Nueva Vizcaya

Kayapa on foot

Iya Gozum

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Kayapa on foot

BLOOMING. A jacaranda tree at Kayapa Central School starts to bloom.

Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

‘I know my legs can take a pounding. My lungs and my heart too.’

NUEVA VIZCAYA, Philippines – In a sleepy village tucked in a valley in the Cordilleras, I found myself in the company of solitude. 

A thousand meters above sea level, Pampang, Kayapa, makes the visitor a neighbor to the mountains. They greet you when you open your window in the morning. A cloud hovers casually near their ridges. In a place like this, you begin to believe in the weight of whispered salutations and the virtues of irrigation water.

The village is reachable by bus from Cubao, and a jeep that will climb the winding highway for two hours. When I arrived in Pampang on Thursday afternoon, the jacaranda tree was starting to bloom. 

After the tiring commute, I met Soledad, one of the locals who offered her place as a homestay for runners doing the 50-kilometer and 100-kilometer foot race.

Solitude in Spanish is Soledad

A three-minute climb from the highway took me to a place I would call home for three nights. Soledad, or Ate Sol, the owner of the house, is a petite woman with hooded eyes and a gentle voice. She met me at the gate as I was trying to catch my breath.

Outside her house is a small coffee shop and a garden. The shelves in her kitchen are crammed with kettles, teapots, and French presses. There’s even a retro style manual coffee grinder with stainless frothing pitchers below it. Beans and grounds are in airtight jars. Cups are neatly lined up against the wall, and mugs hang from a wooden stand – some of them already collecting dust.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a garden where rows of plants relish the cold air. Paintings discarded by Baguio artists decorate her outdoor setup. On top of a bookshelf is an old photo of a younger Soledad wearing red lipstick. She is beaming.

The shop and the garden are both pandemic projects, she shared, when we were eating dinner that Thursday night. At the height of the lockdown, Ate Sol said the coffee shop became a respite for locals.

JACARANDA. The jacaranda tree at the Kayapa Central School has become a fixture for many runners who go back year after year for the races. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

Back in my room, I started sorting my things and preparing for bed. From outside my window I could see pinpricks of light coming from houses across the other side. Two nights before, I was sobbing on a phone call with a friend, scared of going solo to a distant place for four days.

She only told me, frankly, there’s nothing to be anxious about. The whole point was to be at peace, I guess, with this silence pierced by dogs howling through the night.

When I woke up Friday morning, Ate Sol already had her first cup of coffee (and would take one or two more cups as the morning passed). For breakfast, she cooked slices of meatloaf and prepared salted eggs and kimchi. 

I took a walk after eating, carrying the camera a friend lent me. A white dog lounged beside the highway. Sacks of bananas awaited a delivery truck. An old woman wearing a bucket hat smiled at me. There was the occasional charm in the world’s indifference. In the clear light of day, I realized there’s nothing exceptional in my heartbreak that drove me to get coffee 300 kilometers away from home. 

But it’s not therapy nor self-love that brought me here. I wanted to know how long I could stand under the searing heat or torrential rain, how I could take the ugliness of truth. And then be done with it. Or go through it again. Wherever life takes me, in this ultramarathon or other lofty mountains in the future, I hope I have grace to endure.

Back at the homestay, other runners had arrived. I met them during dinner. Two runners from Davao, two firemen from Makati and one’s girlfriend, a Marine and his wife. Ate Sol served dinner – tinolang manok na pinikpikan and fresh vegetable dishes. Everyone was running the hundred kilometer distance, except for me and the road runner from Davao who would end up winning the race.

When bonking, eat ice cream

It was still dark when I went outside and walked to the school where the starting line was set up. I was wearing my vest carrying all my essentials (jacket, water, phone, whistle, first aid kit, three chocolate bars, rock salt, peanut butter sandwich, and one stick pack of endurance fuel). The second rule of the outdoors was to try to be as self-sufficient as possible. The first rule was to go home safe.

I turned my headlamp on. I walked down the flight of stairs to the main road. 

At exactly 4 am on Saturday, all 50K runners were released. There was a steep climb at the start, followed by a slightly flat course, and after almost two hours, the sun rose when I was running on a rolling ridge going to Ansipsip. It was biting cold up at Mt. Ugo, but the sky was clear. 

I had to stop to take it all in: the mountain range, the pine trees, the small, moving dots of runners going down Ugo. From there it was more or less a gentle downhill through a Spanish trail, lined with hundreds of white flowers, and which used to connect Pangasinan and Benguet during colonial times. 

I hit 30 kilometers when I got down to Kayapa Proper West. It was nearing lunch. One could tell with the heat even without looking at the watch. I devoured everything my stomach could take in at the aid stations: mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, chips, and soda. At the last station, I ate a chocolate popsicle in large bites like hanging on for dear life. The rest of the route, still 25 kilometers, was more of a mental exercise. Two more climbs. 

DOWNHILL. View going down the summit of Mt. Ugo. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

I was done by afternoon. It was funny because halfway through the race, everything hurt and I was mumbling profanities under my breath. When it was all over and my head finally cleared, everything seemed ridiculous. 

I thought I would hit the bed as soon as I washed up, but instead I went to the kitchen and asked for instant ramen. Ate Sol asked about the race while I was eating the noodles. How far did you go? What did you see? She was mildly surprised to learn we also had to go through Amelong Labeng, among others.

During dinner, I met the French woman and her husband whom I passed by the trails. Her husband, who was cramping earlier, four kilometers from the finish line, was looking better. We talked over adobong manok. They had a bottle of beer. (Where did they get that? I forgot to ask.) The three 100K runners were not yet back. Some would finish it later that night, others after midnight or the next morning. I got back on my bed and slept without a dream. 

The heart is a muscle

Hard things are almost always conquered by time. 

On Sunday morning, there was a palpable shift. The pine clad forests were safely at a distance again. The motions of hot assaults, long downhills, and the distance covered were ingrained in muscle memory. That morning the world felt lighter. 

SINGLE TRACK. From Domolpos, the route took the runners through a Spanish trail used to connect Benguet and Pangasinan during colonial times. The trail stretches for around 10 kilometers. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

I know my legs can take a pounding. My lungs and my heart, too. The wooden figure of an anito holding a spear and a kalasag sat quietly on the table by the window. Everybody gets one when they finish. It’s done and over. We’d do it all over again. 

By morning, everybody was back at Ate Sol’s place. Having finished and rested, everyone was in high spirits, sharing stories over a hearty meal and an abundance of brewed coffee.

Beauty, especially in its most unassuming form, finds a way to comfort. Even in the company of strangers. This is the gift that the mountains have always given me and everyone else who needs it. 

One of the runners offered a ride home back to Manila. I left Kayapa in the afternoon with their group, ate dinner along Kennon Road, and returned to the city by midnight. 

Back home, I messaged Ate Sol to say thank you for welcoming and looking after us the past days. She wished me blessings and said she hoped I could come back soon. The biggest relief for me was that as I hoped to come back, too, there was no desire to resist solitude. When it visits, I will greet it with open arms. –

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.