DNF. These are the three letters most of us runners try to push back behind the curtain of our minds together with mischievous thoughts that crave for but should not be given attention. They, however, resurrect like persistent floating daggers waiting to stab our will each time we feel weakened and almost at the verge of giving up along the route.
Soleus Cross Country Challenge is true to its namesake and challenged me in all aspects of my capability to handle not only the distance but also the geographical terrain of the Pintong Bocaue, Mt. Sainai, Rizal route. Compounded with several days of rain prior to the event, this seemingly manageable terrain became a muddy pit where layers and layers of fudgy soil cling to the soles of my shoes and will not shake off like leech, like vegetable fiber caught between teeth.
My legs are already heavy as they are given my lack of preparation – my longest run was 16K a month prior where I got calf strain. The following week I did a sprint triathlon where I ran, or rather walked, for 5K after some 900-meter swim and 30K bike that aggravated my injury. Two days later, I still tried to do my recovery run for at least 5K. Halfway though, I felt a snap followed by the cramping pain that built up my left calf and it felt hard. Because of this, I am prepared to walk most if not all of the cross-country distance but I did not expect to feel like crawling at certain points past the halfway point.
Okey so Diva Runner Alyna and I tried to convince the organizer, albeit at the last minute, to downgrade our distance from 21K to 12K. However, since the shorter distance is already filled up, our request cannot be accommodated. With no recourse whatsoever, we hesitantly toed in the starting line at around 6 a.m. with wavering determination to try to at least “kembot” walk the entire distance just to finish it with a sane mind and a functioning body.
Lesson No. 1: The trail run distance should not be equated with the road race distance. A 21K of trail running is almost double the effort of a road race of the same distance!
Alyna and I settled at the tail end of the group and tried to catch up with those in front of us. The trail is a muddly track along the sides of a hilly to mountainous Rizal area with tall grasses/vegetation by the sides. The first part was going downhill in most parts so I made a mental note that the return trip is going to be a pain in the ass. At the moment though we were pre-occupied with trying to guess which part is less muddy and less slippery. For the most part, we are trying not to slip and shamefully fall on my butt in front of other runners, well, me most specially after committing one grave mistake in coming to this race – wearing a regular road race shoes! Duh!
In order to navigate without slipping, I used some plant stalks to hold on to and propel me forward. I was being extra careful though as some plants have tiny spines and/or itchy/stingy surfaces that will injure your hands. I tried to likewise be very visually vigilant of the path I am stepping into as some potholes and unstable stones/rocks can be very dangerous. I already saw several runners slipping on their butt early in the race. I almost did several times too only to be lucky to regain my balance, and composure, the last minute. “Buti nlang or else wa poise!” I thought to myself. In one instance however, I almost did only to be saved by my strong hands preventing the butt plant. In a race like this, such incident is a commonality though so do not be distressed by such display of lack of poise.
Lesson 2: Come properly geared for the trail race. Use trail shoes! These shoes were made specifically for these kind of races so be equipped with one! They come with thicker soles with spikes for firmer and safer foothold. Trekking poles are great aid in forward momentum during steep inclines too as you will be able to utilize your arm strength aside from your legs, which undoubtedly, will be overworked. Bring plastic covers for yourself in case of heavy downpour and smaller ones for your money and gadgets.
Lesson 3: As much as possible, try to cover up! Not only for the hash sunlight but also for the rashes from the blades of leaves, thorns, branches, sharp edges of rocks and trees, etc. And mosquito/insect bites (mosquito repellant lotions are needed in exposed parts)! I was peppered with mosquito bites in almost all exposed parts that I spent some valuable energy scratching and smacking them! Rash guards are necessary! Leggings are great leg protectors too! Gloves are perfect for trying to hold on to spiny bushes and rocky surfaces.
However, if you are a fabulous running diva where you will go out or your comfort zone just to be fiercely different like us in this photo collage by Alyna, then, by all means! Just be sure not to compromise your safety or those of others.
Lesson 4: If you are a competitive runner or aiming for PR, try to position yourself where your speed history tells you belong. Like in front if you have elite speed, middle if you are of average speed, and back if you are relatively slow. Trail routes are usually a one-person traffic so you will either spend some energy trying to overtake in a narrow track or be harassed with a number of those trying to overtake you.
Lesson 5: And do not put your timing tag in your shoelaces if it is of a paper variety even if it is meant to be worn that way. Remember you will be stepping and crossing the most challenging of terrains and they will likely be detached one way or the other! If the race organizers have foresight, they should supply a bib tag rather than a shoe tag.
The trail is indeed a marvelous opportunity to take breathtaking pictures along the route. The great thing about Soleus races, Running Photographers are strategically located in picture perfect areas that there is no need to carry cameras or phones with you. Normally, I was at my modellic element here and the race became more of a rampage than a run. Well, what’s new with Fab Divas? We, afterall, are known to sashay and make the route our runway! And this despite hurting and almost giving up inside! “Tiis ganda di ba?”
It was unfortunate that due to days of intermittent raining, the race director altered the original 21K route that features several river crossings. Instead of going straight to the river area like what the 12K did, 21K runners turned left towards the mountainous area resulting in a harder travail. Neither did we meet the “Sirena of the River” who lifted her mysterious veil of secrecy for a day to dole out loop cords and have pictures taken with the runners! Lucky for me she waited for hours and hours despite the harsh land conditions to show her grandiose self just for me. I have proof in picture of such opportune moment!
The trip up the mountainous area is characterized by several meters of grinding teeth and “kembot” walking steep sections and executing my best running effort and gaining few Ks while feeling relieved at downhill parts. Several running friends gave precious encouragement and lifesaving information that the hydration station atop the mountain was already depleted and that we should try to preserve what is left in our hydration bottles. It really pays to have many running friends!
Lesson 6: Be self-sufficient for at least 5K in terms of hydration and nutrition! In trail races, several areas are not that readily accessible that hydration stations are scant. At the most, expect hydration stations in 5K increments. Therefore, it is to your greater good not to rely on these stations and try to bring your own hydration and nutritional supply with you.
My lifesaver are my two flipbelt bottles. They may be small at 6 oz each but they were enough to tide me through in between hydration stations. I put sports drink in one and water in the other. Through this method, I keep myself from both being dehydrated and cramping from lack of salt and minerals. My flipbelt too proved very capable and valuable as it carried 2 chocolate bars, 2 hydration bottles, money and 5.5” mobile phone snuggly without jiggling and being snagged by the branches. The route took us through some populated areas midway where we bought some cola drinks and “pan de coco” for some needed boost and food supplement.
Lesson 7: Bring some cash inside a plastic bag with you. The money will prove lifesaving for buying food and water in sari-sari stores along the route. In case of DNF, you may use them to pay for transportation. Mobile phones are useful in case you might need to call for help. Though signal in high altitude and rural areas are intermittent, still the importance of a communication device is indespensable.
Going back from the mountain trip towards the barrio was a challenge for me. I was all depleted of energy and I was feeling a bit faint. My head also hurts for some reason I later come to know as a developing cold virus. Talk about compounding body stress. I was still running the downslopes, but this time I was sort of just reeling. I cannot even be bothered for some chitchat, leaving Alyna and Rocky indulge in. Deadmatic ang beauty ko.
Upon reaching the 12K -21K junction, I was more than ready to call it quits. But along the way I saw some more less athletic ones never giving up. This lady runner even had her soles all ripped off but not her will to finish! Another runner was almost sprawled on the ground with cramps on both feet and here I am without injury but thinking about giving up. These gave me the fuel to persevere. I will walk till finishline comes!
Six hours after gun start and I am still under the already heating midday. The muds are more hardened by now but the heat is enervating. I have to give kudos to the marshals, a number are running friends from Team Soleus and WGR family, who still were out after several hours of assisting the runners. They too were exposed to both heat and fatigue. You did a great job guys!
The last 6K is a test of will and fighting spirit. Passing through the same path characterized by several downslopes, and therefore, uphill climb on the way back made me cringe at the thought. The makeshift pole I found along the sidewalk provided some added propulsion from my arms. By this time, my legs are very much ready to give up.
But I won’t! Because this woman runner in front of me will not, so I will not too! Pakakabog ba ako? Haha…The Finish line is looming by the horizon. I can hear the distinct sound of the music coming from the sound system. The voice of the host giving up some instructions is audible. It felt so near yet so far. Then I remembered that instead of turning right directly to the finish line like the 12K runners, 21K runners need to navigate this steep runabout along the sides of the hill before returning to this intersection. This time around, it is straight for the end line – the end of my agony.
The last few meters towards the finish line is like the reverse of the “green mile” where instead of death you are reborn. Reborn to a victorious celebration of not giving up despite feeling very much so, not surrendering to the commands of the body, not letting go of earning the medal that signifies more than finishing. It signifies a mark of courage, strength of will and determination.
There is one photo that Reggie Cruz of Running Photographers and Pido took of me in my best dramatization of what I felt during the half part of the race – my “Gumapang ka sa Lusak” pose. In my mind, I really felt like crawling just to finish this race. And I did!