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It is the world’s toughest mountain race. The Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon in Sabah, Malaysia is 21 kilometers up and down unrelentingly steep trails-a vertical gain of 2,300 meters in a span of just eight -and-a-half kilometers-complicated by unending wooden ladders, bare volcanic rock faces, and rope climbs. Only 30 percent of contestants finish the annual international event. Most runners aren’t even allowed the satisfaction of reaching climax at the summit. Race organizers impose brutal cutoff times at checkpoint. At 4,095 meters above sea level (masl)-nearly twice the height of the Philippine’s highest peek, Mount Apo-Kinabalu stymies those un-acclimatized to such heights with debilitating altitude sickness, especially Filipinos who have no local mountains that can compare to Kinabalu’s elevation.
And there I am, gasping the thin misty air, every sinew burning with adrenalin, hobbled by a splitting headache brought on by the altitude, clawing my way on the bare rock.
On October 22, 2011, I would become the only Filipino in my category-men aged 40 and above-who would reach the peak at the Kinabalu Climbathon. That day, I would become the last person allowed to reach the pinnacle-the last man standing.
Months of arduous training, buying the best high-tech gear available, consuming the most scientific nutrition: all these weren’t enough to take me there. Ultimately it was a single-minded hunger for achievement-an almost rabid maniacal pursuit of time-that led me to that peak. I climbed the last stretch with mouth agape, bearing my teeth to the wind and my mind feverishly bent on chasing the clock. Such was my passion for skyrunning.
Child of the mountain
Skyrunning-where athletes run mountain trails 2000 masl or more with inclines as steep as 40 percent-is nothing less than mountaineering perfected. Fleet-footed. Unencumbered. The summit and the sky rush to greet you as fast as your feet can take you. Speeding down the mountain is as swift as gravity and one’s own reflexes will allow.
In contrast, the climbing that conventional mountaineers know is a snail-paced trudge. The burden of a heavy multi-day backpack weighs down upon one’s shoulders like a yoke. The queues along trails and crowds at campsites mirror the all-too-familiar drudgery of urban life.
Skyrunning unfetters the outdoorsman and makes him a child of the mountain. It is the way the outdoors are meant to be experienced. Trails that take conventional mountaineers three days to traverse, skyrunnners finish in half a day.instead of towering multi-day backpacks loaded with tents, sleeping bags, stoves and cook sets, skyrunners use lightweight hydration packs.Instead of heavy meals, they feed on sports gels, energy bars, dried fruit, and nuts. Instead of baggy trekking pants and Gore-Text jackets, they wear form-fitting compression tights, technical shirts, and lightweight windbreakers to ward off the cold.
Packing so little doesn’t not make skyrunning any less arduous. What runners lack in weight, we more than make up with pace. To slow down or stop for any considerable amount of time means cooling down and losing body heat in weather where hypothermia is a real menace. Having no resources to sustain ourselves in the wilderness overnight, speed is a necessity-not an option. This is especially true in descents. To go slow and brake one’s fall with every step instead of rolling with the momentum with one’s feet only puts more stress on one’s knees and makes one more prone to injury. Running is the only way to go, even when going downhill.
Skyrunning is a new sport; The International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) was founded in 2008. The2011 Mount Kinabalu Climbathon, held on October 22 and 23, was part of the ISF-sanctioned World Skyrunning Series and the culminating leg of the ISF’s Skyrunner SuperCup. It was the Kinabalu Climbathon that first brought Filipino Skyrunners together.
The Philippine Skyrunning Association (PSA) was formed after Filipino athletes participating int the Kinabalu Climbathon of 2007 found themselves to be the largest foreign contingent. It was but natural that these pioneers unite.
Today, the PSA enjoys the sponsorship of Salomon, esteemed maker of premium outdoor sports gear, and the recognition of the ISF as its only official member-organization in the Philippines. Having been the catalyst for the PSA’s formation, the Kinabalu Climbathon continues to be the one of the focuses of PSA. It is still the world’s toughest mountain race and part of every skyrunner’s bucket list.
A matter of timing
Mount Kinabalu’s beauty only matches its difficulty. This is attested to by the continued participation of the world’s best, such as highly acclaimed Salomon athlete and product endorser Kilian Jornet and Mount Kinabalu record holder and 2010 champion Marco De Gasperi.
Ironically, the faster the runner, the less gear he needs to carry for the race. Professional athletes such as Jornet and Gasperi compete in nothing more than flimsy running shorts and singlets, as if they were just out for a jog at a park, while us mere mortals pack liters of water and trail food in our hydration packs, while wearing compression tights to stave off fatigue. The professionals, being at the lead of the pack, arrive at all the water stations while they are still well-stocked with supplies. Those who aren’t as fast find the same aid stations empty.
Finishing the race is an accomplishment few participants actually achieve. Those competing in the Women’s and Veteran Men’s (40 years of age and above) category on the first day of races must reach the first cut off point within 3.5 hours. For Men’s Open (below 40 years of age) racing the following day, they have one hour less to reach the same point. Those who fail to make the cut are turned back from even reaching the peak. This is to limit the exposure of race marshals and emergency crews to the peak’s frigid and fickle weather, which most often grows more vicious as daylight ebbs.
This year is my best chance for success. If I were but a year younger, I would need to be so much faster just to make the much more brutal 2.5 hour cut off for the Men’s Open. Asa 40-year-old man, I am now as young as I will ever be for a veteran.
Among the mountains in the ISF’s World Skyrunning Series, Kinabalu is acclaimed to be one of the most gorgeous. It is a UNESCO World HeritageSite boasting such exotic fauna as pitcher plants and lush forest vegetation as well as world-classpark facilities and well-maintained trails.
The Kinabalu Park is a manicured, tastefully appointed affair. In contrast to the seaside city Kota Kinabalu with its stifling, sticky an windless humidity, the mountain park offers chilly breezes, cool mists, and icy rains with its 1563.8-masl elevation. There are numerous cottages and hostels to stay and restaurants to dine in nearby. Even getting to and from the park is easy; many taxis and buses park by the entrance.
The most breathtaking rainforest vegetation hems the trail up the mountain. For conventional trekkers, such a sight is almost enough to distract from the trail’s arduous climb. For skyrunners on race, it is but a blur of green between flashes of flesh as we jostle on the narrow trail to get ahead of one another.
Even in the heat of competition, there is time for smiles. Jornet and other members of the Salomon Team competing in the Men’s Open race the next day are cheering on the racers of the Women’s and Men’s Veteran division. They give a helping hand to all who go past them. (Jornet would go on to win the championship from his friend Gasperi the next day.)
Steep stairways and terraces formed by wooden planks compose large sections of the trail. Crafted to prevent erosion from so many travelers, these staircases-often unevenly and widely spaced-can be slippery during rains and are murder on the knees going down. After every kilometer, they are tin-roofed shacks complete with benches and rest rooms. The running water that comes from mountain springs is potable. SO well-maintained is the trail, it’s impossible to get lost. There are always trail signs and wooden rails where they need to be.
After six kilometers of climbing, large boulders begin to punctuate the trail. I then arrive at Laban Rata, the last outpost of civilization with its tin huts, bunk beds, hot showers, mess halls, and delicious buffet. For conventional trekkers, it is a godsend. For skyrunners competing in the race such as I, Laban Rata is but another blur as we speed on to the peak.
Past Laban Rata, the terrain dramatically changes. Instead of hard-packed earth, climbers tread on gray basalt rock. At many sections, the bare rock face grows so steep that we must clamber upon stout ropes permanently affixed to the mountain. Gloves are a necessity to prevent rope burns. The white-colored ropes also allow climbers to find their way through the thick mist, which at times limits visibility to just a few meters. There are a few hairy moments such as when I, on my way up, have to share the same rope with Salomon-sponsored professional athlete and last year’s women’s champion Anna Frost, who is already on her way down. I find myself clinging on to dear life as she goes past me. (Frost would go on to place second in the women’s podium.)
On the last stretch, I find myself almost halting to crawl as what first started as a slight headache begins to feel like a jackhammer splitting my cranium wide open. I am short of breath and nauseous. My heart feels like it is about to burst. I recognize these as symptoms of altitude sickness. But then again, these could simply be signs of going beyond my physical threshold.
Prevention and cure of altitude sickness involves either slowing down one’s ascent to allow physical adaptation or simply going down to a more comfortable altitude. Medicines against headache and nausea also help. Unfortunately none of these are an option in the middle of the race, especially since I have forgotten to bring the emergency medicine I had so carefully packed the night before.
I can see the same symptoms hobble other runners around me. Some seemingly give up and instead pause to take pictures of themselves upon the awesome backdrop of Kinabalu’s peaks piercing the sea of clouds. Fatigue also allows me to slow down, albeit unwillingly, to appreciate the spectacular panorama between haggard gasps. The sky is a stunning cobalt blue. The puffy clouds are as white as pristine snow. The warm sun complements the nippy wind. The mountain’s peak looks like the gray scaly hide of a gargantuan dragon: its curved body in repose, the whimsical spires of its peaks are where wings and horns ought to be. It is simply breathtaking. It’s a perfect day to be alive. If only I didn’t feel like dying. Despite my wretchedness, I soldier on.
I come to a standstill at the peak, breathless and speechless. I kiss the plaque that tells me this is the summit. In my mind, I cross out one more item on my bucket list. But then a race marshall tells me that, though I was allowed to reach the summit-I was the very last one-I did not make the cut off. I was off by a few minutes. I smile, let a Malaysian climber snap my picture, and head back down. I now have a reason to go back next year.