Lessons I learned in ultra running

  1. If not now, when?

Some say racing should be a progression. In fact, there are ultras that require you to finish certain distances before you can join them. 42K before 50K. 50K before 50 miles. 50 miles before 100K. In my opinion, ultra running is not about timing or muscle maturity. It’s about heart and commitment. In the last few kilometers of the race, you won’t be thinking about cadence or heart rate or footwork. All you’ll think about is finishing the goddamn race! So why wait for someone to tell you that you are finally ready or qualified to run that ultra? Besides, last time I checked, craziness and suffering is still something personal. There is no perfect time and conditions, only a moment of unbridled enthusiasm.

  1. Take it by feel.

When I downloaded Sage Canaday’s 50K training program, I took comfort in the fact that despite the prescribed miles and workout, I can always go “by feel.” I think essentially running is supposed to be that way in order to be enjoyable. I think what attracted most of us to this sport is the freedom that it offers. We do not have to wait for teammates (or have them wait for us). We do not have to wear a uniform. We do not have to maintain any equipment or reserve a venue/court/field. We do not need an opponent. We run because we just feel like running. So, it is really important to listen to your body and to pursue running only when it is still pleasurable. My favorite ultra runner, François D’haene, said it best: “Motivation and performance, for me, is linked with pleasure so I don’t abstain from things that I enjoy. Let’s take pleasure in our activity, our life and our few guilty pleasures, too.”

  1. Simulate.

It’s not enough that you log in the hours that you are on your feet or increase the distance that you cover. Preparation for a race, especially an ultra, is all about race-specific training. You must simulate race day – course, food, hydration, even the outfit and gears. If it is a mountain race, find a mountain with a similar altitude and trail. If it is a road ultra, run the highway stretch with the same undulation. If it is a night race, run at night. If you expect scorching hot temperatures on race day, run at high noon during training. Aside from increasing your confidence, simulation will make certain skills instinctive and certain instincts controllable.

  1. Slow and steady finishes the race.

Arguably, no one wins a race by being slow, but definitely, one can only finish an ultra by being persistent. The basic element of running is movement. No matter how excruciating or gradual, you must move. Put that foot in front of the other, because every step counts. At 50K, you will thank your 30K self for being deliberate and motivated. This also goes for all other aspects of ultra. You must steadily nourish and hydrate yourself. You cannot wait for a stimulus. Be consistent. Be relentless.

  1. Runners are kindred spirits.

Runners toe the ultra line for the same reason: they trained and believed that they deserve to know if every minute of their preparation is worth it. There is collective respect and empathy among ultra runners. If misery loves company, suffering breeds cooperation. In my first ultra, I was handed a banana and offered a bowl of porridge (by another runner’s crew) without my solicitation. I, in the same vein, gave my last energy gel to a fellow runner who I thought needed it more than I did. It is this sense of community that makes runners return year after year to races which they have already finished or won.

  1. Appreciate the lowest low and highest high.

They say ultra goes beyond the capabilities of the flesh. It is in the realm of the mind that one’s endurance is determined. If marathons give runners the “wall,” ultras will give runners “delusions.” Initially, the delusion that you will be able to finish the race as strong and good as you started it. Then, the delusion that you can still make up for the time you spent at the aid stations or over-thinking the race. Eventually, the delusion (or truth) that you have not prepared hard enough for the race. The pits of sadness and self-doubt are so strong that others may not be able to recover from them. But there is also the promise of the “second wind,” that moment of complete commitment. Ultra runner extraordinaire, Jared Campbell, perfectly described it in this wise: “Once this state is reached, one can focus on moving through the motions and not get stressed by the minutia, knowing that stress won’t render anything constructive. Find the silver lining and press onward.” It is this feeling of extreme depression and elation that makes ultra so alluring, empowering, and addicting.

  1. You could get hurt, so what?

Sure, you will be sleep-deprived, develop wrinkles, get dead toes, experience chafing, sunburn, muscle pain, blisters, bonking, hypo- whatever, etc. The suffering is infinite and diverse. But those are certain and foreseeable in what you have signed up for. If you have anticipated and prepared for them well enough, you may be able to avoid them, but the likelihood of that is nil. I suggest that you don’t fret about it and just suck it up. Besides, all wounds heal and leave a scar. It’s up to you if you make it a badge of honor or a sorry remembrance of your craziness.

  1. You don’t need a race.

Ultra running is basically running more than 42K. That’s it, pure and simple. Whether you achieve that during a weekend fat ass run or in a lottery-based, elite field race, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be “officially” an ultra runner to run ultras. Ultra is just a distance, not a status to be conferred or a position in the hierarchy of runners. You run ultras because you want to and you can.

NOTE: As I run more and longer ultras, I know I will learn more lessons and will probably change my views here. For now, let’s pretend that I know what I’m saying. LOL

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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.

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.

Swept me off my feet

Riding this bus and throwing caution to the wind
Riding this bus and throwing caution to the wind

I always believed that the first step to serious training is race registration. Investing money on something hastens commitment. Knowing that your name will be shown for all internet stalkers to see, whether it is for a course record or a DNF, makes you second-guess your laziness and finally put your money where your mouth is. But, on October 24, 2014, I threw caution and this belief to the winds. After spending three straight weekends in the office chasing impossible deadlines, I woke up very early, packed the running gear that I can find, and spontaneously took a leave from work to embark on what would (most probably) be the start of my skyrunning career.

With no training and no prior experience with running trails, I decided to head to Cagayan de Oro City (which is 8 hours away from where I live!) to participate in Mapawa Trail Run 2014. I knew about it months ahead and had secretly wanted to join. I think I have salivated too much on Kilian Jornet’s and Francois D’haene’s trail photos that I just had to try the sport for myself. So without even knowing whether the registration is still open and without any idea what kind of trail awaits me, I boarded a bus to attend a race orientation at 6:00 p.m.

I got more scared than oriented with the race. LOL
I got more scared than oriented with the race. LOL

Race Directors Pastor Emata and Dax Ang were very effective… very effective in scaring the shits out of me! I just registered for 11K (although 21K and 42K were also offered), but I cringed at the idea of running up and down two mountains with substantial elevation gain/loss, having only two aid stations along the way (both without food!), and crossing four rivers. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe race orientations are meant to discourage reckless joiners like me. I just decided then that I will expect the worst course conditions. As Hal Koerner suggested in his Field Guide to Ultra book, I had the minimum goal of “having fun” and the primary goal of “finishing within the cut-off time.”  After all, this is my first time.

Verdict:

The trail was tough. Being a point-to-point course, you just have to appreciate the effort the organizers put into making you doubt your ability to finish the race. hehe I slipped in one of the river crossings and almost hit my back with a sharp bamboo stalk (buwis-buhay talaga!). There were parts of the course where I could not see the person ahead of me or following me. Literally, I was alone in the wilderness! The muddy segments and the boulders were “technical” in the sense that I imagined vectors and foot patterns as I traversed them. The horse and cow dungs were also an added (but unwelcome) bonus.

River crossings made me appreciate my Salomons all the more.
River crossings made me appreciate my Salomons all the more.
There were friendly trails...
There were friendly trails…
and not-so-friendly to downright questionable trails.
and not-so-friendly or downright questionable trails.
Sometimes I asked, “How the hell did that runner get up there?” LOL

The views were breathtaking. I guess this is the charm of sky or trail running. I see it all the time in photos of professional runners I follow in social media. I sometimes cannot believe that we also have such paradise here in the Philippines. This race truly opened my eyes to the real beauty of nature. One that is very humbling and inspiring at the same time. When I was at one of the summits, I told myself that I will run as many mountains as I can, so that someday I can organize a race like this and inspire others to run mountains, too.

Words cannot even describe this.
Words cannot even describe this.
Although this view is hard to forget, I just had to stop and take a photo.
Although this view is hard to forget, I just had to stop and take a photo.
Someday, I will retire and live in the mountains.
Someday, I will retire and live in the mountains.
The confidence markers are hard to miss. They inspire me to go on and not give up.

I had a strong finish for a first timer without proper training (*patting my back*). I was part of the middle pack. I finished 97th out of 147 runners. Not bad (by my standards, of course). I was just glad that the last 1.6 km was a road stretch. I ran that part pretty well (in my usual 5K pace) and moved past a few runners and finished sub-3 as planned.

The difference between roads and trails is this.

When I reached the finish line, I had mixed feelings. I did not know if I should be happy because I finally finished the race or sad because this wonderful experience (not to mention my spectacular encounter with nature) is over.The race directors cheered the runners crossing the arch and made meaningful conversations with them, telling them that the extra 800 meters (so, strictly-speaking the course is 11.8K!) is their Christmas bonus to all runners. Indeed, I cannot complain for having 800 meters more of this truly amazing place.

The finish line was a bittersweet view for me.
The finish line was a bittersweet view for me.

After this, I don’t think I can run road races again. I think I will have to train seriously to get in ultras with trails that can top Mapawa. I was swept off my feet and the way I see it, they want to remain up in the mountains.

Temple run

Who would not be inspired with this view?
Who would not be inspired to run with this view?

Because I dare to do everything for the first time this year…

My first race outside of the Philippines. My first trip to Cambodia.

The first race…

  • where I ran solo, as in I don’t know anyone.
  • where my fingers bloated (I thought they were going to explode!).
  • where I got chased by wild monkeys (at 18K!!!… which made me run like a crazy tired person hahaha).
  • where I doused myself with electrolyte drink for fear of heatstroke.
  • where I chatted with a fellow runner while running. At 19K, he said that he was in so much pain. I told him to just think “mind over matter.” By the way, he finished the race.
  • where I had to eat while running. Gels are amazing!
  • where I got so sunburned (even if I smothered myself with sunblock before the race!). Cambodia morning sun is scorching hot!
My post-race arm-thigh skin color ratio. LOL
My post-race arm-thigh skin color ratio. LOL
  • where I just enjoyed the locals. High-fiving Khmer kids really pepped me through the race.
  • where I got a medal! I have not received a medal in all my 5Ks and 10Ks before.
Hopefully, the first of many...
Hopefully, the first of many…
  • where I genuinely felt proud of myself. I trained for three and a half months, albeit intermittently. I watched what I ate and forced myself to wake up every 3:30 a.m. for my practice runs. I practiced even if it rained or if I had a deadline or if I was out of the country or if my legs were still hurting from the previous run. Every sacrifice was worth it.

This race is just the beginning. I will aim for podium and longer distances. I will aim for more prestigious races. I will aim for abs and thigh gap. I will aim to be the best runner that I can be. I will not stop until I have achieved them all.

Shoes separation anxiety

Nike Lunarswift2, you served me well. Thank you.
Nike Lunarswift2, you served me well. Thank you.

This is the fourth time that I am retiring a pair of running shoes. The process does not get easy with every pair though. In fact, I still have my first two pairs with me. I stopped using them, but I still keep them in their boxes. Once in a while, if my bib wall is not enough to motivate me to run, I would open the boxes and think of all the miles I have conquered with those shoes. Yes, I am sentimental like that.

So I knew that when I finished the Angkor race, I had to leave my Lunarswift in Siem Reap. Otherwise, I would still be using them until the whole thing fall off my feet. After all, this is my favorite pair. It was given to me as a Christmas gift by Ate Lala (yes, they were shipped all the way from the States). It had all the specs I wanted at the time – sensor slots, reflectors, fitsole, adequate toe box, and in hot pink color. I did not even mind that they had tears on the sides when I ran in them during the race. I figured it is better to run adapted than unaccustomed with my gear. Anyway, a healthy pair of legs and a decent pair of running shoes are all that I need when running.

If Nike still makes this shoe model, I will really buy another pair… or two for posterity. Right now, my two other functional running shoes pale in comparison to the Lunarswift in terms of design and performance. They are good enough for practice runs, but I probably will not be as confident to run in them as I did with the Lunarswift during a race. I know it will take time for me to move on and love another pair in the same (or greater) feeling, but I have been through this and as all runners know, the love for running transcends anything, including the pair of shoes that inspired me to love the sport.