A Pilgrimage of Ten Hours

A Pilgrimage of Ten Hours

by Jefferson Chua

Image by William Cheang

Much has been written on the affinity between ultra running and the strange but liberating mystery of religious ecstasy. Plumes of clouds like incense creep around the grass-filled altar, the spaces between the leaves of a fire tree splicing the sunlight like stained glass windows; the repetitive movement of one’s feet, like the clocklike movements of ceremony, lose out to the deep peace that can only be found through purging oneself through suffering. Humanity has always been interested in the high drama of ritual and repetition, and while the modern mind might find such incantations suspect of superstition and even madness, the high priest feeds on the delirium of the moment. As everything – yes, even your labored breathing – falls into place, you begin to enter a space where even human language breaks down. The highlight of the race is not the summit nor the stunning views, no: it is the uncanny awareness of yourself among the dirt.

An “ultra” is a foot race that goes beyond the standard distance of 42.195 kilometers. The distance and terrain can vary, from flat dirt roads to impossible boulders, from a hundred kilometers to a hundred miles, but the most “standard” distance for an ultra race is a 50k. It offers to the newbie ultra runner a taste of the unknown realm of 8 additional kilometers. It is very much like a baptism distance in the ultra community; a gateway drug, if you will, to the marquee distances of 100k and 160k. The Cordillera Mountain Ultra (CMU) is one such example of that gateway drug. With 50k worth of single track and mountain trails on close to 2 800 vertical meters of climbing, this race from JP Alipio and the Cordillera Conservation Trust (CCT) offers the best introduction to ultra running, with a race atmosphere and community to amplify the experience.

The early morning darkness hides their droopy eyes and sleepless faces, which are slowly replaced by a crescendo of headlamps turned on at the signal of the race director. Risk and caution, excitement and apprehension – these are the cocktail of emotions inscribed on the faces of the runners as the countdown signals the beginning of the race. No one utters a word; just the constant shuffling of pebbles fills the void, as the bobbing headlamps trace the stream of bodies warming up for a long course above the clouds. The breathing becomes more labored, and the posture becomes more scoliotic, as if reverting back to our primordial ancestors, as the incline picks up into the wild spaces that await in front of the trail and within themselves.

More and more, advocates are beginning to realize how much of these wild spaces share an intimate connection with the people around it. The sudden increase in eco-tourism the past years has also raised awareness of the need to preserve these spaces. While there are no consolidated numbers on eco-tourism globally, tourism as an industry is worth $7.6 trillion worldwide, generating 227 million jobs and being a primary source of economic growth for some of the world’s least-developed countries. With these come the pressures that go along increased popularity and notoriety, and not to mention the need for stronger institutions to regulate and to keep the harmony between the communities and the environment healthy.

Homestays, for instance, are an option in Dalupirip, transforming the sleepy town into a race atmosphere one would normally see in races abroad. The change is noticeable: since its maiden year more houses have opened their doors, with some even setting up shop to feed quenched and famished runners. CCT has also partnered with One Meralco Foundation to provide sustainable lighting to the most far-flung houses nestled deep in the mountains, with a portion of the race fee as a contribution to that project.

But perhaps the change is also introspective. Along the course the soil becomes darker and more granulated, with trees becoming sparser and smaller: the remnants of a recent forest fire. Pockmarked with grass and pine trees half-auburn from the trauma, one is given a peek into the sublime reality of wild spaces: the uncanny ability to adapt and bounce back. Countless studies have shown how being constantly exposed to the natural environment reaps benefits for one’s mental and psychological well-being. It is not just the beauty and grandeur of these spaces that teach peace; it is the experience of time, diluted in distilled, reflected and brutally shown in the slow and laborious growth of the greens. It is this opportunity to relearn how to be patient that is visually being taught, and physically being endured. To run an ultra, therefore, is to run back to your roots, to run to what you have forgotten in the mad rush of everyday living.

Image by William Cheang

Heading back to the finish line after ten hours, you wish that the suppleness of simply moving about wouldn’t end. Even the biblical characters we have grown to know – Moses, Elijah, and Jesus himself – needed to come back down to the world of men and women. Such is also the case. Only smiles populate the end of the race, none bigger than JP, greeting each of his runners as they cross the line, and probably hoping that they, too, will bring back the instruction of the mountains.

The greatest challenge, they say, for races such as the Cordillera Mountain Ultra is not the vertical meters one has to climb, nor is it the punishing variety of mountain weather that may come one’s way; it is to confront one’s physical and mental limitations. Endurance is not just about who can move the longest and the farthest; more importantly, it is for whom pain is but a synonym for inspiration and serenity.

Registration for the Cordillera Mountain Ultra 2018 is now open: REGISTRATION LINK

Images by William Cheang and Harry Tanoja for the Cordillera Mountain Ultra