03 October 2023



I might as well get this out of the way.

I have been meaning to write a post about my experience as a sweeper for the first time during H1. The race took place last May 18, 2023. Initially, I was requested to pace a runner but she decided to postpone her first take on the race. She was not confident. I understand. Truth be told, I actually trained as a pacer since there was still a good 60 or so kilometres until the Finish line. That is not something to sneer at especially in a mountain race like H1.

We used to joke that a pacer should "pace" his runner and not the runner pacing the pacer :) Besides, it would be a shame to appear weaker than your runner since he or she needs to feed off from your strong and fresh energy or vibe. So that the pacer should train as well as his runner doing everything to make sure his runner crosses the Finish line within the cut-off time or time barrier as they say in Europe.

H1 for short or Hardcore Hundred Miles Trail Ultramarathon is the culminating race of the KOTM series up in North of the Philippines. One of the toughest races on this side of the planet and I had the "crazy" pleasure of doing it 3 in a row in 2013 (1st edition), 2014 and 2015 to get in the Hall of Fame. My first race report you can find it here and just search for the other articles using H1 as key.

After hearing the news that my runner decided not to go, I volunteered to be a sweeper instead. Something new to me. Besides, I did not want my training to go to waste but doing the entire 100 miles was not option. Firstly, I did not train specifically for it and lastly, I do not want to ruin my record of 3-in-a-row accomplishment. It would be a tragedy to DNF this race. Not now.

So, I got in touch with RD Jonel to allow me to sweep. I was given the duty for this section, Babadak-Cabayo-Banao-Castillo during nighttime or roughly 40 kilometres stretch. Not bad. Better than nothing to do with all the training. I had no idea what to do so I researched a bit. In our conversation, I jokingly said it would seem I would act as a "babysitter" for the last runner or group of runners, and he said that to listen to them "whine" - a common occurrence amongst ultrarunners especially when the going gets tough. Well, believe me there was more to it than whining that I had personally witnessed and how the human spirit can be a very powerful aid to successfully finish this race or any ultra for that matter. More on this later.

Here are some pictures:

Getting ready for the last runner to come by.

There was a drizzle but it was raining bad up in Mt. Pulag so they said. More rain later.

The organizers and some runners on duty.

Race briefing.

Start of sweeping duty.

I was happy to sweep but sad as well for what transpired. What I am about to write does not intend to cast aspersion on any of the runners I swept nor to belittle anyone. I am writing this article with all due respect to them and will not mention any names here. Better that way.

From Babadak aid station, I was following a group of last runners in varying degree of, let us say, troubles. One had hip problem which seemed really bad and the others I could tell that they were "physically" okay. There was a cut-off at the next aid station from Babadak and looking at my watch, I knew they could still make it. So, there was enough time if they would just move at a good pace.

Anyway, I told myself that my duty was merely to sweep and not to pace the runners so they could make it in time from one aid station to another. I refused to relegate myself only to that duty. I also wanted the runners to finish out of empathy because I had done this race before and I know what it felt like and what was at stake.

Then it started to rain. In a tough race like this, rain is an aggravating factor. It multiplies the hardship. Mud, slippery trail, cold temperature, blisters and visibility are some of the issues. You tend to move slowly. Taxing also on the body because it has to warm itself properly.

Then the night came and the rain was not letting up. On my way to the next aid station, I chanced upon a group of runners taking shelter on the balcony of a house. It appeared that no one was inside. They huddled together and wearing jackets and ponchos. Rain was bad. The runners I was sweeping went ahead. They could still make it in time. I knew it. I could tell from their eyes and demeanour. 

It was very cold and wet now. The only part of me that is dry were my head and torso because of my jacket. The rest was soaking wet. Good thing I "3M ductaped" (I know this is not in any dictionary and just made it up) my feet. Otherwise, my feet would have been macerated - a perfect recipe for blisters.

I stopped by and took shelter as well since technically, these runners were now my last runners to sweep. I wanted to carry on and get going (I still could) since stopping would decrease your core temp drastically and even make you feel colder) but my duty was to sweep. So, I had to wait for them.

From their look, the eyes and all, I could tell they had already "resigned". Making up some excuses about this and that and I knew they were not going anywhere. The fighting spirit was gone. Honestly, I felt a mixture of emotions of pity, sadness, and indignation as well. Sadness that they had called it quits and indignation since I knew they could still put up a fight. If they would just fight. They looked okay actually. No visible injury, pain, etc. Just cold and wet but what the heck. We all were. No exception.

I have said before that in any race as long and tough like H1, you always focus on things you can control. The weather, rain or sun, fuck it. Let it be. Do not allow it to control you. Focus on yourself and how to keep going even how difficult and annoying it is. 

I was once asked what the key is to finish a tough ultra race. My answer: Your mind, your spirit

You have done your training and that covers the physical aspect of your preparation. Your mind, however, is equally or even more important than the physical preparation. You should come in a race, mentally prepared too. In our own lingo - "Buo ang loob mo!" No doubt. Nada, zero, zilch. You better swear you will finish no matter what. Nervousness, hell that is natural but doubt is a bitch. You come in a race with any lingering doubt, it will destroy you later in the race because it will be amplified by hundred fold by time, difficulty, soreness, fatigue, weather, fuel and hydration issues, pain, discomfort, etc. which are all inherent in ultra races. And the only thing to fight these with is your indomitable spirit.

You might be curious to ask, how to train your mind or spirit. Easy. Train alone when doing long distances or runs (I used to train alone in Miyamit for a good 30kms, 40kms or so kilometres in a day. You go up there at the peak, you better make sure you come down since no one will most likely help you. No ride, no 711. You are on your own just like in a race. You are the only one who can bring yourself to the finish line and no one else. That mentally preps you a lot. You get the idea). A group of friends to train with from time to time is all right to break the monotony. It should, however, be an exception than the general rule. Train mostly alone. I am sure others have other ideas too. This reminds me of my all-time favorite quote:

“Out of sufferings have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” (Kahlil Gibran)

Let us go back. When I saw that the weather was improving, I encouraged the runners to keep going to the next station where they said to wait it out until the next morning which meant they had decided to quit. Damn. I was sad.

It must have been around 10PM when we reached Banao aid station (was it Banao?) or something where there was a school. Some of the crew said there were other runners inside the school "sleeping" = DNF. I was sad again.

They asked me whether I was staying for the night and told them no. I better keep moving and hopefully, catch the last runner. That was my duty to begin with. Besides, I did not think I could sleep well there with all the runners anyway even though I was tired. Not physically though. A different kind tiredness, you know.

So, I set out alone after getting some supplies. I did not give a shit about the weather. I carried on for a good 6 hours, more or less, to Castillo where my duty would be over. Hiking now, I was hoping to catch a runner or two to accompany them following exactly the trail markers along the race route. I did not take a shortcut. What for? There was unfortunately (perhaps, the better word is fortunately) no one. I did not see a single soul even the locals. I was deep in the mountain and for some reasons, I was not scared at all. Just peace and quiet. I figured they all must have been inside sleeping what with the nasty weather and all. As for the runners, they must have been flying to catch the time in the next aid station. That was good.  
At the Castillo aid station, the crew were waiting for me before they dismantled everything. It must have been around 4AM. Meaning, no more runner to wait for whether within or outside the cut-off time. I was glad I continued on. Otherwise, they could be waiting needlessly.

Would I sweep again? Maybe not. My experience was not totally, uhm, "rewarding." You know. More likely, pace someone to make sure my runner would get to the finish line in time and then celebrate what we call the human spirit.

Until the next blog post. Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing. Tutu ka. The reason why I took up running was because it was mostly mental for me and I like to challenge my mental fortitude. What good did it do for me? I really believe this positive attitude carried me all the way to being a #CancerSlayer 🩷🙏 Those conversations with myself, Nature, and God kept me going.