Cordillera Mountain Ultra – next time, train for mountains

September 2005 was my first international race. In Newcastle, Australia I befriended the Philippine Duathlon Team. They were my biggest supporters during the race – cheering louder for me than anyone. We exchanged team gear, contact info, and they invited me to race in the Philippines. 14 years later I finally made the trip (although not for a duathlon obviously) and all I can say is – what took me so long?

2005 Philippine Duathlon Team

My recent trip to the Philippines introduced me to people as warm, welcoming, and downright awesome as the Philippine Duathlon team I met years ago. The land was equally beautiful making for an awesome experience all-around. Let’s get to it!

Much like my trip to India in January, flying halfway around the world was just the beginning of the journey to get to the Cordillera Mountain Ultra. Fresh off a 16 hour flight, I hopped into a cab to the bus station, and then got on a bus for a 6 hour ride to the mountain town of Baguio City. I was really hungry. Ill-prepared for a flight that didn’t have vegan meals for me, luckily my flight attendant was over-compensating by showing up to my seat at random times throughout the flight when she’d find a banana, apple, or package of peanuts 🙂 (they fixed this for me on the return flight). The bus station had zero options for me as well as the 2 stops along the way to Baguio. I really wanted to enjoy the bus ride and take in the scenery but I couldn’t stay awake any longer and passed out on my bag twice before arriving, where I had one last cab for a ½ hour ride to my hotel. Phew!

My Unived family (Monica & Amit) arrived a few hours later and we were all anxious to get a vegan meal! We set off on a 5k walk to what became our desert oasis – the vegan restaurant Ahs-Wes. I lost count of how many meals we ate there throughout our short time in Baguio City, but I can tell you we knew the menu quite well 🙂 We had a full day Thursday to settle in and the race director pointed us towards some nice runnable trails as Camp John Hay. I was happy to get in a shakeout run because man my lungs were burning! Baguio sits at 5,000 feet which really isn’t that high, but when you come from Syracuse, a whopping 380 feet, you can feel it. We also had some time to relax and explore Baguio – what a beautiful town!

running at Camp John Hay

Friday it was time to head to the race site and I was really excited that our transport was a jeepney! It was an hour ride to the barangay of Tinondgan. A typhoon in September of 2018 led to landslides that devastated Itogon – destroying land, homes, and leaving casualties. We were seeing some of this damage along the way. We later learned that the Cordillera Mountains also experienced wildfires in February of 2019, causing even more devastation to this beautiful area. The race course took us along some of the charred land 😦 All of this made us even more grateful to the residents for their willingness to share their land with the runners.

Amit’s ready for the jeepney ride!

Shortly after arriving at race headquarters I laced up for a shakeout run on the course. In just 3k of running I already had a good sense of how challenging yet stunning this race would be. The trails were not very technical but they were dry, and the loose dirt and stone would add challenge to the steep ascents and descents. I made the correct choice in bringing my Altra King MT’s for race day! The short jaunt on the race course was all I needed to get my excitement level revved up and I was wishing the race started tomorrow!

checking out the course

It was a short walk down the village road to our homestay, where I settled into my room and our gracious host made rice and veggies for our dinner. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much rice in the span of a week, but it sure was great!

relaxing at the homestay with Amit, Monica & Arjun

Saturday hosted the Vertical K race, packet pickup and pre-race festivities. We spent a relaxing day at headquarters meeting and talking to other racers representing 30 countries – wow! We also enjoyed a welcome ceremony and Igorot dance performed by the local children which brought smiles to everyone’s faces.

Welcome ceremony. Photo: William Cheang

During the race briefing the elite fields were introduced and that’s when the nerves set in – I was up against some really strong females – exciting!! It was time to head back to the homestay for dinner and race prep – tomorrow was the day!

Q&A with the Asia Trail Master. Photo: William Cheang

Race morning I was up at 2 am and with a 4 am start this wasn’t so bad. Everything was laid out and ready to go – all I had to do was fill my bottles and it was a short walk to the race village to check in. I was feeling pretty calm – for some reason I think starting in the dark helps but I also just felt ready! A couple more photo ops and the countdown began!

Ready to race!

My A goal for this race was 6:30. My B goal was 7:00. C goal was just to get it done. To accomplish this I split this race into 3 sections of focus:

First 15k
Time Goal: 2 hours
Mantra:
calm & focused

Starting a race in the dark is always exciting. It forces me to keep things under control so that I don’t make any dumb moves early on 😉 The suspended bridges were pretty cool when you have the entire starting field running over them at once – almost like trying to run on a moon bounce. A lot of us were laughing along the way. I noticed that Veronika settled in behind me right from the start allowing me to dictate the pace, when we hiked, and when we ran. I could tell she was going to be a strong contender that day. It quickly became just the two of us. At about the 4k mark a short road climb turned into a long, winding descent on the pavement and that’s where Veronika made her move. She went flying down that road and as tempting as it was to chase her I knew that would be a huge mistake on my part that early into the race. It’s always really impressive to watch a strong runner do their thing so gracefully. I was in awe of her prowess on that hill – it’s never a good feeling to see a leader disappear ahead of you but it’s awesome to witness that talent.

Early miles. Photo: GlairoldRecella Photography

I kept my mantra in my head and pressed on at my own pace, enjoying the darkness, the silence, and the undulating trails along dirt and stone singletrack. I was also thrilled with the 4 am start because the sun and heat were going to be a strong presence that day and I wanted to make as much progress as I could towards the first major climb before the sun was directly overhead. I was able to remove my headlamp right before rolling into the 15k aid station to enjoy the beautiful dawn light. I came in at 1:54 – just enough of a cushion showing that I had restraint in the opening 15k. This is where we needed to fill up 1.5 liters of fluid as we weren’t going to see aid until after both West Ugo and Mt Ugo summits, which were 16k away! I was told Veronika was 5 ½ minutes ahead of me. Ouch!

Filling up before the climbs. Photo: Viaje ni Drew

Second 15k
Time Goal: 3 hours
Mantra:
consistent climbing

I was relying solely on run fitness to get me up those mountains as I had not done any climbing since Vagamon Ultrail in January… I quickly learned that running fitness was not enough to power me up those climbs. I had some regret for not bringing my poles but there was no use in dwelling on that – I had to focus on pressing onward and upward. The 7k to the first summit was unrelenting. There was no break in the climbing and man was it steep – sometimes reaching 30+% grade! I felt I was surely widening the gap between myself and Veronika as I struggled to maintain that consistent climbing I was aiming for. Each time I felt I needed a break I reminded myself to just stay strong and make it up that damn mountain! I knew the reward for climbing would come eventually. I caught up to another runner on the first climb and we went back and forth for a while – it was nice to have someone around for the first time since I was passed at the 4k mark. I wish I could describe the views as we summited West Ugo – stunning!!

My only company for the day. Photo: Rox Roldan

With the first summit out of the way the sun was now striking with full force. Only 9k left to the next summit with a gnarly descent to attack first. Coming off the ridge there was no trail – it was a bushwhacking choose-your-own adventure line following the course markers. I was so focused on my footing in the tall grass and loose terrain that I lost site of the markers and began to panic – there was no way I wanted to climb back up that summit to find where I went off course. As I was desperately looking for a marker I had my first solid fall of the day, landing on a large branch adding some nice cuts to my left butt cheek. I was happy to have the branch to catch me from tumbling further down. I took a pause to settle down, focus on the ridge, and find my marker.

The next section was my favorite on the course. Although the sun and heat were starting to peak I was enjoying the flat sections where I could open up my stride. My strength today was on the flats and there weren’t many so I needed to take full advantage. There was an aid station as we were beginning the final summit and I was told that Veronika was 3 minutes ahead. I was in shock that I made up time on her and as I started the steep climb sure enough I saw her far up ahead! I again hit my time goal of 3 hours on this second section, reaching 31k at 4:45. It was all mostly downhill from here. Time to bring it home!

Final 17.5k
Time Goal: 90 mins
Mantra:
BRING IT HOME!

By the time I reached the 2nd summit Veronika – the downhill destroyer – was out of sight again. At the next short but steep climb she reappeared and I was finally coming into striking distance. I tried to quietly make ground on her but before too long she turned around and saw me just as we were reaching the crest of the climb. Then off she went again – man this girl can crush the descents! I realized that she found a second gear this time as there was no sign of her at all. When I reached the next aid station they announced I was the first female. I corrected them, obviously, and they reassured me that no other female had reached the check-in. Uh oh. This means Veronika either went off course or something happened and I didn’t see her off the trail. I didn’t feel good about either scenario but the only thing to do was continue on.

Attempting to fly!

I wasn’t excited about my new-found position in the race – there’s no fun in taking the lead that way. I actually felt really deflated and bummed – also a bit worried about her. Even if it would have sparked a fire in me to crush those final miles my legs were not into it anyway. The downhills hurt in a way I wasn’t expecting them to in this short of a race, and basically my legs were too tired for me to trust them on the steep loose sections. Then I heard someone coming up fast behind me on a downhill and I didn’t even need to turn around to see who it was, but I did anyway to welcome her back 🙂 Veronika told me she was distracted and went off course as she flew by me like I was a spectator. Suddenly I felt better and although I knew I wasn’t going to match the fire I saw in her I was ready to push to that finish.

But not before those legs I didn’t trust decided to throw me into a head first dive one last time. And not before I came across two springs in those final miles that were gushing ice cold water that I couldn’t resist placing my whole body under. It was really hot. The time I was giving up to cool off was well worth it. Reaching the final village felt awesome as everyone was outside and cheering us along. Now we were in full sun exposure for the final 2.5k. Over the 2 suspended bridges I felt even more wobbly in that heat. After crossing the first bridge I felt like I was still on it. After crossing the second bridge it was all uphill to the finish line.

Final climb to the finish.

Although my time goal for the final section was not met I ended up finishing in 6:34, only 4 minutes off my goal, and 3 minutes behind Veronika. Overall I was happy with my race and even happier to be at the finish line celebrating with the other runners I met from all around the world.
It’s very exciting to have my nutrition completely dialed in. I again tested the *soon-to-be-released* new products from Unived. I had one Endurance Gel along with 250 ml of RRUNN During drink mix every hour throughout the race. I didn’t experience any low points and never had any stomach issues even in that heat. I did take one small banana before the final summit and of course filled up with water at every stop! I want to give a major kudos to Cordillera Mountain Ultra for making this race zero waste. There were no throwaway cups at the aid stations – runners were required to bring their own reusable cups and some aid stations had tin cups you could use if needed. Aid station fuel consisted of bananas and rice cakes that were wrapped in banana leaves – no paper or plastic disposable goods to be found! I loved this 🙂

I had an amazing experience racing the Cordillera Mountain Ultra and I hope to someday check out more of the Asia Trail Master series. So much attention and love went into every aspect of this event and you could feel it in every step of the race. JP put his heart into that race and his volunteers were some of the best around! When I was first invited to this race it was an immediate “no”. My overseas trips for the year were already planned and this did not fit into the schedule – certainly not another trip halfway around the world only 2 months after a trip to India. Luckily Amit knew how to play it cool, and a few weeks later slipped in a gentle reminder that the offer still stood. Sometimes my flaw of being a “yes” woman pays off 🙂

Podium: Veronika Vadovicova, me, Sandi Menchi

Finally, congrats to Monica and Amit who celebrated their 5 year court marriage anniversary by running the entire race together 🙂 These two are inspiring!

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