Boracay: surviving my first adventure race
Nathaniel T. Dela Cruz
Atlas Sports Magazine
Issue # 1491
Don’t just read and imagine. Race and experience.
Race Commander and veteran adventure racer Jerome Luengo lent me a book a few days before he flew to Boracay for pre-race preparations. Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth by Martin Dugard was about the writer’s account of the famed Raid Gauloises, an extremely brutal French survival race and is considered as the forerunner of today’s adventure races, first as an objective sideline journo and then Raids later as a competitor. I know it was Luengo’s subtle way of coercing me to join the race, further reasoning that as a sports correspondent it is critical that I experience first-hand adventure racing. It was his scheme that I get a glimpse of Dugard’s escapades and perhaps be inspired or intrigued by his leap of faith. I knew of his scam and thought that it would take him more than a battered old book to make me risk my neck in the challenges set in his race. Little did I know that in the residue of the excitement which stained my imaginations as I cover the Buena Vista Adventure Race mixed with stimulation I got as my mind wandered through Dugard’s book, inside a cockroach infested cabin of a ferry bound for Caticlan, I will find an addictive drug that will finally make me plunge head on to a sport entirely alien to me. That I cease to be an armchair adventurer is a thought that, as much as excited me, has also at first lay unfounded fears and unanswered questions in my once restive soul.
On April 22, after bucking a 14-hour sea journey that includes hopping in and out of three different sea vessels, I finally set foot on the clean white beach and pristine blue-green waters of Boracay and was overwhelmed by its beauty and charm. Like a modern day Mac Arthur I waded through the water and reminded myself that I am not here to beach bum, to party, to drink or to flirt with the beautifully landscaped scenery. I am here for my first adventure and endurance race. The only imaginable consolation is that I am sure to get the Boracay tan anyhow.
LAST MINUTE PREPARATIONS
The last thing we shouldn’t have forgotten to bring is our third team member.
Along with fellow sports correspondent, roommate and teammate Emil Noguera, we used all the available contacts and every possible means that includes scouring the entire beachfront, just to find a female teammate. We asked around dive shops, kite boarding centers and bike rental stations. Every time we are told that there is no such woman they know available, which may mean there really isn’t any around or was already taken by other teams, I felt the chances for a disappointing premature death of my first adventure race increase.
Tired from walking on the already warm and itchy sand, we decided to go back to our room and just pray for divine intervention. Along the way we passed by a henna tattoo-cum-dreadlocks station-cum-bike rental joint, where we already chartered three bicycles for Saturday’s race. The shop is nothing more than a beach umbrella, a low wooden table and a 3-seater plastic bench. We asked the man in charge if he happens to know any female who would want to race. He casually shrugged off his shoulders, and then threw the question to a petite woman who is sitting quietly beside him. She asked us about the race detail, which we quickly narrated to her, feeling a little sense of hope spring from what was once an already dried well. It only took a brief pondering moment before she agreed to join. The tattooed, heavily-pierced girl is Liezel Quinto.
We dragged her to the registration area after lunch, re-oriented her on the challenges that we will be tackling, nothing of which seem to scare her. Masked by what seem like an infinitely expressionless face, I was starting to doubt her will, taking her unmoving stance as something akin to indifference rather than fearlessness. But dumping her means sideline spectatorship for me and Emil so we just convinced ourselves that she is just like that all the time. We gathered our race items, which includes race bibs and shirts, bandanas, a magnetic sticker, bike numbers, maps and instruction guides and a few strands of tansi. The skill and ability test was easy, meaning I was able to get to the ground safely and without fuss from my first rappelling experience, that is a 20-foot drop from an erected scaffolding paneled with smooth ply wood. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared to death in my first few lumbering steps of the descend. Hadn’t my teammates shown ease doing it, I would have chickened out right then and there.
There was little to talk about after that. Over dinner and two bowls of Mongolian style chow, one overly salty the other overly spicy, the discussion mostly revolved around the call time for tomorrow’s race. With that settled, all three of us went to our respective houses to retire for the night.
To say that Team NYC Media is underdressed and underprepared for the occasion is an understatement. We knew what to bring, but the reason why we didn’t bring any, I can’t seem to fathom until now. One night before the race, all equipment in our possession were a few items we acquired from friend’s good graces. We managed to borrow race essentials like bike helmets and a pair of goggles. We didn’t have gloves to protect our hands in the rappelling events, and prayed that the drop wouldn’t take too long for our palms to be blistered. Without hydration packs, we were burdened to carry the full weight of bottled water and energy drinks along the way. We rented the bikes which we will be using, entrusting our means of progress for the entire race in the hands of profiteering businessmen who may not be very prudent with the maintenance and condition of their merchandises. We didn’t have any breakfast for the following morning save for a few cookies and water. Going to bed, I prayed for survival and endurance for the entirety of the race, to be able come out of the Boracay Island-wide expedition alive and whole, not just for me and for the team but for my anachronistic urban sneakers as well which I doubt is made for very trying moments like the one I would be embarking on not a few hours from now.
RACE DAY: DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING
We were at the gathering area at 5 am the following morning. We were a bit early, judging from what greeted us at the assembly area; an almost non-movement of everything, dark sky, sleeping people and the quiet sea. But good things come to those who wake up early. First, we still had the chance to remedy our lack of floatation device, being able to rent three, dull orange and thread bare improvised life vests from a small motorized boat docked not very far from the shoreline from where the en masse run will take place. Secondly, we had the chance to be the first team to be interviewed by Gameplan. As the perfectly tanned Tricia Chiongbian barraged us with questions, it was only then that the full realization that I, in my full adventure racing garb, am indeed racing my first adventure race.
As the sun slowly breaks from its own sleep under the sheets of huge white and slightly grayish clouds, the crowd in Summer Place began to swell. Racers started coming in, some atop their battle ready bicycles while some found more ease in just dragging their two-wheeled buddies along. The crowd was getting bigger, and the conversation moving to smaller circles of people in isolated, quieter hushes between huddled team members. Racers found a variety of ways to shake off the slow moving time and the ever-growing anxiety. Some stretched by the beachfront, while others jogged lightly around the area. Some reviewed their maps and strategies, occasionally dropping a query or two to the still alive and alert ears of the race commander who barely had a decent one-hour sleep. Some slept through the long wait, while some sat in silence, reserving every ounce of energy for the race. Some ate taho while others sat by the white beach, and like exkarsyonistas found entertainment at the sight of Boracay in early morning, nearly unaffected by the last minute concerns of the race.
At five5 minutes before seven, the sun mildly stretching its glorious rays over the expansive white Boracay beach, an advisory coming from a microphone-amplified voice silenced the crowd of gathered racers and spectators. Both Elite racers, those wearing blue bibs, and Fun racers, those wearing white, were advised to fall in the starting line. There wasn’t much of a rule to which side racers for a specific category should stay, making the front area of Summer Place splashed with patched white and blue colors, broken by the multi-colored apparel of the onlookers who are standing by the sidelines.
There was a very positive energy enveloping the area. Racers began their last minute stretching. High fives and the wishes of good luck abound like confetti falling from heaven. There were calls for the Fun Teams to outdo Elite Teams, while some yells went to the extent of challenging a specific team, all done in the spirit of friendly competition and wasn’t taken too seriously. There were hoots and shouts, screams, hollers and roars. All age, gender, social and financial status, even religious and ethnic affiliations were dissolved into a singular personality: Racer. The attire was bohemian and free style; some content in wearing nothing but bibs and trunks, others donning tank tops or thermal suits, while some opting to take their shoes off.
Behind the smile on the faces of every excited racer was the unmistakable drive, not really to win, but to push hard, conquer and finish. Proof was the tensed muscle, the faraway look, the sometimes blank face lost in the imagination of what lies ahead in the daylong race.
After the chorused countdown came to one, 135 pairs of feet poured out of the starting area, exploded to a run and stomped hard the white sand. What was once a one whole pack of runners which looked like a humongous, multi-legged blue white bacteria quickly became fragmented groups after the first kilometer; pack leaders, middle runners and the trailers. In the middle of the run, some racers began to slow down to a jog, others progressing by walking, while some coming to a full stop to look back at teammates left behind. As for myself, I concluded, after 15 minutes of full gallop, that 3K run is not my forte.
We were panting very hard on our return run from Blue Waves Resort, the station where we were handed our passport, to the starting line in Summers Place. A few feet ahead of us was Team Dagat, running together and arms linked. Jason Panagsagan and Leo Angelo Diocampo sandwiched female team member Mary John Maming. Their slow jog is proof enough that the early morning run has rattled their lungs a little bit, and it was a shared feeling that it was safe to catch air at this point of the race. Without warning, Maming’s shoulders fell, almost in deadweight. Her legs collapsed, forming an awkward x, her knees meeting in the middle. Her teammates dragged her limp body to the shore, just where there is an ankle-deep of sloshing waves. They made her sit in an upright position, one carefully supporting her by holding her up through her armpits as he tried to talk her into pulling herself together while the other half of the dreadlocked-duo scooped a handful of seawater and gently splashed it in Maming’s face. At this point, I and the rest of the team have already made it past them. We can’t help ourselves from taking long looks at the K.O.-ed Team Dagat, perhaps feeling torn between the thought of stopping by to help a fellow racer or to just move on and accomplish a task at hand. I found it easier to choose the latter, not because of callousness but simply because we are of no use to them even if we did stop. Real help, I told myself, was on the horizon: Summer Place, which was a stone’s throw away, and there able professionals are on standby and can readily attend to their need. I made my last look at them, noticing a large group of curious onlookers starting to move closer to where the trio made its first unwanted stop. I know that I will find a hard time defining the significance and definition of that moment to the overall aura of challenge, competitiveness and drama that the race exudes. The motionless figure of a woman which seemed like instantaneously drained of all the competitive juices and will power to endure, a broken body with a spirit losing flight even before it reached the race’s highest peak, registered well in my mind and whether it left a sense of fear or of a foreboding of what lies ahead of this day-long race I really am not sure until now, only that I wasn’t prepared to see the race’s first casualty this early. I wonder if that was, in some measure, a preview of how the banquet of hardships which lie ahead of us will try to break us, one by one, and in dread I shrugged off the thought that I will be amongst in the long list of today’s statistics.
I remembered how my mom used to remind me not to take a bath after a tedious task lest I will go down with a cold. It was the first myth I intended to break as I removed my shoes after the grueling 3K run, waded through the ice cold waters and finally submitting my heavily sweating body to the cold sea, ready to face the task of retrieving the designated sandbag of the team located somewhere in the buoyed area of the beach.
It was difficult enough that some of the sandbags are spread far apart. Making it worst is the fact that it wasn’t arranged sequentially, so the three of us divided the area into quadrants. Emil and Liezel weren’t wearing any goggles so they have to lessen moving about lest the dancing sand underwater impairs their ability to see through seawater with unaided eyes.
Finally, I saw the sand bag numbered 005. Finding it was tasking. Carrying it to the shore is even more difficult, having to bear with the creeping exhaustion, crashing sea waves and the weight of the sandbag which I slung on my shoulder. Worn out from the running, diving and swimming, I was surprised to find enough energy left in my system for me to have successfully checked-in my loot and not collapsing in the process.
The parked bicycles was a sight to behold, an assurance that despite what seemed like a very sloppy start from Team NYC-Media, we aren’t entirely left behind. Our smiles were short-lived though. With paddling through very soft sand slowing us down, a very early tragedy isn’t really a very welcome occurrence. Heading towards the exit via the secondary road at the D’Mall, the rear gear of Emil’s bike was deformed. Having no bike repair tools or experience at hand, we decided it is best to just run back to Summer Place to secure another bike.
We stopped by at a nearby carinderia, where people having an early midday merienda curiously stared at us. We purchased a bottle each of Gatorade, mounted our bikes and stormed the main road. We easily spotted the two checkpoints by the roadside, had our passports stamped and headed southeast , full throttle to Rocky Beach, located at the southern tip of the island. We were supposed to make a right at Angol Road, then make a left, trekking the white beach path all the way to the designated area. But we overshoot our target, moving as far and out of tangent, passing Bantud, the Cagban Road elbow and afterwards finding ourselves in Manoc manoc, which is to the east. In our search for shortcuts, we took secondary roads and bike paths, and at the end finding ourselves either faced with a dead end or a heavily fenced area secured by rusty barbwires.
Braving the unchartered area, we ended up at the backdoor of the Lorenzo Villas. The man, seeing three uniformed and definitely lost racers was kind enough to let us in, and out, giving us directions on how to get to Lorenzo South Resort, via the downhill San Lorenzo Road. We made a left and was finally in the Rocky Beach. Were we landed was beautiful, a pristine shore lined with white sand, where halo halo was abound and the sight was enough to make me lust for a tumbler-full to appease a stomach in the verge of a mad revolution. Further, where the exercise is to take place, are cavernous entrances, howling waves and big, sharp rocks. My bike, I think for the first time, swam. It was what the locals call “Parson’s point’.
We managed to locate the rappelling station with only one hitch: the team still has to make an unaided, 50-foot, 90-degree climb or backtrack again and sped another hour searching for another way to the top. The ladder that the mammoth nature wall can provide us are just the protruding roots and small foot spaces, an exercise which would demand from us surgical precision steps. The team’s first 30 foot ascend was easy, but as we move higher there were fewer roots or branches to grasp and lesser space to move. With almost 5 feet left to hurdle, the team was faced with a dilemma, which with one wrong move, can bring about nothing less than death. The perils of taking a chance in using the brittle rocks and twigs as leverage to pull ourselves up are difficult and precarious and as dangerous as backtracking our way down. Looking down was a mistake: the 50-foot drop was scary and distracting, it means nothing less than an unmoving body with every limb twisted in all the wrong directions, eyes left open from the quickness and surprise of death, warm blood polluting the brown green rocks, blue green water and clear white sand. A grisly end for a green horn racer, whose calling to experience and not just imagine prodded him to a challenge to which his body and mind cannot answer. It was the first time I felt death’s nearness, its warm breath enveloping my entire body with a numbing coldness which froze my every muscle. Swallowing becomes a very tedious effort because of the intense beating of my heart. My chest seems to be in the verge of explosion and my heart felt like its coming out through my throat. A moment between the feeling of helplessness and surrendering to the inevitable slashing of Death’s scythe. I prayed, and then I gingerly worked my way up, my shaking hands holding on to every root or branch and pulling myself up, praying that it wouldn’t detach itself from its own hold, stepping into every crevice within the reach of my nearly hyper extended leg and arm muscles, and hoping to where I would step on or hold unto isn’t loose and wouldn’t fall off with my weight. I literally embraced and kissed that part of the cliff, hugged it tightly and tasted its flavor; a flat tang of dried wood and hard, loose soil, like tasteless ground peanuts for kare kare.
Miraculously, we all managed to make it up the cliff. One by one, the marshals helped us with our seat harnesses, arrange the kern mantle rope around the eight ring and guided us as we rappelled down. I went first, wanting to end the frightening sight, being up so high, soon. The jitters of my first rappelling experience hadn’t left me yet, and there I was not more than 24 hours after, getting entangled every once in a while from protruding branches. After the last team member descended we trotted back to where we left our bikes.
It was the first near death scenario we had and we celebrated our survival with bottles of Coke and Sprite and a pack of cheese bread on our first food stop at a nearby sari-sari store. We hoped it was the last as we began alternately walking and biking in our crisscross trek to circumnavigate the entire island, bombarded by the midday sun, parched by severe dehydration, burdened by legs under the constant threat of agonizing cramps, encumbered by blistered and aching groin areas from exhaustive biking and tormented with long solitary walks that can break a person down physically and mentally.
Finishing just the second in our eleven-station itinerary, we have already undergone almost an hour of downhill and uphill biking and numerous rerouting because of our inexperience in orienteering and map reading inefficiency.
The Dead Forest was our next stop, located .Emil Noguera was the designated guide, while Liezel Quinto and I, blindfolded, were destined to suffer the warm, knee-high mud filled with sharp broken shells that made two lacerations on my right foot; one in the middle toe finger and another one in my heel. Making a step was difficult with the thick mud clinging heavily on my legs and moving on a straight line is totally challenging.
Unable to wear my sneakers because of the gnawing pain in my unwashed, open flesh, I contented in using Emil’s spare rubber slip-ons. We pedaled next towards the Talipapa. We divided the four-fold task amongst ourselves, with Emil proceeding to the coin counting, Liezel to a nearby store selling star fish and I in a stall by the beach front to insert very tiny beads in a tansi. I need to make at least a foot long, and even before I managed to accomplish half the task, my teammates were already done with theirs. Liezel, the master in crafts like this one, took my place and finished the assignment in a jiffy. We headed to a secluded pen located at the other side of the rows of stalls, with curly haired kids stopping dead on their tracks at the sight of three helmeted figures rushing by. Emil was unanimously voted as the designated piglet catcher, managing to corner the stubborn piglet in a couple of minutes, but not without laughs elicited from the children who have gathered
After that we tested the stubborn waves of the Tambisaan beach which Liezel conquered fearlessly without life jacket while Emil and I have to be plucked in the sea by the Coast Guard as we surrender to the fists of waves that whacked us to submission.
We combed the sands of Bolabog beach next and had a mouthful or two of saltwater at the Boat Station 1 area afterwards.
We braved the huge, sharp rock formations off Bulaboc Point and solved a jigsaw puzzle in a nearby dimly lit bat cave before orienteering a 3 kilometer walk throughout Yapak Poblacion.
Our last ounces of strength, will power, focus, determination and calm disposition was severely put to test inside Punta Bunga, wherein the team, lost, hungry, tired and growing more and more irate and impatient by the minute, would come to the realization that after being lost in the thick foliage for more than an hour, cannot anymore manage to finish the race before the cut off time.
Tired, depressed and filthy and on the verge of picking up a fight, we took a tricycle and nursed our bruised egos on our way home over the anticlimactic end of our excursion.
THE MORNING AFTER: RETURN TO NORMALCY
I did survive the race, but not without wounds, physical, emotional and mental, which hasn’t healed yet but would definitely leave a scar, both skin-deep and soul etched. The places I traversed with my teammates shall be forever in colorful replay in my mind, the hardships my body has to endure equally vivid and warm.
During the team’s 11 hour non-stop expedition we made three hydration stops in between our thirty minutes of full gallop run, 35 minutes of non-stop swimming, one and a half hour of accomplishing tasks, four hours of walking and four and a half hours of tedious biking spread across the thousand meter wide Boracay island; from the southern most tip of Rocky Beach to the Puka Beach in the west, the scenery merged by the long, quiet, snake-like main road of Boracay to its secondary roads of San Lorenzo, Road 1A, Tambisaan and Angol.
Team Iligan Pride should be proud, and definitely Team Laro-laro was all business that day, as both teams proved to be the best, and toughest Elite and Fun Teams in the Boracay leg of the Enduro San Mig Light Adventure Race. Iligan Pride clocked in at 11 hours and 39 minutes, deserving of the 75,000 pot money. They were followed by Bombproof – Merrel Team, Metro Active, Cora’s Palm and Urban Goats. Laro-laro clocked an 8-hour, 40-minute finish, followed by Bugas Bugas, Aria, Bugsay Blades BomBom and SPR Real Estate Team.
In retrospect, it isn’t about speed alone, or skill alone. It is a race which is hard pressed to be won in a neck-and-neck fashion, and though every second count, it will not be won by such a slim margin of a lead. I was surprised when I overheard an Elite racer telling his teammates at the en masse run to let other racers run first, and that running first or last in the starting area hardly matters. I thought he was just being loud and conceited. I didn’t see the race through his Elite eyes; that it isn’t about catching up by galloping 24-7, its about leading by not wasting unnecessary energy. It is not a sprint. It was stupid of me to bike barefoot very early in the race, but I did, giving more importance to rushing than the consequence of bad fall with an unprotected foot on a metal pedal along a rough road. Foolhardiness is the ticket either to a wounded body or to an early exit. Timing and proper phasing, when to make the one big, energy-draining push, is important. To even attempt to move at high speed, both man and bike, for the entirety of the race is suicide and plain dumb. It is a race of the minds, and what team thinks the smartest fastest most likely will win.
It is a race where an average guy and an experienced mountain climber stands on equal footing, for in the end it is not skill alone or speed alone. It is all about fortitude and the courage to endure; enduring one more station, one more dose of pain, one more strip of uphill road to bike, one more kilometer to run, one more cliff to ascend, one more paddle to the shore, giving a fatigue body one more push when human endurance seem to be on the brink of breakage. In as much as skill and speed is important, endurance, not just of the body but of the mind as well, is the paramount power to wield. And for the team to partake of the power and spirit of endurance is the perfect recipe in surviving life’s multi level, day to day races and challenges.
Many will ask me why I joined this race. I would like to borrow what Bernard Dahy, leader of Team Jura who won the Madagascar Raid, said in response to Dugard’s query:
“The spirit of competition and a little bit of madness”
And what is the spirit of the competition? The challenges and the dangers and how it was surpassed, the victory over oneself but not over other people, the high fives and “go guys!” exchanged by racers as we pass by each other on the road, it is the easy smile and the lack of pretensions, the beautiful scenery viewed through the eyes of a racer, the very minute details which can never be duplicated in ten thousand lifetimes and the little bit of madness that which pulls all racers into the swirling vortex of adventure racing.
It is true that a race is an avenue for thinking, for self-discovery and reconciliation. I have pushed myself and seen firsthand my own limitations. Yes we didn’t finish, but we didn’t quit.
I came, I raced, I survived.