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Clark-Miyamit Falls Trail Ultra

November, 2017

The Race

The Clark-Miyamit Falls Trail Ultra (CM50) is an out-and-back trail race beginning in Clark, the Philippines. A 50 mile (84 km, 3120 m elevation) and a 60 km distance are on offer, both with tight cut-off times. This is not a race for beginners or those looking for an easy day out. The course takes you along the lahar-filled Sacobia River for several kilometres before heading straight up towards Mt Pinatubo. It returns along the same path with a detour via the majestic Miyamit Falls. Completing the 50 mile course earns you the coveted title of “Bad Ass”. 

 

 

The CM50 is a part of the Asia Trail Master series, a group of trail races across Asia where you can earn points (based on performance) to become the Asia Trail Master each year. Before CM50 I was sitting second on the leaderboard. Third place, Ruth, was also running this race, both of us vying for the top spot. Alongside the Asia Trail Master competition is the Grandmaster quest, which requires a runner to finish six races of 70 km or more within two years (which is not performance-based). CM50 would be my sixth race. 

The view from the course. Photo credit: Kirk Kenny / Studio Zag.

The Lead Up

After the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 100 km nine weeks earlier, I took it easy for a couple of weeks before heading to Indonesia for the Mesastila Peaks Challenge 65 km. I wasn’t sure how I would go with only two weeks between races but I managed to pull out a decent performance on the beautiful course. While I was fine physically, mentally my head wasn’t in it. Before the race started I felt lonely and isolated, not knowing anyone there and not having access to wi-fi to contact anyone. I doubted whether I even wanted to start. I did cross the start line, telling myself that I would be stuck at the race venue regardless so I may as well do something with my time, but for much of the run I felt like quitting. In most races I go through a bad patch, but this was relentless. I questioned multiple times why I even signed up for events if they made me feel this bad. I told myself that if I felt like this in my next couple of events, then maybe running competitively wasn't for me.

 

 

After a few days off and some short, easy runs I got back into training, with only seven weeks until CM50. Motivation to train has never been an issue, and this continued despite my recent performance. I upped my mileage slightly and managed a couple of 40+ km long runs before starting the taper process again. In this time I also headed to the hills south of Saigon for a few days of race-specific training, and added more bridge-running and stair-climbing days to my running plan. I even managed a little cross-training, something I had been neglecting for a few months. Strength training, core work or cycling made an appearance at least twice a week. 

 

 

Three days before the race I took an overnight flight to Manila, and spent Thursday trying to catch up on missed sleep. This was only achieved in one hour chunks, mostly in the lobby of the hotel while I was waiting for my room to be ready. Friday was spent walking around the city - I had never visited the Philippines before and wanted to see a tiny portion of it while I was here. Spending half a day on my feet two days out from a race probably wasn’t the best plan, but I was glad I did it. My aim to catch up on sleep didn't happen, as my hotel neighboured an open-air bar playing live music all night. It was so loud it almost felt like the band was in the room with me. I don’t know how much sleep I achieved on Friday night but it wasn’t nearly enough. 

 

 

The next day I caught the bus up to Clark and attended the pre-race briefing. I expected to pick up my race pack, listen to a few announcements and be out of there. Instead I found a relaxed party atmosphere, with presentations, jokes and light-hearted banter. Many local runners noticed that I was alone so they came up and introduced themselves to me, and before I knew it they were giving me lifts, buying me food and making me feel like one of the gang. It don’t think I have met a more welcoming group of strangers at a race.

 

 

Back at my room I had five hours to catch up on sleep before the 1 a.m. start. I managed one. The rest of the night I watched TV, read, and made sure my mindset was as positive as it could be before heading into this next challenge. I knew that the support I had received from the other athletes and volunteers had greatly affected my state of mind, and I was in a much better position here than I had been before Mesastila. 

Race Day

Is there such a thing as a perfect race? Maybe, maybe not. But today I came pretty close to it.

 

 

At 1 a.m. we were off, both distances starting at the same time. The first 4 km were along flat streets, which I didn’t mind as it gave my muscles a chance to warm up and time for me to find my rhythm before hitting the trails. With everyone starting together I had no idea who was doing which distance, so I just put my head down and focused on my own race.

 

 

Off the road and into the river. The next 4 km were along a wide riverbed lined with lahar (volcanic debris, similar to coarse sand or gravel) with shallow, fast-flowing rivers carving their way through the exposed terrain. This section involved dozens of ankle- to shin-deep water crossings, and we could not see what lay beneath the murky surface. While it was easy to run on the dry sections, the water continuously slowed us down. This was the first race I had ever worn gaiters, and I am grateful that I did - I had no issues with the rocks sneaking into my shoes. 

 

 

Having everyone start at the same time was fantastic. I spent the first 12 km running with others, following their footsteps so I didn’t have to worry about course markings (I wish this was the same at the end of the race). Beyond this I regularly caught up with other runners the whole day, making a nice change from the prolonged solo stints I usually face. 

 

 

Out of the river and onto the trails. The next 15 km consisted of countless short, steep hills followed by runnable flat sections, making the miles fly by. For several kilometres before aid station three (AS3) I ran side by side with a local runner, Arnold, who is currently living in Australia. We had plenty to talk about. This was the fifth time he had run this race, so I knew that while I was with him I would have zero chance of getting lost. 

 

 

After AS3 I was on my own again, facing the real challenge of the day. Not only did the long ascents start but so did the mud. So much mud. I was never warned about the mud. Mud was all I saw for the next five hours. Very little running was accomplished during this time. The trail was easy to follow and there were few intersections, which meant I could concentrate 100% on where I was placing my feet. Many hills required me to use my hands so that I didn't slide straight down the mountain. It was frustrating seeing other competitors run right through it as though it was hard earth, while I looked like an ice skater's first time on the rink, twisting and slipping in every direction. 

 

I fell twice. Once onto rocks, resulting in a lump on my thigh, a bruised hip and scratches down my leg. The other time into mud. The just resulted in my being covered in mud. 

A runnable section. Photo credit: Jaja Ferrer.

From AS4 to the peak daylight appeared, but no sun. The clouds were thick and dropped light rain on us, although we were somewhat protected by the thick forest foliage. The whole scene reminded me of hiking in Costa Rica, where I similarly faced tropical forests, mist, rain, and of course mud. Lots of mud.

 

 

The peak was an exposed mountaintop, bringing sharp winds that kept us cool. I was informed that I was the first female to reach the top, which brought momentary jubilation. After checking in with the volunteers (huddled up in a tent), I refocussed and commenced the downward journey, knowing exactly what lay before me. Mud. 

 

 

Within three minutes of leaving the summit I passed Ruth, the second placed female in the race and unsurprisingly right on my heels. Now that I knew how close she was I wanted to kick myself into gear and try to stretch that lead as much as possible, except that all the mud kept me going at a snail’s pace.

 

 

After coming down from the peak we were required to make a short detour to Miyamit Falls. Climbing 1.5 km straight down the side of a steep mountain led me to the spectacular waterfall, much grander and more impressive than I was expecting. A quick obligatory photo and I was on my way back up. Again I passed Ruth, still the same distance behind me. I knew this could come down to the wire.

 

 

It was at this point the sun decided to show its face. The distance from the waterfall back to AS4 was 1.5 km, with an agonising 220 metres of elevation, and the sun was not what I wanted. Sweat poured out of me, causing my pace to decrease as I tried to prevent myself from overheating. After what felt like an eternity I was elated to reach AS4, as I knew I was on the downhill stretch from there.

 

 

From AS4 I followed the long, muddy hill down to AS3, where I could finally say hello to solid ground. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of views over the surrounding mountains, rolling hills of dark green as far as the eye could see. I would find myself stopping to take it all in, then remember I was in a race and force myself to get going. 

Miyamit Falls. Photo credit: Kian Vicera

Now that it was a reasonable time of day to be awake I was passing the local villagers on the trail. Kids held out their hands as I passed and asked for candy, but unfortunately I had nothing for them. I didn’t think they would be too keen on my Hammer gels. All I could do was smile and wave, hoping they had better luck with other runners.

 

 

Once I had passed AS3 I thought I’d be able to run all the way to the finish, but the course had other plans for me. It seemed that every “flat” section I recalled from earlier that morning was actually a slight uphill on the way back, and the only descents were steep and technical, and therefore largely unrunnable. It took all the strength I had to run the ascents in short stints, counting 100 steps before taking a short break. The blazing sun didn’t disappear either, significantly slowing me down. As if this wasn’t enough, there was a hill that required the use of a rope to reach the top; upper body strength is definitely not my forte. Several torturous minutes were spent here, which I'm sure was five times longer than most other runners. 

 

 

Reaching the river was a blessing for three reasons: the cool relief of the water, the chance to wash the mud off my legs (and arms, and hands) and it was flat. There was no escaping the sun out there, but I knew I was close to the finish so I ran through the heat and water as much as possible.

 

 

Back on the road towards the finish I dug deep and found a burst of energy. I overtook several runners, each of them offering me encouraging words. Everything was going great until I realised I hadn't seen any route markers painted on the road for a while. I came across a security guard at an intersection and asked him which was I was supposed to go. His face said it all - he had no idea what I was talking about. I looked up and down the road but couldn’t see any other runners or clues as to where I should be. With panic starting to rise in my chest I pulled off my pack and grabbed my phone, opening a map to find out where I was. I plotted the route to the finish line and followed the directions back to where I should have been. Several minutes later I caught up to all the runners I had just passed, and passed them all over again. This wasted a good 5-10 minutes, and I wondered if I had lost my lead.

 

 

Ten minutes later it happened again. The arrows suddenly stopped and I didn’t know which way to turn at an intersection. I still had my phone in my hand, so once again I opened the map and tried to find my way. A local boy passed me and pointed down the road, indicating that I should head that in that direction. I thanked him and ran on, eventually seeing the race staff who would direct me to the finish line. With energy to spare I gave it everything I had and crossed the line in first place.

All smiles after the race. Photo credit: Kirk Kenny / Studio Zag.

I was overcome with many positive emotions after the race. It wasn’t just the victory at CM50; I had also achieved my goal this year of earning the Grandmaster status, and I was now at the top of the Asia Trail Master leaderboard. It was this last one that surprised me the most. I didn’t believe I had a chance of winning this competition, and only started seriously considering it halfway through the year.  Even if I didn’t take out the title I was glad to have attempted it. The series has taken me to incredible destinations and introduced me to amazing people that has made the challenge worth the effort. 

 

 

A word on mindset. After Mesastila I was concerned about how I would cope with this race and what the implications might be for my future in running. I was prepared for the worst but planned to be as positive as possible, and the kindness of the other runners helped immensely. As it turned out, I didn’t go through a single bad patch in this race, which is a first for me. I hardly ever used my mantras (maybe just a couple of times in the mud), there were barely any songs running through my head (they are usually on repeat for hours) and I never once wanted to quit. I’m not sure what I was thinking about - maybe I had to concentrate too hard through the muddy sections to think about anything else, maybe it was the thought of Ruth breathing down my neck, or maybe it was having so many other runners around who all gave out supportive messages. I did think often about a friend I lost during the week, and how much strength she showed in her fight against cancer. All I had to do was run for a few hours - it was nothing compared to what she faced every day. Channeling her courage spurred me on several times and gave me the determination to be strong right to the finish line. 

 

 

I changed my nutrition plan slightly for this race. I was reading up on fueling during events and found that I was possibly eating too much while running, which could be leading to the nausea I had felt for the last few races. Inversely I was probably not drinking enough water, so I wanted to make more of an effort there too. As always I started out with Hammer gels and dates, then after several hours I moved on to real food. Runivore bars and Vegemite sandwiches were my main fuel sources, topped up with a little fruit and some amazing coconut sticky rice snacks at the aid stations. I made sure to only take a couple of bites at a time, about 15 minutes apart. I reminded myself to drink often and took ice where I could get. It seemed to work - no nausea, no stomach complaints and plenty of energy. Incredibly I wasn’t tired at all during the race, despite my lack of sleep and fewer calories. 

 

 

Thank you to everyone who helped make this spectacular race come together - the race organiser, sponsors, volunteers and athletes. Everyone was absolutely wonderful, offering me encouragement, assistance and laughter. I loved every minute and can’t wait to see what else the Philippines has in store for me. 

Lessons Learned

  • I have never used my phone in a race before. I am extremely grateful that I not only had my phone, but that it also had battery left and I had a map I could use to pinpoint my exact location. I would urge everyone to have an offline map (I use Maps.Me) that shows your current position and lets you save important landmarks, such as the finish line. I use this every time I travel, not only for races but for accommodation and public transport too. It definitely saved me when I became lost near the finish line.

  • Eating fewer calories seemed to work well for me. I believe every race involves some trial and error to see what works, particularly in the later stages of a race (which is impossible to replicate in training). I know that many factors are involved in how I feel and perform in an ultramarathon, but nutrition plays a big role in this. Hopefully this fueling strategy will be one I can replicate in the future to help me compete at my best.

  • It is possible to get the mindset right. After Mesastila I wondered if all races would be like that, and if maybe I was losing my passion for running. Preparation and practise is key, going into a race with a positive outlook and a "it's only running, not life and death" perspective. I may never have another race where I felt so good the entire time, but at least I know I am capable of it.

Ruth and I at the finish line. Photo credit: Kirk Kenny / Studio Zag.