Video cams were rolling and photographers were clicking away as the runners who signed up for the 32nd Milo Marathon Regional Elimination Race in Davao City lined up in front of Rizal Park last Sunday. One of the reporters called out to a petite short-haired female runner who was standing at the side with several other runners to take her place up front, obviously for the cameras.
"Mura man ka'g dili record holder (It's as if you're not a record holder), " the lady reporter said with a wide smile. She was talking to Jho-An Banayag who chose to qualify for this year's Milo Marathon National Finals on home ground. Jho-An, a Management graduate at the University of Mindanao, holds the women's national marathon record of 2:48:58.
If being a record holder clothes one with a certain air of arrogance, it is something you won't see in Jho-An Banayag. In the number of Davao City races that I caught a glimpse of her at the starting line, all I saw was a simple little lady who seemingly chose to be unnoticed at one corner. You wouldn't think she was the country's top female long distance runner if you didn't know she was Jho-An Banayag.
But wait till she runs, and she'll show you what she can do.
Towering above the other runners at the starting line, one cannot help but notice the lanky male Caucasian in the green and yellow race singlet of the 32nd Milo Marathon.
I surmised that he did not really know anybody else at the starting line as he stood there mostly by his lonesome since the 21k runners were called to gather at the starting area as early as 4:30 in the morning. Still, he had that ready smile and willing response that led to small conversations with a number of local runners.
We stood side by side at the starting line, and in the few minutes that we had before the race was fired off, I learned that he was from Norway. He said that he came to the Philippines five weeks prior to the race and that this was his second time to run in the country.
I never saw him again after the starting gun was fired, but I was sure he finished way ahead of me. For several minutes, though, when we stood together at the starting line, we were equals despite our physical differences - runners with a passion for the sport, hoping for a good race.
A reporter and a cameraman made their way through the crowd of 21k runners who stood waiting for the starting gun that would kick off the race. They obviously recognized the man with the Labrador retriever and wanted an interview with him.
Pastor Emata is undoubtedly already a celebrity following his conquest of Mt. Everest as part of the first group of Filipinos to successfully summit the world's highest peak. But he is still pretty much the Pastor Emata of old, a mountaineer whose passion for adventure and the great outdoors was already legend among his peers here in Mindanao long before he made it to the top of the world.
He pretty much loves his Labrador retriever, too. It was in fact because of the dog that he joined the race, he explained as we sat at adjacent tables at Chowking Bolton minutes after the awarding ceremonies ended at Rizal Park. He spoke proudly of the dog's achievement, running the entire 21k distance in a little more than two hours on limited training.
He had one regret, though, he said. Unlike him, the retriever was not issued a race number. That would have made the run more memorable for mountaineer, trail runner, adventurer, and dog lover Pastor Emata and his beloved Labrador retriever.
They ran the race together, father and daughter, side by side and stride for stride.
Cris has always been a model for his children. They have been with him to races, imbibing his love for the sport, and following in his steps as a competitive runner.
For two of the elder children, Nichiren and KR, running has become a source of recognition and achievement in their elementary and high school days, and now it is helping them make their way through college. Both are on scholarship as members of the running teams of their schools.
Even before we lined up at the start, Cris had told me that he would be running in support to Nichiren. He felt that she had a chance for a third place finish which would earn her a slot in the female division of the Milo Marathon National Finals. Sadly, Nichiren's efforts fell short and there wasn't much Cris could do.
Cris understood his daughter's predicament. As a third year student already loaded with major subjects, she had to balance training and meeting the demands of her course. Nichiren loved running, but she also had a college degree to earn. It is not easy.
For Cris, there was consolation in the fact that his daughter was not only a good runner, finishing fourth in the women's race, but also a conscientious student. Add to that KR's 7th place finish in his first ever 21k and you have one happy father.