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Cordillera: The mecca for mountain running
Jonel C. Mendoza

ULTRA RUNNERS -- The number of local and foreign runners joining the King of the Mountain Philippine series is steadily increasing over the years since the event was organized in 2012. -- Contributed photo


Deep in a back trail that links with Ambaguio Trail and eventually the fringes of Mount Pulag lies a small village called “Happy,” a place dotted with rice terraces.

I still get the same exhilarating feeling whenever I am here, just like the first time I set foot in the place not so long ago. And it never fails to impress my fellow hikers, first-timers or otherwise, as well. Indeed, the visual treat provides a respite for the tired body and weary soul, especially after prolonged hours of walking and running. I guess Happy best describes what every trekker feels when they are in the Cordillera – a region blessed with beautiful trails, countless peaks, to-die-for vistas, and sunrises best witnessed from summits.

The dawning of a new breed

Over the last few years, the Cordillera mountains have played host to a new species of outdoorsmen called trail runners. They are pretty much like hikers, except that they scale (or attempt to scale) the mountains in less time, especially when training, and of course, when actually running a race. They avoid the temptation to sleep or take a moment’s rest in order to finish within the cut-off time. They also try to master the art of refueling – drinking and eating – while on the move.

When a foreign brand of outdoor apparel first hosted a 100-kilometer trail race in Baguio and Benguet (Mt. Kabuyao and Mt. Santo Tomas in Tuba, Benguet) around a decade ago, runners started to become aware that there were so many trails to explore in the Cordillera and realized that this region in the north is more than just a hot summer’s day refuge. Before then, runners from out of town simply looked forward to running or jogging within Camp John Hay. Yellow Trail, located inside the former American recreational base, was the only trail most runners were familiar with.

Soon enough, Mount Ugo became the next trail running destination when a group of sky runners conducted a race that started from Barangay Tinongdan in Itogon, Benguet and required participants to climb to the mountain’s summit. It is still held annually.

In 2012, I organized an event that would also take runners to the top of Mount Ugo, but with the Cordillera neighboring town of Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya as the jump-off point. This race, which we named Mount Ugo Marathon, would be the curtain-raiser for the King of the Mountain (KOTM)-Philippines series of trail races. I believe it was the first legitimate mountain marathon in the country, covering the standard marathon distance of 42 kilometers.

The KOTM series would eventually include ultra marathons of various distances: a 50-kilometer race called Old Spanish Tail 50K, two 100-kilometer races: Four Lakes 100K and Pulag 100K, and finally, a 100-miler called Hardcore Hundred Miles (H1), connecting two of Cordillera’s popular peaks – Mounts Ugo and Pulag.

Already on its fifth year, H1 is the country’s only 100-mile and longest trail race to date. It is also a qualifying race for a popular trail event in the United States called Hardrock Hundred, and Europe’s biggest ultra marathon, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).

KOTM’s foreign participation has grown every year. We have had runners from the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, the U.S., Canada, Japan, India, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and lately, Brunei, flying in to the Philippines to attend the races. Both local and foreign runners use their KOTM points, earned when they successfully finish their respective races, in order to qualify for the previously mentioned international events.

Home-grown talents like Sandi Menchi Abahan, Roland Wangwang, James Tellias, Marcelo Bautista, Marcelino Sana-oy, Gretchen Felipe, and Arnold Lozano have competed in trail running competitions abroad, some of them bringing home the gold, right after joining and winning KOTM races.

In August this year, policeman Miguelito Carranza, an H1 fourth place finisher, will be strutting his wares in Europe’s UTMB as well.

Spreading the love

I have organized other trail races of shorter distances in Itogon, Bakun, and Bokod, all in Benguet; and Sagada, Mountain Province, while other individual runners or groups have conducted races in Banaue and Kiangan in Ifugao; Bontoc, Mountain Province; and Mankayan, Benguet. Of late, a race in Tadian, Mountain Province was also held. The trail run fever in the Cordillera continues to spread.

It has spawned similar events in the lowlands, from Rizal province all the way to Mindanao. Not only that. Fellow runners from our neighbor countries in Southeast Asia, most of them previous participants of KOTM, have started organizing their own races too. Perhaps, seeing the potential of their localities led them to also initiate their own trail events.

Trail running economics

The rising popularity of trail running in the Philippines as a whole has spurred businesses. There are now local manufacturers of trail-specific garments and items such as moisture-wicking socks, shoe gaiters, reflectorized caps, backpacks and hydration vests; even healthy trail food and snacks that can give foreign brands a run for their money.

More athletes are heading to the mountains during weekends, paying trail fees, if any, and employing local guides as they engage in high-altitude training.

Engaging the government and community

These foot races would not be possible without the cooperation and support of the different local government units, which appreciate the positive impact on their communities of holding such events. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which manages and controls the use of our national parks, has also played a crucial role in the surge of this outdoor sport and the influx of a new breed of local and foreign visitors.

Perhaps most of the credit should be given to the locals who have been very welcoming, unselfishly sharing their trails and opening their homes to runners. Not a few stories of hospitality and generosity have been told and shared on social media by KOTM participants based on their interaction with the local guides and race marshals; their host families – since renting space in homes is the norm in this event; and unexpected encounters with the villagers, such as when they get lost.

Once, a couple of Malaysian runners could not find their way in the dark and ended up in one of the homes in a remote village. An old woman let them in, offered them a space to sleep for the night, some warm blankets and meals. The foreigners obviously didn’t finish their race, but to this day, they always remember coming to the Philippines and receiving acts of kindness from simple folk of the Cordillera.

Cordillera – home to half

of the country’s highest peaks

The region’s mountainous topography characterized by towering peaks, plateaus, and intermittent patches of valleys is what beckons ultra runners, outdoors adventurers, hikers, and mountain climbers to keep coming back to the Cordillera.

Mount Pulag, said to be the playing ground of the great ancestors of Kankana-eys, Ibaloys, and Kalanguyas, believed to be living in the shadows of the mountain, remains to be the most sought-after peak in the region, although seasoned outdoor adventurers love to explore other challenging mountains in the region that require intense physical training and mental preparation.

These mountains and peaks that keep luring adventure lovers include the Bakun trio of Mt. Lobo, Mt. Tenglawan, and Mt. Kabunian in Benguet and Mt. Tagpew, and Mt. Tagpaya in Kibungan.

Mountain Province is also visited for Mt. Amuyao in Barlig and Mt. Kalawitan in Sabangan while Ifugao is famous for Mt. Napulawan.

Apayao, on the other hand, is being considered as the last frontier for eco adventure destinations with European backpackers who love to explore the natural beauty of the province.

From the list of 30 highest peaks in the country, at least 14 are located within the Cordillera mountain range.

This is where the action is

Cordillera is the ultimate trail running destination, with its tall mountains and little hills in between, rich forests, cool weather, warm people, and pathways that have been around for generations. While some single-track trails said to date back to the Spanish times are currently being widened and improved to accommodate four-wheeled vehicles, most have remained in their natural setting, retaining their charm and enhancing the thrill of trail racing.

Any runner worth his salt will always say that Cordillera trails are not only difficult and unpredictable with every climb and turn, but are also simply aesthetically enticing.

“Happy” while in the Cordillera trails is an understatement. “Jumping with joy, no matter the pain,” is more like it. That is why runners keep coming back and new visitors come to explore – on any given day.

(The writer is an advocate of responsible ultra trail running in Northern Luzon and initiated the King of the Mountain Philippine Series.)
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