May 29, 2007, Tuesday – I decided to join the duathlon in Clark, Pampanga and join my batchmates in the University of the Philippines Mountaineers (UPM). I’d never done a duathlon but the thought of joining my UPM batchmates suddenly thrilled me so I decided to go for it. A friend emailed me that very morning the registration form for me to fill up and email to the Department of Tourism (DOT) personnel in charge of the activity. The deadline for this was on May 29 in order to pay only P200 in registration fee; otherwise, we would have to shell out P500 on race day. Jorje urged me to run 10km starting that day, Tuesday, until Thursday, do a shorter distance on Friday and then rest on Saturday.
It had been a while since I religiously did my routine 5-7km run 2-3x weekly although I was playing Frisbee on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. I also had not done any biking since my Ecopark trip with my friend Marko three weeks earlier. Ever since learning how to drive, I had rarely been city-biking. But, I planned since forever to do something different and challenging on my birthday, although work always got in the way. My birthday was only four days earlier and I thought this was the perfect challenge and adventure for me. This duathlon would be a first for me.
May 30, 2007, Wednesday – After work, I went to the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Campus by myself and did another 10km-run. Lawin, a masked and caped intellectually-challenged regular in UP, was waiting for me at the end of the 10km-route and eagerly greeted me to my amusement.
May 31, 2007, Thursday – I went to UP with the kids and did another 10km run. Jorje and Patricia were already playing Frisbee. My time was a little better now. Jorje had announced earlier that he would come with me to Clark and join the duathlon, too, so the kids would have to come with us, of course. I became more and more excited. I texted Thumbie Remigio, who was the race director along with wife Popo, both UP Mountaineers, to help us get a discount at a good place to stay overnight in Clark. He offered us a much better option. He said he’ll give the four of us one room at a villa in Fontana.
June 1, 2007, Friday – I decided I should just go home from the office early, do some gardening, and rest my tired feet in preparation for the duathlon. I started packing for the weekend adventure at Clark, Pampanga. Jorje checked our bikes and placed them securely on our car’s Thule bike rack. We readied our running shoes, water bottles, and helmets.
June 2, 2007, Saturday – After walking our two Labradors, we were all set for Clark, Pampanga. Once in Clark, we proceeded to the Fontana Convention Center where we lined up and paid our registration fee. A sumptuous carbo-load dinner awaited us at the ballroom, with waiters in tailored suits and all. It was very impressive. The sun-tanned racers in tees, board shorts, and sandals were a sharp contrast to the debut-like ambiance complete with buffet dinner. We all met up there and joked around. One of my friends, Rebo, insisted that he would be in the elite, and not the age category. The wide screen in front showed video footages of extreme off-road biking that made me really edgy. I learned that the other UPM who pre-registered, Kram, Dennis, Rollie and Dip, backed out for one reason or another. I recognized some of the faces at the convention center: they were rowers, triathletes, swimmers, sportclimbers. The DOT representative who greeted us said that the largest group of racers came from Metro Manila but there was also a good number of locals. As I was having mashed potatoes, pansit, sweet-and-sour fish, and fruits, we listened to Thumbie’s race briefing. I saw some of the race course pictures he emailed to the UPM egroup days before but as he went on with the race briefing, I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that we were to traverse the spillway. The pictures he showed of the spillway were not much help. To describe, there was this huge river, and then there was a dam where the water spilled over, more like you’re seeing a waterfalls. We were to bike on the portion just before where the river spills over onto the dam, more like biking on a portion just before the “waterfalls.” My anxiety was wiped away by the kids’ display of excitement and amazement, as Allianza ran and jumped around the polished lobby, and as Patricia theatrically played with the grand piano.
The villa where we stayed was a huge white house where American expats used to live in, with huge rooms, closets, and bathrooms. Apart from the UPM racers, Thumbie accommodated other racers. Everyone had a sleeping bag ready and was happy to just sleep on any corner, which was carpeted anyway. The four of us stayed in one room and the bathroom was across our room in the spacious hallway. That night I cannot recall how many times I woke up to the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing, the flush of the bathroom toilet, voices coming and going, Jorje tinkering with the air-conditioner, Patricia getting up to pee, Coach Kiko arriving from Manila with his two sons. I dreamt of the spillway, woke up, fell asleep, and dreamt of the spillway again. The next thing I knew, it was race day.
June 3, 2007, Sunday, RACE DAY – I am usually at my most energetic at mid-day. On race day, I woke up lacking in sleep, undecided whether I wanted to eat or not, what best to eat right before the race, or whether to rush to the bathroom or not. Jorje was in panic mode because according to him, there was something wrong with his bike saddle. I managed to chatter away with our friends. I felt better when Bernice said the ‘spillway’ also bothered her in her sleep. Bernice was a rower and a swimming varsity player back in College who had joined a number of aquathlons but only learned to bike a few months back. She joined a bike-out from Manila to Tagaytay before summer. Marko used to be a mountain-climbing addict until work got in the way, but he got back to being active in bike-outs and recently did a 12-hour bike-out. Rebo injured both his knees to ACL but was in perfect shape, thanks to two ACL operations that cost a fortune. He biked to Sagada with friends the previous summer. Coach Kiko was a very lean 52-year-old who already did full marathons and a number of triathlons. As for me, I had ACL on my left knee that I got during my aikido days, so I always had to have my metal knee support in every sports activity since then. Moro Lorenzo doctors told me years ago to forget mountain-climbing but I continued my application with the University of the Philippines Mountaineers (UPM), underwent the training climbs, skills tests and all, and got inducted as a UP Mountaineer. I had also been addicted to Ultimate Frisbee since 2004. I also have scoliosis that doctors of the past pronounced as acute. I was never into sports until I got married and had two kids. My maxim in life is to live it and love it. But on that day, I seriously doubted whether I would love what I was intending to do.
The duathlon we joined at Clark was a 5km-run/30-km bike/5km-run on off-road course. I had participated in marathons but never a full marathon yet. I joined bike-outs for a cause. I had used biking as a mode of transportation. But the road I traversed in running or in biking were cemented or paved roads. I was a city biker using a mountainbike. I had never participated in off-road bike-outs. The Men’s Health trail run I joined over the summer was my first all-terrain run.
We arrived at 6 a.m. on the bridge near the Clark expo zone where the race was to start and to finish, parked our cars, unloaded and assembled our bikes, checked the brakes, checked our helmets and water bottles. Jorje urged me and the others to warm up by jogging/running the one-kilometer-stretch of the cemented highway bridge. I only did ¼ of it and was too tired and even woozy after that. I looked around and silently observed that the 110 or so participants were strong athletes who prepared for this adventure. The few women participants looked tough and sturdy. You can tell by the shoes they had on, the bikes they were carefully assembling on the bike racks, the muscles on their legs, how broad their shoulders were, and how tanned their skin were. After our warm-up, we waited some more for what seemed like an eternity. I was really getting uptight. We were joking that an official was about to announce that the race was off and we would all be going home and get back to bed. After all, it WAS before 8 on a Sunday morning! Rebo, my zany batchmate, said he should not have given in to the race organizers who pleaded with him to join “to be a crowd-drawer.” In one corner, UPM Romy Garduce (the Filipino Mt. Everest summiteer), obliged some fans who recognized him for some picture-taking. We could see the race organizers briskly walking to and fro. They and the marshals stationed the route flags only that morning in order not to reveal the course, especially to the locals who were familiar with the place.
Finally, the DOT official screamed on the microphone announcing that the race was to begin. I spotted Jorje at the starting line alongside the fast runners whom he said he will try the darnest to trail. As soon as the race official yelled GO, everyone surged forward. They really sprinted so hard I found myself at the tail-end with Romy Garduce and Coach Kiko and three other guys, who were maintaining a happy pace, not the racing pace.
The 5km-run, the first leg
From the starting line we ran on cemented road but quickly turned left on muddy, rocky terrain. We again turned left, now under the bridge, and towards the riverbed. The trail turned from muddy to sandy. Since the rainy season had begun, the sand was wet making it heavy on the shoes. Running was difficult. After about two kilometers of wet-sand course, with only bushes all around you, we found the first water station with iced Gatorade just before the turn-around. We then followed the race course flags back towards the bridge. It was another two kilometers from the water station with us now traversing the water-course. I was brisk-walking at this point which resulted to my being at the most tail-end, because the ground was muddy and there were a couple of portions I passed where the water was ankle-deep. I could hear Patricia and Allianza yelling at me from atop the bridge, “GO MOM, GO! YOU’RE LAST! GO, MOM!” Then as we were directly under the bridge we turned left towards some shanties. At the end of the base of the bridge was a flight of pebbly stairs, about 15 steps, that led us back to the cemented highway bridge, which was about one kilometer. I earned a white yarn somewhere from one of the marshals. My bike was the only one left on the bike rack. I clipped on my helmet, held my bike to my side, and ran towards the portion where, as the rules said, we can already mount our bikes and start pedaling. Patricia and Allianza cheered me on. Some spectators to my right also yelled, “GO Mommy!”
The 30-km bike, the second leg –
I followed the same steep downhill towards the rocky and muddy terrain where we ran on the first leg. Instead of turning left towards the riverbed though, we went straight ahead towards very sandy course. It was a relief at first to bike after the punishing 5km-run. The first part of the course was alright, with only bushes on both sides and a dry-sand route that was easy to negotiate. Then I passed a pool of water created by the frequent rains. When I surged past it, water and mud splattered all over me. And then another mud pool. And another. For the first 3 or 4 mud pools, I simply quickly decided which side had shallow water and passed through that area. The next mud pools, though, were wider and lengthier and there was no way to avoid being leg-deep in water while maneuvering the bike. I mentally noted and followed what Jorje always tells me while biking: Never hesitate; don’t lose your grip on the bike, and just pedal, pedal, pedal. I was actually surprised that it worked! There was one portion though where the narrow terrain on the side of the mud pool had thick sticky sand. The wheels of the bikes and some tricycles there created a sort of several “sand walls”. As your bike passed through in a fast pace, you should be so focused and quick-thinking to bike on the narrow “flat” areas and not hit the “sand walls.” I hit these “sand walls” on one particular portion, so I swerved and loosened my grip on the bike and I fell straight to the ground. I quickly mounted my bike again and rode through. By this time, the strongest racers were surging so fast past me, probably on their way to their second or last round of the 30km bike leg. Then I saw from afar another mud pool which obviously was the widest and lengthiest of the mud pools (so this was the river crossing that Thumbie, the race organizer, briefed us about last night!). As I approached it, I quickly realized that the left, middle, and right portions were deep. So I biked on, didn’t lose my grip, and just pedaled, pedaled, pedaled. Because of the momentum I just surged so fast at first but when I reached the middle, which was the deepest and muddiest part, I quickly slowed down. Like a machine, I just continued to pedal, pedal, pedal, until I crossed it. It was downhill leftwards after that towards rocky and wet terrain. I passed a portion where the road led to three directions and a marshal stationed on once corner said, “to your left” but he was pointing to the right, so I turned left following what he said and not what he pointed to. The other marshals rebuked him and said, “where is your left, stupid?!” I went back the short uphill and turned to the right way, as I joshed the marshal, “kuya (big brother), you’re not making it any easier for me.” There were portions of short uphills but the terrain was just so muddy and wet that made maneuvering difficult. There was one portion of steep short downhill where at the bottom portion was a pool of murky, muddy water and I again made the mistake of turning the bike wheels against those “mud walls” (same theory as the “sand walls”) and fell for the second time. It was a harder fall this time. Mud and sand were now all over me including my undies. Some mud even flew to my mouth. Then I came around to a sharp curve followed by a short steep climb up where I earned my second yarn. It was a comfortable but rocky rolling course afterwards, but I still can’t speed up since although most portions were flat, the sand was just so thick and wet that it was difficult to pedal. Until I spotted the dreaded spillway from afar. There was a steep downhill and Thumbie was at the bottom taking my picture and saying, “Go Wee..!” In biking especially when you’re racing, and the terrain is punishing, you wouldn’t want to stop no matter how apprehensive you are of what you see ahead. You just continue pedaling and gripping the bike firmly, because stopping won’t be much help. Once you fall and then mount the bike, it will be very difficult to push once again especially in sandy, muddy and uphill terrain. So I never wanted either to stop or to fall. A marshal yelled, “Keep to the left” as I approached the spillway, so I kept left. The portion where I chose to pass was deeper than I expected but I just kept on despite the stinging pain on my legs and ankles and inspite of the water and mud on my legs and running shorts. I tried to resist from glancing even for a second to my right where the dam was, but I was so near the edge as I approached the end of the spillway that I can see it from my peripheral view. At the end of the spillway was a big pool of murky water which I rode through again without stopping. The bike screeched when it hit a hardened mud and I pedaled some more to keep going otherwise I would have fallen down again. From here there’s a forested route of muddy uphills then a less difficult rocky route but by this time I hurt all over, and then I thought: “I would have to do the entire stretch twice over after this!!!” I had no idea where to get that kind of energy, so I mouthed, oh God, where and how would I summon such energy, such strength and courage? A familiar voice behind me said, “Go Wee.” It was Jorje overtaking me, who was probably on his 2nd round of the 30km bike leg. I didn’t know how he was coping with his defective bike saddle. Next was a row of houses until I reached a basketball court where the guys chattered in Pampango dialect, and they were all smiling at me. Then, I saw pebbly stairs leading back to the bridge. As indicated during our briefing, I dismounted and carried my bike through 15 steps of the hoarse stairs. From the top it was a 1km bike on cemented highway towards the starting point.
Upon seeing the starting point/finish line, the marshals pointed us to the left side. I went past the finish line and went through the same bike route for the second time. I passed by Patricia and Allianza waiting by the side of the bridge at the finish line who chorused, “Go mom!” Joie also yelled, “Go Wee-wee!” I passed by the spectators by the side of the bridge who yelled, “Go mommy.” What I finished was only 10km of biking and I needed to bike 20km more. As I traversed the same bike route for the 2nd time, I saw some of the stronger racers turn left towards the 5km run, which was the final leg of the duathlon. I was still on my way towards finishing the 20th of the 30km bike leg. While I was traversing the water pools (or the river crossings), I tried to surge faster. When I came around to the narrow sandy portion by the side of the mud pool where I first fell, I was careful not to hit the “sand walls.” I still failed to avoid it so I fell again. Down once more. This was the 3rd time I fell. The steady short uphills were harder to negotiate now. I passed a familiar downhill followed by a steep uphill where the marshals handed over another yarn, my third. As I approached the spillway for the second time, I ran into Jorje and some racers again going the other way, probably on their last round of the bike leg. At the spillway, I kind of overdid avoiding the edge so I went farther leftwards and sank into leg-dip water that was really difficult to pedal. I shrieked as another racer surged past me. I rode on determined not to fall on the spillway and surged past the mud pool at the end of the spillway. I again traversed the same muddy uphills and focused on avoiding the mistake I earlier made so I wouldn’t fall again. I was really tired now and it was getting hotter by the minute, although the weather was relatively not really sunny. I was sorry I forgot to bring an apple with me to munch on. Coach Bernie (a UP Mountaineer and a swimming varsity coach at UP) would be so mad when he finds out that I didn’t even think of bringing a single chocolate, which was the same mistake I did during the Tour of the Fireflies this summer. Then as I negotiated a downhill, I saw the house with a tractor in front so I knew I was near the row of houses and the basketball court. A couple of marshals asked me if that was my last round. I yelled back, “No, I have one more round to make. Be sure to wait for me, ok.” They were probably praying that I give up so they can have their lunch already. As I traversed a flat but sandy route, I saw a man in biker shorts walking with a bike by his side. Maybe he’s a marshal, I thought. I biked past him and saw that he had a race number on his chest which meant he was a racer like me. I asked him as I slowed past him, “Something wrong with your bike?” He just grinned at me. Ina, a UP Moutaineer and rower, biked past me before the basketball court and she asked “How many rounds now?” I replied, “second only.” She encouraged me to keep going. After the basketball court was the right turn towards the stairs of 15 steps where I again dismounted and carried my bike up. The marshals at the top of the stairs asked, “Can you still carry on, miss?” I just smiled, and another said, “Ahh, she has this. She’ll go slowly but surely, right?” There was one emergency van ready. As I mounted to bike the 1km cemented bridge highway towards the starting point, I saw Jorje just coming up the stairs from the other side of the bridge. He was just done with the 5km-run, which was the final leg of the duathlon. I told him I needed to do one more round of the bike route. He told me I was on the tail-end now but I should go on. I hadn’t planned on stopping.
As I did my third and final round of the 30-km bike leg, I saw Bernice making her way down the route of the 5-km run. I went straight as she turned left towards the riverbed. A shanty with the same fellows who were there since the start of the race called on, “O, you’re the last one… You still have to run-walk after that..! I just laughed. A marshal who was manning the run portion saw me and crossed over to the bike portion to point to me which direction to turn. By this time, more trucks were driving past and were curiously asking me what I was doing. I biked the same route all over again. The mud pools were thinner now since it was now high noon, and the sand now dried up and hardened. I was slimy, muddy, and dirty all over. But that was the least of my worries: I was terribly hungry and thirsty. My water bottle was almost empty. The two wider and lengthier mud pools seemed the same as the first two rounds. The water did not seem to thin out. As I approached the final and widest mud pool, a marshal on a bike approached me and told me he was going to escort me. I was the last racer by this time. I surged through the last mud pool, and made the sharp left turn towards a steep downhill. It was blistering now, although not half as blistering as my trail run at San Mateo last month. The gradual uphills were so much harder and finally I reached the short steep uphill where I earned my 4th yarn. I do not recall their colors now but despite my exhaustion then, I still had the wariness to slide them up from my wrist to my arm, careful not to lose these badges of honor. Another marshal on a bike, a teenager, biked in front of me while the other marshal stayed behind me. The muddy downhills and uphills were so much difficult now as I was losing so much electrolyte. I did not have breakfast but only a few bites of apple, and the carbo-load dinner last night was all spent hours ago! When I saw the familiar route leading towards the spillway, I biked steadily near the edge, careful not to go farther leftwards onto the deeper water. I was not scared anymore. As we traversed the steep, muddy uphills after that, I just had to stop even for a few seconds to catch my breath. My water bottle was filled with mud, and it was empty now. There were no more Gatorades from the water stations. No, there were no water stations anymore. Everyone reached the finish line and were now waiting for me. The marshal behind me was very encouraging. I knew he was also tired and hungry and we biked silently together. After the muddy uphills, he said, “Haa, we’re finally past those.” That was the most difficult portion. We just biked some more, just pedal, pedal, pedal. Until I reached the flat sandy portion, then I knew I was near the basketball court. There were no smiling and noisy basketball players now. They have all gone to have lunch and siesta. I didn’t know exactly what time it was. I just knew it was high noon. Then, I reached the stairs leading back to the bridge. Jorje was there, now cleaned up and in his board shorts. “Go Wee,” he said. I dismounted and carried my bike up the stairs. Patricia was also there and asked me with concern. “Are you still going to run, mom?” I replied, “Yes, Babe. I have to finish the race.” I asked Jorje to do the final 5km-run with me but he said he was so exhausted to do it again. He seemed pleased when he saw my determination as I said I was going to finish the duathlon. He said there were a few DNF racers (‘did not finish’), most of them males . As I biked the 1km stretch of cemented road and approached the racers and spectators who were waiting and cheering for me, I just smiled and waived like I did from the start. Thumbie was waiting with his camera at the finish line, but I kept running on the left portion. Ina told me to go to the right portion towards the finish line banner and she was ready with her camera to take my picture. I said, “But I haven’t finished it!” I turned to Thumbie and said, “I’m still going to run,Thumbie.” I shall forever remember with much amusement the look of disbelief on Thumbie’s face.
The final 5km run, the last leg
There was a truck with a water hose and I joined the other racers there as we savored the clean water on our muddied bodies. One racer said to me, “Thank God, we finished it, alright.” I said to him, “I still have to run.” He grinned, thinking that, surely, I was joking. But I turned towards the downhill leading towards the base of the bridge. I heard guys cheer me on. I passed by the same shanty just before I turned right and the same voice said to me: “Not done yet?!” I just chuckled with him as I continued running. A truck stopped beside me and the driver solemnly urged me to climb up and ride even a few meters to where I was going, “Come on up, so you only have to run a few meters,” he said. I just laughed and said ‘Salamat‘ (Thank you). As I reached the riverbed, my feet hurt so much so I merely brisk-walked. The terrain was now drier but the sand on my shoes was still as heavy as before. I could easily have crossed over to the other side of the bridge and made a short-cut towards the stairs back to the cemented 1km stretch of the bridge highway. But for what would that be? I went through all the difficulties and I was not going to cheat now in the same way that I was not going to quit. I also could have very easily slept from exhaustion while walking on the riverbed. Yes, sleepwalking. You can actually do it in this insane exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and heat. But I pushed some more until I was surprised to see that there were marshals waiting at the water station before the turn-around. A guy handed me a blue yarn, my 5th and final yarn. Thumbie must have radioed that a lunatic racer was on her way there to finish the race. They said to me, “Ma’am, sorry, there’s no more water or Gatorade. But you can rinse or wash yourself.. Look..”. They opened an ice chest with melting ice cubes and cold water inside. I reached for and grabbed a fistful of ice cubes and shoved them in my mouth. I grabbed another fistful as I made the turn-around. One marshal said: “Go finish it. What you’re trying to do is so rare.” I wondered: What was rare? Those who finish a race under these circumstances, or those who are lunatics? I continued to walk on wet and muddy riverbed. The awarding ceremonies was almost over now. I was overhearing it while I was traversing the riverbed. In the middle of the scorching heat, I heard Jorje yell, “Go Wee!” I looked up the bridge and saw him there with his arms up in victory. I pushed on and as I crossed a portion with ankle-deep water towards the shanties under the bridge, I saw some marshals on the bridge, all locals, obviously on their way home after a job well done. One yelled to me, “Miss, what are you doing there?” I yelled back, I’m finishing my race!” I heard them murmur in their dialect. They were probably saying ‘these people from the city are loonies.’ Finally, I reached the pebbly stairs leading back to the bridge highway. As I climbed up I heard a familiar honk of a car and a familiar little voice calling, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” I gave Allianza some flowers I picked up from the base of the bridge. Patricia was on my bike and cheering me on. “Go, mom.” I ran, slowly but determinedly, the entire and last 1km stretch. Thumbie, the organizers, my UPM batchmates and other UPM friends were waiting for me at the finish line. They took my picture and cheered me on. Patricia and Allianza, both on my bike with Patricia driving, met me with wild cheers. Allianza reached out her hand for a high five. I now ran on the right side and crossed the finish line with pride. Patricia took my picture. I now deserve to stand beneath the banner that simply said, “Finish Line.” Those two words mean a lot for a racer. Jorje greeted me afterwards and told me he was so proud of me. He said that what I did – finishing the race by myself, was a lot more difficult.
Earlier, as I was on the tail-end after the 5km-run during the first leg of the duathlon, a race official told me, “Go..! You haven’t got all day.” He was right. I haven’t got all day. I have my entire life to finish the race of my life. I lost all energy and strength long before I finished the race, but when all else fails, only dignity and human spirit remain. While I was in the midst of the punishing race, I could not, for the life of me, truly figure out why I was doing this. But once I crossed the finish line, I knew in my heart why. You need to race, too, to understand. I know I will definitely do this again. And should I do it again, it would be to the end.