WHEN I decided early this year to join the third edition of the Bataan Death March (BDM) 160 km Ultra Marathon, I resolved to train smarter, which meant practicing everything from run-walk pacing to hydration/nutrition intake. I wanted to make sure that I would not relive the ‘To Quit or Not To Quit’ experience of my first BDM — the 102, which was the only time in my short ultra marathon career when I seriously doubted my ability to finish.
A scheduled test run, covering the final fifty-eight kilometers of the BDM 160 course, provided both newbie and veteran BDM 160 racers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the route topography and climate/traffic conditions; critical to this was to acquaint the runners with their own abilities to negotiate the course. Since I had done the two reconnaissance runs during the BDM 102 in 2011, I was looking forward to this test run as a chance to get to know both the course and myself a little better.
The start time for test run was set for 5 pm on December 22nd, Saturday, beginning from Km 102 in San Fernando, Pampanga and wrapping up in Capas, Tarlac. All participants, along with their support teams and vehicles, were required to be there by 4 pm for the briefing. As expected, a number of runners started streaming in after 4 pm, registering and limbering up, before the race director called for the race briefing. Key reminders included: a) run on the left side of the road (against traffic); b) maintain single file running (if in a group); and c) be wary of all forms of traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) at all times. We were also reminded that this was not a race, and not to push hard.
MacArthur Highway: War Zone
By the time we got going, the sun was fast descending and ribbons of blue and orange melded across the skyline, inviting us into the long night ahead. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before the group turned onto MacArthur Highway, the main stretch of virtually endless concrete that makes up most of the final 58 km. Cycling in crowded and high-traffic areas on weekends had prepared me for the onslaught of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, as our small band of foot warriors ran against the oncoming headlights.
The exhaust fumes from the vehicles and volcanic ash from the sidewalk were standard fare for the route, as were various physical obstacles that ranged from craggy, uneven road surfaces and embankments to nuisances of the two-legged and two-wheeled nature. Equipped with high-visibility apparel, headlamps, tail blinkers, and hand-held torches, we managed to sidestep and/or hurdle these impediments with little difficulty.
Up in Ashes
Every time I run outside the confines of a track oval, a health club, or a gated community, I assume that there’s an accident waiting to happen, which will most likely involve a moving vehicle and myself. I make it a point to err on the side of caution, removing distractions (e.g. an iPod) that might compromise any of my physiological senses. The problem arises when the factor you can’t control (e.g. vehicle) is responsible for half of your safety. And that’s just what happened with less than half of the test run mileage covered.
I had just crossed back onto the left side of the road, having wolfed down three bite-sized Spam sushis for my first taste of solid food since the run started, when I spied a runner clad in a bright fluorescent yellow singlet about a hundred meters ahead. From the dusty roadside that we shared, I could see his headlamp’s light cast in front of him as he carried on with a steady stride. Nothing out of the ordinary there, as we both ran at even pace for the next two minutes or so. Suddenly, the dark outline of a tricycle appeared along the same path as the runner, heading straight for him. I saw the runner jump to the far left to avoid the onrushing vehicle, where (I later learned) there lay a waste/rainwater canal parallel to the road. The runner never got to set foot on the left bank, as the speeding tricycle clipped him in midair, sending him flying several meters forward. I stopped in my tracks as the billowing volcanic ash from the now upended tricycle obstructed my immediate field of vision. My abrupt stop was also due to the surreal nature of what had just happened. What the feck, I shouted, as I stood there aghast while vehicles and pedestrians passed the scene like nothing happened.
Pretzel, Panic And Plywood
When the dust finally settled enough for me to decipher what lay ahead of me, I saw the fallen runner lying on the left side of the road. I dashed toward him to find a crumpled figure partly covered in volcanic ash, struggling but unable to move. Help me, he pleaded. Please, help me. Miguel (the runner) was bleeding from the head and his right leg appeared to be twisted. I dropped to the ground and immediately propped his head on my thigh to keep it elevated. I beamed my headlamp to look at the rest of his body. And then I saw it. Miguel’s right leg, which apparently bore the brunt of the impact between flesh and metal, looked like part of an uncooked Auntie Anne’s pretzel, shaped like a letter Z. It was obviously broken (I found out later it was broken in two places and had to be fitted with a rod and screws during a successful surgery days after) and was beginning to swell. While trying to calm Miguel, I turned to see the tricycle’s two male occupants set their overturned vehicle upright and rush off, disappearing into the night traffic with no intention of taking responsibility for their crime.
Two other runners, Tin and Paul, who were not far behind, rushed toward us and as a crowd of locals gathered around the scene, we proceeded to take the next steps to alleviate Miguel’s situation. Tin gave Miguel water to drink from her flask while Paul used his mobile phone to call Miguel’s wife, Cachelle, who was in the support vehicle some twenty minutes away. I spoke to her and informed her that Miguel had been in an accident but that he was conscious but needed medical attention. When we realized one (or more) of the locals belonged to the citizen’s patrol unit, we asked them to call for an ambulance. Miguel was completely conscious and lucid throughout, even exercising supreme sportsmanship by apologizing to the three of us for slowing down our test run. I took a closer look at what appeared to be a flesh wound on his head (which turned out to be deep, requiring six stitches), where the blood seemed to have stopped flowing out of. Miguel was complaining about the pain on his entire right side, and we did our best to assure him that things were okay and that he should just try to keep still.
By the time Cachelle and Miguel’s support team arrived, there was a big group of people milling around, throwing their two cents worth of advice on what best to do. Don’t move him — wait for the police (Oh, like that’s going to help. So we wait another hour?). Let’s get him into his car now (Yes, let’s! You’ll never know if we can exacerbate the situation even further!).
The look on Cachelle’s face and the tone of her voice was a combination of deep concern and even deeper panic, so we had to act fast. Find me a large towel or bed sheet, or a sheet of plywood, I said in loud voice, hopeful that at least one in the crowd of onlookers would be resourceful and concerned enough to help. While we waited for the ambulance (I confidently assumed they actually called for one) and the plywood to arrive, we tried to make Miguel as comfortable as possible. His support team wiped the blood (that had dripped from his head wound) from his face, cleaned off the volcanic ash and dirt from his body, and removed his watch and other equipment he had on that might constrict his breathing or blood circulation. We continued to talk to Miguel to make sure he maintained consciousness and didn’t drift off, since there were moments when he would close his eyes for a few seconds (from the pain and fatigue) that caused slight worry.
Finally, the ‘ambulance’ rolled to a stop just a few meters in front of where Miguel lay. Now, I know well enough not to expect much from provincial hospitals, but I wasn’t prepared for this particular surprise. In front of us stood a rusty hunk of junk (I’m being kind here) with the word ‘Ambulance’ painted on its side. I’ve seen better-looking pushcarts at the supermarket, for Christ’s sake! Where’s the gurney/stretcher so we can safely get Miguel aboard the hunk of, I mean, ambulance, I ask. Apparently, we got the executive ambulance — the one that actually runs, but isn’t equipped with anything but working headlights. As if on cue, a brand new plywood panel was thrust beside us (someone actually came through!), which we used to transfer Miguel from road to rust bucket of bolts. As we bade goodbye to Cachelle and Miguel, who were now ‘safely’ inside the ambulance, my last thought as they disappeared into the darkness was that they get to the hospital safe and soon — before they contract tetanus from all that rust.
What a night! And I’m barely halfway through the test run, I said to myself. What other adventures await me on this hellish highway?
Funny what a little rage can do. After watching the rusting tin can of an ambulance head in the opposite direction, I gave Tin and Paul an okay-now-back-to-the-task-at-hand look and mumbled something like okay, now back to the task at hand. Run it is. My cadence took on a faster pace, as my thoughts focused on the bastards behind this unwanted disaster. It’s two days to Christmas and instead of wishing goodwill to men, I’m wishing that their dicks fall off — at least for those two. No, that would be too light a penance. I wished they would run into one of those farm vehicles used for harvesting, the ones with attachments in front that feature rotating cleavers. I imagined they would get parts of them sliced into shreds, but still manage to stay alive long enough to feel the excruciating pain while under a burning noonday sun, as field rats, crows, and fire ants gnaw, pick, and nibble away at their exposed flesh. They will be screaming and praying for a quicker death — but no one will hear them. That’s the abridged version. I’d need an entire article to cover my Christmas Curse for those lower-than-pond-scum motherchuckers.
Embracing The Darkness with Bonus Miles To Boot
Something about the dark open road and the eerie silence, occasionally broken by the barking of a stray dog or the rumbling of a passing vehicle, sends me into a contemplative mood. I think about most anything that doesn’t concern running: decisions I’ve made, people I’ve met, my last meal before I die. There was a lot of opportunity for that during the remainder of the test run, and I spent a lot of time just mulling the future of my kids and how long I plan to be an annoyance to them (and my grandkids). As I embraced the darkness of the not-so-lonely road ahead, I was surprised at the easiness I felt as I neared the marathon mark (42 km). I felt relaxed and invigorated as I ran alone the rest of the way. As I approached the dreaded incline (I was told about this by fellow runners so this did not come as a surprise) leading to the BDM memorial shrine, I made a quick calculation of the number of clicks left to cover. It didn’t seem like I was going to run just 58 kilometers, rather, it looked as if I was going to go over the distance by not a few paces more. It was here that I recalled a trail run I did a couple of years back where the race director, Jonel, jokingly announced that there would be an additional seven kilometers at no extra charge.
Long story short (Yes, this is my longest article thus far. Thank you, Excel word counter), I ended up running a total of 60.9 kilometers giving me a bonus of 2.9 kilometers at no extra charge.
I finished in good time, considering the breaks for hydration and nutrition and the accident at kilometer twenty-something. My body felt tired, but my legs did not cramp at any point (which was a first) and my hydration/nutrition strategy was a success. My confidence was high as I stepped into my change of clothes and crawled into the comfort of my support vehicle for the ride back to Manila. What remained was and is the actual running of the entire 160 km in January. And that will definitely be quite a tale to tell.
“Age wrinkles the body; quitting wrinkles the soul.”
Gen. Douglas MacArthur