Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Bataan Death March 102 Km Ultramarathon Experience (Part 2 of 2)

Back in Business: Km 51 to Km 60

I was back on the road by 6:24 a.m. of Sunday, 6 March. I burned around 32 minutes during the Abucay pit stop - 12 minutes over budget. Based on my calculations, I still had about nine hours and 28 minutes to finish the balance of 52 kilometers within cut-off. Very doable, or so it seemed.

Somewhere in Abucay, Bataan
Upon hitting the road, I walked for a couple of minutes to get loose and warmed up again, before resuming to run at an 8:30 pace. I adjusted my gait to favor my right knee, as I was worried that the sharp pain that I experienced from Kilometers 40 to 49 would return. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. It then occurred to me that  keeping up the unnatural gait could strain my left shin, which had yet to recover fully from its own bout with an injury. And so, I decided to run "normally" to test how my knee would respond. No pain. I ran for eight minutes straight and I remained pain-free. Good thing I had that long break.  I was hitting a 7:00 pace at my preferred 8:2 run-walk ratio. Beginning at Km 52, I registered splits of 8:27, 8:17, 8:12, 8:35, 8:46, 12:32, 8:36, 10:07, and 9:00. These were better than my splits for any previous 10-kilometer stretch. After almost 10 hours of running, I was unexpectedly turning out negative splits, and was able to overhaul the one-hour backlog from the Km 40-50 segment. I was back in business.

Back in business
As my support vehicle caught up with me (they stayed behind at Km 50 to have breakfast), I gave them a thumbs-up and signaled for them to go ahead and take a two-kilometer lead. "I'm good," I said. And I really was, and it was going to be that way for the next ten kilometers or so. This particular stretch of the BDM route - Kms 51 to 60 - was quite scenic: green fields, hay stacks, cows grazing lazily like it was a Sunday (wait a minute, it was a Sunday!), with the rising sun serving as a fitting backdrop. It was a scene lifted straight from a postcard. I felt great as I ran with the light morning breeze gently blowing against my face. My confidence was soaring once more. All of a sudden, the first 50 kilometers seemed like a distant memory. I  breached the 60-kilometer mark in 9 hours and 58 minutes. My reward? Two 500 mg Alaxan FR capsules at the next pit stop.

It's Getting Hot in Here: Km 61 to Km 70

As seen on TV!
During our drive to Bataan the night before, I told Bam that a part of me was hoping that the sun would go all out on Sunday. My reason? I wanted to have the "full BDM experience." BDM won't be BDM without the sun and the heat. The talk of last year's BDM was the 40-degree heat, and my masochistic side wanted to have a piece of that. Well, my prayer was answered (sort of) as the sun was already lording it over the Bataan skies by 7:30 a.m. A bit unexpected, as it was raining most of Saturday. The heat was tolerable at first, and I did not need to put on anything more other than my UV-protective compression sleeves and shades.  The heat did not seem to have any significant effect on my pace, as I was able to registered splits of  9:28, 9:08, 14:52, 8:33, and 10:47. This already included walk breaks and pit stops, so I wasn't doing too bad.

By around 9 a.m., things started to get too hot for comfort. The sun took me up on my dare and was beating on us from its perch on the cloudless sky. I needed additional insulation as my solar sleeves and cap were no longer getting it done. From my duffel bag, I pulled out the Solartek cap that I bought in Subic. Amusing but true - my chances of survival rested on the wide brim of a god-awful looking headgear.

Thirty minutes later, the heat started taking its toll on me. My pace dropped significantly beginning at Km 65, and for the next three kilometers, I registered splits of 10:02, 11:21,and  9:09. I was already walking more than I was running. Vehicular traffic had already picked up, and the speeding buses regularly sprayed us runners with black fumes. The whole experience was sloooowly becoming unpleasant, but at least I was still pain-free.

Km 67 - Dinalupihan, Bataan, 9:20 a.m.

The heat was already getting to me in a major way, and this became evident somewhere along Km 68, still in Dinalupihan. I had just completed a very brief pit stop where I downed an entire 330 ml bottle of Pocari Sweat. Feeling somewhat refreshed, I instructed my support vehicle go ahead and leap-frog me by two kilometers. My specific instruction was for them to wait for me at BDM Km Post 70, which was a few hundred meters before the Bataan-Pampanga boundary. My vehicle left as instructed, and I was going to be on my own for the next two kilometers. 

I returned to the left-hand side of the road and resumed my run. It wasn't too long after that when I noticed that I felt somewhat light-headed. I slowed down to a walk in an attempt to regain greater balance. Not working. I then told myself that I better cross over to the right-hand side of the highway while I still can, and not wait until I passed out. The challenge was that I had no way of calling my vehicle back, as I did not have a cell phone with me. You know the feeling right after you stare directly at a camera flash at very close range? I was already on the brink of that. I could have sworn that my vision was beginning to dim, and I was already seeing imaginary amoeba-like objects floating before my eyes. As soon as I reached the other side of the road, I gathered my composure under the shade of a small tree. It was hot as hell beyond the shade. I rested for a couple of minutes, and when I felt somewhat certain that the worst of that episode had already passed, I resumed my walk. It was a veeeery slow walk. After a couple hundred meters, I stumbled upon another runner's support vehicle, a dark green Isuzu Highlander - a virtual oasis in the middle of the desert. I asked for some water (I received some in a large, ice-cold bottle), said thank you, and went on my way. Good Samaritans - where would we all be without them?

Without returning to the left-hand side of the road (sorry, BR!), I walked the rest of the way to the rendezvous point at BDM Kilometer Post 70. If I was going to faint, I wanted to faint where other support vehicles would find me. I drank some of the water and poured the rest on my weary head. There were to be no more dizzy spells until I hit the milestone. As soon I was reunited with my support vehicle, I downed a can of Mountain Dew and ate - inhaled - a chocolate bar (Chocomucho!).

Reunited and it feels so good...

As I sat under the shade of my vehicle's hatched door, I asked myself, "What the hell happened back there?" It was a rhetorical question, of course. It was definitely the heat, the exhaustion, and the fact that I was doing what I was doing in a sleep-deprived state.

Everybody livens up for pictures

After 11 hours, 45 minutes, and 24 seconds of running and walking in uneven proportions, I made it to the 70-kilometer mark. I wouldn't say I was still very strong at that point, but I knew I still had more than enough left in the tank to go all the way. I was already feeling some mild discomfort in my injured shin, but I was certain that it was just the strain caused by exertion, and not the recurrence of shin splints. Lost amidst my dizzy spell was the fact that, as early as four kilometers ago, my right knee already felt numb and had some swelling. I knew something wasn't right.

Bored to Death while Marching: Km 71 to Km 80

It was almost 10:00 a.m. of Sunday. I had one of my longer pit stops in Km 70, as I readied myself for one final push. The next long break was going to be somewhere along Km 80-80 in Guagua, Pampanga. The sky was annoyingly clear and totally devoid of clouds. There was no chance in hell that the day would suddenly turn overcast. If I was going to have my first BDM finish, I will have to do it under the sun. You asked for it, you got it. Now, deal with it.

On to the next province!

I did not have fond memories of Pampanga from the last test run. Pampanga was notorious for only one thing - and it sure as hell was neither sisig nor halo-halo. To my mind, the province was notorious for its national highway with unpaved and uneven shoulders. I vividly recalled how the gravel-strewn shoulder tortured my inflamed shin during the second BDM test run. Back then, I winced in pain each time I stepped on a stone or a pebble that forced my left foot to hit the ground awkwardly. I loved Bataan for its even highway shoulders and interior streets, but I flat-out dreaded Pampanga.

To minimize the risk of re-injuring my shin, I decided that I would walk when the surface was uneven, and sneak in a run whenever the highway was clear. By doing this, I thought, I would also be able to rest my legs in preparation for the homestretch. I had all of six hours to cover the last 32 kilometers, so I had time. I can walk for most of the next 17 kilometers and then run-walk the last 12. It sounded like a good plan, so I went ahead and traded running for very brisk walking. By that time, BDM 102 had already turned into one big walkathon. It was amusing because, although I was walking, I was still able to overtake around five other runners. A couple of runners whom I chatted with actually planned to just walk all the way to San Fernando.
Fighting the heat, or breaking the monotony?
The stretch from Km 71 to Km 80 was an extremely boring one, and the fact that I walked most of it only aggravated the situation. It was during this stretch when, to amuse myself, I sang New Wave songs from the '80s aloud. More to Lose, I Don't Like Mondays, Shake the Disease, Bizarre Love Triangle --- name it, I belted it. Out loud. Anyway, nobody could have heard me as I was in the middle of the highway, with buses whizzing by. I also stopped looking at my Garmin and used objects along the route as determinants of how far I would run. Run up to the next gigantic electric post, run up to the next pakwan or alimasag stand, run up to the dump truck. I was already sick of glancing at my Garmin, so I had to get creative. But really, it was amazing how bored I was. Were the heat and the distance already driving me mad? Was the lack of sleep making me delirious? I didn't think so. But I was bored to death. All of a sudden, the initials "BDM" took on a whole new meaning for me: Bored to Death while Marching. That was the point where BDM 102 became a mind game of sorts, I guess, and also where I felt really glad that I was so used to running alone. I was still sane when I got to Km 80, and my Garmin read 13 hours and 40 minutes. The injured left shin was holding up well, but the right knee was really numb and could have been mistaken for dead. And it was hot as hell at 11:50 a.m.

Falling Apart: Km 81 to Km 90

I had roughly four hours and 20 minutes to cover the remaining 22 kilometers. I was feeling pretty good, and the 10-kilometer walk worked wonders on my previously flagging energy. With renewed confidence, I set my sights on a sub-17 finish.

To boost my chances of meeting my target finish time, I decided to abandon my plan to go on an extended pit stop and break for lunch. I opted instead to take my meal on the run. Spam pandesal, chocolate flavored suman, and fresh fruits were on the menu, and I had them in installments. They say hindsight is always 20:20. Looking back now, I am convinced that my decision not to break for lunch actually cost me more in terms of lost time as a result of forced slow-downs in the last few kilometers.


.... and run!

By the time I finished "lunch," I was almost out of Lubao. The gravel-strewn shoulders were no more as the route finally led me off the highway. I was finally going to enter the paved interior roads of Guagua. I heard my shin breathe a sigh of relief. This was somewhere in Kilometer 83. Only 19 more to go.


Numb right knee and all, I finally resumed running. It felt fine at first, and if I remember correctly, I was even hitting a 7:00 pace - remarkable under the circumstances. It did not last too long though before things started to fall apart. From out of nowhere, my dead right knee was jolted back to life when a sharp pain emanated from inside the joint (I know of no other way to describe it) and shot through the outer side of my thigh. The sensation literally made me stop dead in my tracks. I leaned against one of those gigantic electric posts and tried to stretch it out, but to no avail. I tried random run-walk patterns, where I ran until the pain was no longer bearable, but I stopped the routine when the pain I felt at one point was so sharp that I almost lost my balance. The emotional surge from Km 81 was gone by then, and from targeting a sub-17 finish, I was reduced to calculating whether I could make it within cut-off if I walked all the way to San Fernando.

It was also during this stretch when I struck up separate conversations with fellow runners Tess Geddes from Canada and Ellen Castillo. The common conversation topic was, were we going to make it within cut-off? Ellen was particularly concerned, as her Garmin had already died and she was trying to tell the distance using the BDM kilometer posts. I told her that the kilometers posts were inaccurately placed, and that they were almost two kilometers behind in actual distance. I knew this from the last test run, but at that point, with my bum right knee killing me, I too was no longer very sure. I was beginning to doubt even my own recollection. Again, a mind game.

I went ahead of Ellen after she went on a pit stop. Somewhere during this stretch, Rico Villanueva, well-known in the running and multisport community as the athlete behind the blog By Sheer Will, found me. Rico was scouring the route for friends and acquaintances who were still at it, still doggedly trying to get to the train station. We exchanged pleasantries from opposite sides of the street, he on his bike, and I, hobbling like a newly-circumcised penguin. He wished me well and went on his way. Little did I know that Ironman Rico would eventually play a critical role in this unfolding BDM photo finish.

And so, I went on. It was not looking good - I could barely walk and my knee was awfully painful - mahapdi in the vernacular. From the following pictures, you would be able to tell that I was hurting:

Somewhere along this stretch, the confluence of assorted feelings and emotions - pain, exhaustion, heat, sleep deprivation, hunger, frustration, thirst - got the best of me. And before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face. I could not recall the last time something like that happened to me, let alone during a run. I never saw it coming. And for the first time ever, after close to 15 hours of continuous running and walking, I asked myself this question: "Why the fuck am I doing this to myself?" Mind game. I slowed down and composed myself. Instead of trying to find the answer to the question, I told myself to just stay in the game, and to remember the short prayer that I whispered somewhere in Lubao. A son never forgets. And I was again on my way.

It felt like forever, but I finally cleared this 10 kilometer stretch. My 310XT was almost dead. I would have wanted for it to go all the way to Km 102. It would have been a nice souvenir. I turned the watch off at the Km 90 mark. I took all of one hour and 50 minutes to cover Km 81 to Km 90. The display read 15:34:08.

With Angels On My Shoulders: Km 91 to Km 102

I had a little under two and-a-half hours to cover the last 12 kilometers. Pretty tight, considering my knee's condition and the state of mind that I was in. At the Km 90 pit stop, I took two more Alaxan FR capsules and sprayed some vapo-coolant on my troublesome knee. I wasn't even attempting to run anymore, because each time I did, it felt as if my right leg would fall off. According to my 310XT, my very slow walk yielded splits ranging from 11:00 to 13:00. At the rate I was going, there was no way I was going to finish within cut-off, and I was facing the prospect of getting to Km 102 in 18 hours and 15 minutes, or somewhere in that vicinity. But hey, I had come that far and I had a promise to keep. I replaced the 310XT with my trusty old F305 and set out to finish the race.

I was already resigned that I would have to hobble the rest of the way when, from out of nowhere, appeared marathon-running couple Billy and Marian San Juan, together with their barefoot-running friend Mike Galas. I met Marian at last year's Camsur Marathon, and Billy at the last Rizal Day Run. The couple crewed at the 2010 edition of BDM 102, so they definitely knew their stuff. As early as the Rizal Day Run, Billy and Marian offered to be on my support crew for BDM, but I was dyahe and did not want to rob them of their weekend. And so, I told them that Bam and our driver would be enough. I would later on learn that, after meeting up with another finisher-friend at Km 102, they decided to scour the route and look for me. Amazing.

Marian immediately made her presence felt by "commandeering" my support vehicle and guiding Bam and our driver on how to better support me the rest of the way. Bam and the driver had been doing an awesome job since the night before, but at that point, it was imperative for my support crew to adopt a more aggressive (rather than passive) approach. As it turned out, during the final 10 kilometers leading up to Km 102, Marian would see to it that I got the best support possible, playing the role of de facto crew chief to perfection.

Billy, for his part, continuously barked out instructions and motivation from their vehicle. From proper brisk walking form, to the pace that I should be aiming for, and finally to raising my pain threshold. Billy made it perfectly clear that he would not let me quit. Obviously, the drill sergeant approach worked.

As if Billy and Marian weren't enough, Rico returned somewhere at Km 94 and delivered the coup de grace. This guy, I swear to God, is one of the world's greatest motivators. Sheer Will did it all - from taking charge of locating the next kilometer post, to delivering motivational gems along the lines of "if you don't finish, we don't finish," to racing back and fourth between me and my support vehicle to let them know in advance what I will be needing at the next pit stop. And that's not all. At one point, Ironman Rico actually converted  a group of tricycle drivers and street kids into impromptu pep squads! Truly unbelievable, the gifts this guy has. I've been reading in blogs how generous and giving he is, and now, in the biggest race of my life to date, I was benefiting from that generosity first-hand.

And so, the stage was set for the last 10 kilometers. Everyone in my reloaded support team showed tremendous heart in setting me up for a memorable ultramarathon finish. How does one repay heart? I know of only one way: By showing some heart as well - or maybe a lot more, but definitely nothing less. It must have been adrenaline, or perhaps simply not wanting to disappoint the people that were rooting for me, but somehow, I was able to will my tired body and aching legs to run once again.

My right knee still hurt like a bitch, and at one point, the pain almost drove me to tears. Strangely though, it didn't seem to matter anymore. I just wanted to keep on running and to finish what I started. Each time I stopped because I could no longer take the pain, Billy and Rico would take turns pushing me, cajoling me to dig a little deeper and to give a little bit more, for just a little while longer. Bam and Marian, meanwhile, saw to it that I was well attended to, in terms of physical support. Heck, even Mike got into the act and started running barefoot a few paces behind, imploring me to finish strong.

The team was rolling like a mean and well-oiled machine, and the results were unbelievable: for the last six kilometers, I logged splits ranging from 8:00 to 9:00. That was no longer just me. That was us. What happened next, I will let these photographs re-tell:

By the grace of God, I made it to Km 102 in 17 hours, 49 minutes, and 32 seconds, just a little over 10 minutes under the mandated cut-off time of 18 hours.  My effort made me the 108th runner to cross the finish line. After me, only four other runners made it within the alloted time.

After the second test run last February, I told BR that I will not have my picture taken with the iconic BDM Kilometer Post 102. I explained to BR that I wanted to earn my first ever photograph beside the historic milestone. By crossing the finish line, I believe I had finally earned the right not only to pose beside the white obelisk, but to plant a huge kiss on it as well. I hope I didn't make Bam jealous.

To my wonderful and wondrous support crew - both the originals - Bam and Mang Laynes - and the reinforcements - Rico, Billy, Marian, and Mike, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, my soul, and my aching knee. This one's for all of us.

Photo courtesy of Vener Roldan. Thanks a lot, bro!
See you in Mariveles next year!!!


  1. great recap pre. congrats!!!!

    rico's really special from what I've read even before in other race stories (the 1st Subic SCTEX marathon comes to mind). It was a good thing the reinforcements came to your aid. :)

    but nevertheless, it was still all you against the odds there. so a "job well done!" is in order. :)

    me + BDM? naku, wag muna wag muna. di ko (pa) kaya. wag mo akong pilitin. :)

    congrats again pre!


  2. awesome story chief! grabe! i was having goosebumps while reading your account. again, congratulations to you and your support crew for a successful endeavor. i am hoping that i will be able to run with you in next year's edition. =)

  3. congrats sir. see you at BDM 2012. i've been following your blog for quite some time now.

  4. Great recap. Awesome job, Julius. Congratulations!


  5. @ Roelle - Yeah, Rico is definitely something else. Parang Jawo kung mag-motivate haha! Glad you liked the account. Hope it inspires you to give it "that old college try" soon. :)

    @ Din - Salamat. Glad you liked it because I enjoyed writing it. It was like re-living BDM weekend. Good luck with TBR, and hope to run with you in Mayon!

    @ Allan - See you at BDM 2012 indeed! Thanks for dropping by, and for following.

    @ Tin - You are FAST. Congratulations on the sub-15! 160 next year? :)

  6. Nicely done. Congratulations and welcome to the club. You're running inspired out there, that propelled you to the finish line. See you again.

  7. congratulations again to you and your crew! great recap.

  8. @ Vener - Thanks for the pic and for everything. Your encouragement somewhere along Km 80-90 got me going was much needed and appreciated. See you again soon!

    @ Jet - Thanks, classmate!

  9. Cheers! I'll drink to that. It's always exciting to see an awesome finish. Congratulations chief!

  10. Congratulations! What a feat! Reading about your ordeal made my ITBS act up. :-) Grabe, lupet man! My brother is thinking of doing BDM as well. Maybe I'll join him. :-) Congrats again.

  11. @ Billy - Thank you, thank you, thank you. I owe you big time. Sa uulitin (hint, hint)! lol

  12. @ Rommel - Thanks a lot, bud. It was an awesome weekend. You and your bro should do it - wala nang isip isip hahaha. :) See you and Peach soon!

  13. congratulations, julius! which one is harder now, passing the bar or finishing the BDM?..hehehe..treat yourself with a new running shorts, get those shorter ones and they will make you run faster and stronger! see you soon!

  14. @ Sir Jovie - I think passing the Bar and finishing are just about the same, but wearing short shorts will be harder! Thanks BR, see you at Mayon 360 next week!