EXPERIENCING HELL IN HEAVEN: THE NORTH FACE (TNF) 2010 EXPERIENCE
Alright, this is yet another oxymoron. How can bitter be sweet? How can heaven co-exist with hell? Anyhow, allow me to put some context. I’ve always romanticized Baguio as the abode of the gods, where the tired clouds, like huge cotton candies, crawl down to rest and quietly fly again at dawn. A tranquil place of motley flowers and a refreshing sea of greens. A spot so artistic and fertile of lofty ideals. A pathway perfect to trudge after a cleansing downpour. And play with pine cones, even golf balls, and pine needles amidst magnificent sights. This is the Baguio I’ve known. The Baguio I’ll always treasure. The nostalgia of my dreams.
Since my childhood, I’ve always looked forward to heavenly vacations in Baguio. I am glad that these dreams turned into memorable realities. Biking and endless swinging at Burnham. Cotton candies, ice creams and skating in John Hay. Counting lights that dotted the hills before bedtime and innocently asking why a “smoke” comes out of my mouth as I wake up. Plus the knitted sweaters and blankets and bonnets that would want me to sleep forever. This is Baguio, my personal Olympus. Fast forward. So when I learned that the next The North Face (TNF100) is in Baguio, my heart pumped so much excitement. However, since I just finished the Bataan Death March Ultramarathon (BDM 102), I tempered myself. I knew, I still needed to recover and wouldn’t have time to train afterwards. But one day, I passed by TNF at Glorietta IV. I was surprised to see fellow BDMers on the list. Later, I was informed that many more signed up. Eventually, including Team Blas. Kelly is to fly from Singapore and TR has gotten a leave.
“Are you signing up,” I was asked. “Oh no, not now, I’ll think about it,” I quipped. Then rushed out of the store before any hasty decision took place. But the pull of Baguio is just too strong and irresistible. Few days after, I went back to register. “Are you signing for 11 or 22?,”was the next question. “Hmmm… can I try, 100?” was my quick response. I got a blank stare in front of me. I was told that only few finished the TNF100 last year and that the trail this time is ultra difficult. And what more, the fee is P2K compared to P500 in both 11 and 22KMs. I sensed that TNF wanted me to realized what I am signing for. I pondered for a while. Then I nailed a big decision, “I’ll sign up for 100KM.” Thanks to BDM102 and my “mountainous 2009” for my renewed confidence. “I may fail eventually, but at least, I’ll give it my best try,” I kept convincing myself.
Upon signing up, I left everything to fate. I never joined any races after the BDM or ever did any serious long run. In fact, I had an easy climb to Mt. Pinatubo for recovery. Later, I found myself jogging around Sampaloc Lake in San Pablo then off I went to an eight day backpacking adventure during the holy week and just before the TNF race, a weekend beach-bumming in Calaguas Island and Bagasbas beach. And what did I get? Blisters for running barefoot in the white powdery sand and bruises as I stumbled on a nylon used to anchor a boat . “Oh no, this is not supposed to be? Not just before an ultra race.” But it happened already. Nothing else can be done. I can only accept my fate and retired to my tent when it rained hard. I was already musing, “Is this a prelude to my TNF escapade? Shall I instead back out?”
Ok, I dreaded the thought of visiting a Sports Doc not because I fear to be admonished but because I might not be allowed to run. Instead, I self-medicated. I asked forgiveness from my body and pleaded that it heals well and fast enough for the TNF. The body is not a thoughtless machine. It is an amazing entity in itself. It is self-sustaining. It responds properly. It cooperates like a faithful companion. I vowed to give it a day off before the race. So I was in Baguio a day before the event.
Apart from attending to some personal concerns, I likewise planned to visit a sick friend who was diagnosed with a Stage IV cancer. We spoke over the phone instead. She was in pain but still wished me well for the run. This time, I acceded to her invitation to stay at her unit at Burnham Suite (BS) just a few meters from the TNF Base Camp. There could be no perfect place but nearest the Base Camp. She has always encouraged me to visit Baguio but I never had the chance till the TNF. There must be a right time for everything. Nothing is purely coincidental. She was happy that I finally did. I am likewise thankful for her kindness. I couldn’t easily grasp for answer when she asked me, “How do you deal with pain?” I can only introspect, “Pain in the body may not necessarily bring sorrow to the soul.” Somehow, I was expecting to let her know my stories on pain management after the race. But this will never happen again since she has happily faced and escaped pain victoriously. I just learned today that she already passed away.
My TNF race was somehow loaded with thoughts of life, friendship and death. The last time I was in the city was during the wake of my friend, Jerome, who fell down in a cliff with his motorbike at Marcos Highway in 2008. At his wake, I was with friends: American Devorah and entrepreneur Leonie. As destiny would call it, Devorah likewise died last year due to an illness and just now, Leonie. I trekked Mount Santo Tomas with Devorah and spent much time in John Hay with Leonie and Jerome. And now, I am running The TNF100 from Burnham to John Hay to Loakan Airport down to Camp6 up to Mount Santo Tomas and Mount Kabuyao and back.
And what more. A few weeks back, Paeng, a friend in the office, also died. And before he did, he told me, “to take care and enjoy.” He held my hand and I knew it was goodbye. He likewise died of cancer being a second-hand smoker. Before, I left for the race, I received a “How are you?” message from Doc Cely, my friend’s wife. I can only excitedly tell her about my run. I likewise assumed that my departed friend is happy with my TNF100 like he did with my BDM102.
These circumstances really brought back memories of timeless friendships during the race. The trail likewise made me reflect on life. Life is short. It must be spent in a worthwhile way. It must be enjoyed.
The TNF Briefing
I brought so many food and Gatorade supply for the race. When I deposited them at the TNF station, I was asked, “Are you going on a picnic or a race?” I can only laugh in response. It was here that I met more trail runners from AMCI, UPM, Team Blas and the rest of the BDMers. It was an instant reunion of sort. I was likewise visited by my Camiguin-based friend Rosalie who happened to be in Baguio that time.
We sipped some hot lemongrass tea at Cafe by the Ruins after the briefing at the City Hall. I shared her victory when she received the acceptance text message from Fullbright to attend a two-year scholarship at the New York University. She likewise humbly allowed me to browse a book featuring artists who can change the world. There are three Filipinos, I think, in that book and Rosalie is one of them. Her happiness is infectious. “You enjoy your run and am sure you can make it well,” she continued, “See you at Times Square on New Year’s eve.” Rosalie is one of the most positive person I’ve ever known. When she was in Hong Kong, she qualified for the expedition team in South America for several months. Whatever she conceived, she turned them into realities. Our path would cross again in Palawan, Davao and then Camiguin. Her inspiring words gave me much empowerment for the trail that I had to tread.
By 8:30PM, I was back at my room. Took dinner. Fixed my things and then slept. By 12 midnight, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I spent some time at the veranda just reflecting on what will transpire within 30 hours the moment I get out of BS. I conditioned my mind running through the 100KM maps, consisting of a first and second loop. Just doing so was already tiring. But I kept a pledge: No turning back.
Soon after, I showered and got ready for the race. I went to the starting line for check-in at 2:30AM. Let’s get it on. We were probably around 300 to begin with since both 50 and 100KM runners depart at 3AM. After the gunstart by Mayor Rey Bautista and the Tourism Director, the runners frantically secured their places. We were like a swarm of fireflies headed to the hills. Initially, I was wearing my Petzl headlamp but upon arrival in John Hay, the pitch dark and thick fog overpowered its glow. I stopped and used my more powerful Led Lenser lest I would also stumble on pine roots and roll over a ravine. I had to “step-No-step-Yes” to avoid the scattered horses’ wastes. And eventually used a trek pole to ease my acrophobic tendencies.
The trail run alone within John Hay is knee-pounding. I sighed with relief when we arrived at Loakan Airport. The air was refreshingly cool and the sun is yet sleeping. Going down to Camp6 is a bit tricky and treacherous. Kennon Road down below is ones destination with a slight mistake. The tireless marshals carried Petromax on their shoulders to ensure that the dangerous cliffs are well lighted. Morning has broken when I arrived at the zigzag road. I was basically with mountaineers at this point. Crossing the hanging bridge at Camp6 is a signal for our ascent to Mount Kabuyao. The Bued river is almost dry and the mountain was burnt. The trail dust is therefore mixed with ashes. Since I am wearing shorts without any gaiters, my legs soon looked like I was headed for an Ati-Atihan contest. I thank God for the perfect weather, otherwise, if it rained, my hands and face would have perfectly fitted a Maskara festival too. Anyhow, I remember running through another hanging bridge. I dared not look down. I fixed my vision ahead. Otherwise, I would unnecessarily tremble. When will scientist develop a pill for acrophobia?
I took my breakfast along the trail. Then passed through some vegetables gardens of bell pepper and tomato and then potato and then carrots. Oh yes, there were also Baguio pechays. Then some flowers, too. All these beautified the already scenic trails that we were navigating. At times, I would stop and just gaze around the horizon. Everytime I felt tired, the TNF banners splattered across the trails reminded: “Endure the trail.” Not the endurance that makes one suffer. In fact, the trails only increases the endurance threshold of one’s body.
Since there was a cut-off time atop the mountain, I pushed a bit. The summits are always the penultimate dreams of mountaineers. There is a different high when one is on top of the world. Only breathtaking views and far away from the maddening metro noise. Upon reaching the radar at Sto. Tomas, I had lunch. Again, I paced with fellow mountaineers till I was certain that I met the first cut-off time. I think, we were three hours ahead. Soon after, I had to relax and enjoy the views. At this point, my companions have gone ahead. The descent back to camp6 was another 3 hours. Three hours in solitude is a rare reward. I can be extroverted but I am also comfortable being alone. Such solitary moments are meaningful instead of empty. I can listen to myself. I can watch my thoughts. And I can plan clearly. Enjoying oneself is truly empowering in ultras. If one is afraid of being alone, that’s the end.
I had the chance to look back and thank from my heart all those who had been understanding and supportive to my activities. I likewise quietly sought forgiveness from those whom I’ve hurt knowingly or unknowingly. Ultra running can only make one more humane in many ways. Ultra running provides a lot of time to contemplate on so many things that can readily be taken for granted.
The descent from the German house to Camp6 is a bit technical. I had to aid myself with ropes so as not to fall. Thanks to the marshalls for preparing them. At certain points, the trails were already overused, hence, chances of sliding were high. Thanks to my reliable pole for keeping me balanced. Prior to reaching zigzag road again, I was distracted by a loud roaring sound. It sounded like a tempest of sorts. Later on, I was awed by a landslide. Rocks and boulders madly crushing each other down at the fastest pace. It was an apocalyptic sight. Soon after, silence. Deafening silence. Everything finally settled down.
Such poignant scene became a powerful metaphor for me. No matter how crucifying the situations are, to the point that it feels like the end of time, everything balances in the end. Everything becomes stable once more. The point is, just don’t easily give up. Soon enough, this had to be my battlecry in finishing the race.
I safely arrived at the hanging bridge once more. “Buti naman at naka-smile ka pa na bumaba,” was the complement of the tindera at Kennon Road. “Dahan-dahan lang po ako Ate,” my thankful response, “Napakaganda po dito.” Next challenge is the ascending climb back to Loakan. I was trekking with a runner who fell and so limping on every stride. Soon, I was with Ron, a fellow BDMer. He has DNFed in the past two TNFs. Hence, determined to make it this time. On our uphill climb, we found Kelly from Singapore. She requested us to alert the marshalls and the medics. She was hyperventilating, “I feel so dizzy and I am seeing stars in front me,” said Kelly. I brought out my first aid kit. She chose to take one chewable Bonamine. Kelly is a seasoned ultra-runner across the globe, “but this one is different,” she explained. I wouldn’t want to leave her but she told me to go ahead and go on with the race. Sunset has set in and it was starting to drizzle. I was worried a bit. I haven’t seen TR at all in the race. I thought, he must be informed of Kelly’s condition. But as I went on, I met the marshall and the para-medics to aid her. I felt secured that she is safe. Ron and I had to push ahead. My rest stops would soon become frequent. I drank some Yakult at a sari-sari store. My stomach refused to take in water and Gatorade anymore. It must be too drowned by them after 16 hours.
Terestial Naughty Fairies
I soon found myself going through Scout Barrio and John Hay’s trail for more than three hours all by myself. l switched on my headlamp again. It dawned on me that it was the second night of not sleeping and still in constant motion. I just steadily focused on every step. Slowly but surely. Till I had surreal experiences. I was sensing that I was trekking with others when I certainly am alone. Sometimes, I felt someone was behind me. At times in front or far ahead. I reasoned out, I must be too tired. I must be hallucinating already. I crashed all my fears though. I must be tough at all cost.
But wait, didn’t I also do my craziest teenage mischief in Baguio during one summer vacation? At midnight, after a birthday party, my friends and I decided to “ghost hunt” along rumored haunted houses and places? And all we got was sleep deprivation. We would scare ourselves to death at nearing footsteps and the slightest of sounds. Till the security guards supposedly protecting those houses would shout, “Anong ginagawa nyo dyan?” We would run inside our getaway car and rush away. We then taunt the person who got scared the most and laugh to our hearts content. Since then, I never believed in ghosts.
Back to the TNF, I decided to sleep instead of struggling. I prayed that the snakes won’t lie next to me. “Snakes, I won’t stay long. I just need a rest,” I pleaded. I slept with my headlamp on hoping that fellow runners or marshalls would notice me. But no one did. I soon woke up and it was around 10PM. I started trekking anew. I soon met runners who are already back for their second loop. “You still have enough time,” was their encouragement, “But please find a companion when you take your second loop.” They were trekking in fours or fives. I quickly got out of John Hay and then met also the AMCI team for their second loop. I arrived safely at Base Camp. I was told I can take dinner and afterwards resume my run. Since I felt very dirty, I decided to go to Burnham Suites instead. Took a hot shower. Changed clothes. Ate dinner and again, I decided to sleep. I left it all to fate, if I still hear the alarm. Otherwise, I am safely back to bed and that should be perfect.
Trudger Night Freak
But yes, by 12 midnight, I woke up. Laced another pair of shoes and with a new outfit this time, the organizers didn’t even recognize me when I told them #721 is ready to go. “Are you sure, you still wish to go?” was their very polite remark. I smiled back with a, “Yes.” I again started trudging till I reached the hospital at Military Cut-off. The marshal was a bit concerned that I am alone but I assured him that I would be fine. He accompanied me up to the old gate of John Hay. From there I caught up with Paolo, a BDMer who was trekking with Jubs and his friend. Less than 100 meters after, Jub’s friend couldn’t make it anymore. Paolo asked me to move ahead and they will just catch up. To combat my surreal experiences, I played on a song from my mobile phone that was recorded by Jerome (+). I was surprised that the lyrics contained, “Do you hear the child who wants to run with wind…. and you’re running safely to the ends of the world.” At that point, I was but a free child running with Baguio’s cool breeze to nowhere.
Soon after, only Paolo and Jubs arrived. Three of us were then trekking when we met Red, another BDMer, who was lost twice in the trails. Red and Jubs walked ahead while Paolo and I were taking our time. They would wait for us after the long descent at the US Embassy. We soon met the group of Tobias and Mercy of AMCI, the group of Sir Jonel and another AMCI Team (Yob, Manny DS and Manny T.) If Red was lost and I had surreal experiences, Sir Manny T. later informed me that Yob had been telling them that they are five trekking together. They had to shake and remind him that they are just 4. They would find out that Yob is trembling. Such is the TNF. It would alter your state of mind to the brink.
Jubs, Red, Paolo and I soon arrived at Loakan Road. We rested for a while. Till Paolo exploded a bomb, “Guys I think, you need to go ahead. My legs are already very painful”. I started making some calculations. “Guys we have a lot of time, it is still 7 hours to go. We can still do it.” Jubs added, “Paolo you can join us till the airport and decide from there”. Paolo acceded to the idea. But the pain has grown into intolerable level already. Upon crossing the airport, Paolo declared that he is quitting and it is only around 3:15AM. Our cut-off is at 10AM back to Base Camp.
It was pitch dark and I was uneasy to leave Paolo behind. I called the attention of the marshalls to look after him. “You are determined to proceed. So finish it. Don’t worry about me,” said Paolo. Red and Jubs are now out of sight. I had to catch up. I was experiencing my second wind at this point. I felt so strong once more. Eventually, Jubs, Red and I caught up with two Skyrunners. They were three initially but one already DNFed. So there we go, another long and winding trail of Loakan. We had to wake up the marshals everytime we passed by their tents. They must be dead tired logging in our bib numbers. It was almost 5:30AM when we were back at Scout Barrio. We had to trek faster to avoid the trail congestion. The 11 and 22KM runners were already trail running.
Temperance Nobility Fortitude
At this point, I was very relaxed already. I knew, I would make it to the cut-off time and so I had to enjoy early the morning walk in John Hay. It was night time when I had my first three rounds. My companions have already gone ahead. It was inspiring to meet the fresh runners of the day. Many of them were already saying congratulations when they learned I am on my way to the 100KM finish line. One even stopped and asked, “I am already hard up with 22 how much more with 100?” But one said, “Wow, I will also try that.” It again dawned on me that I was already running/trekking for two days due to their persistent questions. Their energy was so uplifting. I managed to run with them for the last three kilometers to the finish line.
I didn’t know that there is a separate lane for 11, 22 and 100KM. I was signaled to take the “100” lane. I was happily running alone in the lane and the people likewise shared the happiness. The Race Director, Neville Manaois, soon congratulated me. I really couldn’t recall much what happened afterwards. I just found myself being tossed in the air by fellow mountaineers for a job luckily and happily done. Soon after, some 11/22KM runners wanted to have their pictures taken with me. I am not used to this, so I quietly faded away and went back to my room to eat fruits, bathed and rested. I didn’t even bother to go down for the awarding ceremonies. I just watched from the veranda.
At 3PM, Baguio was drenched with rain. I woke up. Gazed the horizon. Look above and thanked God.
I may have experienced a hell of difficulties at the City of Pines but the experience only made me stronger. Baguio will forever be my paradiso.
After the TNF100, here are my 30 TNF tips and memories in surviving the most ultra challenging trail run.
1. Think No Fear
2. Think No Force
3. Thank Nice Folks
4. Thank New Friends
5. Think Noble Freedom
6. Trudger Night Freak
7. Take No Fly
8. Take Nothing Forgranted
9. Tag New Fortunes
10. Think No Failure
11. Try New Fascination
12. Taste Nocturnal Feast
13. Try New Fashion
14. Think Nothing but Firmness
15. Trials Never Forever
16. Treat Nomads Fortune
17. Toilet Nowhere Found
18. Timeless Newness Freshness
19. Test New Friction
20. Trick Nimble Fatalism
21. Treat Nervous Fatigue
22. Terrestial Naughty Fairies
23. Test New Favorite
24. Teemless Nothingness Freezed
25. Tiptop Nighest Fitness
26. Tranquil Novel Fain
27. Trip Next Fun
28. Temperance Nobility Fortitude
29. Terminator Numerator Frekonomics
30. Term Never Fixed