Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Subic International Marathon 2012: Journey of a Barefoot Runner

MARATHON: A long distance running event with an official distance of 42.195 kilometers. It is a commemoration of the fabled run of the Greek soldier Phiedippides when he ran non-stop from Marathon to Athens to announce to his people that the Persian Army has been defeated.

Three years ago, before running was even part of my regular regimen, a marathon, for me, is more of a self-inflicting punishment that goes beyond healthy lifestyle. Anyone who subjects his body to run a gruesome 42 kilometer distance for hours is either a masochist or just a heavily compensated athlete with nerves of steel. Before, I thought people who do this out of sheer fun and excitement and who even shell out money for registration was just simply ridiculous.

When I started to join short distance races, finishing 3k or 5k distances brought me enough blissful contentment in one weekend. After all, I thought I could never achieve a feat running more than 5k because I used to experience joint injuries if I run longer distances. Before I knew it, after months of training, a change of running form, and finishing dozens of races, I have accumulated more than 700 kilometers of running distance. And finally, here I am, trying to recall the experience of my first ever 42k marathon at the Subic International Marathon 2012 finishing it in 5:13:01 and ... oh yeah, doing it barefoot.

Yup, I could say I’m one the crazy guys now. I’ve been running barefoot over a year now and I have come to know this style of running a year after several occurrences of running injuries specifically on the joint areas like ankle, knees and hips. After several running shoes I tried which gave me the same result, I finally had it and almost gave up on running. Then a doctor friend suggested changing my running form from the traditional heel-strike landing to fore-foot, the way barefoot runners do. With a bit of research and training (first on minimalist shoes), I came to a self-discovery of adapting to this type of running form. After that, not only were my running injuries significantly lessened, I was able to run farther with distances I never dreamed of achieving which  includes finishing a full marathon.

At 7:00 pm on January 21, 2012, Saturday, I boarded a Victory Liner bus bound to Subic. The run is scheduled on January 22, at 4:30am, a day after. When I arrived at Remy field at 12:00 mn, a race official offered me to rest and perhaps catch a few hours of sleep on the metal bleachers on the side of the oval. I noticed that there were several runners were already dozing off in their sleeping bags, makeshift beds and cardboard cartons. 

Before I joined them and found an available space to lie down, I managed to get some photos of the surroundings and even steal a shot of a sleeping runner. The outdoor temperature in Subic was cold so going to sleep was a challenge. Armed only with a hooded jacket, I tried my best to catch a few hours of shut eye while mosquitoes tried to puncture my jacket's nylon shell.

Before I could even reach dreamland, I was awakened by footsteps and I realized that the runners are starting to crowd the place. So I quickly jumped from slumber and sprinted to the dressing area to change. I brought my minimalist shoes and when I was about to finish fixing myself up, I held them tight for a few seconds (just in case I chickened out) and thought deeply if I would really be going to do a full barefoot marathon. With sheer adrenalin, I quickly placed the shoes back in my bag, left it in the baggage counter, went to the starting line with a short prayer, and never looked back. 

A few minutes before gun start, the organizer offered a short prayer for all the safety of the runners and I vividly remembered my prayer that day was a little bit over extended, because I knew I would be needing all the divine help I can get.

At 4:33 am all the 42k runners were set off. The synthetic rubber of the oval of Remy field was an ideal soft intro to me and I cherished its short term comfort because in a few meters, my feet and the rest of my body will embark on a perilous journey as I made my first step on the hard concrete road where it will stay that way for the next 42 kilometers. 

On estimate (since I don’t have a wrist top computer), my initial pace was 6min to 7min per kilometer. For me, it was good pacing for the first 10 kilometer stretch since the road was very smooth and barefoot-friendly. The atmosphere was cold and so was the road which made it more ideal for me. Along the way, I met several runners, a group from PNPA, PMA cadets, and some runners who came all the way as far as Cebu and Davao. All of them were baffled by the way I run, so it was also an opportunity for me to share and perhaps inspire them why I do this. It was also a way to pass by time since we all have all 42 kilometers to run and talk about anything under the sun.

Right after the eighth kilometer mark, a steep ascent lay before me and it was the first hurdle I needed to overcome. The challenge was not the difficulty of the climb but the quality of the terrain. It was less than a kilometer of sharp asphalt that has loose gravels and sharp pebbles covering the whole stretch. In my past race blog posts, I'd often mention the dreaded “Kalayaan fly-over” as the most feared stretch of road among barefoot runners. Because of its sharp asphalt condition, it is noted as the barefoot killer in the BGC racing circuit. Unfortunately, the stretch of road I faced in Subic was ten times worst. At least, I know  better now how to handle such terrain. I was well aware that I can cruise this road with my current running pace but decided not to and just walked comfortably so as not to wear out all my strength in the early stage of the run, considering also that another stretch as bad as this one might pop up anytime. 

As soon as I passed that ugly climb, the next 10 kilometers was a smooth cruise and a big relief. At this point, runners entered the jungle portion of the course where we were received by the sounds of exotic birds and cries of wild monkeys and other nocturnal creatures living in the Subic jungle. With much effort, we tried to view them but it was still dark to see them. The available light from the dawn was not enough to illuminate the path thus race organizers placed mobile light source in areas where we had to navigate through bending roads and turns in the race course. In a little while, the road cleared up as we passed the 16th kilometer mark and decided to take my first pit stop to hydrate. It was only at this point that I felt the thirst and perspiration. It took me a while to sweat perhaps because of the cold temperature and I was pre-occupied enjoying the scenic view of the course.

I had a wonderful time running along with some of the runners and the scenic view of the road. Somehow, fatigue and physical stress was temporarily put aside subconsciously. Before I knew it, there’s the Ocean Park and the U-turn was already in view. From here, half of the battle was over and another half yet to be conquered.

Going back was a bit slow and steady. The sun was up and the road that used to be cooler an hour ago was a bit warmer and but still comfortable to manage. At this point, sweating was another concern so I tried to stop by as much water stations I passed to replenish water loss. Half way through was an extended outskirt, half a kilometer long that was added to the course. The terrain was ugly as hell for a barefoot runner like me. Good thing that on the side was Carrabao grass so I did off-road running from time to time until I reached the U-turn and went back to the main path. After that was over, my comfortable pace changed a bit. I made a few stops and tried to put medi-plast tape on my sole to nurse the soreness and prepare it for another stretch of 10 kilometers up ahead.

I was relieved when a runner from a maritime school paced me in the last 10k stretch and it sure made a lot of difference compared to when running alone. At the last eighth kilometer mark, fatigue was taking its toll but I kept a constant pace as much as I can. The last 5k was like 10 kilometers that made me and other runners to just brisk walk our way to the end. But at the turn of the corner of the last kilometer, I pushed myself with my last reserved strength and ran towards Remy Field.

The applause of people cheering me to go on made a lot of difference as I raced towards the finish line. Race official took pictures of me and handed me my finishers’ medal and a finishers’ dog tag. A lot of people congratulated me which made me a little emotional but I tried to contain it. After retrieving my bag from the baggage counter, I sat on the grass and tried to catch my breath. I massaged my feet as I reminisced the experience I just had and that was the point where my emotions overcame me and I cried. The feeling was so overwhelming and I never knew I could accomplish such feat.

Phiedippides, the Athenian warrior who ran 42 kilometers from Marathon to Athens might have the same or even much better feeling when he arrived at Athens and announced that his people have won the battle. In a deeper sense, my first marathon was likewise a victory of not just one person but by many who ran with me that day. So, it is only fitting to say to all 450 plus 42k runners of the Subic International Marathon 2012 - WE HAVE WON!


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