Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Like the snowflakes currently gracing the Montreal skyline, no two marathons are exactly the same. The Second Quezon City International Marathon (QCIM) was my third marathon (the first two were Road2Hope (Hamilton, ON 2007) and Boston (2009)). It wasn't a PB (personal best), but I'm happy with my race.

Here are some thoughts on what made this latest marathon experience unique.
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Wake up in the threes. The alarm clock is set for 3:15am. My internal alarm goes off a few minutes before. It must be nerves. I'm glad everything was laid out the night before: number pinned onto my shirt, timing chip secured in my left shoelace, semi-clean shorts, sports bra and socks (the pair the RnJ Laundry staff managed to find after they found out how much running socks cost) neatly folded in a pile at the foot of the bed near the gels and a small water bottle.

I stumble downstairs in the dark. Flip the switch to open the gas line on the stove. Boil water for the breakfast of champions: porridge and half a mango. It sticks to my stomach. Feels heavy, too heavy for a 3:20am meal.  But not eating would feel worse ... in the race.

By 3:45, I'm out of the house. The gate key is tied to my right shoelace. The rest of my keys are hooked on the clothesline. I jog slowly to Quezon Memorial Circle, following the "open gate" route I'd scouted out earlier. (My place is in a semi-gated community. The gates are locked from 10pm to 5am. Had I taken my usual route that passes through locked gates I would miss the start of the race.)

Quezon Memorial Circle is aglow with Christmas lights. It's beautiful.

Hundreds of runners have already gathered at the designated muster point. Some stretch or jog in place. Others fiddle with race numbers, iPods and shoelaces. The queue for the port-o-potties grows by the minute.

A taho vendor walks through the crowd, hoping for some sales of this favourite Filipino snack. There aren't many takers.

It's still dark as the runners shuffle to the start line. It's on Commonwealth Avenue, right before the Philcoa overpass. When I first arrived in the Philippines, a good friend told me that the Philippine Coconut Authority (more commonly known as Philcoa) was the centre of the universe. In a sense, he's right. Informal vendors hawk wares of all shapes and sizes on the sidewalk. There are medical facilities, internet cafés, fast food joints, cell phone repair shops and banks. There are jeepneys, buses, taxis and tricycles available for hire. It's the Quezon City gateway to the rest of the world.

The race begins in the usual Filipino fashion. Local media personalities pump up the crowd. A municipal official delivers a speech. Someone prays, asking God to bless the runners, the race organizers, the fans, etc. A fitness club rep leads some warm-up stretches.

After much hoopla, the start gun is fired.

The beginning of the route is familiar, snaking along the roads I frequent on foot and by jeepney. It feels odd to run along Commonwealth Avenue, a heavily trafficked area nearly 24/7. One side of the divided highway is closed to traffic (well, mostly). Traffic on the other side is gridlocked. Drivers and passengers shoot dirty looks at us runners, silently cursing us for causing more traffic than usual.
The gazelles passed me at kilometer 16. Well, the ones running the half marathon. The gazelles in the 42.195 km race were ahead of me even before the starting gun went off.

I run the first half in the company of two Filipino men I nicknamed "Red shirt" and "Black shirt." We push each other, alternately taking the lead and draughting in each other's slipstream. We attract a lot of cheers from onlookers. The cheering is in English.

Black shirt and I pull away from Red shirt shortly before Marlboro Street. We run the first half in 1:35:00. (I don't have a watch and only found out the splits after the race.) It feels good, but I'm not sure I can sustain the pace for the full race. 

Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at night" is stuck on repeat in my head. I'd decided to wear a cap and sunglasses for the race. The sun is up when I reach the halfway point. My internal music player finally moves to another song. 

The kilometers through the Mesa Dam are the most scenic parts of the course. My legs feel lighter and turn over quickly. I take big gulps of soot-free air. My internal camera snaps pictures of the lake, the trees, the winding road, the gardens. While the hills are a welcome break from the otherwise flat course, my legs quickly grow tired. The near-absence of hill training is showing.  

Black shirt starts to tire at the turnaround point. I start the second half alone, then play cat and mouse with some runners in front of me. Runners en-route to the mid-way point offer encouraging words as our paths cross.

Back on Commonwealth Avenue, the crowd has grown. More spectators, more vendors, more jeepneys, more taxis, more tricycles. By kilometer 25, the crowd of runners swells. The marathon runners are joined runners in the shorter distances. Navigating through runner-traffic is not unlike weaving in and out of vehicle traffic.

I'm slowing down, but I don't have any kick left in me. I've had both my gels. I'm counting down the remaining distance in "UP laps." My head and legs know what they feel with five, four, three, two, one more lap to go.  The actual lap around the academic oval feels great. As I exit the campus, I tell myself that I'm starting the penultimate lap. It's a comforting thought.

On Garcia, I hear a familiar voice. "Go Chris!" It's the laundry lady from RnJ Laundry. I'm delighted she's come out to watch the race.

With a kilometer left to go, onlookers are cheering wildly. Everyone seems to be yelling "only 200 meters left" - it's a looooong 200m. It's a relief to finally cross the finish line.
QCIM 2010 Medal
Finisher's medal
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Some finishing thoughts

The race wasn't particularly fast, at least by international standards. 
It could be because of the heat, the pollution, the humidity, the hills or any combination of these factors.The first male and female finishers run the race in 2:22:48 and 2:54:00, respectively. (The world records for the marathon are 2:03:59 - Haile Gebrselassie and 2:15:25 - Paula Radcliffe.) 

Post-race people-watching is a snapshot of life in Quezon City. ~ Sandwiched between the post-race water kiosk and the Powerade kiosk is a vendor. He's selling cigarettes. In fifteen minutes, he makes a grand total of zero sales. ~ 
Street children mill around the finishing line. They collect empty plastic bottles. I give my unopened bottle of Powerade to a young girl. ~ Random runners approach me, inquiring if I am "the woman who runs at UP." They ask to have their picture taken with me. I happily oblige, and wonder what they will do with a photo of them with a sweat-drenched foreigner.  

Zorro is at the awards ceremony, decked out in full Zorro regalia. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make it out to the UP campus for the race. He cheers loudly as the winners are announced, making up for his earlier absence. I say my good-byes.

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My race by the numbers

  • 3:22:13 (gun time); 3:22:01 (chip time)
  • 31st overall (out of 526)
  • 9th female (out of 48) or 3rd, excluding the Kenyans (aka gazelles) 

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QCIM links

Race photos
Race results
Kenyans run show in Quezon City International Marathon (Philippine Star)

Kenyans dominate QC International Marathon (GMANews.tv)

♪♫♪ It's a small world after all ♫♪♫

Have you ever traveled, told someone you were from Canada and had them respond: 

"Oh, I met [insert random first name] from Canada. I think (s)he lives in [insert Canadian city]. Do you know him/her?

You smile, then shake your head with regret. You explain that there are 33 million people in Canada and that your home city is actually several hundred kilometers away from their friend's city. 

On rare occasions, however, you discover a connection.

It's thrilling. It's satisfying. It rekindles memories. It takes you back in time to another part of your life.

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In 2004-2005 I was an intern with Honey Care Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the highlights was "running with the Kenyans" (or more precisely, running in their dust). 

For several months, I trained with Sam. On weekdays, we'd meet at 6:00am in the Nairobi Arboretum. The Arboretum was a short mile or so from Kat and my apartment in Westlands; Sam's place was 10km away. We'd run a workout together. He'd pace me through intervals, fartleks, easy runs, hill runs, etc. On the occasional weekend we'd do a long run, a special hill workout or a training session at the airport. He'd give me running tips about clothing (the Kenyans have known about the benefits of compression workout and recovery attire long before compression gear surfaced in North American running stores), nutrition, sleep, etc.

My workouts with Sam were the "easy" part of his training regime. I think he enjoyed the challenge of teaching a "mzungu" (white person) how to run. After our morning sessions, he would run home (another 10km), rest a few hours, then do his "real" workout. 

Sam can run a sub-60 half-marathon. That's fast. Really fast. The world record is 58:23.

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After finishing the marathon I wander around Quezon Memorial Circle, sample running nutrition products, enjoy a short post-race massage. Near the stage, a live band entertains a large crowd of families. It's only 8:30am. 

A group of African runners sits at the base of a small monument. They look cool and refreshed, having already changed out of their racing singlets and shorts. They don't look tired. I'm in awe. African runners are to me what Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzy and Sidney Crosby are to Canadian boys.

Like at every race, I scan the faces, hoping for a familiar one. No luck.

I approach the group. After exchanging pleasantries and politely asking about their races, I inquire if any of them are Kenyans. Everyone nods.  

Then I pop the question.

"Do you know Sam from Nanyuki? He trains at the airport in Nairobi and does workouts at the big hill. The one where you can see zebras and giraffes - it's about a 45 minute matatu ride from the Nairobi Arboretum."

It's a long shot. There are 39+ million Kenyans. Still, the circle of elite runners can't be that big. 

There's a pause, then a young man nods. 

"Yes, I know Sammy."

We swap stories. He tells me that he's from Nanyuki. He trains both in Nanyuki (to reap the benefits of high altitude training) and in Nairobi. He does workouts at the airport and the hill outside Nairobi. He runs with Sam.

Before parting ways, he takes my hastily scribbled note and agrees to deliver it to Sam.

On the walk home, I marvel at how small the world is. 

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I'm looking forward to trying the workouts my new friend promises to send. And I'm especially looking forward to testing them with my running partner back in Montreal.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three sleeps

Only three short nights left until the big day. The butterflies are already fluttering about in my stomach.

My training has shifted into taper mode, the pre-race period one to two weeks before a major competition in which you lay off the hard training so that your body is well-rested.  With the reduced mileage comes (slightly) more time for writing.

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As many a long distance runner will attest, training has its ups and downs (figuratively, and in ideal training conditions, literally too). Training in a tropical country while doing fieldwork poses its own suite of challenges. Here are some training highlights and hiccups.

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Training for a marathon often entails following a plan with a variety of workouts – tempo runs, hills, intervals, recovery runs, LSDs, cross-training and rest. Some runners (present company included) are neurotic about designing the ideal program, calculating target pacing, completing all workouts and meticulously recording everything in a training log.

My current training regime, however, is very unstructured. The terrain, the climate, the research, the pollution, the travel and the availability of cross-training activities all affect what I can and cannot do.

LSD Runs
Long slow distance runs are a key component of any training program, especially for the marathon. I usually look forward to them as they offer opportunities for exploring new places or long chats with running partners. In Quezon City, there’s really only one place to escape pollution and traffic for effective LSDs: UP Diliman.

The academic oval at UP Diliman campus

I run laps around the academic oval. Running laps makes it easy to track mileage and avoid carrying fuel. Running laps can also be repetitive and boring. I change direction every couple of laps to ‘spice things up.’ I change my stride to match the song playing on my iPod. There are ~1000 songs on the iPod but I usually listen to the same playlist on LSDs. Here’s a sample of the songs and their elicited response.

ABBA (various) … warm-up
Avril Lavigne (various) … picking-up-the-pace … flashback to counting bird blood parasites in my undergrad
The Buggles (Video killed the radio star) … head bobbing … flashback to recovery runs with the Queen’s x-country team  
Paul Simon (various) … lip sync
Moby (Bodyrock) … flashback to surfing (à la kayak) on Big Joe … press repeat 2-3 times to extend the exhilaration
Shakira (various) … dancing on the run
The White Stripes (My doorbell)… light steps

The penultimate long run (in training) was last Tuesday.

Eighteen laps.
Eighteen long laps.
Made especially long because my iPod batteries died.

It was only when I was leafing through my housemate’s copy of “Runner’s World Philippines” that I learned that the academic oval is 2.2km and not 2km. So with the warm up, I had run a marathon.

Only two LSDs were done somewhere other than the academic oval. One in Nagoya, Japan. One in Legaspi, Philippines. While the weather was cooler in the former and made for better running, I preferred running in the latter. Picture running next to the sea in the wee hours of the morning. In the distance is Mount Mayon, a near-perfect conical active volcano and the pride and joy of Legaspi.

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My preferred food during LSDs is dried mango. Dried mango is cheap (especially compared to gels which are twice the price as those sold in Canada). It is readily available at grocery stores. It is easy to stash in the bushes (so that I don't have to carry it on me throughout the run). I keep a few bags of dried mango in the freezer - away from the mice and geckos that manage to chew their way through just about all food packages.

Staying hydrated is critical for training in the heat. Most sports drinks make me gag; they are either too sweet or taste articificial. My first race here was sponsored by Pocari Sweat, which turns out to be palatable and effective. Since then, the drink has been my liquid fuel of choice.

I've discovered that fresh buko juice after a long run does wonders for speeding up recovery. It's cool, refreshing, filled with nutrients, and somehow reduces soreness the following day. It has become part of my routine to stop in the barangay of San Vincente on the jog back home. The young buko seller carefully splits open a young coconut, drains the juice into a plastic bag and finally scoops out the flesh. If it’s not too hot outside I save it for after my shower. If it’s unbearably hot, I drink up immediately.

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The Ananda Márga Yoga Centre in Sikatuna Village is a 25 minute walk or a 25 peso tricycle ride from my place. When in Metro Manila, I do an hour and a half yoga session once or twice a week. The classes are probably the reason why I have, knock on wood, remained relatively healthy and injury-free these past few months. I’m counting on the yoga sessions this week to help my legs recover from last weekend’s spelunking expedition. (It wasn’t such a great idea training-wise but exploring the Calbiga Caves in Samar was too good an opportunity to pass up.)

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Runners don’t make for good foot models. Their heels and toes are calloused and blistered. Their toenails are either missing or purple.

The right pair of running socks can make a big difference in minimizing the damage. Knowing my feet, I brought two pairs of running socks with me from Canada. As of this morning, one half of each pair of socks has disappeared at the laundry. Unfortunately my two pairs of socks are different thicknesses so they can’t be used as a pair. And so, tomorrow I must venture into the malls in search of a new pair of running socks.

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Zorro is a fixture on UP Diliman campus. No one knows his real name or story. I am told that once upon a time he was a brilliant student studying physics and mathematics at the university. Then something happened. He dropped out of school. He began sporting his now-famous costume - a Zorro mask and cape - and spending his days encouraging joggers exercising around the UP academic oval. Every lap Zorro flashes a giant grin and high fives me. He usually says something along the lines of "you run fast beautiful lady." My face is already flushed from the heat and the exercise, and hides my embarrassment. Zorro told me he’ll be there for the marathon and will for cheer me.

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The countdown to the Second Quezon City International Marathon has begun. Three sleeps, two easy runs, one jaunt to a running store ‘til the start gun fires at 4:30am on Sunday.