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Burma by Bicycle February 9, 2015

“A bicycle ride around the world begins with a single pedal stroke.” ~ Scott Stoll

Burma poster.001

On my first Christmas as a 30 year old adult, my saddle friends and I embarked on another Indochina bike adventure–Myanmar!

Our team:

1) Yours truly: Penny

2) Levi

3) Lei

4) LA

Why Myanmar?

To us Myanmar (or Burma) was a mysterious land  with a culture that was unfamiliar. It recently joined ASEAN, thus making it relatively more open to tourist, so  here was our chance. We started talking about this trip in 2013 while we were riding in Cambodia. It was the inevitable question: “What’s next?”.

Of course, we would love to take our bike adventure to Europe or latin America, but it’s financially unfriendly at the moment. And of course, we had to limit our itinerary to three weeks at the most. There are so many places where we would like to ride but for some reason, Myanmar naturally felt like the next destination. We’re still in love with the vast culture of South East Asia, so why  not take our bikes to the land of the golden pagodas?

Arriving in Myanmar

Our flight arrived at 1030 in the evening. We had a bit of a problem at the immigration as we just learned that ASEAN countries are only allowed 14 days in Myanmar. We had planned to stay for 17 days. I almost thought we would be required to rebook our flights, but instead we were advised to pay the penalty for overstaying. ($3/day).

I booked a guesthouse downtown called TOKYO GUESTHOUSE which was 15 kilometers away from the airport.

We hired a cab for $15.

Note: Never ride a cab before negotiating the price.

* Going home for our flight back to Manila, we were able to hire a cab for $7. But I think $15 was pretty standard for the cabs parked at the airport.

Day 1 Yangon- Okekan (100km)

We woke up at 6 to prep our bikes hoping we could start riding at 7am. We had a hard time navigating our way out of the main city. The roads were heavily congested, most of the signs were in Burmese, thus it took us almost 2 hours just to get out of the city proper.

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Levi unpacking and prepping his Surly.

Larga-ready!

Larga-ready!

There weren’t any distance markers that could have been useful  at that time, because they were all in Burmese (note: they use miles). Good thing, GPS-tech-savvy LA, was able to download the map, so after the setbacks, we found our track.

No subtitles. Where are we??

No subtitles. Where are we??

The road started really flat, a bit like biking in Morong, so it was a relatively easy ride.

We had a lunch stop at an eatery by the road. A local paid for our lunch. He spoke a little English and when we told him about our itinerary he told us that Tharrawaddy, our target destination,  was still very far.

We were supposed to target Tharrawaddy but it was already 5pm and we learned that it would still be 30 more kilometers to get there.Riding a t night was not an option. The drivers here can be crazy. Lei was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with her knee injury.

We got to a town called Okekan around 5 pm. We decided to look for a guesthouse here. One of the challenges was that almost everything are in Burmese characters. It also had to be a “for-foreigner guesthouse”. After one failed attempt, a guy in a scooter with a mouthful of moma  escorted us to a hotel around 2km away from his guesthouse (which was for locals only). He was very nice! He brought us to this luxurious looking hotel

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This is Lei’s standard pose in every hotel/guesthouse room. Warning!

The man at the front desk spoke good English, and they were all too eager to assist us, it was overwhelming but we loved it. To our surprise, there was a Pinoy staying in the hotel as well. Apparently, there’s a bunch of Filipinos setting up the cell sites in Burma.

Hotel review: super nice staff

  • They refused to let us wash our own laundry. They were very enthusiastic to do our laundry FOR FREE.
  • They even unloaded our Larga packs from the bike. I wondered if they can also figure out how to load them back?
  • They also washed our very smelly helmets. Maybe it was that smelly they couldn’t help not to do something about it.
  • They sent  fruits in our room. (FOR FREE)
  • They had internet but it didn’t really do much.
  • Free breakfast.
  • Price: $50 for the whole family room. ($12.5 each)
The eager beaver hotel staff

The eager beaver hotel staff behind me. (okay, sige na, kayo na mag-ayos ng bike)

This was pretty much standard rate for the for-foreigners guesthouses. We found this somewhat pricey when we compared it to our Vietnam and Cambodia bike rides where we could get a nice room for $8 (for 4 people)

Wow, a proper send-off.

Wow, a proper send-off.

The next day, the staff gave us bottles of cold water FOR FREE. We had a very giddy send-off that morning. Sweet!

Day 2 Okekan- Gyobingauk (89.1 km)

Lei’s bad knee acted up that she had to wear her sneakers over her bike shoes.

Lei packing her bike shoes.

Lei packing her bike shoes.

The ride started really slow. Upon reaching Tharrawaddy, Lei, with a terrible knee injury, decided to take the bus to Pyay. Levi and I pushed with the ride while LA stayed behind to take the bus with Lei.

Young novice monks on their morning alms

Young novice monks on their daily morning alms

Note: Toilets in gas stations are comparably more bearable

This was the beginning of our watermelon feast.

We loooove watermelons! P40 for the whole watermelon!

We loooove watermelons! P40 for the whole watermelon!

We reached Gyobingauk, a  rather big town (lots of ATM machines), around 4 pm. We had a hard time finding a guesthouse, because of the strict  foreigner-accredited-guesthouse policy. Similar to our first day, a local in a scooter assisted us around the town looking for a guesthouse. It was nearing dark and we still couldn’t find any. We almost thought he was bringing us to the police station.

The “for-foreigners guesthouse” was adjacent to the Police station, but it wasn’t visible from the main road and  the signage was in Burmese character. (Sigh)

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Love hotel?

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Blankets were a bit smelly.

Guesthouse review:

  • It looked like a love motel. There was something seedy about the place, but we had no choice. We couldn’t bargain as well. The room was $25, and since it was just me and Levi, we paid for the full  rate.
  • The staff was very nice.
  • Internet: couldn’t upload anything. Again, it didn’t really do anything.

The next day, the staff gave us “baon” again, WATER! Burmese people can be so charming.

Day 3 Gyobingauk- Pyay (115km)

The morning ride started very chilly.

It was another long and flat-ish ride until lunch time.

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Watermelon stop

We had lunch at Paungde, a town 34km from Gyobingauk. We realized that tea houses did not really serve real meals at all. Finding an actual restaurant was a bit complex. Ordering food can be very tricky  as well, specially since everything is in Burmese characters. Learning from our past S.E. Asian trips, I have prepared wordless icons and images of food (rice, chicken, egg etc.) to communicate with locals.

Note to self: Must buy “Wordless Traveller” .COVER

While having lunch at a tea place (the staff probably took pity and improvised; they served us rice with sunny side-up egg), we noticed a man taking our photo. He wasn’t even discreet about it.  I think it was because of me. My attire was probably appalling (or I’m simply appalling?).  I don’t think they’re used to seeing women in shorts. Or another possible reason was that he was maybe reporting us to the police.

After lunch, the road felt different. It became hilly and there were less stores. Schwedaung town was our last stretch before getting to Pyay.  Schwedaung is a 25 kilometer stretch with hardly any stores or eateries, so we made a quick stop at a Pagoda overlooking the town, and ate our old bread with nutella and cheese.

snack break at Schwedaung

snack break at Schwedaung

I had an epic zone-out moment on this stretch. It just felt like forever. Ugh

Yey! Pyay!

Yey! Pyay!

We got to the Pyay  around 4 in the afternoon. It was a good thing Lei was able to send me a message about the fork and intersection, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to figure out which road to take.

We met these locals who also biked from Yangon. One of them kept saying "Kabayan" .

We met these locals who also biked from Yangon. The guy beside Levi has been to the Philippines and he kept on saying “kabayan”.

Pyay is a very big town. There are a lot of guesthouse options but only a few could accommodate foreigners. We met Lei and LA somewhere downtown.

Guesthouse review: (Myat Guesthouse)

  • The owner speaks good English and you can bargain with them.
  • The guesthouse was really old. It was almost as if it could crumble anytime . The wallpapers in the room have fallen off. The carpet has seen better days. The fridge has probably never been defrosted. It had expired bottles of beer (we can tell from the kinakalawang na mga bote). An old can of coke exploded in the fridge which made everything more gross.
  • But to be fair, the common bathroom was really clean and the hot shower was consistent.
  • Pyay was  a rest stop for us. We stayed here for 2 nights and we were able to bargain for $35 for 2 nights. (That’s just for me and Levi)

New year’s eve was uneventful, we were lucky to even get out of our guesthouse as we later learned  that our guesthouse had a curfew. Boo.

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Thanaka is an ancient beauty regimen widely practiced in Myanmar. It’s a yellowish cream from a bark applied mostly on the cheeks. It’s a natural SPF and toner for the skin.

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Muka lang kaming clowns. Fail!

Day 5 Pyay- Aunglan (71km)

Today’s destination was relatively short. We were now on a long rolling course, with a bit of coastal scenery. We took it easy today and had long food breaks.

Levi discussing the diversion road or shortcut from Koebin to Magway. This  guy is from Switzerland and he's totally hardcore!

Levi discussing the diversion road or shortcut from Koebin to Magway. This guy is from Switzerland and he’s totally hardcore!

We were told that there were only two for-foreigners guesthouse  in this town. We found the first one, and had to bargain hard for the family room which the owner was giving us at a much higher price. We settled at $50 for the family room.

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We got ourselves a "penthouse"!

We got ourselves a “penthouse”!

Guesthouse review:

  • The owner was very nice and he actually gave us cold towels and lots of watermelons while waiting for our rooms to be prepared.
  • Again, internet didn’t  really do anything. It didn’t connect to anything.
  • The room was very spacious it even had a “sala”.
  • No hot shower, and the shower area gets flooded easily

We had dinner at the nearby eatery where the owner spoke good English. He kept on telling us how his wife loves our telenovelas. (Our telenovelas are just everywhere!)

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They love our soap operas!

Day 6 Aunglan- Koebin (50km)

We started another chilly ride in the morning.

Another hilly road of nothingness.

Peg: Mexican border or Australian outback

On a general tourist’s point of view, there’s nothing interesting here.

typical siesta after a heavy lunch

typical siesta after a heavy lunch

Our worry was that there was no known guesthouse in Koebin, not even for locals. On another bike tourist’s blog (http://bugoybikers.com/en/on%20tour/myanmar2013.html) they wrote about setting up their tents inside the kitchen of a restaurant. We found that restaurant and had an “ocular”, so the next challenge was getting permission to spend the night there.

The resturant from Bugoy's blog

The restaurant from Bugoy’s blog

Surprisingly, we met another Pinoy in that restaurant. At first, we we’re just listening to him talk on the phone in English, and all of us we’re debating if he was Pinoy. It was our lucky day! He’s pinoy and with him, was a local interpreter. We told them about our situation and they gladly assisted us in our lodging arrangement for the night.

Sa presinto ka magpaliwanag.

Sa presinto ka magpaliwanag.

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Apparently, they have very strict policies on foreigners sleeping in non-commercial lodging. The same rules apply to visitors wanting to stay at a local friend’s house.

Luckily we had an interpreter do all the talking for us when we went to the nearby police station.

This was quite an experience– Taking a bath in an open space near the pig pen, sleeping on the kitchen floor while big rats run around your face, and restaurant guests coming in until 2am. But nonetheless, we were able to sleep and we felt very blessed.

Day 7 Koebin- Magway (80km)

The beginning of our SHADOWS.

By this time the police have been made fully aware of our existence. They have sent “undercover policemen” to escort us in our ride. Ideally, we were supposed to ignore them and act as if they weren’t there, but it became too difficult. It was hard not to acknowledge them. We even said “hi” a couple of times. They were just always there. They would even show us the directions. They’re very nice actually. It was our safety that concerned them the most, I think. Our shadows never left us until Bagan.

We learned about a diversion road or a shortcut that would take us to Magway from the Swiss guy we met at Pyay. The diversion road was a 30km hilly road that felt like an Australian outback.

Mexican border?

Mexican border? orAustralian outback?

We reached Magway around 4 in the afternoon. Magway, was something like Los Baños.  It had a university-town feel and it’s quite a huge town.

Levi demonstrating a selfie on a gopro with novice monks.

Levi demonstrating a selfie on a gopro with novice monks.

We're not sure what this is, but it looked like something  like Flores de Mayo to me.

We’re not sure what this is, but it looked  something like Flores de Mayo to me.

Lots of riverside resto,  perfect for catching the sun set.

It also had lots of pricey hotels that weren’t really in our budget (or I’m the only kurips of the group)

There was only one budget guesthouse that accepted foreigners; it was called ROLEX.

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Sleeping on the kitchen floor was far better than this guesthouse.

Guesthouse review: (Rolex)

  • They charged 15000 kyat per person, with air con  but no WiFi.
  • Worst guesthouse. But you have no choice (if you’re on a budget). There was no effort in cleaning or presenting the place in a better light. The rooms were untidy and dusty.

Day 8 Magway-Salin (75km)

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We headed towards the long bridge connecting two islands in Magway region.

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More bananas!

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant that had UFC live on their television. Yipee! It was Jon Johnson VS D.Comier! This was one of our best lunch experiences.

Parang nasa bahay lang.

Parang nasa bahay lang.

The owners even  gave us some free bananas  before we left. Too much love in this place!

with the restaurant staff and our "pabaon" bananas!

with the restaurant staff and our “pabaon” bananas!

The last 25 km was very bumpy. There was a lot of road construction  and by that time, my bum could feel the smallest bump in the road.

Note to self: Get Selle Anatomica saddle (because it’s so hipster and yeah, I think it’s comfy for long touring rides)

Guesthouse review:

There was only 1 guesthouse in Salin, and it will definitely leave you with no choice.  It was very basic, and for 3000 kyat, you get what you pay for.

The annoying pose

For 3000 kyat (P120), we allowed ourselves to have our own separate rooms.

I'm guessing the room is 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

I’m guessing the room is 3 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

But this was better than sleeping on the kitchen floor. (or was it?)

The bathroom situation was another good entry for our toilet diaries. Think Slumdog Millionaire or trainspotting :)

Day 9 Salin- Bagan (92km)

We started the day early to look for a breakfast place but we had no luck. We only  found a tea place and we didn’t eat enough bfast. Usually, we would have a second breakfast sometime around 10 in the morning, depending on the town, but as were riding the stretch of Chouck, we found nothing. It was an endless backroad with no tea place or restaurant. Hunger was creeping in. It was almost 12 and we still haven’t had any decent meal. After Chouk, which was a 50 km ride, we finally found a lunch place which was across the bridge. But even before having lunch, we were again stopped by policemen for our passports. They were one of our “shadows”; it was all protocol, so it was alright.

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Note: It will be ideal to have photo copies of your passport, that way you can just leave it with the checkpoint personnel and it will be easier for both parties.

If you're a paranoid freak like me, being stopped by policemen can be very scary. But this is a protocol for foreigners riding in non-tourist areas.

If you’re a paranoid freak like me, being stopped by policemen can be very scary. But this is a protocol for foreigners riding in non-tourist areas.

After 25 km from Chouk,  I found a resting spot, and waited for the others. We stayed there for almost an hour. Later, we would find out that Bagan was so much nearer.

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Bagan’s welcome was very abrupt. We all had set our minds to arriving a bit later, but Bagan surprised us. We arrived around 4pm. Sunset! The perfect lighting for our pictorial.

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We stayed at Winner guesthouse near New bagan. It was indeed a winner

Winner!

Winner!

Hotel review:

  • nice, spacious and clean rooms. Levi and I shared the twin room. $30/night/room, total of $60 for our Bagan stay (2 nights).
  • Comes with free breakfast.
  • Internet was flaky not just for the hotel but for the whole Bagan area. We were told that Bagan’s cellsite had some issues a few days earlier, thus the whole area’s connection was down.
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Tourist mode for the next 2 days

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Sunrise!

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Day 12 Kalaw-Inle (67km)

From Bagan, we took a bus going to Kalaw. We arrived in Kalaw at 2 in the  morning. It was very chilly (probably at 11 degrees)

When we got off the bus, a local helped us find a lodging. Luckily, we found a cheap room at Pines Lodging, at $5 each.

winter is coming!

winter is coming!

Kalaw is apparently the trekking mecca of Myanmar. It was very much like Sagada, Mountain province. Kalaw has made us all want to go back to Myanmar–More reasons to bike the northern area of the country!

We started our ride around 730 am,  and man it was arctic. We had all the layers of clothing we could get. We were not prepared to ride in this wintry weather.

Note to self: always bring lightweight down jacket or vest, you can never tell.

This place is beautiful!!

Stunning!

We started on a long descent which made the chilly feeling worse, but as the roads became hilly, we started peeling off some layers of our clothing.

This, I think would be our favorite ride for this trip. We felt very home. I think I’m (levi too) more comfortable riding in hilly, mountainous roads. Maybe we do really belong to the mountains.

After the bananas and watermelons, we were now into oranges.

After the bananas and watermelons, we were now into oranges.

Entrance fee at Inle :(

Entrance fee at Inle :(

We stayed in Inle for 2.5 days, we checked in at Big Drum Hotel.

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Spacious room made for us–4 separate beds!

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$30 for the whole cottage. We stayed here for 2 nights.

Our trip ends here-- drinking cold beer by the lake.

Our trip ends here– drinking cold beer by the lake.

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Local foot rowers in Inle Lake.

We took a V.I.P. bus from Inle to Yangon. It was a huge bus spacious enough for the bikes that we didn’t need to disassemble the bikes. It was a 12-hour bus ride inclusive of snacks, drinks, blanket and even a set of toothbrush. We arrived in Yangon around 6 in the morning. We had to bike for 20 km to get to Tokyo Guesthouse. We had one night left in Yangon. The end of our trip.

Another bike adventure off our list. What’s next?

MYANMAR: Check!

MYANMAR: Check!

 

Wandering Saddle February 1, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — putikmare @ 3:31 am
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Priceless moments.

I have been lucky. I have been blessed to have travelled quite a lot around South East Asia–being able to take the sleeper trains in Thailand, surround myself with kids with tarantulas hanging on their chest in Cambodia or stuffing myself with the best noodles and spring rolls in Vietnam. In those travels in South east Asia, I can say that I was able to experience these unique cultures and immerse myself with the people and the way they live. But my last trip in Vietnam went deeper and farther than that. It wasn’t just about the destination, but rather the connection. I lost a loved one but gained a stronger self.

Just before we welcomed 2013, my special friends, Gthird, Char and Levi started on a not-so-crazy idea—to bike from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Sa Pa is in northwest Vietnam, it’s the town capital of Sa Pa district. The goal was to bike 466.5km in a week and a half. That would be around 8 riding days since we planned some full-day rest stops along the way.

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Arriving at hanoi airport at 1am. We had to sleep in and wait for the sunrise before we could start our ride.

We arrived in Hanoi just before New Year’s day. Our research told us that it would be really chilly, but it seemed like we were all too arrogant and thought that it would be no feat. Wrong! We were immediately challenged by the strong wind chills the moment we stepped out of the airport. What were we thinking? That this would just be like Baguio? But at least we had sufficient clothing layers that morning. A little over 30km which is mostly just the main highway from the airport, and we finally got to Hanoi. We spent two nights in Hanoi, supplying our trip with the necessaries, eating Pho Ga and fantastic rice dishes here and there. We were also advised the Sa Pa would be wintery, and suddenly I heard Ned Stark’s voice saying “Winter is coming!”

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Non-stop food trip.

 

The best lunch meal in the world.

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Mangan!

We arrived in the town of Son Tay on Day 1 just before lunch time. Originally we planned to spend the night here but later realized that it was too short and we could save some days by pushing towards the town of Thanh Son. The team decided to have our lunch break here instead. We found the town market and had the best lunch meal of our lives. Aside from having a scrumptious meal as usual, it was very cheap (Php40 per head),with unlimited rice and “free flowing” ulam (it was not really free, it just felt that way as they never really measure their servings)

At Thanh Son, we were greeted by these women selling fried sweet potatoes, corn and bananas, kind of their maruja version. Day 1 was relatively flat with just some minor rolling areas on the last 10km approaching Thanh Son. We’re feeling strong.

The world is not flat, but you are.

Beginning the ride on the 2nd day was hard. What made it difficult was having to pedal on a freezing weather. We had to start with layers of clothing, and even covering up our whole face. We’d start the ride shivering.

Day 2 started to show the country side of Vietnam. The streets were less busy and the roads were already featuring gentle slopes. For the whole duration of this trip, none of us got any flat tire, except for Levi who experienced it more than, I don’t know, 100 times? But those moments of having a flat were treated with fellow feeling as we get to use that time to rest.

Flat nenemen?!

Vietnamese women don’t get fat.

We’ve all been guilty of scrutinizing the women of Hanoi (men as well, but sorry, the women stood out). They all look so charming and dainty and they’re all petite.  I’d secretly watch how they move, the way they eat, the way they dress up, and I’d be completely in awe. They eat and serve all these gratifying dishes and yet none of them shows any signs of eating carbs at all. And the answer to that mystery I plagued on myself is GREEN(s). In every meal, they’d eat a gallon-like serving of raw veggies and they’d take it like water. Veggies are their “pulutan” as well. It was weird seeing them drinking vodka or their “lambanog” while eating veggies. There’s a lot of healthy goodness going on in their system.

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Me trying to keep up with the local teens carrying heavy loads of greens.

Happy hour.

Lunch stops were always thrilling to us, because one, it meant we could rest and two, the noodles, unlimited rice and my favorite tofu dish (Dau sot ca Chua) would be waiting for us. One town Char and I would not forget is Than Uyen (Day 5 of our ride). While eating, a group of drunk men offered us some shots of lambanog. As I’ve said it is very common for them to take lambanog shots with their meals, even as early as lunch. They were very friendly and as a courtesy we took some shots. But then the shots did not stop coming, they kept on gesturing for us to have some more, and we tried our best to refuse and gave some weird sign language that we still have a lot to pedal and we could not take more but they were very persistent. In other words, I got drunk on that lunch stop. I left the eatery with a red face and a wobbly head. Thankfully nothing bad happened and we all reached our destination for the day.

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Weird signs along the road. Mag-ingat!

 

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Slowly but surely

 iSa Pa

Going to our main and final destination needed a lot of psyching up. First, it entails around 35 km of non-stop uphill, and second is the frightening temperature drop as we pedal up to Sa Pa. The long uphill can sound intimidating at first, but I have realized and confirmed that whoever it was who build the roads of Vietnam, was a very friendly person. The elevation does not exceed 10%. Whatever that means, I just know that the uphill courses we bike in Manila are more than  30%. Imagine the uphill from UP main library to Econ, that’s how most of the elevation in Vietnam feels like, it was nothing like Maarat, so bring it on! We later realized that it was not really the long uphill that should concern us but rather the chill factor and the low visibility. Once again, I felt like this was the road leading to Mordor, and somewhere, Saruman would show up. What worried us was the fast vehicles approaching on the other side that might not see us. Levi and I had to fix our blinkers and use our headlamps as blinking headlights. Sa Pa is probably like our Sagada, and I’m certain that it was very scenic, if only we could see through the thick fog.

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eww it’s muddy dude.

We came across a cycling couple who were probably touring from China as we can see from their fully loaded panniers. They we’re all covered up, signaling that it was very cold in Sa Pa. It’s startling to see other bicycle tourist even if you only exchange silent hellos and good byes, regardless of the nationality, you feel like you already understand each other, whereas other people–the regular tourist–would say “Why don’t you just ditch the bike, and take a bus or train?”.

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Isa pa!

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At the saddle, posing before the 15km descent.

On the highest peak of this climb, we slowly saw two ladies waving on a small makeshift shelter. This was perfect timing as we ran out of water and my stomach was beginning to act up on me. We were hungry, it was lunch time already, and were still 15km away from Sa Pa. The place looked like the bus stops in Polis going to Sagada. Surprisingly one of the ladies spoke really good English and listens to a lot of Katy Perry, and she offered us to sit near their grill to warm ourselves. She knew what we just needed. They were selling this suman-type of snack, only this was not wrapped in our regular banana leaves. The sticky rice was being grilled inside the bamboo, and once it’s ready, they’d crack the bamboo and we’d have a smoky suman dipped in crushed peanuts, not brown sugar like how we’d usually do it. It was very strange but it tasted like heaven. Another bizarre observation was how they would grill eggs. I’m not sure of the process, but you’d end up with a wooden-tasting boiled-egg texture. I thought this could be done in one of our climbs back home.

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Enjoying our suman with the loving locals.

As Levi and I were getting comfortable near the grill, eating suman, the English-speaking lady told us that I was beautiful, correction, she said “You are VERY VERY beautiful!” And so I made a decision, at that exact moment, that I would go back to Vietnam and start a celebrity career. I’m apparently not just beautiful, but VERY VERY beautiful there. (haha)

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Frosty face.

Alas! The last 15km going to Sa Pa, the end of the uphill. One would think that this was rewarding. What we didn’t recognize was the deadly wind chill from our fast descent. It was fatal. The chill trickled through my hands, despite of wearing 2 layers of gloves. My face had frost, I could feel my lips cracking, I told myself I’d rather have another uphill than this. It was too damn cold, I almost thought my hands and feet would fall off.

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These gloves are not enough!

I have no words to describe the chill I felt when we finally arrived the town of Sa Pa, I wanted to throw myself in a big bowl of Pho Ga. Levi and I found a nice lunch place with heater and I pleased myself with delightful spring rolls. With my first bite of this godlike dish, I gently understood that this was the end of the road. We’re in our destination.

 

 

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4 degrees.

Wandering saddle.

You get to ponder a lot while on the saddle. You can be numb to the slopes, to the uphill and downhill turns of your bike, but your saddle takes you to a state of mind you can’t get by taking the shorter route—a motorized vehicle. But of course, this is my personal take, I’m sure there is a different bliss on a motorized road trip that I would not be able to comprehend. A friend of mine said that the best way to fully immerse yourself in a journey is on foot, and the second best way would be on 2 (non-motorized) wheels. On my saddle, I saw their culture, and I’ve connected with the people. On our bikes, we got to see the towns that we’re away from the battling tourist destinations. We were visitors, not tourists. If I were given the chance to see the world, go around wherever, even with a huge budget, I’d still choose to take my “wheels” with me and wander off with my saddle in a heartbeat.

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Great job team!

* Thank you Levi for letting me share this with you and taking the road less travelled.

* To G3 and Char, may we have more saddle time together.

* Photos: Levi & G3

 

My TDS experience September 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — putikmare @ 6:41 am
Tags: , , , ,

It was an unfamiliar road, but the journey was already known. It was this eternal hunger for what’s out there and that fulfillment of conquering a new territory that would always drive me to face new challenges.  It was a strange place, and yet a common ground.

After two years of planning and accumulating points, I made it to TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie), a 114km ultra trail race passing through the countryside of Mont Blanc with numerous elevations at more than 2500 meters. Originally I was qualified to join the much longer race, UTMB (160km), but at the last minute I just thought I still have years ahead of me and I’d rather save it for later. A lot of people are saying that even if TDS is shorter than UTMB, they considered it harder because of the terrain and it was far more technical, and these opinions would be later confirmed by me during the race itself.

That’s a lot of killer ascents don’t you think?

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At Chamonix

Chamonix!

I can pretty much say I was well prepared for this race. Training has been very natural for me to include in my routine. After doing a lot of races in the Philippines, I could safely say I already knew what I was doing, everything except for a really bad weather, but more on that later. I was ready, I was made for this.

We arrived in Chamonix three days before the race and the weather was really good. It was showing good signs of a good weather condition on the mountain. But come Wednesday, the day before the race, it started drizzling. Their weather forecast for the race got pretty bad. It was very accurate and yet it would still present a lot of drastic changes.  We received race updates that would scare me to death:

The conditions are wintery! Very cold, high winds and wet.

There will be snow at high points from 1800m to 2000m.
 Beware of the wind chill facture, it will feel very cold! The temperatures will feel as if they have dropped to –10° C.

Due to this it is necessary to manage the conditions by taking:

  • 4 layers of clothing (and not 3 as stated in the list of obligatory equipment)
  • The most waterproof jacket possible.
  • Thicker under garments.
  • Really warm gloves, and waterproof.
  • Bandana/scarf which covers the ears and part of the face, as well as a warm hat.

Clothing which respects the requirements to the minimum will be uncomfortable and very probably lead to hypothermia and a drop in your performance level.

Please remember, in these difficult conditions, the solidarity between runners is extremely important.
Also, remember that to finish such challenge it is necessary to manage the conditions and know how to adapt to them.

 

I think I died at the first sentence. WINTERY conditions? Oh great! I knew it would be cold and I had the proper gears with me, but I’ve never really experienced winter, and I was hoping my first sighting of snow would be lovely, but instead I was anticipating hell. I tried to look back on my races before where it got pretty bad, I have ran through a storm, but that’s just rain and wind, the temperature doesn’t drop to negative. According to the latest forecast, there would be rainfall the whole day and night, with a little snow, but I guess it was an underestimation. Levi (my main support for the whole race, thank you very much) gave me a pep talk that I was ready for the race and to just enjoy it. I was thinking too much and it hasn’t even started yet.

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At the race start

The Journey Begins.

From Chamonix, we were shuttled to our starting line in Courmayeur which was on the Italian side. The race would start at 7am, and we arrived there at 6am. It was very chilly I had to wear my bonnet and 3 layers of clothing for my top. It was a nice thing that there were some coffee shops open at that hour but I could not think of food anymore, my heart was just beating fast. It’s the usual panic that I feel every race. It never goes away and this time, it was worse.

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I have the highest respect for these mountain runners.

30 minutes before the start and I was feeling all the possible sensation one can feel in a short period. Excited, nervous, anxious, sickly, and just completely scared to death. As fearful as I was, I was very emotional on how I even landed there surrounded by all these like-minded runners who are passionate for the mountains and are at peace with the trails. These are not your ordinary runners, they’re mountain people. I belong here. I can do this. The race begins; as I ran, the anxiety diminishes. I was doing exactly what I knew. I started with 3 layers of clothing, but after maybe a kilometer, I started generating heat and took out my layers and just kept my base layer on. The first 2km was a meek ascent on road, it was a good warm-up for all of us I guess and then we hit the trails, or the foot of the mountain and people started compressing and a lot started walking. In my races at home, people don’t start walking this early, but I felt  like I should do what these veterans are doing, I thought to myself, they probably knew what they were doing. Along with these true mountain people, I started trekking, and that’s when I felt that it was the start of the first uphill. I still didn’t have an idea on how to gauge my time as it was all untried to me, I just knew that even if I was walking, I shouldn’t stop to rest or catch my breath. I was too paranoid with the cut-off time. In an hour and a half, I reached Col Checrouit (7km, 2000meters), not bad I said.

Training in Sto.Tomas, Baguio.
Thank you Levi, Dudz and Ging!

That first uphill though gave me an idea on how technical and steep the ascents would be in the coming stages. It’s similar to Sto. Tomas in Baguio, only steeper and longer. There was a bit of rain the whole time, but at this time it was still okay, it was not cold (yet). It was my first time to tackle a scree (accumulation of broken rock fragments usually on a mountain cliff) ascent. I was at the foot of that area, and I saw how steep it was, it was like a wall and people were all lined up. Because of too much eagerness to get to the next station, I would overtake some of the racers and deviate from the trail and scramble my way along the scree. As I was doing this, some rocks would fall and I almost fell. I noticed that I was the only one doing this and I didn’t know if what I was doing was unethical or very unlikely for Europeans to do. I was too impatient to stay with the pack. Was I being such a typical roadie racer? Someone who always wants to be ahead of everyone? Oh no. A French guy was calling my attention, and of course I could not understand what he was saying, until a nice Swiss guy translated it for me. He said “Stay in the line, that’s dangerous not just for you, but for the other runners as well” Oops, okay, my bad!

First Stop: La Thuille (21km)

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Happy to reach my first station.

The first cut-off and refreshment station was at La Thuille, a 10km descent from one of the highest peak of the course, Col de la Youlaz (2661m, 11km from start). I reached La Thuille at 11:10am; the cut-off time was 12:30pm. “Kayang-kaya, basta tuloy-tuloy lang” I told myself, I was happy with my time.

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Inside the refreshment stations

Inside the refreshment tent, it was like a prison canteen (not that I’ve been to one), there were a hundred runners all trying to get food from the “buffet area”, I must say there was no room for being prim and proper. People will be eating with their hands, filling their mouths with biscuits while spooning some soup and drinking coke, it was not fine dining! You eat and you go! The volunteers at the refreshment stations served their local cheese, which I tried once and avoided after afraid it would ruin my tummy because it tasted too fresh and it was like meat. They also had dark chocolates, fruits—apricots, bananas, berries—chicken noodle soup, coke, biscuits, cookies and bread. If not for the time, which Simon (a fellow PUR who did UTMB) advised me to be conscious about, I would have stayed a little longer and enjoyed the local servings, but he said the time would keep on running even if you’re inside the station, so it would be ideal to just grab the food and get out of the tent and start walking while munching. Hence, I did that, I don’t think I had to be proper anyway. I filled my cup with soup, filled my mouth with bread, grabbed fruits with my hands, I don’t know exactly how I managed, but I was able to pull it, and before you know it, I was heading out.

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A second climb (700m) to Col Petit St.Bernard (30km from start, 2188m) took me 2 and half hours. Then it was followed by a trip in the Hatie Tarentaise with a very long descent along the roman road, passing through Seez and then to the second refreshment station at Bourg Saint-Maurice. This long descent can be painful but the trekking poles were a gift from Heaven! It can indeed make you more stable and distribute your weight and lessen the impact on the knees. On my last week in Baguio before leaving for Europe, I practiced a lot of downhill running with the trekking poles, and it paid off.

I passed a lot of isolated quaint houses and the people inside would peek through their window and cheer the runners passing. It was very heartwarming and it can give you some energy boost knowing that these people go out of their way to cheer you. Even if I studied the map, I still couldn’t tell if I’m on the French side or Italian side. Whenever I would be cheered with “Bravo”, I’d assume I was still in Italy. But correct me if I’m wrong. The Italians were very hyper when it comes to cheering; I’m in love with them.

The Little Boy

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The little boy.
Refilling my water bottles

At Bourg Saint-Maurice (46km from the start), I was greeted by more cheerers; it was similar to how spectators respond in Tour de France, the feeling was completely beyond words. It was also heartening to see a familiar face every now and then; it makes you feel safe and hopeful. Levi was there just outside the tent (the support cannot go inside the tents) and signaled to me that I should relax and that my time was good. I got there at 3:54pm, the cut-off was 5:30pm, and was doing okay. In this station, I tried to load up as much as I can since the next station will be the hardest section of the whole race, it was the steepest and most technical terrain. And so I grabbed some noodle soup (you’re lucky if you get noodles, a lot usually end with just the broth), sat down and for some reason, I think the other runners thought I was a little boy, a lost boy. Look at the picture, and please disagree with them, although I can’t blame you.

Noodles please!

Before leaving the station, they check on your headlamps as they were already anticipating people getting caught up in the dark in the middle of the trail.

As per the course time chart, the next cut-off would be at 11:15pm, at Cormet de Roselend (63km from start).

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Cormet de Roseland at 6 in the afternoon

The Hardest Ascent

Leaving Bourg Saint-Maurice, I was faced with a 12km ascent, the steepest among the rest as some may say. The answer to this was a POWERHIKE! Just keep on walking, that was the trick, even the veteran runners cannot run this steep, but they sure do hike really fast. They scrambled. I divided that 12km ascent in my mind, targeting the first 5.5km to Fort de la Platte (1997m), and got there at 6:28pm. I was in shock, that was almost 2 and half hours from the time I left Bourg Saint-Maurice, which was really steep! From here, I started seeing other racers falling on the side of the trails, resting and looking dazed. I wanted to sit down, but I knew it would be harder to get up, plus I might cramp and fall asleep as I’ve seen happened to the others.

I have a high respect for guys like these. They’re amazing

I was hiking with old-looking people, by old, I mean grand-pa old, and they were of course hiking up faster than me. These guys may not be good runners on the flat area or descents, but hiking is very natural to them and I admire them for that. They’re always smiling and not once did I hear them complain, they were just at peace being there. The next 6km to Passeur de Pralognan (2567m) was even worse. It was getting steeper and colder. Even though there was rainfall the whole day, there was no wind chill factor until this section. I noticed a lot of the runners stopping to wear more waterproof gears, but I could not move that much. My hands were starting to tremble. I could not even pee or take out my food because I didn’t want to take my hands out.

Waterproof ready!

By this time I had already worn 2 layers of gloves (A wool inner-lining and waterproof gloves similar to the one we use for dishwashing). The sun was still out, but gauging my pace, I knew it would be dark before I reach the next refreshment station, so I had to stop to take my headlamp out. It was a terrible hike; people were starting to move like zombies. I started losing a clear visibility because of the wind and snow. It was my first time to see snow, and as much as I was enthusiastic with my first time to see snow, I felt trepidation instead. It was a nice valley with snow caps, I would have wanted to take photos, but like I said, taking my gloves out was too much stress and I was starting to get scared, because the weather was becoming really unfriendly. I was starting to dream about hot chocolate, sinangag and tuyo, I needed some comfort food, and I felt like I was part of an apocalypse. The last 2km before reaching Passeur de Pralognan was very technical. You needed to scramble and it was really slippery. A lot of racers were falling off, but unlike other uber competitive sports, racers here help out each other. It’s a journey and not about time splits. The racers started assisting each other in slippery sections, and even though I could not understand the language most of the time, and even if I looked like a boy, their gestures were very comforting. I was alone in that race but I never felt alone. It was past 8:30 in the evening when I reached that peak, but there was no time to be emotional about it, I was about to get hungry and it was dark; I needed to get to Cormet de Roseland (refreshment station) immediately.

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The 4km descent when it was still clear.

A 4km descent, very steep at the beginning, less cruel thereafter, leads us to Beaufort at the Cormet de Roselend. It would have been an easy feat, if not for the icy and slimy rocks. Everyone slowed down, careful not to slip. I swear if somebody fell from that descent, it’s possible not to see them because of the poor visibility from the weather. It would be stupid to run and scramble in this section as one may very likely get injured. I fell a dozen times, but we all assisted each other and since we were all too careful, we seemed as if huddled together the whole time. It was very moving how the human spirit can be felt despite of the language barrier and the weather conditions.

My legs were still feeling okay, it was not that great but there was no pain anywhere. My muscles were feeling tight but I could still run, and I had to run to generate heat. It was freezing and still I was thinking maybe this is normal. By this time, I was an official zombie; I was not as animated as the last refreshment stations. I have a typical psychological phase whenever I do ultras. I’d start out panicky and paranoid, then the paranoia diminishes and I start to feel right about the moment but come night time, I start to clear my head up and imagine a lot of things, and I mean A LOT of should’a-would’a-could’as, then I’d become silent in my head, moving like a robot, then I’d start talking to myself, chanting, then there’s hatred wherein I’d hate myself for being there “why-am-I-here?” and the worst and last part is, when I would start composing songs in my head and actually singing it. At 63km, I was only at the robot and silent stage. I just kept on moving without realizing the whole situation.

Not Today

It was uplifting to see Levi at Cormet de Roseland. It was 10pm and I needed a familiar face, because I was really just a robot.

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Inside the Cormet de Roseland station.

The air at the station was very different from the previous refreshment stations, it was not lively and you can sense that something was not right. I was too exhausted to eat, but good thing Levi was able to sneak inside and he forced me to eat. I was getting tired of the noodle soup but I had to eat. Levi looked at me and asked me if I was still okay and if I would still push through and of course I gave a big YES.

It would have been nice to have some rice at this point. I think I was getting tired of the noodles and I started craving for my comfort food.

I never thought of quitting unless I get an injury. And then I started noticing all the racers that were abandoning the race, they were all lined up to surrender their time chips. What was happening? The girl, just a few minutes behind me said that the weather condition outside the tent was really bad, it was already a snow storm and temperature was dropping. So that’s why my gloves were covered in white frost! I have to be smart and strategic about this. Am I going to push through, knowing that the next refreshment station is after 19km, considering that it was already freezing outside?

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4 layers of clothing

I changed into dry clothes and went out a few meters from the tent to see if I could manage. But the minute I set my foot outside, I felt the surge of strong chilly winds up to my spine. I was shaking and went back inside. Think! Think! I looked around, and saw the racers in emergency blankets shaking and thought to myself that I must be really crazy to do this.

Racers balled up in their emergency blankets.

These guys are used to freezing, and they’re abandoning the race? They probably knew what they were doing, and hence the biggest and hardest decision of my life. A UPM co-member responded to my TDS post that some people would rather eat shattered glasses than quit, and I totally agree with her. At that point, I didn’t want to think, I had to finish this, but was it worth the risk—the risk of hypothermia and an accident? It was not my day; I cannot do it today, NOT TODAY. I had to eat my pride and  realize that sometimes you just have to raise the white flag. I humbly walked to the station where I would surrender my time chip, and just like that, they tore it from me and took my heart out. As they took my number, I felt like a part of me died.

My timing chip

More than 500 racers abandoned the race at Cormet de Roseland, and I was part of it. In TDS (other UTMB events as well), everything is unpredictable.

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Racers lining up to surrender their timing chips

According to their newsletter, in 2010, racers were either cancelled or interrupted due to bad weather and landslides. In 2011, they were forced to modify the route at the last minute due to the bad weather. This year, they managed to run TDS with the original course and distance but with a very high rate of runners abandoning the race. Around 1400 of us started the race, and only 631 finished. The UTMB saw its route shortened to 103km from 160km.

My Trail Ends

There are a lot of things that we cannot control no matter how we would have wanted everything to be the way we expect them to be. We cannot win all the time, and once in a while we see ourselves facing decisions we wish we didn’t have to make. But it is how we deal with these situations that count. It is in accepting these changes that we appreciate ourselves, and it humbles us and gives us lessons on how to be stronger. These make us humans. This may have broken my heart, but it made me fall in love with running and the mountains more. It’s purely inexplicable, how the trail can both smash and shelter me. When I’m running (or just trekking), in the mountains, all I have to do is gaze at the scenery passing by and experience the sunset and sunrise in solemnity. I love running.

Mabuhay ang UPM!

Thank you everyone for all your support and for following our journey!

*Thank you so much to Sharon and Ruby of R.O.X, to Jundell of TNF and to Janice of Salomon! We will forever be grateful for everything!

* To Levi, for supporting me from the very beginning and believing in me,thank you

*Photographs: Levi Nayahangan

 

How do you see ultra? June 26, 2012

“Stop doing ultra(s), it’s for old people and it will break your knees”, a coach friend of mine said.

I tried to make sense of what he said and gave it a lot of thought. It’s both true and false. True, most people in the ultra community here, well at least in my group are in their late 30s and 40s (my dad has done ultras with me and he’s 60), so I guess that’s how one person can draw that conclusion that it’s for old people. I’m more or less in the younger age group in the ultra community, but most people my age are busy doing triathlons or are focused on short distance running with a good PR (like targeting a sub 40 in a 10km run). True that a lot of my teammates have been getting a lot of knee issues, but I don’t think we can quickly conclude that it’s from running too much. Hmm or am I just in denial? I’d like to think that it’s from too much running with no recovery, lacking in mobility and strength exercises, or from the wrong shoe? Although after reading Born to Run, I have believed that we shouldn’t be depending too much on shoes, that it’s a matter of correcting your form. A lot of triathletes also get a lot of knee injuries, but I don’t hear the coaches say “Stop doing triathlon, that’s harmful for your knees!”. Is there just plain bias here?

For a long time, I’ve been a little narrow headed in the idea of a triathlon. I’ve never gushed about it the same way trailrunning/ultrarunning would give me shivers of excitement. And in my experience in racing, I’ve notice that the two teams (Triathletes and ultrarunners) don’t really get along; they just don’t get each other. I was actually one of those. For a time, I was so sure triathlon was unnecessary in my life, I found it too serious and not fun at all. I have to admit, I did find it very exclusive, thus I’ve always felt like an outsider, or maybe I just did not get it or I was not willing to enjoy it. I’ve been running ultras since 2007, but only last year did I join my first legitimate (I’ve done little sprint events that were just for fun before, but I’m not counting those) triathlon– Ironman 70.3. The whole training part of it was not fun at all. I really felt like it was a calculated routine, not like how I would simply enjoy running while training for an ultra. I love cycling and swimming, but to actually incorporate a program really felt like it was becoming a responsibility. For a time, I felt that I was just forcing myself. I lost the indulgence part of it. I was so sure it wasn’t for me.

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Emotional or disoriented? Finishing Ironman 70.3

Ok, fast forward. I nailed Ironman 70.3 with flying colors, and I actually crossed the finish line with a smile. It’s not that bad! It had its highs and lows, but overall, I enjoyed it. Personally, I felt like my background in ultra, had a lot to do with it. Compared to ultra, it was more intense, and of course a lot shorter in terms of time spent and I guess thinking that I had more to give, I was able to push myself. The culture may be very different from what I was used to, but I was able to zone out and forget about all those stuff.

So going back to my coach friend, he advised me that maybe I should start rethinking about my path, that I should start focusing on triathlons instead of ultras. I told him that I can never let go of ultra. Its my first love. But I will not close my doors on a little triathlon every once in a while. It can actually compliment each other.

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Winning Salomon 22km trail run in first place, women’s category

I am still a trail runner, an ultra runner, but I can also enjoy other sports that might be on the opposite spectrum in my community which is triathlon.I have learned to appreciate both. In my usual trail runs, I have fused what I learned in triathlon– a lot of intervals and speed training. In my recent runs, I saw the improvement in my time, whereas before, it was just stable and consistent, and I saw little change. In the few triathlons that I’ve participated in, the ultra runner in me did come out. Mentally and physically, I felt like I had more to give. I had a lot of push and strength to release. I am fortunate that I got to appreciate both.

I would still prefer people to do a lot of trail running, and to actually understand and accept ultra as a real sport. We all have different definitions of running. It can be very scientific to some, or very personal (to me). It doesn’t matter if your 10km is a sub-40, or if you did 50km in 9 hours. No one can say that one is better or more acceptable than the other. No one can define running for you, we all have a different way of looking at it. At the end of the day, only you, will decide how running is significant for you.

Keep an open mind. Just keep on running and enjoy every moment of it.

 

What’s Next? April 10, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — putikmare @ 3:06 am

I’ve taken a huge risk. I left my full-time job to pursue  something more significant to me. I’m relatively still young, but I’m also  getting old and right now, quitting a full-time job is not really the smartest choice. There’s no concrete plan waiting for me. I just know I want to have more time outside, rather than confined in a well air-conditioned office. Being able to do a lot of trail running makes me really happy, being in the outdoors gives me comfort and I just know that whatever it is that I’m gonna do next should be  outside.

I have transitioned from one job to another quite a couple of times already, I would learn a lot from it, but something will always stay uncertain. I always ask myself, is this what I really want to do? I don’t want my job to define me and I don’t want to do it just for the money. For some people, work is just work. But not for me. I want it to be really significant to me, thus I’d find myself leaving one job after the other simply because I don’t find meaning in it anymore. But after all the career changes, there is one thing that is always certain and significant–running. To some people, this might sound shallow, but running is the only thing I’m sure of. I think I can safely say I’m quite good at it, and to me, it just gives me simple pleasure. It’s the balm to my soul. It keeps me steady and complete. So I’ve given it a lot of thought, maybe I should find a way to merge CAREER + PASSION FOR RUNNING. Maybe that is why I have decided to start on this blog. Honestly I was never a blog fan, specially running blogs. I hardly read any, but I realized I was just too selfish to learn about the experiences of other people. Maybe blogging is one baby step to finding what to do with this passion. Let’s see!

 

 
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