“They’re the first to come and the last to go.” So goes what is possibly the most memorable line of “The Load-Out” – a Jackson Browne 1977 classic that pays tribute to the people who make rock stars look good. Roadies they call them. They would set up the stage, the lighting and the sound system before each concert and then pack them up en route to the next city. It’s a song that comes to mind as I take stock of how I trimmed my 2:47 training pace – my first actual stab at 21K – to a 2:36 race pace – my first attempt at completing a 21K race. Yup, I know. It’s not even within the cut-off prescribed by the 39th Milo Marathon but it’s easily 10 minutes better so I’m celebrating it with this blog entry.
In retrospect, I never really planned for this to happen at this time of the year. In fact, I was originally eyeing December of this year to participate in my first 21K race. After all, I’ve only completed a couple of 10K races from late 2014 to early 2015. In addition, a mild case of plantar fasciitis threatened to dampen my enthusiasm for this sport. I have the Milo APEX Running School (MARS) team led by Coach Jim Saret, his wife Coach Toni Dimaguila-Saret and their coaching roadies to thank for this unexpected blessing which has recharged my spirit and rejuvenated my body no end. Here are 11 things that would better explain my gratitude and appreciation. Make that 11 lessons I learned by heart after attending MARS Season 10.
Defy Your Limits
It is strange to think that despite the variety of pump-till-you-drop power tracks that drove our workouts at BGC, the one song I would always associate with our workouts was not even played in any of our 3-month sessions. I’m referring to “DVD-X” by Sandwich and its ominous sonic realization: “Lahat ng hinahanap mo, lahat ay andito.” (i.e., “All that you’ve been looking for, all can be found here.”) Even better, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Indeed, there were at least 3 circuit sessions out of the countless batteries of drills that left me so exhausted I thought I would pass out. After completing my first 21K race I now understand why they pushed us the way they did. At Km 19, when the enthusiastic and inevitably rowdy 5K participants and a serious case of leg cramps threw off my concentration, “Kaya mo yan” – the signature Milo Marathon tag line – finally resonated to me. “Kaya mo yan” was what anchored and grounded every single MARS workout. Each workout proved to be a well thought-out one-of-a-kind production number complete with a soundtrack, a pep talk and a tell-show-do culminating with a seemingly endless array of exercises and drills. Despite the variety of these workouts, they all evoked a singular insight: Defy Your Limits. And that was how when I started to think that everything was lost at Km 19, I managed to somehow forge ahead. There is an apt term for describing a program like this and the word effective seems to be just about right.
I once attended a seminar which taught us to be conscious of our mood elevator in order that we may proactively find ways to act on our feelings instead of allowing our feelings to govern us. Humans are strange creatures. Despite their capacity for awe-inspiring achievements, they can be blindsided into doing things they regret when their emotions get the better of them. The Milo APEX Running School is one school where you won’t have a need for a mood elevator. That is because everywhere you go, you experience nothing but lithium – the chemical that gives you a high. Sting even celebrated its power in an obscure album track entitled “Lithium Sunset.” Try as I might to think of any session where I came across someone with a negative mindset or for that matter, anyone who engaged in negative talk I really can’t remember any. It’s as if everyone who is a part of this school – from the coaches to their logistics assistants, from the veteran runners to the newbie runners – are all enjoying a long, strange trip that rivals the proverbial runner’s high. Every single coach naturally came across as encouraging and nurturing be it by way of their verbals or their non-verbals. Strange as it may seem, so did my fellow MARSians. In fact, I lost count of the number of high fives and congratulatory remarks that came my way after each workout or LSD run with or without any prodding from the PA system. And this wave of positivity tended to multiply itself as it got inevitably passed on to those around you. You’re late tonight? That’s ok. You can join this group. You’re slow? That’s not a crime. You did not get the form correctly? Here, let me show you how I did it.
Rain on Me
Have you ever purposely sprinted in the rain? Ever done crunches, jumping jacks, burpees and push-ups on paved roads on a rainy evening? I have and I still can’t believe I have. Oh and when I say rain here I literally mean the one that drenches you to the bone. Where I come from, we usually put off outdoor training sessions when it rains. I remember our teachers in high school reprimanding my schoolmates, basketball fanatics all, who insisted on carrying on with their ballgame despite the heavy rains. “O stulta culpa!” (i.e., “O stupid mistake!” in Latin) Not in this school it was not. Such was the passion and dedication of our coaches that they continued to fire away with speed drill and workout instructions sandwiched by encouraging affirmations despite the inclement weather. Was this yet another pedagogical attempt to teach us the value of grit which is indispensable to marathon running? Or was it simply the love for the sport that made us complete these speed drills and workouts despite the heavy downpour? Maybe it was both. The Dawn and Rico Blanco come to mind. “Talaga naman! – Pag gusto, may paraan. Pag ayaw maraming dahilan. Gumawa na lang tayo ng paraan” (i.e., “Really now – If you want it, you will find a way. If you don’t, you will find reasons. Let’s just find a way.”) As we made our way back to the MARS grounds for our cool down, Coach Jun and Coach Elmer sprang the reason behind their decision to continue. Historically, Milo Marathons push through rain or shine so they seized the opportunity to simulate such a scenario in the hopes of building our confidence to be ready just in case it happens.
Although there was no module decked solely to proper nutrition, the openness of our coaches to all types of questions from the running school participants more than made up for this. Take my barrage of questions to Coach Arnold, curious as I was as to how most of our coaches are able to maintain their runner’s physique. To my dismay, he matter of factly shared that the food they take to maintain their fitness is akin to hospital food. “Walang lasa” (i.e., tasteless.) Adobo? Sorry, that’s not allowed. Fried chicken and burgers? Those too. Pizza and fries. Forget it. From Coach Arnold I realized that running, despite the wonders that it does if you want to lose weight, does not give you the license to eat anything on the pretext that you can burn it anyway. Which is just as well as it strengthened my initially tentative resolve to say no to beef and pork and to resist the crispy and mouth-watering fried chicken that I grew up on. In place of fatty and salty food, I consciously revived my oat meal routine in the morning even as I opted for grilled fish or baked chicken for lunch and lots of fruits and vegetables for dinner. And yes, the folk singer Joey Ayala was indeed spot on in his song “Basta May Saging.” Nothing beats the power of the “nilagang saba” (i.e., boiled banana) to kick start the morning. As Coach Jun would put it, “Tingnan nyo ang mga unggoy. Me nakita na ba kayong unggoy na pinulikat? Wala pa di ba? Ang secret nila simple lang. Saging!” (i.e., “Look at monkeys. Ever seen a monkey suffering from leg cramps? Never, right? Their secret is simple. Banana!”)
Kidding aside, two reasons compel career athletes like Coach Arnold to take their nutrition seriously. One, your body has to be in tip-top shape when you run so you reap the whirlwind if you feed it junk. Two, you inevitably lose weight and become lighter in the process. The lighter you are, the faster you can run and the kinder you will be to your legs and knees. These are two compelling thoughts that serve me in good stead whenever I happen to find adobo, lechon, sisig and the like on the dining table. Hospital food? Right on!
Bay View with a Twist
Up until my attendance in the Milo APEX Running School, I had no idea I would ever experience Manila Bay from the vantage point of a dragon boat racing team. It was almost surreal to view Roxas Blvd onboard an actual dragon boat one Saturday morning. Despite the polluted smell of the Manila Bay, my first foray at rowing made me realize why Runners’ World recommends rowing as an excellent cross-training for serious runners. Like running, rowing essentially engages and leverages your core. There’s more. You also get to appreciate the value of teamwork as you cooperate with your team to move as one body so you can compete against the other teams. All these as you enjoy or is it endure the thrill of keeping the boat balanced lest you all end up swimming in the polluted waters of the Manila Bay. The thought was more than enough to make us obey the military-like instructions of our dragon boat coaches who, it turned out, were actually enlisted personnel of the Armed Forces. They were more than happy to teach us the basic stuff that all self-respecting dragon boat enthusiasts master like the palm of their hand. From them we learned that if you are very good at this sport, not only is your salary assured by the AFP. More importantly, you get to travel for free to different parts of the globe to compete. Not bad at all.
From Quirino to MOA and Then Some
I have never ran from Quirino to MOA and back in all the years that I have embraced this sport. Driving all the way to Quirino for a practice run simply had no appeal to me. It’s too far for one and Manila has lost the charm that used to lure me in my younger years. Thanks to the Milo APEX Running School for making me reconsider this perception. Notwithstanding the polluted waters of the bay and the sad sight of down and out families whose sleeping bodies are strewn all over the observation decks, running from the Quirino Grandstand to MOA and back surprisingly proved to be an enjoyable learning experience for its novelty and the kaleidoscopic payoff it had to offer. There’s the commanding view of the bay and the sight of zestful Zumba dancers at the CCP. There’s the first light ballroom dancers at Quirino and the yachts proudly docked after the US Embassy. There’s the still majestic view of the Rizal Monument despite the photobomb structure behind it and the architectural marvel that is the CCP facade. Upon reaching the CCP, our coaches made us do two rounds at its elevated driveway and one round at the driveway of the Film Center presumably to simulate the flyovers that we would cover on race day. I remembered this particular LSD run as we passed 3 flyovers to complete the actual 21K race last July 26. Thank you, Coach Jun and Coach Elmer. I would have fared worse without this taxing albeit fulfilling running experience
Brothers in Arms
For some reason, the big turnout during what we’ve learned to refer to as Torture Tuesday and Speedwork Thursday would thin out during our weekend LSD runs. Having a smaller team of runners during the weekend though worked to my advantage as it became much easier to compare notes. Most of them, it turned out, have been paying their dues in this sport for years. A number of them have actually participated in the previous seasons of the Milo APEX Running School. My thanks to Ten, JunR, Louie, Jun, Ronell, Kelyn, Ayie, and Anne for their stories, advice and anecdotes. From these friends I made at MARS I stumbled onto a number of tried and tested techniques that I absorbed like a sponge and tried out like a toddler in a toy store – from taking gels after Km 10 to forging ahead despite the pain, from being kind to yourself to just keeping at it, from pacing oneself at the start of an LSD run to stepping on the pedal towards the end of the same. Perchance the most assuring realization my chats with them occasioned was the fact that they’ve literally been through all of the running injuries I only read about and survived. It may have been a function of their body getting used to the pain. Or it may have been because they improved their form or both. Either way, the impression I got is that given enough conditioning and the right mindset, the human body could eventually adapt to the pressure and impact of repeatedly pounding on a paved road with your running shoes. From the tales and feats they passionately shared, I managed to get a sneak peak at possibilities worth exploring in the coming years (i.e., The Dream Marathon, The Condura Run and Run United.) In the meantime, their 5:30 per kilometer pace continues to awe even as it beckons.
The Right Stuff
True, running efficiently by mastering the correct form and observing proper posture may not have been explicitly discussed as one module in our 3-month program. You can’t help but infer it though from the numerous Philippine Olympians comprising the MARS coaching team. By observing how our veteran coaches practiced the correct form and proper posture as they ran we got a pretty clear idea of what to aim and shoot for during our slow jogs, speed work drills and LSD sorties. The fact that most if not all of our running coaches are not just running hobbyists may help explain why they can effortlessly do this. They literally live and breathe running. No wonder every two weeks or so, we would hear from Coach Jim that yet another member of the MARS coaching team made it to the podium in this or that race.
Props to Coach Nancy and her Yogi master demeanor both during warm-up and cool down. If only we could muster such flexibility ourselves perhaps we can bounce back much faster from a long run. And then there is Coach Arnold whose running form is worthy of a Runners’ World cover. He always makes it look easy until our turn to do it ourselves comes, that is. Of course, not to forget, our 21K SMEs, Coach Elmer and Coach Jun who complete the 21K like it’s a walk in the park compared to our soaked-in-a-pail-of-water experience. “How do you do that, Coach?,” I would press them for an answer. In due time, they would humbly say before segueing to encourage us to keep practicing.
Ask and You Shall Receive
When Coach Jim announced on day 1 that we can freely ask any question about running from any of his running coaches, he wasn’t kidding. The Biblical injunction to ask and receive is a way of life at the Milo APEX Running School. Despite the fact that they are literally handling hundreds of running enthusiasts across the 3 MARS locations: one in MOA, another in QC Circle and another in BGC, most if not all of our coaches were more than happy to answer our queries whether asked face to face, via email or by way of text messaging. What pace should I maintain from start to finish to meet the cut-off? Which strategy is best for a 21K first-timer? Which makes more sense – is it to pace yourself at the start and then speed up towards the last 3 kilometers of the race or is it to maintain a steady pace all throughout? What types of drills are recommended one week before your race? How much rest should I observe in between my runs? Is the weekly gradual increase for the LSD 10% or is 20% more efficient? How do you handle plantar fasciitis? What food should I eat before the race? Are gels encouraged after crossing the 10k mark? No question was too simple to be dismissed. No question too complicated to be left unanswered. Many thanks, Coach Jim, Coach Cris, Coach Arnold, Coach Nancy, Coach Jun, Coach Elmer, Coach Dianne, Coach Becky, Coach Tine and Coach Chessa!
“Sir, I’m sorry. I can’t clear you for your 21K run,” the doctor apologetically told me after reading my ECG results one Sunday afternoon. My heart naturally sank. As you know, the Milo Marathon organizing team led by Coach Rio Dela Cruz is very strict with regard to getting a clearance from a doctor if you’re running a 21K and a 42K. I would learn later that this was brought about by past deaths of runners seeking to break their personal records. “Pumi-PR,” my veteran runner classmates would describe them.This was why I decked one weekend to complete my annual medical exam. According to the doctor who read my ECG, I have a condition called Sinus Bradychardia. I quickly googled it and I was alarmed no end even as I sought consolation in the possibility that this might simply be the end result of training for 3 months. True enough, after submitting myself to the whole 9 yards of establishing if I am medically fit to run, I finally got my clearance from a cardiologist who congratulated me for taking running seriously. My condition, he said, is a direct result of the physical conditioning that I have been going through in preparation for the race. Thanks, Torture Tuesday, Speedwork Thursday and LSD Saturday! Yet another reiteration that the Law of the Harvest is one immutable principle of life.
In Lieu of Music
There is a saying that “without music, life would be a mistake.” I couldn’t agree more being a vinyl and CD collector for decades. As far back as I can remember, music has always accompanied most if not all of my runs. My 3-month training with other MARSians put this practice to question. No one among my 21K classmates uses headphones to accompany his/her LSD runs. Their focus and concentration are almost always clearly fixed on the objective of each race, whether it was to simply cover a target distance or move up to their target pace or both. By observing the cadence of our veteran running coaches and long-time MARSians during our long runs, I eventually appreciated what I initially found to be an irritating feature embedded in a running app I accidentally discovered. The running app is called Chi Running and the irritating feature which I’ve come to respect is called the metronome. Yes, the same metronome that my teacher in classical guitar advised me to invest in to master the rhythm of the compositions he assigned me. Turns out its power extends itself to the sport of running owing to its compelling ability to focus your attention on your cadence. This is especially critical when fatigue towards the latter half of the race starts to set in and different muscle groups not used to the strain start to shout at you to stop and get some rest. It is noteworthy that the metronome has a way of sneaking into your skin and wrapping itself around you. I suppose that may partly explain why I had the good sense to turn off my stop watch after I crossed the finish line. In contrast, it took me several minutes to realize post-race that the metronome was still beeping.
Then again, perhaps my having forgotten to turn off the Chi Running metronome is life’s way of suggesting that while it is good to take stock of how far you’ve gone and how much you’ve accomplished, the road never really ends for MARSians. There are more trails and paths out there for beginners like me to explore and cover. More mountains and peaks to scale and conquer await. More frontiers to discover beckon. As that classic John Mellencamp rock song would put it: “Oh yeah, life goes on!”
Oh yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of finishing my first 21K is gone.
On to the next 21K!