It was 2010 when The North Face 100 (TNF100) was first staged in Baguio. It was also the last time I joined. This year, they’re returning to Baguio—and so am I! And this is my story.
Let’s start this story with the briefing. It’s the largest briefing I’ve ever seen with TNF100! So many unfamiliar faces, but among them are some familiar ones. In some way it was nostalgic, but in most ways it’s unfamiliar. Most especially when you can smell the competitive spirit in the air—I remember TNF100 being competitive during the race, but not during the briefing! I mean, for someone to protest that TNF allowed support crews (should some participants opt to avail of the privilege)—is like saying, “if I can’t have it, nobody can have it!” And so the thrill and excitement I used to feel during briefings was gone. “This is no longer fun!” as I told myself.
Fast forward to early morning the following day, April 30, 2016 at Camp John Hay. The 100K participants are already in the starting line. I used to be part of this crowd, but this time I’m opting for half the distance for the first time. And I don’t mind. I didn’t even imagine joining TNF100 until a few weeks prior to this day, and I don’t think I’m ready to do a 100K both physically and psychologically. A few minutes later, the 100K participants were off.
It was our turn to occupy the activity area. It’d still be about an hour before it’s our turn to explore the trails but I went ahead with the mandatory gears check anyway. It was around 15°c at the time so I felt the need to wear my jacket. The same old green TNF one I wore when I crossed the line six years ago. And I’m also wearing the same old TNF pants I wore back then! My compression top is for hot weather so it felt too cool for comfort while we were still not running. And I don’t want to get cramps from the cool weather or possibly fell ill during the race like I did six years ago.
At exactly 4AM, we were off! I had waited for this race for so long! And I’m equally excited for my gadgets as we now have technologies that would allow us to track much, much longer distances. Tracking my progress is a Garmin Fenix 2 and an aged iPhone 5 running Endomondo. I also brought along a 11,000mAh power bank with built-in flashlight as backup.
I started the race way behind the pack of runners. I guess I got distracted with all my gadgets that I didn’t realize the participants were starting to occupy the front of the starting area. That’s fine with me as my intention primarily is to finish within cutoff. As with my game plan: reach AS3 by lunch and be home by sundown.
I started the race running alongside Roselle “Running Diva.” It’s her first ever TNF100 race and she mentioned that she joined the 50K leg because of my “encouragement.” Even if she’s had many ultramarathons under her belt, I felt a bit obliged to be her guide because I feel I brought her here.
The trails during the first part were mostly too narrow to overtake. It’s also mostly uphill so there’s really no need to rush to overtake. And it didn’t take me too long to break a sweat and soon, my jacket was inside my backpack. And because of the big difference of temperature between my body and the air, my eye glasses began fogging so I had quite a challenge running. We were at the back of the pack and our pace was easy so it didn’t matter much.
As the sun slowly rose and illuminated the surroundings, the beautiful trails started unraveling their beauty. It was still too dark then for me to take pictures, but I did remove my foggy eye glasses to better see. I wasn’t seeing as clearly as with eye glasses on, but I had given up constantly wiping off the steam from my eye glasses every few minutes (distraction which could put me in more danger). And then this one came into the scene and made me bring out my camera:
From here on, my camera was always on standby, ready to capture anything that my sight caught interest. With so much beauty surrounding us, it’s so difficult to pick! My years of experience running while carrying things surely comes in handy in these situations!
Aid Station 1 (AS1) is our first stop. It’s around five kilometers away from the starting line, and it’s our first refueling station. We had cooked bananas here and water. After refilling our guts and hydration packs, we’re off to the next station some 10 kilometers away.
The trails to AS2 is mostly downhill and is pretty much easy. Roselle and I were taking a very relaxed pace at these parts that when she asked a marshal (whom was listing the race bib numbers of those passing him) on our approach to AS2 on our standing, I was not surprised to hear that we were 250th. I’m sure we’re not the last, but that goes to show how big TNF100 had become.
Despite being practically last, I was pretty much surprised how fast we were progressing. Even at that easy pace, keeping that would lead us to AS3 much earlier than my projection of around lunch time. But then again, it’s all uphills from here. But first, we have to reach the lowest point of the route.
From the “bottom” of the route, it’s kilometers of uphills that awaited us all the way to the highest point of our 50K route. It’s around 750m of climb and it’s anything but gradual. For reference, that’s about the height of Burj Khalifa (820m) or almost three times the height of the tallest building in the Philippines, PBCom Tower (259m). All along I was keeping in mind what was presented during the briefing that the distance we had to cover on this part is “only” around 13.5K, but then we had a surprise.
The ascent was just grueling. Even vehicles that were passing on the road we were running (or more accurately, walking) into were having a difficult time. And as I approached 27K, AS3 was nowhere to be found! Apparently, they changed the route and had us go to the turnaround point first before returning to AS3. That turnaround point is 30K. And there wasn’t anything in that turnaround point for us, just a loop cord to indicate that we passed through there. What are you going to do but hurry up to AS3 where most of the supplies are supposed to be at?
As I approached AS3, I saw Roselle just on her way to the turnaround point. We got separated before the long, concrete, uphill road, and apparently this road widened our gap. I was originally planning to wait for her at AS3, but since were about an hour apart now, that’s becoming unfeasible. I was having a dilemma deliberating on whether to wait for her as I originally planned, or go ahead as she had already given me her “blessing” to go ahead earlier. Eventually, I decided to go ahead as waiting an hour would cool my muscles down significantly which could compromise my run back and doing so will allow her to run at her own pace and not be pressured to catch up. I still waited a while though in AS3 in the hope that she would arrive before I finish eating.
AS3 is a big disappointment in terms of supplies. Remember my game plan? It’s highly dependent on the supplies committed by TNF. Based on their website, there’s supposed to be an “electrolyte” drink in Aid Stations, but there’s none even in AS3 which was supposed to be our (50K participants’) major Aid Station. The only drink they have apart from water is a chocolate drink (which I liked, but it’s not what I need). In fairness though, they have bananas, strawberries, watermelons, some rice cakes, and arrozcaldo. I was looking forward to a warm cup of coffee and a hardboiled egg, but I wasn’t having any here. The two liter sports drink I brought were almost completely empty so you can imagine my frustration. Anyway, I had to make do of what I have and so I ate a banana, a few strawberries, and after finishing my rice cake, I was back on the race. Time to finish this!
My right knee was starting to act up as I started running. It was pretty unfortunate as there were a lot of downhills from AS3 where I could’ve gained more time! It was pretty painful on my knee whenever I run so I had to throttle down and settle for walking.
What comes up must come down, and from AS3 going back to AS2 is mostly downhill. And as if my right knee pain was not enough, the lack of electrolytes caught up on me. As I was going down one of these steep part of the route, I suddenly had a very painful cramp on my right calf as I was reaching for my landing! It was a good thing that I was always being cautious as I might have fallen off the ravine had I been standing high and not holding onto something! I literally shouted in pain and was in a semi-fetal position on the side of the trails. Eventually, some runners caught up to me and one was really kind enough to lend me his liniment roll to apply on my cramping calf. I really, really appreciated the kind gesture and at that point I realized that I’m back in the company of ultra-trail runners I grew accustomed to: friendly and always willing to help. This is the TNF100 I knew! Sure, the briefing saw some very competitive participants, but out here, at the back of the pack, the folks I knew are still here!
After my cramp subsided, I was back on the trails. It was a pretty bad timing as I was in some of the more challenging downhills of the trails. And just as I thought I was getting better, my left calf had cramps as well. And then later, the right, and then the left, and so on. I kept having cramps left and right like blinking Christmas lights so I really, really have to be cautious with every step as one wrongly timed move and cramp could send me spiraling down the mountain. I was even joking in my mind that as long as I fall along the race route, it’s fine as it may be a faster way to go down!
With both calves ready to have cramps anytime, right knee in pain, and the rest of my leg muscles also feeling on the verge of having cramps, my walk was easy, steady, and very cautious. Interestingly, it had taught me how to better manage downhills! I realize that I was landing on my forefoot as I land during downhills which provides less traction for me since I’m not running downhill. Since I can’t extent my foot to land on my forefoot (as my calf may suddenly have a cramp), I was forced to land onto my heels where I discovered I had more traction. And so my confidence with the downhills grew, but I still had to deal with my other leg issues. And my camera had to return into my backpack too to reduce the number of things I had to be mindful of.
Surprisingly, I caught up with a lot of runners on my way down. We each completed practically a marathon distance already at this time so saying we’re tired is an understatement, but the lack of electrolyte drinks does take its toll on many. It was just fortunate that there’s a store near the lowest point of the trail that sells soft drinks and sports drinks so many runners took this opportunity to rest and recover. I though was determined to just finish the race and continued moving, slowly and surely. I was consuming my sports gel and Oreos as I move alone for my nutritional support, but they’re not really enough to handle my cramps.
Arriving at AS2 marked the start of our descent. After refilling my hydration bottles with water (as nothing else is available here as well) and consuming a banana, I was off. Initially the uphills were relatively easy so I was able to overtake some runners along the way (I walk fast! :D). Eventually, this nightmare came and ended my walking streak:
I did my best to go as far as I can, but it just seems to never end! Eventually I had to stop midway and catch my breath. It was such a relief when I finally completed these flights of stairs, but they’re only the beginning of so much more uphills ahead! With so many uphills, my legs became “vegetables.”
But wait, there’s more! As if the uphills weren’t enough, the weather acted up too! A thunderstorm approached as I was climbing, and I was deeply concerned as there were lightning. I had to move as fast as I can when I reached the vegetable farm area as it was open, fearing that I may get struck by lightning. Eventually, I reached AS1.
Thankfully, there were medics in AS1 so they were able to spray some liniments on my calves. And to my surprise, they have Gatorade! I took an entire 500mL bottle with me as I entered the trails of Camp John Hay.
Rain started to pour when I arrived in AS1 and it got stronger as I entered the trails. At first it was nice as I got to cool down, but then again it’s Baguio and so after some time, it got tool cool for my comfort! Temperature dropped back to around 15°c and I was walking with soaked clothes (down to my underwear) under a strong downpour. The trails got all muddy and had puddles in the middle, and as I avoided these puddles, I got another cramp! I’ve literally lost count on how many times I got cramps on each calf. The thought of being almost done kept me motivated to move on despite being in pain and feeling cold.
And then I noticed that I had been walking for so long and I still see no sign of the finish line! My Garmin Fenix 2 had indicated that I had passed the 50K mark already but I still don’t seem to be anywhere near the finish! Even the rains had stopped. Wow! Well, what can you do? Keep moving! And then I saw a marshal on the trails and he mentioned that I’m less than a kilometer to the finish. I jokingly replied (in vernacular), “I hope that’s serious as I’ve been looking for the finish line for a long time now!”
And then finally, another marshal greeted me as I got out of the trails, telling me which way to go to the finish. I was running on a concrete road with cars passing beside me, when I finally saw the finish line! And when I saw a tarp on the finish line like those I see on Ironman, I just said to myself, “are you serious?” I’ve always envied how the finish line was set up on Ironman, and now I got to experience something similar to it! Unbelievable!
And as I approached the finish line, I heard the host mentioned my bib number. Sure, I was waiting to hear him mention my name, but I didn’t mind that he didn’t or wasn’t able to. I was still ecstatic that I’m finally done, but my surprise wasn’t over as I saw an old friend, Christine “Jovial Wanderer,” on the finish line as my finisher’s medal was being put around my head. And so that’s how I got this very nice picture of me as I finished my race.
I finished my 50K race (which was more than 52K according to my Garmin Fenix 2) in 12:32:30 (according to the official race results). It’s anything but fast, but the 50K is anything but easy as well. I’m glad that I was able to reach my goals (AS3 by 11AM, 50K in under 12 hours) despite my challenges. After six years, I’m glad to have broken all the boundaries that prevented me from doing an ultramarathon trail and finally got reunited with TNF100. This may be the shortest TNF100 race I’ve ever joined (as all my previous participation, 2009 and 2010, were all 100K) but it’s equally challenging and memorable. Another one for the books!
So, see you next year then? 😀