Surviving Carrera Habagat: My first foray into the World of Multi-Day Adventure Racing
Ani Karina Sarabia de Leon
When Miguel Lopez (a.k.a. Ige) first broached the subject of forming a team for the Carrera Habagat, I didn’t even pause to blink and said yes to him right away.
Of course, I was going to join as a complete beginner and had little idea on how demanding this undertaking would be. We were talking about the toughest adventure race in the Philippines—it covers the largest area and takes the longest time to finish. But I had always wanted to do it, and knowing my schedule, I may not have another opportunity to try it out, so I decided that it was now or never.
Our team was to be composed of Ige, Paolo Defensor (a.k.a. Def), James Tagara and I. I had known Ige and Paolo for a very long time, but this was the first time that I was going to meet James. All three of them were members of the Ayala Mountaineers. I wasn’t a mountaineer, and my only qualifications were these: I was an experienced triathlete and I had climbed a few mountains and I was exposed to the mountaineering scene because my sister was a prolific climber of UP Mountaineers fame. I specifically warned them that outside my taxi cab driver-like knowledge of the maze that is Manila, I wouldn’t know how to plot a map in the wild and what to do with the bearings on my compass. On the other hand, I was willing and able to do extremely difficult challenges. Def and James were avid adventure racers but this was their first multi-day race too. Only Ige had joined it twice before.
We were all very hopeful and optimistic nonetheless, and thankfully we found very supportive partners in AVAYA Communications, The North Face, Ige’s own T1 active wear, Promax, Accelerade, and Endurox. We also signed on Manny Torralba and Atoy Jamilla to be our official support crew—they were both veteran mountaineers and adventure racers. I didn’t own a single piece of adventure racing gear, and I was so grateful to have Tricia Chiongbian, Thumbie Remigio, Rizzo Tangan, and my sister Sinag help me out. Aside from this, Ai Eway from AVAYA and Toby Martin from AMCI also expressed their desire to assist us in any way they could. This certainly helped us firm up our resolve. So we registered, bought the plane tickets, and headed to Surigao.
Traveling from Manila to Surigao City with 8 people, dozens of baggage and equipment plus 5 mountain bikes (Ai brought hers too) was no mean feat in itself. We flew into Butuan City and from there took a multicab, a bus, a jeep, and finally hopped onto our bikes for the last 5km towards the lodge.
The night before the race, the organizers gave us several maps of Surigao, Bucas Grande, and Siargao. The names of certain towns and baranggays were erased and we were given basic directions on how to get to the checkpoints. We had to get from Checkpoints (CPs) 1 to 25 in the proper sequence, and we could only see our support crew at three Logistics Points (LPs). The boys, particularly James, stayed up late to plot out the course and everyone in the team packed the necessary gear. Boy, and I thought readying triathlon equipment was tedious.
Day 1: Now what?
Seventeen teams were bold enough to join this year. Our Team, T1-AVAYA, was the only team flying in all the way from Manila. We were instructed to bring our bikes, Personal Flotation Devices (or life vests), and trekking gear. We would have to go through 7 Checkpoints before the first Logistics Point. These were the coordinates and clues:
||N 09 32 31
||E 125 50 20
||Port of Hayanggabon
||N 09 35 52
||E 125 54 47
||Sohoton Tourist Center
||N 09 35 35
||E 125 55 15
||Inside a lagoon
||N 09 36 39
||E 125 56 18
||In a barangay
||N 09 37 28
||E 125 55 13
||Near a barangay
||N 09 39 06
||E 125 55 17
||Near a small pier
|CP 7 / LP1
||N 09 37 02
||E 125 57 57
||In a town
We were all quite good in biking, and we were actually swapping the lead with the Dumaguete Team for the first 76km leg, but unfortunately, James got a flat tire (our first of five!) and we watched helplessly as the other teams passed us. The boys fixed it as I cheered them on, trying to keep our spirits up. We got back on the muddy dirt road and we managed to arrive in 4th place at the Port of Hayanggabon. We were still feeling quite jolly and energetic.
The next thing we had to do was paddle for a couple of hours to the next few checkpoints. James and I shared an outrigger and Def and Ige paired up in a bigger one because the smaller one seemed to be an awkward fit. Admittedly, paddling was our weakest link as a team because we never really practiced it, but we agreed that we would be fine.
Well, we spoke too soon. To get to one of the checkpoints in Tinagong Dagat (Hidden Sea), we had to pass a tunnel-like cave. We were warned beforehand by the local fishermen that the current was strong inside, and at this point it was already night time. Def, who was the tallest among us, had a hard time avoiding the stalactites because of the low ceiling. James and I continued rowing a little ahead of them. After a few moments though, we looked back and they weren’t there. We thought they were just mucking around. It was dark already so James decided that while we were waiting he would put on his headlamp, so he opened his dry bag. It was then that we heard the two of them calling out to us in panicked voices. We headed back towards the cave and saw that they were trapped in one corner because of the strong current. We didn’t know any better, and by the time we realized that we shouldn’t even go near them we got swept by the current too. James and I were now in an even worse position than they were, and it was only a few seconds afterwards that our boat capsized underneath theirs. It was complete chaos. I realized that my mobile phone, which had been our emergency line, was swept away along with James’ stuff because he had left his pack open when we went back for our teammates. I was pissed and lost my composure for the first time during the race. We were in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t paddle out. Now what???
It cost us almost two hours but with some intervention from the locals we were able to get our boats back upright, sans two oars and some of James’ gear. That left us with one small paddle for each outrigger, which of course slowed us down again. But we went on, docked the boats, and scaled a treacherously jagged surface towards the next CP. Once we where on higher ground, we got lost and went back and forth as we were debating on which direction to follow. This wore us down and we found an empty basketball court wherein we decided to sleep for 30 minutes. The boys found it easy to sleep whereas I had a very hard time because my shoes were wet and my socks were grimy, I was covered in mud, cut by rocks, bitten by giant mosquitoes—and frankly, I am still a girl who likes to be clean. I know I signed up for it but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would adjust to the hygiene issues as easily. I probably slept for a total of 6 minutes. The Mt. Everest Girls had advised me to bring a lot of socks in a zip lock plastic bag at all times and I was glad I listened to them. I changed my socks and left the filthy ones in the basketball court. We trudged on through the night and at around 7am we made it to LP1. I was happy to see Manny, Atoy, Ai and Toby.
Day 2: Dry Land, Water, Dry Land, Water.
||N 09 41 32
||E 126 00 17
||Near the coast
||N 09 43 56
||E 126 02 37
||In a baranggay
|CP 10 / LP 2
||N 09 45 26
||E 126 03 10
||In a town
Today we trekked and swam the whole day. We were now ranked as the 7th team, and since the top contenders were hours ahead, we decided to change our game plan and just enjoy and finish the race. The main highlights of this section: Bushwhacking and trailblazing amidst tall cogon, swimming from island to island in the dark with equipment in tow, getting horribly victimized by a bed of sea urchin and losing my trek shoes in the ocean. We get to LP2 around midnight.
Day 3: The Bike Ride That Wouldn’t End + Time Space Warp at CP 19 + WAR!!!
||N 09 46 33
||E 126 03 11
||Near a community
||N 09 47 08
||E 126 09 20
||Near a market
||N 09 46 08
||E 126 07 32
||Near a coast
||N 09 49 15
||E 126 03 12
||Near an intersection
||N 09 57 32
||E 126 00 20
||Along the coast
||N 09 56 40
||E 126 02 20
||An inland baranggay
||N 10 03 32
||E 126 03 10
||In a beach
||N 10 01 12
||E 126 04 28
||Near the coast
||N 09 59 03
||E 126 03 12
||Near a baranggay
||N 09 56 42
||E 126 06 07
||Along a beautiful coast
|CP 21/ LP 3
||N 09 51 52
||E 126 05 59
||An old town
After napping and replenishing our packs with food and drinks, we pedaled stealthily into the blackness like some obscure renegade group on an important mission. I was really anxious because my headlamp was damaged from being submerged underwater and I was very very new to mountain biking. I could barely manage going through obstacles in broad daylight and now we had to navigate single track trails at a fast speed. I knew I was taking numerous risks following my teammates blindly, but I had to trust in them—I really had no choice. It was an unbelievably lengthy sixteen hours that I would be spending on the saddle, a personal record by far. My butt was really hurting now, and my patience was running thin because we kept getting lost. We had started biking just after midnight and at 4pm I was so glad we could chuck the mountain bikes away. We climbed a wall and rappelled downwards, and this was by far the easiest and most fun part of the race for me. It was almost a gift.
After this, our team got a second wind even as we heard the news that the first team, Davao Eagles, had already finished. We didn’t mind. We were confident that we would be accomplishing the same thing in just a matter of hours.
Alas, it was not to be, and my patience would have to be tested more in the succeeding checkpoints. We ran around in circles in search for CP 19 and were again clueless on where to go next, even though, incredibly we had already passed it earlier in the day en route to another checkpoint. We felt like we were stuck in a Time Space Warp and we were getting tired. I was the first to snap. I screamed my head off because I felt (wrongly) that the boys were largely responsible for the poor navigation. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t locate it, and I was extremely frustrated at having to do so many unnecessary kilometers. We were running around like headless chicken and bickering like schoolchildren. Fighting was quite unnatural for us as we all liked each other very much, and after a while, we laughed at ourselves and our strange predicament. We loosened up a little bit and agreed to work more closely as a team from then on. Not coincidentally, we found the infamous CP 19 shortly after that. The CP 19 volunteers were kind enough to let us doze off for a few minutes in their tiny hut and even serenaded us with their guitar. Their CP was worth looking for after all. It was nearing dawn when we woke up and it was like a Death March towards the last LP.
Day 4: Breakdown: Peeling the Onion and Digging Way, Way Deep.
||N 09 51 40
||E 126 00 52
||Near an airport
||N 09 50 51
||E 126 06 35
||N 09 50 33
||E 126 08 16
||Facing the pacific coast
||N 09 48 28
||E 126 09 52
||Near a good surf spot
At LP3 we picked up our bikes again and even though my saddle sores were painfully fresh I had to add on to them again for one more day. I had never had that much friction on my sensitive parts before because as a road biker everything is just smooth sailing on asphalt and concrete. I didn’t have that luxury now, and we were desperately under pressure to finish today because it was the last day to do so. We were cutting it really close. I had had very little sleep (some by the side of the road, some on a concrete bench, some under a coconut tree) and was burning the last few strands of my candlestick. I was near the breaking point. The boys were nice enough to let me be but gently reminded me of our goals. I could see that they were tired too. I summoned all my mental strength and shut down the rest of my bodily functions which were irrelevant to riding a bike. I felt like I was in a dream-like state but my body knew what to do because I had switched it to Automatic Bike Mode.
We were nearing the end and I knew that we could make it soon. But the Spirits of the Carrera Habagat Race had a few more ordeals set up for team T1-AVAYA. Just when we thought we had arrived at CP 23 and had only 2 more CPs to go, we discover that in our rush we had missed CP 23 and were actually at CP 24. We had to backtrack yet again. I was incensed. I could not imagine going back and forth another time. My bike shoes had given way long ago and were just being kept intact with duct tape, and of course my underside was still hurting. In my mind I had done my last cycle leg for this race, but now we had to do two more as a result of our mistake. It was too much.
It was never a question though. We had to do it. I had to go back. They couldn’t finish the race without me. And I couldn’t bear to let my teammates down. I was sobbing and yelling angrily at the same time. “JUST FIND IT!!!! JUST F—–N FIND IT, OKAY!!!!!!!!!” I had a sudden rush of adrenaline along with my outburst and pedaled like a madwoman, speaking loudly to myself for motivation. Ige was telling me there was another team catching up with us. I looked wildly at him and said, “Am I not here, and am I not trying the best that I can??? Just leave me alone!!!” Oh dear. This is what happens when you try to make a team player out of someone who has been competing in individual sports for most of her life.
We all got our acts together eventually since we understood that it was crunch time. We found CP 23, went back to CP 24, and swam and ran to CP 25. Surviving Carrera Habagat and finishing it the first time around is unforgettable, and my teammates and I soaked it all in. We had gone through so much together the past four days and were the 8th team to come through. We were blessed enough to see the beauty of this part of the Philippines in a way that no tourist ever could. This race revealed our character like nothing else ever could. I smiled at Ige, Def, and James, and silently thanked them. They were excellent athletes and human beings and it was a privilege to have done this with them. This race was by far the hardest one I have ever had to do in my whole life, and mind you, I have raced a lot. But in my opinion, joining a race that isn’t challenging at all is just a waste of time, and in this respect, Carrera Habagat was time spent very well indeed.
Team T1 AVAYA boys speak up!
1. Describe the race in three words:
Ige: Wild! Intense! Solid!
Def: Solid at palaban (and a challenge)
James: ONE LONG ADVENTURE
2. What was the hardest part of the race for you?
Ige: The navigation part at night where you’re tired, sleepy, hungry and your minds playing tricks on you.
Def: You always have wet socks, so blisters will be hell. They multiply and grow bigger everyday – and still lots of trekking and running to go. Locating the CPs accurately. Not hard, but a major hassle was bumping my right leg into a colony of sea urchins!
James: Blistering and chafing. Plus catching up with my teammates.
3. Any memorable moments?
Ige: Hmm…each part of the race was memorable but my fave would be the super race pace mountain bike leg on the last day going to the last CP. We were there BUT not quite…yet!!!
Def: Where do I begin??? Swimming at 10:30pm for hours to get to another island; our huge bangka being sucked underwater in a dark stalactite cave; eating 5 star style; trekking while sleeping or sleeping while trekking; and of course our motto: ‘how bad do you want it???’ There’s
more but I’ll save for when we go partying! haha!
James: The inter-island swims. I would never do that except if my life depended on it.
4. Tips for aspiring Habagat joiners?
Ige: Training should be a lifestyle and always enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Choose your teammates well and physically and mentally prepare much much more than you would expect. Learn to give and take for the sake of the team. This is definitely not just one of your ordinary urban races that you see in reality TV.
Def:Train hard, and keep fit all year round. Pick good teammates. During the race, keep an open heart and an open mind. Never say die! And it can be done =)
James: Train, train, train to be confident on what you’ve never done before.
5. Say something about each of your teammates.
Ige: Ani- Newly baptized multi day adventure racer! Solid foundation, definitely an asset to teammates and a threat to opponents in future adventure races to come. James- Silent James, dependable and soft spoken. Will rise to the occasion if needed. Paolo- The Erik Dekker of the team! Hardworker and never say die attitude! The perfect energizer beast on multi day races.
Def: James – silent but deadly; the man you want to consult when you’re lost haha! Ani – she knows how to dig very very deep; nice to have that woman’s care amidst the tough adventure. Ige – high spirited; fighter; wouldn’t do it without him – he gets my jokes!
James: Miguel- Strongest in the team, overall. Always composed. Always had that extra energy if needed from him. Ani- Has the heart of a real champion. Will step up to lead the team at any given point, without hesitation. Paolo- Always charged. Loud talker. Keeps us on our toes. Always know where the food is.
6. Would you do it again?
Ige: Where do I sign up?
Def: Heck yeah! Can I have the same team?