Event: Camiguin 360 (64k ULTRAMARATHON), March 29, 2015 >>
[Note from the author: I submitted this for Mindanews’s “Our Mindanao” magazine.]
AFTER FINISHING THREE marathons barefoot last year (Ahoooo!Ahooo! Ahooo!), I felt it was time to level up. The next step? Ultra marathons! Meaning, foot races longer than 42.195 kilometers.
So when I read about the April 12 Camiguin 360 Ultra Marathon, along the island’s 64k circumferential road, I signed up immediately.
My wife and I arrived in Camiguin a day before the race because I wanted to check out the route. We hired a habalhabal (motorcycle) so we could see the entire stretch. A few times I asked the driver to stop so I could feel the road’s surface. Smooth, easy on the soles, except for the short detours in three bridges being repaired.
I got tips from our driver Alan where the dark portions are, so I could watch the road more closely during the evening run with my head lamp on full power. He even told us one horror story of a habalhabal driver whose passenger asked him to fetch someone in a hospital in the Kilometer 21 area, where the dark roads are. Turned out that someone was actually a dead man, to be brought home, but the driver wasn’t informed to save money because the funeral parlor charges a lot. The driver was fuming mad when he ultimately confirmed his suspicion. He was wondering why the fully dressed man’s arms and legs were flailing, and his nose, touching the driver’s nape every now and then, was cold, no warm air coming out.
I’m sure my legs can last the distance, but not so sure if my soles can. There’s only one way to find out. I have one fear though – the rain. So far, I have run only a few kilometers barefoot in the rain. Stories I read online are conflicting. Others saying the soles may soften when wet and thus prone to injury, while others saying it’s just a matter of technique – bend the knees, do shorter but quicker strides, don’t push off but instead lift your feet, land softly in the midfoot, don’t skid.
But at the back of my mind, I had decided that if it rains, I’ll wear my huaraches, or running sandals. My version is nothing but a pair of Spartan tsinelas with the straps modified. I’d rather finish the race than quit – in running parlance, DNF (did not finish) – because of injury.
There were strong rains the night before the race, and scattered rain showers the morning after. A few hours before the 10 p.m. start, I could see no stars at all, although the bright moon was peeping through the thick clouds.
Two hours before gun time, I prepared my gear – headlamp, spare batteries for the lamp, running cap (not for the sun, but to redirect the dripping sweat away from my eyes), hydration bottle, huaraches, spare laces for the huaraches, salt tablets, anti-asthma meds (yep, I’m asthmatic since childhood), a light dri-fit jacket, smartphone with a GPS-powered running app installed, some small chocolate bars and small packs of M&M, Ziplocs, Band-Aid, Betadine, a few bills for whatever I need to buy on the road, or for habalhabalfare should I go DNF. Except the huaraches, headlamp and running cap that I wore as I walked towards the starting line, all these were placed inside a small backpack and a belt bag that doubles as my bib holder.
Still no rain at the starting line. So I removed my huaraches, which is my usual walking footwear, and placed them inside my backpack.
In our running group that we call the Iligan Trail Runners, seven of us joined – four boys and three girls. Junjei the veteran ultra runner (he placed second in the country’s first 250k race held in Cebu last year) sprinted away as he joined the lead pack, while Edward and Elmer were somewhere in the middle. I am the slowest among the boys (need I say the oldest?), so I ran the girls’ pace.
The first 15k was uneventful, and fun, as there were still alot of runners clumped into groups. There were a lot of spectators, too, as Camiguin residents were still wide awake greeting us on the road.
Grace was dictating the pace: a few minutes of walking break after every 5k of running. But past 10k, we agreed on her suggested pace of 10-minute run + 1-minute walk. I was comfortable with it. The trick in a long run is to pace yourself properly, so that towards the end you won’t hit the wall and won’t drop out the race. To finish strong is the mantra.
A long uphill road began as we approached the 20k mark. No problem, I knew about it already, and we climbed quite a lot of steeper hills in our training. Save energy by walking. But then came a strong rain. What to do now? Jacket? Huaraches? But I didn’t feel cold at all, and my soles felt just fine. Okay, no changes at this point.
Going downhill was a different story. Since we now started running, my soles can feel the sharp texture of the freshly concreted road. It hurt. But it felt better as the road flattened.
We stuck to our 10:1 routine, Grace reminding us every time. Meanwhile, the road was still wet.
Before the next aid station at 32k, I felt sharp pain on my right sole, at the ball of the foot near the big toe. It really hurt when I step on pebbles, even the smallest ones. At the station, I checked my sole in the bright light. No injuries! That bolstered my spirits, even if a race marshal approached to ask me if I was okay running barefoot. I assured him I was fine.
Then Grace called her partner if he could please drive toward us so she could change shoes. For shod runners, it’s torture to be running on wet shoes and socks; blisters are likely to form, especially with 32k more to go. Hazel wanted to change clothes, too.
Now that Rico can look after the girls, I decided to just run ahead. Maybe because we started slow, and maybe because the road was dry by then, I felt I had the energy to run a bit faster. I overtook a few.
At 40k, I made the mistake of grabbing a camote. It was cooked so dry I had difficulty chewing and swallowing it. I ended up spitting it on the river and drank lots of water.
Because I run barefoot, I don’t make noise as I run. While all alone in a long stretch of dark road, I saw three lady runners ahead of me. They were resting at the time, walking, chatting. I was beside them, just inches away, when I said: “Labay lang ko.” (“Just passing through.”) To my surprise, they all jumped and screamed. Turned out I know one of them. Sharon said later they were talking about the woman they met moments before, who had unkempt hair they thought she must be a witch.
Somewhere in Catarman, I heard someone shouting at me, “Mangape sa ta!” It was Raul, a runner from Butuan whom I met in my two marathons in Cagayan de Oro last year. He doesn’t like shoes, too, preferring sandals instead. He was comfortably seated in a bakery sipping coffee and eating bread. Wow! I declined the offer because I had coffee before the run, and I thought we shouldn’t have the luxury to be sitting somewhere sipping coffee in the middle of a foot race. But Raul overtook me later. We took turns overtaking each other, but I reached the finish line much earlier. But that’s getting ahead of the story….
Dawn came between the 45k and 50k aid stations, somewhere in the Sunken Cemetery area. I removed my cap and my lamp. I was feeling great, even running most of the uphill routes. My soles were ok, too.
Approaching the 50k station, a race marshal advised me to take the right side of the road because they saw broken glass on the left.
I stopped for water and some food. When I took off, I noticed flickering in my vision. Uh-oh … could this be the effect of seeing so many blinkers? But several kilometers later, I still see slight flickers.
That scared me. During the tour for runners around Camiguin the day before, I heard Raul’s story when he passed out a few kilometers before the finish line in a marathon in Davao City recently. He didn’t know what happened. When he woke up, he was already inside the ambulance. DNF for him.
I decided to take it slow, and took more walking breaks. Two more problems arose.
First, my soles hurt. From experience, I find it easier to run barefoot than walk. Should I wear the huaraches then? C’mon Bob, you’ve run this far! It’s just over 14k or so more! So I decided to go for broke –- barefoot all the way no matter what. Although it was overcast, and still so early in the morning, it felt like my soles were on fire. Sometimes I’d run on the grass by the sidewalk, and the morning dew would soothe my soles. But it hurt again when I run on the pavement even though there were no blisters nor skin peeling off.
The second problem -– my fingers swelled. It was the first time I experienced that while running. Coupled with the still lingering slight flickering of my vision, I was one scared runner.
But I had a secret weapon -– my wife, an internist and cardiologist, who’s maybe still asleep or already waiting for me at the finish line. It’s just one easy phone call and I’d be reassured I’ll be all right, or told what to do for the symptoms to go away, or, worse, advised to go DNF.
Problem was, while my phone was getting strong signals from Smart and Globe, and the GPS tracking app was still working fine, I could not call nor text! Maybe the moist damaged the circuit? I approached a lady runner from Cagayan de Oro (sorry, forgot the name) and asked if I could borrow her phone so I could call my wife. She was so kind she brought out her phone right away. But my wife missed the call. I asked the lady to please text my wife to make sure she should be at the finish line by now. Miriam returned the call later, but the lady already sprinted away by then. Miriam didn’t get the text message, too.
Okay Bob, you’re on your own. I was praying that should I collapse on the road, there’ll be an ambulance nearby.
Despite the scary thoughts in my mind and my soles on fire, the rest of me felt okay. I laughed with the crowd who were wondering what happened to my shoes. I kept blurting out my usual replies: “Shoes are expensive, I can’t afford a pair!” “I didn’t notice the snatcher take my shoes away!” “I was held up!” I even joked when I passed by kids: “Can I borrow your slippers?” They just shook their heads.
Past 60k, I kept asking how far the Cabua-an Beach Resort was. Everyone said, “Duol na!” (“It’snear!”) At 64k, I thought I should be approaching the finish line. But nah, sorry Bob. During the race briefing, we were told they moved the finish line to Cabua-an, instead of the Ferrabrel Beach Resort. The organizers asked us if it was okay, and everyone said okay, except for one lady who stood up to say that a little more distance added will mean a lot as we approach the finish line. That was how I felt exactly, cursing as I was running, wondering where the heck the finish line was.
But then I mustered all energy when I hit the 65k mark, ignoring the pain in my soles. I hit the finish line in 10 hrs 13 mins, way past my target of 9 hours. (My tracking app said total distance was 66.2k.) But as a first time ultra runner, barefoot at that, and at my age approaching half a century, I think it’s not bad. And I just love it when I finish strong –- running the second half of the race faster than the first.
Time to check the soles. Look Ma, no injuries, not even blisters! It’s funny to know that the shod runners, especially the beginners, were complaining of pain in their feet, the soles particularly, and blisters because of the rain and the wet roads. I’m sure not a few toenails died in that race, too. Yep, my soles hurt, but no injuries whatsoever.
Oh well, maybe that’s why I took up barefoot running in the first place -– the shoes really can’t guarantee protection. It may even cause you injury, as what I found out among the other runners in this race. It’s not the shoes you wear no matter the promised protection the manufacturer advertised; try strengthening your feet instead. The best way to do it? It’s just like raising a child: you won’t strengthen their character by providing them all the protection you can give.
As to my fears? My wife said the flickering of my vision could be due to low sugar or low blood pressure, which could be relieved by eating and drinking. I ate enough bananas and M&M and drank lots of water and Gatorade in the aid stations and while on the road. The swelling fingers, turned out it’s common during exercise with increased blood flow through the fingers, and partly due to low sodium in the body, says the Mayo Clinic website. Glad I didn’t drink just water because this could lead to low sodium. And maybe the sodium chloride (a.k.a. salt) tablet I popped at around 40k helped.
After all the torture I went through, not to mention depriving myself of sleep, the big question is –- will I do it again? Nah, I don’t think so, not another 66k please! But me and my running buddies are looking at Davao’s 80k for next year. And if all goes well, a 100k looks attractive for 2016.
* Photos without credits are from the author.