You might be asking what inspires one to “want” to run over 200km on a road course that decends to sea level and then ascends to an altitude of 1,500m not once, but twice with over 5,000m of elevation gain and descent throughout. Well having personally joined and completed FrontRunner Magazine’s Ocho Ocho 220km Road Race between June 13 and June 15, 2014 which started and finished in Baguio City in Central Luzon, Philippines I think I’m in a great position to talk about the answer to this from personal experience.
I think the following phrase, “Everyone is broken by life, but some people are stronger in the broken places.” penned by Ernest Hemmingway embodies the mentality of the ultra marathoner. For me the answer to the question “why” I run these kinds of races and distances is very simple. I want to push the limits of my endurance, both physically and mentally to see of what I’m actually capable. How long can I go and how fast can I do it. These are the two key motivating factors behind the events I attempt. It’s less about competing with other runners although being out there with friends (the ultra running community is relatively small and tight-knit) and fellow competitors certainly gives additional motivation along the way. A podium finish (if it happens) is just icing on the cake.
I have learnt that in order to finish a race of this magnitude it is far more mental determination than physical capability (although that does also play a role) that gets you to the finish line. I am often asked how much training I do in order to run distances of this magnitude. Well most people would be surprised to learn that my typical training regimen (not including races) would range from about 50km up to a maximum of about 100km per week (this is small by most ultra running standards). Some of this training would be on the roads and some on the trails. Particularly on the trails there is typically a lot more walking than running due to the terrain but the trails do help to build strength in areas that cannot be achieved through road running alone. My weekly training duration ranges from about 6 hours up to about 12 hours depending on my other work and personal commitments and of course how I’m feeling.
Now to the race itself. What I have learnt is that there is no such thing as the perfect preparation for any ultra marathon. As a runner I’ve learnt that you need to make the commitment and believe in yourself and that you are not just capable of finishing but that you are capable of finishing strong. My motto: “No excuses. Only results.” embodies the attitude I like to bring to these events.
The 2014 Ocho Ocho 220 had a small start list of just 12 dedicated ultra runners consisting of some of the most accomplished ultra runners in the Philippines and including one Malaysian competitor. As the runners assembled at the starting line (Baguio City Hall) prior to the start at 5.00am on Friday 13th June 2014 the weather was somewhat cloudy and rain appeared imminent. I arrived at the start line with my support crew consisting of my wife Mae, our driver Andy and our extra support Mika. I was happy that my wife and Andy already had experience acting as my support crew during my West Coast 200km road run in November 2013 so they knew what to expect during the race.
As the competitors assembled for the start, a light rain commenced. This was a sign of things to come as we later discovered, as we were about to experience many instances of rain throughout the event. Personally, this was not a problem for me, as I tend to perform better in cooler weather as opposed to hot, sunny, humid conditions. The only concern for me was whether having wet feet would lead to the formation of blisters, which can, at a minimum slow you down and in severe cases stop you altogether. In any case, the weather is not in our control so as ultra runners we just need to “roll with the punches”, so to speak and adjust to the conditions. Photos were taken on the steps of the City Hall and then the runners gathered at the base of the steps for the somewhat subdued start and sendoff. There was a long way to go and I’m sure we were all deep in thought about the long journey ahead.
The race consisted of two loops in the shape of an eight when laid out on a map (hence the term Ocho Ocho – Ocho is derived from the Spanish word for eight) with the start, halfway point and finish line in Baguio City.
The Race Director, Jonel Mendoza counted down to the start and then three of the runners: Marcelo Bautista, Wilnar Iglesia and Benedict Meneses all sprinted off down the small hill and onto Kisad Road heading out to Marcos Highway which leads down to the province of La Union. I was surprised at the starting pace of these three runners (considering the long distance ahead), but I decided not to be phased by that and stick to my plan to run / walk at a pace which would get me back to Baguio City (a distance of 119km) feeling “relatively” fresh and ready to complete the second loop of about 100km. Within a couple of minutes Marcelo and Wilnar had disappeared into the distance and I quite quickly caught up to Benedict who I think must have had a rush of adrenaline at the start. I settled into a very comfortable pace in third position and just wanted to enjoy the cool morning conditions in the mountains of the Cordilleras. It would be all downhill for a distance of about 34km so I knew I had to “preserve” my quadriceps, knees and ankles from the strain of running downhill as I would need to traverse this road again at the start of the second loop. Having run the first 60km of this route in a previous race I knew exactly what to expect.
I advised my support crew to initially stop at 5km intervals as I carried one bottle of water to sustain me between support stops. The first 20km of the race was uneventful but I just focussed on remaining comfortable and enjoying the experience for as long as possible. I would watch the other support crews drive past and this would give me an idea of how close the following runners were behind me. As we descended, the temperature and humidity in the lowlands increased significantly over that which we had experienced during the earlier portions of the race. I removed my rain jacket initially as I was feeling hot and eventually I also removed my shirt as it was soaked and weighing me down. This also allowed my body to discipate the heat more effectively.
During my descent it appeared that Marcelo and Wilnar had set a “cracking” pace and had already put quite a large amount of distance between themselves and the rest of the runners. I was just wondering how long they could keep up the pace. With regards to Marcelo this question would be answered when I reached the 49km check point at Agoo and I came across Marcelo who appeared to be “wasted”. He apparently was experiencing “chafing” in his nether regions also, which, considering the distance yet to be completed was a sure sign that things would not bide well for him in the long run. My support crew assisted Marcelo (who was semi-self supported) as much as possible with ice, cream for chafing and food. I also learnt that Wilnar was over 1 hour ahead at this early stage.
I changed out of my wet socks to a fresh pair and I set off along MacArthur Highway just a short distance behind Marcelo and soon was overtaking him with Marcelo trying to remain by my side. After some time, Marcelo dropped back due to his condition. I had moved into second place. In order to maintain my motivation, my goal was now to remain in second place up until the mid way point in Baguio City. The temperature was rising, the rain had stopped and the traffic along the highway meant more focus was required in order to avoid an accident. I had to replace my shirt to avoid sunburn and I was now running and walking in order to regulate my body temperature, as heat stroke and dehydration are one of the fastest ways to end your chances of completing a race such as this.
I reached the second checkpoint at Bauang at the 72km mark and was feeling much more tired due to the heat and humidity. I also found out that Wilnar now had almost a 3-hour lead. I knew at some point he would have to slow down and so I was not concerned. I was just looking forward to heading back up to higher elevation (and the cooler weather) along the Naguilian Road. As I set out from here the rain started again and in some places it was quite heavy. I actually enjoy running in the rain. I find it somewhat theraputic as well as helping to reduce my body temperature. Maybe it’s a throwback to my childhood days when I used to go out and play in the rain. Anyway, the rain was a welcome relief and I was starting to feel somewhat rejueventated. As the ascent to Baguio City became steeper I was reduced to walking only. There were stages of walking close to the river and it was also a relief to be amongst the forest environment again and away from so much traffic and pollution.
As the daylight wained, the temperature dropped and more energy returned to my body. My goal was now to get to Baguio City in order to have a short but essential rest before attempting the second loop. Due to the fact that I was walking it seemed like an eternity before I reached the outskirts of Baguio City and then even longer before I recognised I was approaching the town hall (the halfway point). I walked into the town hall in the early hours of the morning 18 hrs 30 mins after the start and exactly five hours after Wilnar who I later found out had not even stopped to rest at this point. I was surprised at Wilnar’s move as there was still over 100km to go in order to complete the race. My wife Mae (being the head of the support crew) advised she was going to allow me to rest for one hour only which, although welcome seemed a little “light on” from my perspective. But in my condition who was I to argue. My support vehicle was the only place I really had to get a rest so I made myself as comfortable as possible (considering my 6’2”, 82kg frame) and tried to sleep. I must have dozed off for some time and when I “came to” it appeared two hours had elapsed. I thought Mae must have also dozed off and not realised the time as she had originally allowed me only 1 hour but I was also somewhat releived that I had received more rest than expected. I was feeling quite good so I quickly woke up my crew and got myself ready with socks and shoes. As I was preparing myself I saw the Malaysian competitor Yim, heading off to his second loop. Since the start of the race the only competitors I had seen in the flesh was Yim and Benedict at the halfway point. Yim’s move would now mean I was relegated into third position. I was a little panicked as I was hoping to maintain my second position but Mae just told me to relax and continue to do my best.
It was still very early in the morning as I headed off down the road I had started out on the day before (a little bit of de-ja-vu set in). In a way it was great to have Yim out in front of me and so my goal was now to remain within “striking” distance. It’s strange what things you can get to motivate yourself in races such as this. I have a very competitive streak and I was using this competitiveness to motivate myself to keep going.
Once again my goal was to move at a modest pace (sometimes jogging, sometimes walking) whilst trying to leave “enough in the tank” to ensure I got to the finish line. This journey down the mountain was a little slower than the day before and the termperature and humidity in the lowlands also appeared to be higher. When approaching the checkpoint at Agoo (168 km) for the second time, the rain was once again showing itself, which was another welcome relief. When I reached this point I also found out that Yim was now 1 hour ahead of me whilst I had only given him a half hour start earlier in the morning. Wilnar was now six hours ahead, which seemed an impossible margin to close at this stage of the race considering there was only around 52km until the finish line. But as they say “It aint over til it’s over”. I resolved to increase my speed but I was having a hard time due to the hot and humid conditions. I was resting more often and my support vehicle was now stopping every 2km. I was starting to doubt my ability to complete the race at this point but I was still determined to push as hard as I could. “Things can only get better” as they say.
So I started out from the Agoo checkpoint in the opposite direction down the MacArthur Highway from the day before. The rain was still falling and so the conditions from my perspective were about as good as they were going to get. At this stage I was no longer running and was just trying to maintain a race-walking pace to get through the remaining kilometers as fast as possible. My goal was to make up some ground on the second place runner, Yim. This was a difficult section of the route due to the humidity and the fact that so many heavy vehicles were using such a narrow section of road. I had to be consistently on alert to avoid being hit by oncoming vehicles. Luckily there was only one close encounter along this section of road. I was really looking forward to reaching Kennon Road (at about the 185km point) that would signal the final stretch of road running along the river to Baguio City through the beautiful forest landscapes. As the altitude would be increasing this would also bring a drop in temperature. I ended up reaching this section as the daylight was fading. This is the start of the steepest climb of the race but personally I like climbs better than decents. I just wanted to ensure I had the energy to complete this (considering the distance I had already come).
Up until this point in the race my diet had consisted mainly of smoothies (made of vegetables, fruit and other plant-based super foods from the SuperFoodGrocer Philippines), bananas and water for fluids supplemented by Salt Sticks for salt and electrolyte replacement. However, as I had run out of these smoothie “concoctions” I was now down to eating whatever we could find along the route as well as some gels I had brought with me for energy.
I was feeling more energised as the heat and humidity of the daytime decreased and I started to pick up my pace in an effort to catch Yim who was (as far as I knew) still holding on to second place. Night had decended and then at one point I saw one of the other competitor’s support vehicles come by from behind (obviously checking out my location to see if there was a possibility of their runner moving up in rankings). This gave me further motivation to go faster to ensure at least a podium finish (if not second place). During this part of the race my support crew had received news that Yim had “quit” the race and decided not to continue about 15km short of the finish line. They decided not to inform me in order to continue to give me motivation so that I may continue to strive to pick him up in the dying stages of the race. In hindsight this was a good decision by my support crew and enabled me to continue being motivated to move forward. With the push from behind and the motivation to improve my position up front I felt re-energized and was moving up the steepest section of the course with improved speed and almost no rest breaks. I continued this last spurt until jogging up the steps of the town hall to reach the finish line. Only then I was informed that I had reached the finish in second place and a mere one hour and 16 minutes shy of the winner Wilnar.
Looking at the final statistics, in the last 52kms of the race I managed to close the gap on the winner Wilnar from 5 hrs 55 min to just 1 hr 16 mins of which I was quite proud. This is the longest foot race I have completed thus far and was also one of the most enjoyable for me.
This is not the end of my quest. I have longer and more difficult goals to accomplish.
Race Split Times:
- Pugo / Tubao Junction, Marcos Highway (34km) – 3hrs 22min 41sec
- Agila ng Agoo, Marcos Highway / MacArthur Highway (49km) – 4hrs 58min 55sec
- Bauang, La Union (72km) – 8hrs 52min 47secs
- Baguio City Hall (119km) – 18hrs 30min 06secs
- Agila ng Agoo, Marcos Highway / MacArthur Highway (168km) – 30hrs 47min
- Baguio City Hall (220km) – 44hrs 18min 38secs
OCHO OCHO 220KM
Run of a Lifetime
Front Runner Magazine