The afternoon of June 19, 2022: There I was, smack-bang in the middle of the first row of runners eager to begin the Rock ‘n Roll Manila 21-kilometre course, a dash across and back around Roxas Boulevard, a hobble over Intramuros’ cobblestones, and many runners’ first taste of racing since the pandemic had begun.
Music was roaring out of speakers, cut-and-pasted around interludes of hosts updating us on the course and weather conditions. What 15-minutes prior had been a torrential sort of downpour had slowly mellowed into a gentle drizzle; I was nonetheless tingling. The gentle patter of raindrops over my skin exacerbated the already near-nude feeling of standing around without a mask on. It was cold; my teeth chattered gingerly as I tried to joke around to whoever was willing to listen. I was nervous.
But I was so bloody excited.
There’s a unique feeling–standing with over a thousand other people about to do the exact same thing as you. It’s as though a mythic cord had woven around us all, binding us to this moment, for the next two hours or so, as both competitors and teammates. As much as we’re pitted against each other, there’s an element of us all being in this together.
As the last notes of the cacophony of music and commentary descended on this 1000-person strong mass of runners, following just one last minute pee-stop, and as the last few drops of rain decided to creep their way under the fibres of my running top, my mind flirted with the edge of consciousness and peaked over into flow–the space that we find ourselves when we’re not thinking of what we’re doing while we’re doing a darn good job of it.
As I returned to thinking about my thoughts as they were arriving, I was 600 metres over Roxas Boulevard. The lead pack of five-or-so guys was about 200 metres ahead of me; a cup or two from the water station up ahead had found their respective ways onto the concrete. And yet there I was, hesitantly crouched over (literally stopped running), grabbing a fallen running pouch for the runner that was up ahead of me. We met eye-to-eye, both unsure how to act normally in a run, around people, without masks. “Okay, okay,” he says smiling. “No worries,” I say.
Consciousness had returned.
Up until that moment, everything had seemed surreal. All the people. Hovering around the nearby Starbucks, sipping on a coconut water I’d bought just so I wouldn’t feel off about waiting around in the establishment. Gearing up for a 21-kilometre race against and with real life people.
And while I’d mentally grasp the reality of my situation, my body was in an extended period of hubris. Burning through calories and testosterone, I was blitzing through my first ten kilometres far faster than I’d aimed to. I was poking fun at course photographers, trying to remark at where to find my better angles–though on a run these are an even more sparse commodity.
Around kilometre 11, I was running 30 percent off my desired pace–the pace I’d trained for. I’d been training for over two months with a coach, engaging a fairly disciplined mentality to give this hobby-runner a good shot at a good time on this gloomy afternoon, in Manila’s Intramuros. Runners were beginning to pace right by me as hubris began to fall off its last legs.
Gentle prods from passing runners aimed at egging me on which felt like daggers in my weary thighs. I’d landed in a dangerous spot: as the lead pack tore off into the far distance, I was left to my own devices and my own pace–well aware that I wasn’t catching up to the lead pack and far too nervous (and perhaps too proud) to look behind me.
I was decided on quitting.
And as I made the decision, a black cloud of B.S. hovered around me, enveloping me in an entire mindset that I was a total wreck. I kid you not, it extended far beyond running and as a whole colour to my being. It’s the sort of mistake that lends to thoughts of simply being “a loser”, the sort of “one bottle of beer” that becomes an entire tequila hangover.
It was a step too far.
As a last, “Hail Mary Effort”, I tore open the “Gu” gel packet my coach had put in my hand pre-race, squeezed out its chewy, treacle, liquid content, gulped it down, coughed a few times like a broken lawn mower, and prayed to every running deity alive and above, from Kipchoge to Prefontaine, for help.
The kilometre after the Gu-moment was still 30-40 percent slower than I had trained for. And it was terrible. I was exhausted.
But the kilometre after that was the official founding of my second wind. Though still about 10 percent off my target pace, I was back in action and found myself fending off the runnrs that had begun chasing me down. My hubris sat somewhere by the wayside, sobbing beside the black cloud that tried to have me quit.
I was rolling onto the finish
Though I look happy in the finisher photos, my teeth clustered in front of my head in a smile, wincing from cramps that began to ricochet through my calves. Chuffed to be done, a soggy, panting, mush of sweat and spit, I sat in a monoblock chair with two bottles of Gatorade in my arms and a pack of ice on my legs, next to the third placer. After mustering up a chat with what remained of my lungs, I had yet another chat with the second-placer. He roared through the course with a sub-1:20 time and looked fit enough to go for a jog around the block. I was happy with my 1:32 finish time and 19th place overall, and was willing to crush the nearest available, moderately cold can of beer–convinced that it’s equal parts water and bread.
Having relaxed back into my normal, non-soggy form, I recalled the conversation I had with the third-placer, one of the army-men who joined the race. He’d told me about the duty he had protecting our country, how he managed to fit training into his schedule, and that he hoped to run more than what he already was.
It reminded me of the role running has in each of our lives. It’s an escape, a journey, a fitness regimen, a luxury, a blessing, a gift. It’s something that we carve time out of our days for and it’s an activity that isn’t available for everyone. In 2022, the latter three deserve emboldening as there are entire health crises, economic downturns, and geopolitical catastrophes keeping millions of people in unthinkable living conditions. Running as a hobby, as something joyful in many places the world over perhaps isn’t even a fleeting thought.
Perhaps then gathering as a large group, banded for two hours with the common goal of finishing a run, is a bit crazy. It’s an insane amount of privilege. It’s an incredible amount of luck too, that we were gathered for a moment, supported by innumerable uncontrollable variables just to run.
And that’s my takeaway. Every time I’m faltering, wrestling with my hubris and exchanging jabs with the thick black cloud that often follows me, I’m lucky just to be running. And to have done just that in a community of fellow runners leaves me incredibly thankful. It was a cold, rainy day in Metro Manila, but it was a bloody good one too.
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