Friday, September 21, 2018

Itogonia Wild Country Trail Run Post-Race Report

I jumped out of the couch when the alarm clock rang. It was 2:00 am. In two hours and a half, a race director will beat a gong to mark the start of the Itogonia Wild Country Trail Run. Excited and sort of afraid at the same time, I took a quick shower, ate a breakfast of rice, eggs, and beans, and checked my running gear. Hydration pack. Check. Water bottles. Check. First aid kit. Check. Trail food. Check. Headlight. Check. Whistle. Check. Running shoes and socks. Check. I was ready to rumble.

I met up with a friend who was also running in the event and we took a cab to Camp John Hay, the location of the start and finish line of the race. I lined up to have my mandatory gear inspected. I was running in the 32-kilometer category and our start time was scheduled for 4:30 am. My friend who was running in the 16-kilometer category will have his start at 5:30 am. Another friend who signed up with the 8-kilometer category will have her start at 6:30 am.

I also saw many familiar faces and friends at the race, many of whom have been hiking buddies during previous mountain climbing trips. I was in good company. So everything was good. I started feeling relaxed. Before I knew it, it was 4:30 and runners started trooping to the starting line. “Runners ready! Two minutes to go!” shouted the race director. I took my place at the third or fourth row behind the frontline. This was my first trail running race so I was basically going by instinct. Most of the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. Should I go in front? Should I stay at the farthest end of the pack? So I just took my place at the middle of the pack.

And off we went! The leading pack of runners shot ahead. The first thing that came to my mind was “If they can maintain that pace for the rest of the race, me and everybody else are screwed!” I kind of just laughed off the thought and ran ahead to catch up with another pack of runners. There were probably three or four packs ahead of ours. Right then and there I’ve decided to stick with the pack and see if I can keep up with them. And I was able to for some time.

But as we covered more and more kilometers, the tides started to change. The pack started to break apart. Those with better endurance went ahead. Some got left behind. As I got used to the trails, I realized that in order for me to finish the race, I needed to take a conservative approach. And that is to maintain a slow but steady pace so as not to burn myself out. I’ve studied the map of the race a day before the event and I saw that the trail to the finish line was an uphill climb. So I decided to take a moderate pace so that I will have enough strength left for the last uphill climbs.

I’d like to believe that my plan sort of worked because only a few runners passed me during the race. I also managed to overtake a few runners who started really strong but burned themselves out down the stretch.

When the pack of runners I joined early on the race broke apart, I was pretty much left on my own. Most of the time, I was running alone. However, around halfway during the race, I shared the trails with three runners. They would pass me. Then I would pass them. Then they would pass me again. This went on for quite some time. However, during the last quarter of the race, one was able to gain considerable distance over us. I decided to follow him and see if I can overtake him. I never did. But I managed to pass by three other runners who seemed to have either tired themselves out or just wanted to enjoy the sceneries before they get to the finish line.

I ran the last couple of kilometers to the finish line. My knees were shaking in pain. Blisters in my right foot were popping. But I had one goal and that was to reach the finish line before other runners overtake me. I did make it to the finish line, the 20th runner (out of more than 90 runners) to do so. And it felt great.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons from this race which took runners through the trails of Camp John Hay to the mountains of Itogon, Benguet. I regularly hike and run in the mountains but this is my first time to join an official trail running event. When I signed up for this race, I was afraid they weren’t going to allow me because I have zero experience in official trail running events. I registered anyway and they didn’t ask any questions so it was good. I was able to get in.

Then race day came. It was much harder than I had expected. Due to the incessant rains, the trails were muddy and slippery. In many portions of the course, runners were literally trudging through inches of mud. I managed to be the 20th runner to reach the finish line but I know I could’ve done better. I know I could’ve pushed harder if I tried. There were so many mistakes in the way I managed my run that need either fixing or improvement. As I said earlier, I learned many lessons that day. The most glaring of which are as follows:

1. Focus on a steady pace, not on speed. I’m not saying that speed is irrelevant but what good is speed if you burn yourself out every 15 minutes? I’d like to think that endurance is king and that speed is secondary. These are just my initial thoughts on the matter. During the race, there was one runner who maintained a good distance away from me. I would catch up with him at the aid stations. I was running and he was mostly walking and jogging but I never caught up with him on the way to the finish line. He was able to maintain his pace while I kept burning myself out trying to catch up with him. I ended up taking a lot of rest-stops along the way. Not a good race strategy at all.

2. Train during the weeks prior to the race. I did a bit of jogging and running prior to the race but I am certain that these weren’t enough. I think that if you want to finish a 32-kilometer race strong, you need to put in the hours in training. I don’t have the slightest idea on how to train for long races. That said, I have a long way to go before I’d learn how to train properly for an endurance race. Suffice it to say that I’ve started doing my research on how to train properly and I’d like to think that it’s going well, so far.

3. Position yourself at the frontline during the start of the race. Of course, this is only applicable if you are confident about your training and your ability to keep up with the leading pack. There are two huge benefits of running with the leading pack. One, human traffic is common in trail runs and you can easily get left behind if you are too polite to overtake other runners. Two, it’s good to run with the front runners because you are forced or shall I say encouraged to perform your best. If the pack is running at a fast pace, you will be forced to keep up. Of course, there’s an inherent risk to this strategy. You can burn yourself out quickly. Again, I think it’s a confidence game.

4. The importance of trekking poles in trail running. About two weeks before the race when I registered for the event at an outdoor gear shop in Center Mall, Baguio City, one of the shopkeepers suggested that I should get a pair of trekking poles. I just shrugged off the advice. I told him I’ll be fine without it. Well, I came to learn that I should’ve taken his advice. Trail running involves a lot of uphill and downhill climbs. At the Itogonia Trail Run, runners have to go up and then down wet and muddy paths. It’s during these climbs that I realized the importance of trekking poles. You can use poles not only to propel yourself forward but to support yourself while you navigate through muddy trails. Having no trekking poles with me, I improvised and found a pair of sturdy pinetree sticks. Using the sticks helped a lot. It’s like having four legs instead of two.

5. Spend less time at the aid stations. There were five aid stations for the Itogonia Trail Run. If I remember correctly, I didn’t stop at the first station. But for the next four stations, I stopped and wasted precious time resting and relaxing. At one station, one of the marshals urged me to go before more runners catch up with me. I found that funny. I would’ve sat in the chair for a minute more if he didn’t suggest that I get going. I do believe that I would’ve completed a stronger finish if I didn’t linger too much at the aid stations.

Photo by Team Tagtag.
6. Hydrating and fueling properly during the run. I had no idea what I was doing in this regard. As far as water was concerned, my plan was straight-forward. Don’t run out of water before an aid station. I never ran out. Actually, most of the time, I didn’t even drink half of my bottle when I get to an aid station for a refill. It’s the fueling part that I think got me. I didn’t know jack about what I’m doing. I had chocolate bars and packets of Nips in my trail pack. Every thirty minutes or so, I would take a few bites. I would also eat some of the available food at the aid stations (i.e. bananas, boiled eggs, rice cakes, puto, kutsinta). I don’t know but my stomach felt heavy the entire race. This is definitely something that I need to work on. Find a way to refuel and take in calories during the race without jeopardizing my run.

7. Always check if you are running on the right course. During the Itogonia Trail Run, I got lost thrice. Yes, three freaking times. Although I believe that most of the errors were not on my part but on the part of the organizers of the event. The first time I got lost, I was with a pack of six runners. We were running on a paved road and we didn’t see the arrow sign that says we need to get off the road and follow a trail that goes left. We realized we were on the wrong course when we came across some race marshals who told us that we needed to go back because we were on the wrong path.

The second time I got lost, I was alone. I came upon a junction but there were no ribbons or tags that signal which road I should take. I basically just took a guess and picked one of the roads. Unfortunately for me, it was the wrong road and I lost more precious minutes running back to the junction and getting back on course. The third time I got lost, I was with someone. I was focused in following another runner and trying to catch up with him that I forgot looking for ribbons marking the course. The runner took a wrong turn and I followed him not realizing that we were on the wrong direction. I saw him stop in his tracks and start running back. That’s when I realized we’re on the wrong course.

All of these are definitely mistakes that can be easily fixed or improved upon. That’s it for today. See you all in the next trail run.