How do I start? I could say that I love trail running but that would be an understatement. It feels like home – like I’m back in touch with my inner child, playing amidst gorgeous scenery. After I saw pictures of the route for the 3rd Leg of Nature’s Trail Discovery Run, I was sold. The race promised a thrilling journey: river crossings, passage through dark caves, long uphill climbs, gnarly single tracks, muddy descents, a never-ending stairway, and waterfalls near the finish line. There was just one problem: I haven’t been running for months due to a string of injuries. Heck, even walking was painful at one point. I had to get back in shape or suffer on the trails.
Recovery and a Leap of Faith
I listened to my body. When it seemed safe to try, I trained by brisk walking, working my way up from 30 minutes to over 2 hours. I went to the gym to cross-train by cycling and to simulate walking steep inclines on the treadmill. Strength training was also part of my routine for the legs, arms and core. On Wednesday before the race, I was able to run for the first time without pain, doing a few sets of run-walk intervals. That’s it. I had to trust that it was enough to carry me through the race. Trying to cram more runs would be folly. Most of my teammates entered the 21K category, two opted for 10K, and I had to settle for 5K due to my less than ideal preparation. Still, I was raring to go. The trails were calling. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!
I was up as early as 11:30pm to ensure that I had ample time to prepare. The team was supposed to meet at 2:00am in Cubao. By 4:00am, our van reached Daranak Falls in Tanay, Rizal despite being stopped in the middle of a dark road and forced to find an alternate route (there was an “encounter”, said the man at the checkpoint). The place was tucked in the middle of nowhere with trees as tall as buildings everywhere you look. The sky was full of stars and I was happy to see them twinkling through the thick canopy.
The crazy kids of Team Rock & Road at the starting line. Again, I’m rocking the “Dora the Explorer” look with my bag.
From L-R: Sir Tony, Joyce, Chona, Allan J, Ralph, Rhea, Goldy, Me, Dennis, (sitting) Allan B, Elvin
The 21K runners were released first at 5:30am, followed by 10K runners at 5:45am. The sun was already out so I was able to survey the remaining participants. You can often tell the difference between a beginner and a serious runner by their gear, physique, and overall demeanor. I began to entertain the idea of placing in the Top 10, maybe even Top 5. How cool would that be? If I could just hang on, I thought. Maybe. Let’s see. *fingerscrossed*
Play Time! Yay!
Choose your own boulder.
The truth is that I didn’t come to Daranak Falls to race. I came to play. At 6:00am, us 5K runners were off and I got to see my awesome playground firsthand. It surpassed all my expectations in terms of difficulty. This was the hardest 5K ever, and I mean EVER. Then again, “mas madugo, mas masaya.” So thank you, organizers. You made my day.
First, we had to cross a slippery wooden bridge, then turn left for an uphill climb along a dusty road filled with loose rocks. I made the mistake of jogging up this path, consequently elevating my heart rate before I had a chance to warm up. I should have hiked my way through it for a gradual build-up. Next, we went down to the river for a dangerous crossing. There are stones you can climb on but they were very slippery and the line was moving slowly when I got there. I decided to go ahead and wade in the water, wet shoes be damned. As soon as I found an unoccupied rock, I clambered up and made my way to the other side.
View from the top. Lush greens!
The Stairs of Punishment
Waiting for us was the so-called “Hagdanang Parusa” (Stairs of Punishment) which led to a statue of the Virgin Mary at the very top. Having done plenty of stairs training before I got injured, this part actually made me happy. If my calculations are correct, it is equivalent to a 27-storey building, so not really that much but enough to make you sweat. I went up slowly, hands on knees, sometimes holding on to the handrail. This is what separated the lead pack from the rest. I was at the tail end of that lead pack, my heart beating uncomfortably fast. As much as I wanted to run the flat section, I had to slow down and let my heart recover. I also ate some raisins (my only baon) and drank water to boost my already dwindling energy reserves. Whenever I passed locals or another runner, I would smile and greet them “Good morning!” What can I say? I was in a great mood!
To the Bat Cave!
The exit point of the well-preserved Calinawan Cave.
Eventually, I got to the Calinawan Cave which was used as a hideout first by Filipino rebels, then by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The narrow passages were very dark and slippery so I was glad to be wearing a headlamp (thanks, Roxanne!). One side was a wall and the other was a cliff so one false move and you’ll end up like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. I caught up with some of the fastest 10K runners at this point including Sir Tony. We followed a string of lights which abruptly ended, leaving us to wonder whether we were lost. Thankfully, a marshal came into view and the literal “light at the end of the tunnel” marked the end of our claustrophobia.
Up, Up, and Away
From here, it was mostly a slow uphill climb on a wide unpaved road then a gnarly undulating single track along the side of a mountain. I was trying to keep up with a girl in a purple shirt but she ran the uphills and I couldn’t follow. It didn’t seem sustainable. I decided to run my own race, let her go, and fuel up some more. The problem was that it was a mess inside my cheap drawstring bag and I had trouble finding my food. Other runners stared at me and said, “Parang ang bigat ng dala mo ah.” Not really. Magulo lang.
Anyway, my strategy was to power-hike up and bomb my way down every chance I get. It worked! By the time I got to the turn-around point, I caught up with her and I was so happy because the rest of the way was down, down, down. Time to play! I charged like a bull during the technical descent but I was careful not to trip and get injured. There were a few close calls, though. I have scars at the back of my left knee and on the side of my right leg as race souvenirs. Next time, remind me to wear calf sleeves. It was during this descent that I saw my faster 21K teammates Allan, Elvin and Goldy (who eventually got 4th place female). They were in for a long day.
Steps near the finish line!
It was on the last kilometer that I found another female 5K runner. We were having a grand ol’ time navigating our way down muddy rocks. Oftentimes, I had to hold on to nearby branches for dear life, and I still slipped a little. This part had me worried about the older runners who aren’t as nimble. Thankfully, I didn’t hear of anybody getting seriously injured after the race. When we got out of that mud pit, we were perhaps just a hundred meters or so from the finish line. I could see the falls. There weren’t any markings so I asked a marshal for directions. He pointed the way and said, “Two-Three kayo!” Up to this point, I didn’t know what place I was in. I knew that there’s a chance I might be within the Top 5 but Top 2 would be awesome! Instantly, I went on “Kilian mode” and sprinted down the steps. I didn’t let up until I crossed the finish line. Run, run, run!
It turns out that the other girl didn’t hear the marshal. She was surprised when I told her that we may have earned places at the podium. Ecstatic, we hugged and exchanged stories about the race. As for my teammates, first to finish was Sir Tony who was frustrated that he couldn’t catch the speedy youngsters (teen boys and girls dominated the podium – amazing!). It became apparent that the brutal course would delay the arrival of 21K finishers. The 4hr cut-off was extended to 6hrs, and yet many finished beyond that. Our wasted teammates trickled in one by one. They ran a trail half-marathon that’s tougher than most road marathons, so hats off to every finisher.
I feel lucky to be living in a country where challenging trails can be found in every corner. I’m hoping to explore more in the coming years, and that means I need to get faster and stronger. I’m thrilled to finally get on a podium but instead of inflating my ego, this race has humbled me. It was HARD. If I want to finish The North Face 100K and other dream races someday, I better shape up and not get injured again!
I guess I’ll just take it one day at a time before I get overwhelmed. See you all at the next trail race! 😉
[Special thanks to Dennis Lopez, Rene Villarta, and Jose Ramizares for the wonderful pictures.]
Surreal. My first ever podium finish.
Still smiling after all those miles. Except Chona, the team’s resident Sleeping Beauty. : )
Post-race lunch for hungry trail runners! We ravaged the place like a plague of locusts. Thanks, “Bulalo Bah?”