I was up and about in my hotel room by 2 a.m., having my fill of 2 milk chocolate-covered wafer rolls and a mug of hot chocolate cereal drink. This was breakfast, washed down with a bottle of Gatorade. I was pretty sure it was good enough to keep me energized through 32 kilometers, the distance I was taking on in two hours time at the Kadayawan Phoenix Run.
I checked my downloaded copy of the route map on my laptop the night before. That route over the hilly Diversion Road going all the way to the Davao Crocodile Park will be unforgiving. The series of ascents and descents will take its toll on the legs and knees, and break or make performances. It will be more difficult for the many who will be taking on the distance for the first time.
In an hour, wearing my Team Davao Runners singlet, I was on my way to the starting area at SM Davao just a few hundred meters from where I was staying. There, I meet up with other TDR members who were in their white and blue shirt. There wasn't much ceremony before the race. We were called in to the holding area a few minutes before 4 a.m. and were soon sent off with the usual starting gun to take on the 32-kilometer challenge ahead.
I was feeling good from the start. Perhaps the fewer running days I had going into this race was keeping me fresher and stronger. I tucked myself behind the top four female runners who were running abreast, and kept pace for about two kilometers. Then I went slightly ahead and was soon running by myself. I was still feeling good as I got nearer the turn to the Diversion Road at Ulas, but I was also worried. I might be on my own too early in the race and would be better off having someone to keep pace with. I eye the solo runner ahead of me. I thought it would be good to catch up and try running with him, but he was ahead by quite some distance. There was the danger of burning out early and I definitely didn't want that to happen. I stuck to my pace and my solo run.
Except for the bridges, there seemed to be no flat surface along the entire Diversion Road route. You immediately go up from the time you turn right from McArthur Highway. The number of hills we negotiated escape me, but I particularly remember one - that which crests at the gate of Las Terazzas, one of Davao's plush subdivisions.
While running through the early hills, I had gotten close enough to the solo runner ahead of me to recognize it was my TDR mate Merlin Legaspi. He was already cresting that Las Terazzas hill. A group was cheering him and handing him drinks. A group of TDR members were there with some other people. They had organized themselves into a support group for TDR mates doing the 32K run. They cheered for me too as I crested the hill, and offered me drinks as well. But I really didn't need it. The encouragement and the cheers were enough.
It was a long downhill from there. This would be a tough climb on the run back, I thought to myself. Unforgiving in fact.
Before reaching the turn going to the Crocodile Park, I met the lead runner escorted by motorcycle police. The rest of the local elite soon followed. I counted nine before I made a turn somewhere in the Crocodile Park area. Except for Merlin, who was by now no longer in my sight, I had no idea how many other runners were ahead of me. I passed while heading for the turnaround to pick up my 32K ribbon, and then I was on my way back.
I soon found myself battling gravity on the long climb that would end at Las Terazzas. Keeping the same pace I have been running this race at this far was a struggle. I thought of the 13 to 14 kilometers of climbing I did on my Sunday training runs in my hilly home city of Kidapawan. This is much steeper, but not much longer, I told myself. I did that. I can do this. I maintained my pace to my mantra - "Run tall. Run strong." Up ahead, I caught sight of Merlin again. I knew he was struggling like me, but I knew he was also stronger and younger. At 55, my legs are no longer fresh, and they were not any fresher today after having gone through more than half the race distance. But there was definitely no way I was conceding defeat to this climb.
Cresting the hill and seeing the TDR support group cheering me on -with cameras focused on me- was definitely a morale booster. I knew it was going to be a lot easier from here on. I caught up with Merlin on a downhill after passing the 16K turnaround marker. We were already merging with the 16K runners who were also on their way back to SM Davao. Merlin didn't seem keen on running with me though. He picked up the pace and was soon ahead of me again.
Going up another hill, I sensed something wrong with my right shoelace. A few more strides and my suspicion was confirmed. It had come loose. There was no other choice but to stop and retie it in a double knot.
Moving on again after the shoelace incident, my thoughts about things getting a lot easier began to fade. The soles of my feet, the right one particularly, were burning. The downhill stretches going towards the turn back to McArthur highway from the Diversion Road were of no help to my obviously blistered soles. Would these be my Achilles' heel in what has so far been a good run? Would these keep me from achieving what I came here to do - a finishing time under 3 hours that would assure me of the possibility of a sub-4 hour marathon in December?
No. Like those Diversion Road hills, I won't let these blisters ruin my run. I kept on, trying to maintain my pace which was not easy with the unquestionably uncomfortable burning sensation on the soles of my feet. I felt that my pace has already slowed down a bit, but I was already going up that small climb going towards the turn to the homestretch at Quimpo Boulevard. I checked on my Timex Ironman Triathlon chronograph and saw 2 hours something. I was going to hit my target. Knowing that gave me a bit more strength to run through the discomfort, or was it already pain?
SM soon loomed ahead. I make the final turn and take some sort of forced sprint. I cross the finish line and clicked on my watch. I checked it as I walked. 2:37:05. Not a bad time. I was on track for a sub-4 hour marathon in December. Knowing that was definitely good.