My first ultra: I got punished!
I must have been eager to jump in as my bib number was 001… A meaningful number as it was also my first ultra: The Punisher 50 (50k for me, 50M for the legends… And 25k for the humble heroes of the day).
It had been 4 years I had not set foot in the Philippines since we relocated in NZ. And after 3 weeks in the overcrowded and polluted Manila, I couldn’t wait to finally go back to the province and breathe fresher air.
Training was pretty much absent during the previous month. I tried to run in the streets and almost suffocated, surrounded by jeepneys, tricycles and the lack of proper pavement near the place we were staying. I resulted in running up and down the stairs of our building, but let’s be honest: with the heat, I found it really hard to get the motivation in the morning. Nutrition had also been terrible since we arrived: lots of dinners out, donuts (so many donuts…) and other food I don’t regularly eat. It’s hard to pass when you are invited out, want to have a good time with friends and family you haven’t seen for years… But that was not the wisest just before my biggest challenge yet.
So… Coming unprepared: check.
Probably putting on some weight: check.
It turns out the race started at midnight. So lack of sleep: check.
And finally, the heat. The Philippines is a tropical country. Maximum heat: check.
Perfect mix for success. Now let’s cut to the chase. Here is how all of this unfolded:
4PM (pre-race): I head to the ferry docks. The race was held on a small island facing Davao: The Island Garden City of Samal. I had been there about 6 or 7 years earlier but only for vacation. Once there, already geared up for the race, I hop at the back of a Habal Habal (hired motorcycle) and off we go to the race briefing at the Marex Beach Resort.
5PM (pre-race): Briefing time. The usual stuff. Signs, AS, cut-off times. But Doi, the race director, is a nice guy and tells us that if some runners finish after the cut off time, they’ll still get the Tshirt and medal. They’ll simply be marked as DNF, so no UTMB points for them. But they still get the bling. Us rare international runners receive a special mention. I also get a Tshirt for another Verticaltosky event during the raffle. I believe we are just 4 foreigners: 1 Polish lady, 1 Swiss lady (both 25kers), 1 Korean man (50Mer) and me. Everyone else is a local.
6PM (pre-race): Quick dinner. Funny, you pay by the number of piece of meats you like in your plate. My spoon breaks as I try to cut it the meat. Is this a bad sign?
Ok, now I need to wait for 6h before the start… My hotel is back is in Davao so I decide to pay for a bed in the dorm. It has AC, a comfy bed and we are just 5 in there. That’s all I ask for. And in hindsight, this was the best decision I made: these 3-4h of sleep really helped.
11:30PM: Wake up time! Gosh, I’m so tired already. Chitchat with some runners, a few pictures and it’s already the start of the race! First half: run smart. Second half: run fast. (haha, I laugh at this while typing it because I was really foolish to think this is what was going to happen).
The first few km are fast and flat. I try to maintain an aerobic state so I don’t run very fast, to be steady. It’s my first time to start a race in the middle of the night so it’s a really different experience. And even more because I’m not in NZ… We run surrounded by noises: people singing karaoke in their houses, dogs (so many dogs!) barking at us in the dark (we can sometimes see pairs of glowing eyes), cows, pigs afraid of us I guess… Some noises combined with the vegetation make me think about Jurassic Park so I crack a few dad jokes about that to the people surrounding me. The reception is mixed, but that’s ok.
6k, AS1. I don’t spend much time here. I don’t eat any food and just drink a cup of Coke and before continuing.
Nothing too crazy happens, we reach AS2 at 12.5k, which is also the turning point for the 25kers. Wow. Already here? A fourth of the race in 1h45? So easily? That can’t be it! It won’t.
1:55AM: Digesting the watermelon and Coke I just gulped as we run through a village and… WOW! Ok, the race really starts here. We enter the jungle and over the next 40min, I will climb about 290m of positive ascent over barely 1.5km! I think that might be the steepest I’ve ever “ran” so far. You need to factor in that I’m sleepy, it’s the middle of the night and it just started drizzling so the ground is really slippery. I have to use my hands to keep going up some places.
A word about the jungle: I’m used to the variety of terrain in NZ, including its famous “bush”. So the jungle is a bit like the bush (same lush vegetation) but on steroids, because it’s much warmer and you see insects that are just much bigger than your usuals! I saw some freaky centipede and a spider the size of my hand.
2:35AM: The summit! Time for a break. I take out the some of the pandesal/peanut butter I packed before the race and eat them with a voracious appetite. Aaaand… It’s time to go down! Remember how steep that climb was? Well, the descent is even longer and we drop almost 500m downhill over the next 3.5k. I do most of it on my butt. I already accepted that I’ll come back dirty from this event. All I think about while we go down is: “how on Earth am I going to climb this back later?”. It takes me about an hour to go down and at the bottom I finally reach AS3.
3:26AM: Nutella? Yep! Nutella at this aid station! I gulp a few sandwiches covered by the delicious spread… Interesting: the people at the aid station seem to have had a fun night. They are all sleeping in hammocks, half-empty bottles of Tanduay rum below them. The next part is quite rolling, minor ups and down until I reach the turnaround. We almost get lost with a couple of other runners at some point. We took left at a confusing fork and couldn’t see any of the markings. Thankfully one of them has a gpx file on his phone and we see that we were on the right path. This is confirmed when we see the first 50kers coming back our way.
5AM: Halfway through! Not too bad. But the hardest is to come. First half, run smart, second half run fa… Well, no. That’s just not going to happen.So far the heat was not bad. It was bearable and some sections of the run were even breezy.
First, let’s eat. AS4 is the turning point for the 50kers… The 50M will keep going for 15 more km before making their way back. It’s at a Sari-Sari (hard to explain to someone who has never been to the Philippines, but it’s basically your local convenience store, mostly with snacks, drinks, and sometimes homemade food). The lovely Sari-Sari owner prepared Biko (sweet sticky rice) for us. So good! I serve myself a plate, finish some bottles of Coke, fill up my flask and it’s already time to go. Crazy thing: I see a runner having a cigarette there. Haha. You would never see this in NZ.
6:20AM: The Sun is now up. I’ve seen it slowly rising during the past hour, and so far it’s relatively cloudy, which feels pretty good. Shush! You are going to jinx it! I cross a couple of villages and it’s funny to see kids looking at me with their eyes wide open as if they are wondering how come there is this super white dude (I don’t tan, I just burn…) more or less running in their streets. Not a usual sight.
It’s also time to start that 500m ascent I was dreading earlier on. And… Oh no. I start to feel dizzy. Not because I’m hungry or thirsty… I’ve been hydrating a lot and religiously. But I think it’s because I’ve been sweating so much that my sodium and other essential mineral levels must be really down. I stop to take a break. I’m joined by a fellow runner (remember that smoking guy? Him.) and I tell him that I really don’t feel well. We climb a bit together before taking another break and he shares an energy drink with me while we enjoy the view. He stays with me until we reach the summit, making sure I’m reaching it. Some parts of the ascent are so steep and slippery that I actually crawl them. I use elbows, knees, anything to climb my way up. I honestly believe that spending time with him saved my race.
8:10AM: The summit! Including the breaks, it took me almost 2h to climb these 500m of elevation over barely 4km of distance… We share some food up there. And again it’s time to go. 15km left. Mostly going down. My new friend will just go ahead from here. I won’t even see him at the finish line and won’t be able to thank him, unfortunately (fixed, we are Facebook friends now!). The downhill is not so bad, but I know that I’m spent. There is no way for me to run anymore. I’m starting to feel dizzy again and if the legs might follow, I already know and feel that my feet are getting badly blistered.
9AM: Back in the village. I need another energy drink. I find a Sari-Sari and ask them if they have a Gatorade, but all they I have is a “Cobra” (the local Redbull). I chuckle as I think about Erwin who warned me about snake encounters in the jungle. Oh gosh, this cold drink feels good! I am joined by one runner, then 2, 3, 4… We have just improvised the 2.5AS! The Sari-Sari also servers us some water with ice cubes. After a few minutes, we decide to keep going.
9:20AM: Trabaho! Trabaho! Trabaho! (Work! Work! Work! Or in Maori you could translate this by “Mahi”). No pain, no gain. These are the screams of the AS2 volunteers as we reach it. We won’t stay long there, we just had a break a few minutes earlier. But this is where it starts to get really hard: the remaining 12km are unsheltered. Barely a tree. Oh, and did I tell you? The Sun is up. Barely a cloud too.
9:25AM: I’m now really tired. But I decide to try my “run 1km, walk 1km” technique. This section is relatively flat so it should be ok and it worked fine during the Waihi Marathon. I’ll be able to do it for 2km and then no more. It’s just too hot. I’m feeling dizzy again. I will just walk until the end. The next 4km is a big blur. I just remember putting 1 foot in front of the other and that’s it. Just trying to reach the final AS. At some point a couple passes me and give me ice tubes (it’s common in the Philippines to freeze tubes of water). I will pass them over my face for many precious minutes just to cool down. I can feel that I’m overheating.
10:20AM: AS1. Or what’s left of it! The tables are under the Sun so I join a couple of runners who took shelter at yet another Sari Sari. They give me cold water. It’s not long anymore: 6 minuscule km. What can go wrong?
11AM: I can’t anymore. I’ve been forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other, but this is really too hard. I have a hard time to even keep my eyes open. Anybody looking at me could see that my steps are so erratic. And what on Earth is this? A final ascent? Not much, a small hill. But that’s the final straw. I need to sit for a minute. So I sit under a tree, sucking the last drops of water I was given by others (I still have some in my bladder, that’s not really a concern). I curse myself for not better anticipating all of this. My hands, legs, arms are super dirty from the earlier climb and I try to apply sunblock because I can already feel the sunburns coming but this turns into some of disgusting mud/sunblock paste. Whatever.
My eyelids are heavy… Let’s just… Whoops! I fell asleep for a fraction of a second. That’s not good. You know the feeling of falling asleep during class, a boring presentation or even when driving? That fraction of a second when your head goes down, but you are still conscious enough to realise it? That’s what happened right there.
I slap myself on the face. This can’t happen. Part of me believe I’m suffering heatstroke and I don’t want to faint or fall asleep. I start talking aloud to myself “You can do it. You can finish it. Relentless Forward Motion: one foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, just do it. Why do I have freaking Shia Labeouf yelling ‘Just do it’ to me?”. I stand up. I force my eyes to stay open. I walk. 4km left.
11:55AM: I cross the finish line! Yes, it took me almost an hour to walk these final 4km. But I made it. I finished my first ultra. Under conditions I was absolutely not prepared for and got PUNISHED for it. But I made it home.
I want to extend my gratitude to so many people I met during this event. Living proofs that the trail spirit is shared, no matter where you run. Nobody will ever leave you in difficulty just to finish ahead of you and that’s why I love this sport: the camaraderie.
The next couple of hours are quite blurry too. I just remember trying to eat as much as I could, spilling my drinks several times (I’m usually clumsy, but this was next level), apparently taking pictures with the race director, taking a shower and having a short nap in the dormitory. I was also super smelly, my clothes were dirty (thank God for the finisher’s Tshirt!)…
Then I took a tricycle, the ferry back to Davao and enjoyed a well deserved night of sleep. Beers had to wait for the next day.