ONE of the best trail runners in the Philippines — and in Asia — is an unassuming 36-year-old grocery store worker from Pateros.
When he isn’t carrying, stacking or delivering goods in his day job, Manolito 'Tolitz' Divina is competing in ultra-distance trail runs here and around Asia. Running events with distances of more than the standard marathon 42K are considered ultramarathons, and there are few serious runners who dare compete in this category.
In the two years since he joined the sport, Tolitz has accumulated several impressive wins: 1st place in the 2015 The North Face Singapore 50K, 1st place 2016 Ultra Trail Hong Kong 156K, and 1st place 2015 Pilipinas Mountain Series 32K. He has also won the Clark-Miyamit 50 Miles trail race the past two years.
The soft-spoken runner sat down with SPIN.ph for dinner one evening and shared his journey in a world that has opened up so many doors for him.
Running since he was 15 years old as a high school student in the island province of Marinduque, Tolitz said he got into long distance trail running by accident.
The original winner who qualified for the 2014 MSIG Hong Kong Asia Trail Master Championship, one of the most competitive 50K races in the former Crown Colony, backed out and sponsors asked Tolitz if he was willing to be a replacement. Tolitz, whose preferred distance is the 21K, grabbed it.
“Tinanong ako ng sponsor namin na kung willing ba ako umangat ng race at kaya ko ba? Sabi ko ‘sige po subukan ko. Kaunti lang naman ang difference e.’”
In his first overseas trip, Tolitz and his companions had to sleep in a park the night before the race due to a miscommunication. The March weather turned cold and the first-timer had to use a plastic garbage bag as top layer to keep him warm during the race. Despite getting lost several times and battling a lack of rest, the Filipino finished a respectable sixth in a field that included several top runners.
The experience encouraged the ultrarunner who soon began accumulating first- and second-place finishes right and left.
But how does a grocery worker who works at least eight hours a day, six days a week to support a wife and four young kids find the time and the resources to train for and compete in races here and abroad?
“Sa tingin ko lang po dedikasyon ko lang talaga na mahangad yung gusto ko,” Tolitz explained.
One advantage is his proximity to a training venue: his house is a hundred meters from the University of Makati Track and Oval Field, where he runs after work for a P20 fee. Some days he travels on foot across the Pasig River to train with friends at the Philsports Arena in Pasig City. He says he only brings enough money for the P20 entrance fee plus P5 for iced water.
Tolitz also uses his work hours a part of his conditioning.
“Yun nga po. Pinagmi-mix ko yung trabaho at training ko. Pag nasa field ako katulad ng trucking namin, kasama na yung jogging at crossfit training ko sa pag-load at unload ng truck. Then inaakyat namin yung stocks sa second floor then binababa,” he said.
Unlike many top-tier athletes or elites, Tolitz does not have any major sponsors. What he has are “major friends” who have his back, he said. Recognizing his gift, supporters from the Philippine running community have created a Facebook page where they raise funds to help cover Tolitz’s plane fare, accommodations and living allowance so he can join important races. Any amount left is used to fund his training and nutrition.
“Kung sa akin po, kung bibigyan ako ng pagkakataon kaya ko. Kailangan ko lang po ng suporta,” he added.
Race organizers Tin Ferrera, Jeric Occiano, Thumbie Remigio and Jon Lacanlale extend help by waiving registration fees for Tolitz and providing him with transportation to and from their events; individuals that include SPIN.ph columnist Bobby Go provide compression shorts to replace cycling shorts which Tolitz buys from ukay-ukay stores; and companies such as Brooks Running and Insight Tees sometimes provide footwear and apparel.
It’s this “Bayanihan” spirit that allowed Tolitz to win the championship of the Malaysia Eco100 last May and helped cement his fourth-place rank in the battle for the male division of the 2016 Asian Trail Master championship.
“Trail running as a sport is not one of those glamorous sports. For us who have fallen in love with it, it’s the sport that brings is nearest to the basics and the core whenever we are out there with nature,” Ferrera told SPIN.
“We have athletes like Tolitz who have proven it’s possible to persevere and bring pride to the country despite the lack of support. If he can outrun competition with minimal support, what more if he has the necessary tools?” she said.
Tolitz is humbled by the Good Samaritans who are helping him in his running journey.
“Malaking bagay. ‘Pag financial talagang aamin ako na sapat lang sa pamilya ko yung sweldo ko. Hindi ko kayang mag-register,” he said.
He recalled his early days in trail running where he would barely qualify with the sport’s technical nature when it comes to running equipment. Budget limitations forced him to use a lighter as an illumination device in lieu of a headlamp and a plastic bag filled with ice water as his hydration
But despite the challenges, Tolitz keeps running. His dream is to join the Western States or Hard Rock, two of the most prestigious 100-miler trail races in the Western Hemisphere.
“Nananalaytay siguro sa dugo ko yung ganitong passion. May layunin din ako kung bakit ako tumatatakbo. Gusto ko din na may mapatunayan ako kahit papaano,” he said.
When Tolitz competes in a race, his supervisor at the Nesabel Corp. Wholesale and Retail Mart posts updates on the company bulletin board for his fellow employees to see his progress, and when Tolitz wins, a tarpaulin congratulating him is proudly displayed inside the store.
“Ang pangarap ko simula bata pa ako, gusto kong makapagtaas ng bandera ng Pilipinas. Gustong kong dalhin yung bansa natin habang lumalaban ako sa ibang bansa. Nagagawa ko na iyun,” Tolitz said, beaming with pride.