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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Courmayeur–Champex-Lac–Chamonix


It’s been difficult to decide how to write a race report for CCC. On one hand the event is so amazing I don’t know how I could even do it justice through words. On the other, what came out of me on that day brought so much disappointment that it’s still hard to wrap my head around it. I don’t want to dwell on the bad and I hate excuses but I also feel that my memories of the good are clouded by the tug-of-war going on between my head and my heart for many of those hours. I could say something expected like “the tough days are when you learn the most about yourself” but that’s not the case. This wasn’t a test of my character or anything deep like that – it was simply an instance where shit goes wrong and you suck it up and deal with it through the end.

The only surprise of the day was that I couldn’t physically get what I expected out of myself. I shouldn’t be shocked based on how my body was feeling in the month leading up to the race. I managed to convince myself that by running less than half of my planned miles I would go into this race rested. That by avoiding hills my legs would be fresh for the mountains. And that by avoiding speedwork, well heck, I would just be fine. Stop stressing over the training and trust your body and your heart. Even after the race I believe all of that to be true. I needed my hip and pelvis to be “good enough” to race 101k and in my mind I was there. I knew that after the race I would pay dearly but honestly thought that I could race a solid effort and ignore the pain which is one of my strengths (or is that really a weakness?) to produce a performance I was proud of. So when my body responded the way it did I felt betrayed.

But that’s already too much whining. We all know what it feels like to be let down. Even if everything would’ve felt perfect on race day I still think I would’ve been humbled by those mountains. So let’s get out of my head and move on to the wonderful event that is Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc and all of its grand races. Many people have questions about this race so I will try to make this an informative race report.

Mandatory Gear

One thing that stands apart with the UTMB races is the extensive list of required gear. Luckily I was able to bounce my questions off race veteran Zach to see just how strict they are with the specifics of the gear. Turns out the answer is “very”. For example I had to buy 2 new torches (I now own FIVE) because the three I had are rechargeable. The requirement is for 2 torches with replacement batteries. I’m glad Zach gave me the heads up on that one because Amanda was turned away at gear check for that very reason (she was then also turned away because her emergency blanket was 1 inch short. 1 inch. Have you see the size of this girl? Way smaller than the average racer. So yes, they’re that strict). Another Zach tip – for waterproof gloves use medical gloves. The vinyl gloves were way lighter and took up much less space!

Once I had the required gear sorted it fit easily and comfortably into my new Ultimate Direction Hardrocker vest.You arrive at packet pickup with your full pack and at the first station they check your passport and print out the list of required gear with a random selection of 4 items that you need to show. From there, airport security style, you grab a bin to remove your 4 selected items for the next checkpoint. Mine were waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, long tights, and cell phone. Once you clear that checkpoint you retrieve your bib along with a 2nd chip. At the following station a volunteer attaches that 2nd chip to your pack. There is no switching packs during the race. Thanks to the excellent organization of this race I breezed right on through the registration process. However that was not the final stage of my gear check which I will get to in the next section.

Start Line

The start line is as epic as the videos portray. There is so much energy and excitement it’s tough to stay calm! For the CCC we are bussed to our start line in Courmayeur, Italy – another beautiful town! We were greeted with sunshine and mild temps – a welcome change to what was predicted for that morning. With over 2100 starters in this race they send you off in waves. I’ve heard stories about people getting into their corral over an hour before the start because of the crowding. Even in the elite corral it was difficult to get a good spot so it does pay to get into your corral early. While waiting in the corral 3 officials came to me for another gear check – this time I had to remove my pack and pull out all of my gear on the list to show them before they placed a sticker on my bib confirming my check. This was a random selection check and I of course had no issues with it, but I must admit that having to re-pack everything at the start line ratcheted up my anxiety a bit.

With fellow Syracuse runner Scott English in Courmayeur

Once we’re set free it’s an exciting run through the town before hitting the trails for our first climb of the day. The town is a steady stream of cheers and cowbells, and once we moved past the crowds I noticed…silence. Well – heavy breathing – but everyone was quietly focused on the task at hand as we were already climbing and would be without a break for the first 6 miles. There is no thinning out during the first climb to Tete de la Tronche. Once you hit the single track you climb at the pace that is set by those ahead of and behind you.

Those views though…

Before I summit the first climb, let me tell you about how amazing the scenery is. It’s a lot to handle really – you’re focused on your footing, what’s going on in front of you, yet you can’t help but look around to soak in some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. Am I really here? We then had some descending to conquer before a nice long stretch along the ridgeline which offered more breathtaking views as the helicopter was buzzing low to capture footage of the runners along this exposed stretch. We made our way down to the Arnouvaz aid station before heading out onto our second climb into Switzerland to the summit of Grand Col Ferret. The amazing views continued along this relentless climb. Partway up the climb a French runner had stepped off the trail and was visibly crying. I stopped to see if she needed anything (newsflash: by this time I already knew my day wasn’t going to shake out). I really just wanted to give her a hug – I was feeling her pain for sure.


Let’s not forget the weather.

About ¾ of the way up the climb those stunning views abruptly ended when we were suddenly socked in by a heavy fog. The temperatures plummeted and I went from hot to frozen in an instant. I remembered the warnings about putting on your gear as soon as this happened but I knew I had to be close to the summit. Upon arrival it was so incredibly windy and you could only see feet in front of you. There were medical stations at the top of each climb and this one offered a volunteer who was holding our gear as we struggled to put on jackets in those whipping winds. After what felt like minutes wrestling my jacket into submission I then fumbled to put gloves on my already frozen fingers before starting the descent. It would take a few miles before I got feeling back into my fingers. That was my first taste in how rapidly the weather would change throughout that course.


Compared to the UTMB runners I’d say we had it super-easy. But I can’t even count the number of times my arm warmers went up and down, and my jacket came off then back on. Into the later, pouring rain hours I would plan exactly what wardrobe changes I would make coming into the next aid station only to show up feeling indifferent, shrugging my shoulders, and pushing on wearing the exact same thing.

An hour before our start a text was sent letting us know that there would be a weather-related course change. For our final climb we would not be going all the way to the peak in Chamonix. I’m not ashamed to admit that with the day I was having I was not at all disappointed with the altered course.

Crew

There is plenty of aid stations and they’re very well stocked. Yes it’s true – there is an abundance of cheese and sausage at the aid stations. I guess people eat it?!?! I was happy to see bananas and watermelon to supplement my stash of food. I heard not-so-great things about the shuttles that transport your crew to the 3 stops where they are allowed to assist you so I was neither shocked nor upset when I arrived at Champex-Lac and couldn’t find Jeremy or Lauren. I looked around for a bit (it was a very busy station), casually filled my bottles, and then realized it was time to move on. It was 17k up and over the next climb where I would hopefully see Jeremy to replenish my Skratch drinks and nutrition needs.

Sure enough they were ready for me at the next stop as a crew member is allowed into the tent 10 minutes prior to your runner’s arrival. Jeremy rocked it – all of my gear was at the ready and he was full of positivity. It was a really lonely day out there so it was great to just see and talk to someone I knew! Even though the next stop was only 11k further (but up and over another climb) they planned to be there for me just in case. It was a complete downpour and only one person was allowed in the tent which meant Lauren had to wait outside. I definitely had some moments of guilt for what they were enduring for me. It is way easier to run in bad weather than it is to crew. I think I even told him they didn’t need to go to the finish line for me which he of course brushed off as nonsense. It’s not an easy race to crew when you have to navigate long bus rides. I’m pretty damn lucky to have had them there!

Ode to the Poles

I was never keen on the idea of using poles in a “running” race. Even after I broke down and bought them it was still struggle to train with them. I ended up relying on them way more than I ever could’ve imagined. They served me more as crutches – especially on those downhills. I’m not sure if I would’ve finished without them. If I had it would’ve tacked on a few more hours. I never want to use them again. At least I hope I never have to rely on them in that way again. But now I do see and respect their purpose. Especially at a race like CCC. Thank you Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles for carrying my unstable a$$ all around those mountains, and for taking a beating when I was really angry about my dependency upon you. After all that you only left 2 small bruises on my hands 😁

Always Have a Plan B

As I slogged my way up that first mountain my hope was already tumbling backwards behind me. Coming to terms with my Plan B was the best decision I could make – enjoy the experience and finish the race. Once you let go of your expectations (which was by far my toughest obstacle of the day) it frees your mind to focus and fully commit to your backup plan. Well look at that, maybe I did learn something from this race after all!

Merci Beaucoup!

My deepest gratitude goes to Jeremy and Lauren. Not only did they face some last-minute obstacles just to make it to France, but it’s a huge trip and time commitment for little ol’ me. I am humbled to have friends that are willing to give themselves so selflessly to my endeavors. I had door-to-door service before and after the race because of them. They walked 4 miles from Chamonix to my hotel in the middle of the night to retrieve the car and have it waiting for me at the finish line. Seeing them along the course gave me the push I needed. I will always be grateful that they were there for me in such a big way.

Another huge thank you goes to Altra. Everyone on that team is always looking out for me to make sure I have everything I need. My brand-spanking-new pretty blue King MT’s were sadly caked in mud (and manure?) by the end of the race but who cares what your shoes look like when they perform like champs! And thank you to the Altra France contingent for their hospitality.
Thank you Muir Energy for keeping me stocked in the cleanest and tastiest fuel for tackling mountains. I have 4 words: Passon Fruit. Pineapple. Banana. Seriously. There are many delicious flavors and I enjoy them all but I can’t get enough of that tropical cocktail.

Thank you Skratch Labs for keeping my electrolytes in check with flavors I crave all day long.

And many many thanks to each and every one of you who reached out to me in multiple ways throughout this trip. I was feeling the love for sure!

Now it’s time for a little break time off while I work out some issues. Only time will tell what’s next on my schedule but I can guarantee that I am hungry to get back out there and run the world!