Editor's Pick

Running High


On the tough trail of the Cordillera mountain marathon, you can either break a leg or learn how to grow a conscience.

Photography by
Story by
Sonny Thakur
Read Time
Location Tag

Everyone who runs a marathon runs into that infamous wall. That mental and physical barrier that you run into, making it seem impossible to go on. That’s when many rookies quit. Mountain marathon runners, on the other hand, talk about that moment of beauty, of clarity, of revelation: This is what I run for, they think; this is why I am alive.

In the cold air, everything is clearer: the green of the trees, the blue of the sky, the world that sprawls out below you. Your mind is alert, your body is strong, and your spirits high.

Harry Tanoja takes the last stretch up to the mini-summit of Mt. Pulag.

And then you hit the Wall anyway: You’ll slam into that invisible Wall hard, perhaps harder than you’ve ever run into it before. That cool air will suddenly feel like death breathing down your neck. You’ll want to give up.

The difference is that if you give up on a mountain marathon, you’re probably miles away from help. You can’t just walk off the road and go home, and there aren’t any trucks you can climb into to bail you out. The chances of this happening are also significantly higher than in the lowlands, because you’re simply a lesser runner in the mountains: Sports scientists figure that you’ll tire around 5% faster for every thousand feet of altitude, thanks to the thinner oxygen. God help you if you’re a road runner, because you’ll find that running on mountain trails requires an entirely different set of skills to adjust to the ever-shifting ground, and the guts to plant your feet firmly in uncertain terrain, knowing at the back of your mind that a misstep can break your ankle. Or your leg. Or—given that some of the trails go over loose rocks and through narrow passes—a fall could be much, much worse.

Of course, running is a sport at its prime in the Philippines. The big races regularly get upwards of ten thousand participants, and the so-called “fun runs” for beginners draw ridiculous crowds. (The Philippines is home, in fact, to the two of the largest running events ever: the Kahit Isang Araw Lang Unity Run in 2012, claims to have had 209,000 registrants; and A Run for the Pasig River, with 116,086 finishers in 2010.)

No wonder that attention is finally trickling down to, shall we say, less democratic sub-genres of the sport. Of the possibly tens of thousands who consider themselves serious runners, there are barely a thousand who have any significant experience in trail running. And of them, even fewer are mountain runners—that peculiar hybrid of athlete who is part runner, part mountaineer. Though numbers are hard to come by, members of the community will tell you that there are maybe five or six hundred, and growing.

It’s primordially beautiful out here, though it’s hard to stay out too long to take it all in, because it’s just too damn cold.

It takes an especially intense kind of athlete, or a special kind of crazy, to excel in this sport. There’s even a growing movement called fastest known times (FKT), where the world’s most elite mountain runners try to get up and down the highest summits as fast as possible. The undisputed leader of the movement, a Spaniard named Kilian Jornet Burgada, has done the Mt. Kilimanjaro roundtrip, for example, in 7 hours and 14 minutes. By comparison, the average hiker to Africa’s highest peak would reach the summit in 7 days.

What drives these runners? As Jornet himself told Outside magazine: “Such beautiful mountains! I went out, met people, ran the summits, the rivers. It’s a shame if you just go there to race.”

The predawn sky in Sitio Babadak is profoundly dark. And, without city lights to compete with, the stars are out in such thick numbers that they almost overlap. It’s primordially beautiful out here, though it’s hard to stay out too long to take it all in, because it’s just too damn cold.

JP Alipio’s band of mountain runners are shivering. Eager to go and hit the trails, they exude the same nervous energy as a bunch of high-strung thoroughbreds straining at the bit. There’s some low-key chatter about the temperature (3 degrees, according to the thermometer); they bounce, they stretch.

In the cold air, everything is clearer: the green of the trees, the blue of the sky, the world that sprawls out below you.

It’s easy to see the superb physical condition the mountain runners are in. They’re lean and muscular, thanks to their rigorous training, with legs of steel and lungs as powerful as bellows. A couple of them are built like battering rams, stocky, and solid as hardwood. If they live where they train—as many of them do—their red blood cell count is likely exceedingly high, as their bodies have acclimatized to the unique requirements of the thin air. Their bodies are built to race through terrain the rest of us struggle to walk through.

We’ve all come here to try to and get our heads around the whole idea of the Cordillera Mountain Marathon, billed as the “highest running event in the country,” with more than 60 percent of the course above 2,000 feet. It’s a legitimate destination run, as the race will take participants to the highest point in Luzon, Mt. Pulag. All of the runners have seen the course of the race, though only in parts. This is the first time most of them will run the entire route—important, because most of the runners gathered here are to be officials and marshals for the coming marathon.

There’s an 11-km fun-run distance, which only works if your definition of “fun” includes having to manage a few kilometers of monotonous dirt trail, broken up by stretches of loose gravel and sudden slopes, until you have to power through the sharp ascent up the last 500m to the turnaround point. It’s a cruel route: Just when your knees and legs are threatening to lock up, the markers will point you to a sharp turn, and you’ll be directed up. And if you somehow manage to will your legs to carry you that last half-kilometer to the peak, you’ll be asked to go down the way you came, all the way back to the start.

The full 42 is another animal entirely. The race will take runners up to the main summit of Pulag (the 11km run goes only to the “mini” summit), and then it pushes over the saddle of the mountain; and then it goes down through the back-door route to Ifugao province, through the miniscule barangay of Danggo. And then it keeps on going for a long way still, because Danggo is only about halfway through, as the race will then take runners—as if all that came before wasn’t punishment enough—to the more demanding half of the route, over a road that is mostly rocks, dust, and gravel, roughly hewn out of the mountainsides.

Finish the race before the cut-off time of 13 hours, and you would have been able to power yourself through three provinces— Benguet, Ifugao, and Nueva Vizcaya—in one day.

It takes an especially intense kind of athlete, or a special kind of crazy, to excel in this sport.

The Cordillera Mountain Marathon isn’t the first mountain marathon in the country, and it’s far from being most challenging. Compared to the mammoth The North Face 100—which has 22km, 50km, and 100km distances through some truly hair-raising trails—the CMT is a walk in the (national) park.

Precisely because of that, however, the CMM is potentially an important race for an entirely different reason: It’s the mountain marathon that might get lowland runners interested in mountain running—and, its organizers hope, in mountains in general.

He was lost in the mountains for a few days when he was a young boy. JP Alipio, founder and still the driving force behind the Cordillera Conservation Trust (CCT), was an Eagle Scout candidate when he and more than 20 of his fellow scouts had to complete a camping and orienteering exercise that should have had them back in the arms of their parents after a couple of nights in the mountains. But somehow they had gotten themselves completely lost.

“In hindsight, it was a fairly easy mountain, and it was supposed to be basic orienteering,” JP winces.

It’s funny now, the memories of being so lost in the mountains: the way one of the bigger, tougher kids had spent all his time blubbering like a baby; the way they had to beg for carrots from farmers up in the mountains to bolster their dwindling food supplies; the way their parents had waited in the parking lot, relieved and indignant, when the troop finally found their way back out of the woods. He didn’t know it then, but the experience in the mountains had left a spark in the young JP.

Ten years ago, he led a team of mountaineers on a 350-km trek traversing the Cordilleras, starting from Itogon, Benguet, and emerging at Tirad Pass, near the border of Ilocos. It was another life-changing journey for the boy who never did become an Eagle Scout.

Trail running is, quite simply, the next stop in the natural progression of mountaineering, JP says. It’s a sport in itself, and one that requires specialized training and jaw-dropping amounts of endurance, true, but nearly everyone who gets into it started out because it was a way to see the great outdoors, and engage in a sport at the same time.

The Cordillera Mountain Marathon and its mountain biking counterpart, the Cordillera Challenge, are the two key sports events held by CCT over the course of the year. Fundraising, yes, but also a way to drive forward the advocacy in a very concrete way. What better way to get people invested in the outdoors than to get them to experience the outdoors?

In the meantime, the race registration fees and sponsorships go to the trust’s many initiatives, mainly focusing on education and on the environment. There are seedling banks and solar electrification projects, reading and arts projects for elementary school youth.

In some ways, it’s kind of a letdown, if you’ve come to the sport expecting to find elite runners training in their mountain hideaways. “We’re not really very competitive,” JP says sheepishly. “I mean, there are those who are, but most of us...we don’t really care about the finishing times.” He chuckles softly. “I mean, some of us are, but most of us don’t mind stopping to take a photo, or just enjoy being there.”

Danggo, one of the major waypoints for the Cordillera Mountain Marathon, is a barangay in the municipality of Tinoc, in Ifugao Province. It’s worth repeating that, because it’s one of those places that are so small that it’s almost a surprise to see they’ve made it to a map. It’s the kind of provincial barangay that exists in the back of the mind: You know that these places exist, that there are many of them in the fringes of the Philippines, but they exist as an abstract idea.

In the noise and the plenty of the city, it’s hard to think to places with neither running water nor electricity, away from the reach of mobile phones, away from roads, hospitals, other towns. To get to, say, Ambangeg, where one might be able to get a jeepney to make the four-hour trip to Baguio, residents of Danggo have to take a leisurely seven-hour walk over the rocky dirt road. If you can’t take the hike—if, God forbid, you injured yourself while working the fields, you will have to scrape up at least P450 to buy a habal-habal ride that will still take two and a half hours, and will still need you to hang on for dear life. In a place with hardly any commerce, Php450 might as well be Php10,000.

There’s a “monitoring board” on one wall of the barangay hall, with icons for 80 households that fall under the barangay’s jurisdiction, and a list of the “top ten unmeet needs” [sic] of its citizens, which include, in this day and age, problems like the absence of trained personnel, or of newborns weighing less than 2.5 kg, or of per capita income falling below the threshold of Php17,116 annually.

One thing you need to learn about mountain running is this: there is no room for hesitation.

There is a mild flurry of activity today at the hall: The barangay captain has prepared a modest spread for the runners, who have arrived there just before noon: wild mountain rice, pinikpikan, a warm vegetable broth. JP’s small crew— Alex Tanawe, Harry Tanoja, George Killo, Mel Quiñones, and Thumbie Remigio, assisted by Elda Olimpo—are a preview of the scores more expected to come this way during the marathon, where those who have made it this far are to be welcomed to the barangay hall with a modest spread of snacks and drinks. A handful of Danggo residents have also signed up to be marshals for this leg of the race, stationed throughout the route to assist runners heading their way.

“If you’re going to wimp out, better here than up at the summit,” JP says. “On Pulag, you have no choice but to walk back the way you came. That’s why we decided to have the halfway stop in Danggo.”

Danggo doesn’t see a lot of visitors, save for the odd hiking group who might find themselves wandering around these parts on the way down the long back way from Mt. Pulag. There is no reason otherwise for people to find themselves in Danggo, to be honest, but JP hopes to change that. By making Danggo a stop on the Cordillera Mountain Marathon, he hopes to push more travelers—and therefore a little bit more attention, money, and help—over that way.

The runners take their bearings, discuss a few logistical matters with the barangay captain, and then set out again. The route feels endless. Over narrow suspension bridges, through grass fields and mud. On the dusty road, scrabbling over stone and rock. Through the wet mist that hangs perpetually around the mountain. Around the corners covered in fog, going carefully so as not to fall into the ravine or over the cliff’s edge.

You have to wonder why anyone would insist on doing this. But all you have to do is lift your head to look beyond the road, and then the beauty of it hits you so hard it feels like you’ve been punched in the chest.

Trail running is, quite simply, the next stop in the natural progression of mountaineering.

Everybody talks about the majestic sea of clouds that lies below the summit of Mt. Pulag, but hardly anyone talks about what it’s like to be in those clouds. There are rainbows, for one thing— rainbows everywhere. There’s a cluster of small farms and houses before you reach the Pulag ranger station in Babadak, and they seem to sit right at cloud line. At dusk, the air turns gold, and the sun hits the mists at just the right angle, scattering the light into rainbows.

The road from Baguio to Babadak was completed sometime in the last decade; before that, it would take a committed traveler six or seven hours in a jeepney, over unpaved roads, before you could even approach the ranger station on the “easy” side of Mt. Pulag.

But Mt. Pulag National Park went the way of Sagada, as the Halsema Highway finally completed its transformation from foot trail to a fully paved highway, and tourists started to flock to the mountain in droves. With tour agencies that can take anyone from Baguio all the way to the Pulag summit for the a few thousand pesos, it’s no wonder that the population of the park swells by three to four hundred every weekend.

Unfortunately, however, very little of the tourist money finds its way to Babadak and to the other communities around Pulag. Most of the tour groups who ply their business in Pulag are based in Manila or in Baguio; they hire mountain guides and bring supplies from outside, too. Additionally, most travelers bypass the towns, preferring to go straight up the trail as soon as they arrive. Despite the influx of travelers, electricity came to Babadak just in the last couple of years, for example, and its residents still depend mostly on vegetable farming for a living.

It’s a sad paradox that is seen all too often in erstwhile travel hotspots around the country—the communities that are supposed to reap the benefits from tourism remain disadvantaged, that the much-vaunted tourism money never really makes it into the local economy, and development takes its sweet time getting there.

The Cordillera Conservation Trust would also like to change this, advocating, among other things, shutting down the Ambangeg-Babadak trail to campers, and asking travelers instead to stay in the nearby towns as the base camp for the four-hour walk to the summit. If more people would patronize the businesses in Babadak, that would, hopefully, drive the local economy.

This is another thing that the Cordillera Mountain Marathon also hopes to jumpstart, as race rules require all participants to book at the homestays, forbidding runners from pitching a tent on Pulag. It’s not a way of thinking that has a lot of fans—commenters on the Trust’s Facebook page expressed their disappointment: The Pulag experience is “just not the same,” they say, not without the camping.

It’s the mountain marathon that might get lowland runners interested in mountain running—and, its organizers hope, in mountains in general.

“Well, you can camp, if you’re coming up the long way from Nueva Vizcaya. Otherwise, you can go to the summit from Babadak in a few hours. You’d be more comfortable in a homestay, you’ll contribute to the local economy, and there’s far less impact on the environment,” says JP. It’s a win all around, in his mind. He’s coming from the viewpoint of someone who’s just hauled down 30 bags of trash from the trails the weekend before. He wants people to earn the right to sleep on the mountain again, if not through sweat and pain, then by caring for the land.

One thing you need to learn about mountain running is this: there is no room for hesitation. As the trail shifts, the mind needs to be always engaged and alert, calculating your next footfall, watching for new dangers, making sure you're headed the right way. You can't keep your head down all the time, though; you need to look up, to enjoy the scenery, and just be in the moment. That means, inevitably, that you will slip.

You can tell an experienced mountain runner because he's able to recover quickly, not because he doesn't stumble. “It's when you're unsure, that's when you get yourself injured,” says JP. “You need to plant your feet. You need to commit.”


This story was originally published in GRID Issue 07.