrise
Running the trails leading out of Kiltepan
Running the trails leading out of Kiltepan
Not missing the forest for the trees
Not missing the forest for the trees

Last stop was the famous hanging coffins. We were running short of time, so we decided to go to the nearer coffins at Echo Valley. It was a tough hike going there. But for a chance to see this rare archeological find, I will climb anywhere.

The treacherous downhill leading to the hanging coffins
The treacherous downhill leading to the hanging coffins
What an honor to be part of the mountain even after death.
What an honor to be part of the mountain even after death.

We also found interesting town scenes…

The morning flea market place
The morning flea market place
This place does not run out of fresh produce.
This place does not run out of fresh produce.
I made a wish on this church.
I made a wish on this church.

So another place explored. Another weekend well spent. As I go back to my daily grind, I now have something to look back on. I don’t know why, but Sagada charmed me. I might go back. My destiny (tadhana) beckons.

Taking a hike

Some mountains are not meant to be run.
Some mountains are not meant to be run.

I’m not immune to depression. No one is. That DNF really hit me hard. My race calendar was built around the Mt. Ugo race. I planned to run (not necessarily finish, as I can also be realistic sometimes) my first ultra this year and just like that, the plan went down the drain. It’s bad enough that I have to travel to run decent trails, now I have to scour for races to accomplish this goal. Given the nature of my work and the need to reboot my training, I was not very hopeful. Thus, the sinking heart.

Without a finish line or cut-off time 

Like her namesake savior, Christ, my sorority batchmate and overall  personal bully, pulled me out of the rut. We had previously planned to climb Mount Apo, the country’s highest mountain peak, even before the Mt. Ugo fiasco happened. She told me that perhaps I should lie low with races for now and enjoy the mountains. She organized everything for the climb and bombarded me with photo tags and reminders that made me look forward to visiting the mountains again.

Sure, the rush of a race will not be there, but exhaustion, danger, and wonderment can still be expected. I am not one to back down on a challenge, so with just a day pack on hand, I escaped the bustle of the city and embraced the wilderness again. This time, no pressure. All just for fun.

Drowning the pain with more pain

Where are we going, map?
Where are we going, map?

On paper, the trail did not look intimidating. I’ve run greater distances and longer hours before, so how hard could this trail be? It also did not hurt to know that the trail is a “rainforest”… or so I thought. I pictured a Garden of Eden kind of atmosphere, less of the jungle survival type. This one, unfortunately, was the latter.

 

Getting to the jump off point was already very demanding. I thought Christ’s multicab will breakdown midway, but with a couple of offload-pushing, it unbelievably held on and went through the precarious terrain. What a prelude to our impending adventure. Goosies.

We initially planned to set camp at the plains of Lake Venado, but we did not want to trek in the dark, so we pitched our tents at the closer Bob’bong campsite instead. It had the last clean water source and I later wished that I had at least taken a quick bath there. Christ prepared a fairly sumptuous menu for the entire hike, all hearty and balanced meals. As we retired our exhausted bodies for the day, Christ and I had our usual conversation, which had become rare these days. When stripped off of all the conveniences of modern life, I believe people can express their thoughts and feelings in a more genuine fashion. Humanity is magnified. Appreciation is great and endless.

With just one more day to spare for a summit assault, the group decided to set camp near the peak. We obviously went there for the elusive Davao sunrise, so if we must hike four or five more hours that day, till dusk, to get to the Davao peak early the next day, we will. I did not anticipate the super cold temperature though. By the time I reached the outer crater, I could no longer feel my upper lip. I could not stop shivering. For fear that I might be in the early stage of hypothermia, my companions ducked me under layers of sleeping bags. After sipping hot soup and taking a shot of brandy, I was fine.

 

Truly, this mountain is the king. There is not enough superlatives to describe the experience. From the breathtaking sunrise to the stunning views, from the agonizing ascent to the detestable descent, the memories are so overwhelming. Mt. Apo made me forget my emotional pains by subjecting me to physical torture. There were moments when I wanted to stop and bawl and prayed for a chopper to save me. In those moments, I received various help from my companions — from Christ’s tough love to Joseph’s porterage to Jojo’s gait tutorials. My self-talk went from “What the fuck is this trail?!” to “Just one more step, Elaine.” Reflecting on the climb, I thought it was a metaphor for life: the journey teaches you a lot about the destination.

 

 

For 27 years I have looked at Mt. Apo from afar and it has existed without meaning. Now, its mighty silhouette reminds me that I can dig deeper and find the mettle to endure life’s challenges.

My first DNF

I DNFed at 30Km.

It does not console me that the elevation profile of the course looks ridiculously intimidating — picture this…

Mt. Ugo summit as the turnaround point
Mt. Ugo summit as the turnaround point

I was informed that the course will be tough. I knew it has killer uphills and technical trails. I thought I had adequately prepared for it — gear and skills departments in check. But my god was I so wrong!

By any measure, it was not a decent finish. The only runner I passed was Marvin.

Marvin the barefoot runner
Marvin the barefoot runner

Yup! That’s him and he’s a freakin’ barefoot runner! Although he has run this way on many occasions (even ultras, he said), he did not anticipate the quality of the ground cover of Mt. Ugo (i.e., sharp stones). I, the newbie, the greenhorn, the virgin, on the other hand, did not anticipate a lot of external forces, which I will not pretentiously glamorize here as excuses, but will humbly take as lessons.

Prepping and pepping

The three months leading to the race was crazy. Training during the holidays was like paddling a canoe against the direction of a whirlpool. Parties and reunions just do not sit well with self-control. My diet and sleeping habits were in shambles, but I guess that’s the price of trying to make good memories.

The Panelos joining me in my training in Puerto Princesa. #familysupport
The Panelos joining me in my training in Puerto Princesa. #familysupport

I regained control of my running affairs at the start of the year. But by then, I now realize that I have recklessly crammed nutrition and hydration planning, gear scouting and testing, and making travel arrangements within a narrow and crucial time window. I totally forgot about race-specific training. I live right smack in the middle of the city — no trails, no long steep uphills. Although I could run for hours on roads, I had no idea how I will fare on dirt and mud or on terrain with substantial elevation gain. For the first time, I worried about not finishing a race.

With depleting reserve of self-confidence, I tried tapping into friends’ encouragements and looking at how far I have gone with this batshit goal. And when those did not suffice, I watched SRTV videos to remind me of why I run.

Beautiful place, beautiful people

The race website says it all. The King of the Mountain (KOTM) trail series will take you to a peaceful and simple place. People are warm and friendly. I was particularly touched when the students of Kayapa Central School performed a traditional dance number for the delegates. Accommodations are through homestays — austere, no-frills. The cool weather and majestic views made me wish I have them in my backyard.

my Humans of Nueva Vizcaya moment :)
my Humans of Nueva Vizcaya moment 🙂
Students perform a traditional dance to welcome the runners.
Students perform a traditional dance to welcome the runners.

The briefing was… uhm, brief. Race Director Jonel Mendoza just reiterated what was found on the website and introduced the race marshals and the persons who generously sponsored the race. While queuing to get my race kit, I chatted with Nini Sacro of Climb Against Cancer Pilipinas. KOTM tied up with her organization for the social responsibility arm of this year’s race. I thought that their campaign of providing school supplies to public schools in the far-flung communities where their races/climbs are held creates a symbiotic relationship between the host town and the runners and forges a fellowship that transcends the event. She informed me that the educational books that our family donated will be handed to the school libraries, which were really our intended recipients.

The briefing venue slowly filling up
The briefing venue slowly filling up.

Seeing all the buffed runners around, self-doubt began to creep in again. I told Jenith (a friend who I brought along just in case I needed someone to talk sense into me) that I am contemplating on shifting to 21K distance. I mean, it would just be like doing a regular weekend run for me. I will surely finish that without an issue. But true to her purpose, Jenith said that I was there for a challenge and not to get another finisher’s medal which I won’t be proud of.

“Kayapa” means “I can still do it!”

The runners of Mt. Ugo Marathon 2015 (photo from KOTM facebook page)
The runners of Mt. Ugo Marathon 2015 (photo from KOTM facebook page)

The race started at the Kayapa Town Hall, not far from Ms. Tessie Baltazar’s home, where most runners took their hearty breakfast of unlimited sopas and hotdog. After wishing us luck and fortitude, RD Jonel sent us running for the mountains.

To say that the temperature that dawn was freezing would be an understatement of the first rank. Every time I exhaled, the ray from my headlamp blurs with mist. I had to stop to catch my breath and warm my numbing face. I swear at one point I asked myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?”

We were told during the briefing that if we don’t see any confidence marker after running 500m, then we must be in the wrong trail. I found myself in that situation and had to retrace my steps from the last marker sighting. On my way back, I met Amelia, a 21K runner from Iligan City, who assured me that I was not lost. I decided to join her company until we reached the first aid station (at 10K), where I realized that I was already off my target pace by over an hour. In hindsight, I have no regrets spending those extra minutes on the trail chitchatting with Amelia and taking beautiful sunrise pictures. It made the uphill climb in the dark a lot bearable.

An avalanche of clouds with the sun peeking over the horizon
An avalanche of clouds with the sun peeking over the horizon

By the time I reached the second aid station (at 17K), there was very little chance for me to finish the race, knowing that I have not even been to the “Terminator” part of the course yet. Some runners were already on their way back and one runner even told me that he ran (or walked) the final assault at a 1km/hour pace. Surprisingly, I was never in low spirits throughout the race. How could one be when all the passing runners would tell you, “Kaya pa yan!”?

When I reached the summit, I told Kuya Anong, the summit marshal for the past 4 years, that I am the last runner and that he can now start the sweep. He, in return, told me that I should still be proud of myself because five runners did not start (DNS) and two others quit.

Learning and gratitude

At 30K, Rhett, Marvin, and I were forced to drop the flag. All of us were still willing and able to finish the race, but out of respect and courtesy to the race marshals who had been on the course since the previous day, we relented. With a heavy heart, we boarded the sweeping pick-up.

As RD Jonel consoled me at the finish line, he said that there were lessons to be learned that day. I told him that more importantly there are things that I should be thankful for: I reached the summit; I incurred no injuries during the race; I did not give up (but I had to though); I did not mess up my hydration and nutrition during the race; and I made friends.

The last one is particularly special to me. I have always run alone. I do not belong to any running team or community. I hate training at the gym because I do not like to socialize (and I hate treadmills). So to be in the company of like-minded individuals, even just for a weekend, was more than enough to convince me that I want to be in it — the sport, the trails, the mountains, the challenge — for the long haul.

I will probably face more and greater disappointments than this DNF, but this Mt. Ugo Marathon experience will always be remembered as the race that purified my running intentions and humbled me to the core.