Monday, October 15, 2007

Running the Merco 61st Anniversary 21k

Before Jollibee and McDonald's came to Davao with their burgers and fries, there was Merco. It was my favorite hangout before and after classes at the Ateneo de Davao where I was a college freshman way back in 1972. I loved their hot dog on a bun, steaming hot and garnished with mustard. It really made for a mouth-watering treat that I never missed to feast on whenever my finances as a student away from home allowed.

After decades, I was back at Merco, not for the hot dog, but to register for their 61st Anniversary Run. Scheduled on October 14, I thought it would make a good tune-up race in my preparation for the Davao Finisher's Marathon on the first Sunday of December. I have done a number of 20k weekend runs on moderately rolling and hilly courses- the only kinds of terrain I seem to ever get to run on in my corner of the world- with times hovering at 1:50:00-1:55:00. The best I ever did on this weekend long run was 1:48:39 on a hilly course (6 big climbs in all!) out to the next town of Makilala and back. I felt I was well-prepared for a 21k race, but the proof is always in the running.

When they first did the Merco Anniversary Run last year, they had 500 entrants, way more than they had expected according to newspaper reports. Not much of a crowd was gathered in front of Merco Bolton, the starting and finishing point of the race, as we checked-in for pre-race processing at around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday. There were just a little more than 50 of us, women included, waiting for the start of the 21k race. Apparently, most of this year's entrants were joining the 5k and 10k fun run. The 21k was billed as an open race, no age category winners, no possible honors for the likes of me. A possible personal best was all that was waiting at the finish. That was enough for me.

The sound of a siren from a megaphone set us off at 5:00 am. I positioned myself on the second line behind the faster elite runners to get a good head start, but I was never the good starter. 50 meters into the run, I watched the faster and younger runners who stood in front of me at the starting line move farther away from me. Not much later, three to four other runners went past me. I knew my pace was much faster than the usual. I was breathing heavier than I did on my normal training runs. I'll catch up with you guys, I thought. I'll catch up later.

By the time I was going into the 2nd kilometer, some of the guys who surged past me earlier were beginning to come back. I passed a heavily-built foreigner and a younger runner. Another one followed after a few more meters. Before we reached the 5k turnaround in front of Gaisano Mall, I was running next to a man wearing a Davao All-Terrain Runners (Datrun) jersey. Sensing me behind him, he surged. I let go. He kept a 100-meter lead on me. Trailing each other, we passed two more runners who were ahead of us on the road before we reached the 5 kilometer mark.

For three or four kilometers, I was content with trailing the younger Datrun member by a good hundred meters or so. Then, as we neared neared the entrance to the Davao Insular Hotel, I felt myself gaining on him. Soon I was running right behind him, matching his pace. It was an easy one. I stuck to it, relaxing a bit.

On the other side of the road, the leaders were making their way back to Merco Bolton. I started counting the runners who were now on their second half of the run. I counted thirteen male runners. Next came a guy in blue and white jersey, who I realized was one of the faster guys who passed by me earlier in the run. Only a little ahead of me was another heavily built runner, huffing and puffing his way to the turnaround point for the 21k race less than 100 meters away. I surged, passed the runner ahead of me, pulling along the Datrun guy. I snatched the blue plastic straw they were handing out to the runners and hang it on my neck. I also managed to grab a banana and some water. I drank a bit, took two bites at the banana and discarded the rest on the roadside. I was now running ahead of the Datrun guy. He was right behind me, matching my pace. Still ahead of us for about 100 meters was the guy in the blue and white jersey. I was now at 15th place basing on my earlier count. This was a good run.

As we approached the Redemptorist Church at Bajada, we finally passed the blue-and-white-jersey guy. My Datrun buddy still stuck behind me. As we made to turn to Quirino Avenue, a little past the 5k turnaround, we began running side by side. Not much was spoken between us. I guess we were both too tired to start off a jolly conversation. We were passing more and more runners on the road, either 5k or 10k runners jogging or walking their way to the finish.

After two more turns, we were on the straightaway leading to Merco Bolton. I was waiting for a surge from my Datrun buddy. Nothing came. I picked up the pace, passed some young girls who tried to give chase briefly while giggling. Still my Datrun buddy didn't pass me. I knew he was still behind me, I just didn't know exactly where, or how far behind. A crowd has gathered at the corner going to the finish chute, people taking their snacks and a line of more people still trying to get their share. I looked at the digital timer above as I neared the finish line. It showed 1:42. I pressed the stop button on my trusty old Timex Ironman Traithlon. One of the Davao Sunday Runners marshals took the detachable portion of my race number, while another one handed me my t-shirt. Each of the first 100 finishers was supposed to get one. As I looked back at the finish line, I saw my Datrun buddy enter the chute. I smiled and extended him my hand, he shook it and smiled back. Running really has a way of bringing people together and creating a bond between them.

I checked my watch. 1:42:42. Not bad. Not bad by any means.