Bike Hell of a Challenge

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Warning: The blog post may be peppered with expletives. This is after all an account of my first attempt to ride through the hellish bike course of Challenge Philippines.

After reading a description of the bike course of Challenge Philippines (see Seven Hills of Bataan), I tried to negotiate for a shorter, lighter bike sentence from our course reconnaissance group. Can I just do 60m, and start from the center in Morong town? I can then just focus on the more difficult parts (near SBMA Morong Gate and Bagac, Bataan). I was thinking that while I have been regulalry doing Nuvali hill repeats, I haven't gone past 50kms the last few weeks. Besides, while I have lost about 5 pounds recently, I am still heavy.

Dead ma, no reaction from my recon teammates.  Hmmmnnnn....Minutes later, biker chick/kikayrunner teammate Noelle authoritatively wrote in our Endure WhatsApp group chat, "Do the whole course." Hanna also pleaded, "Do the whole course with me." The ladies have spoken, so help me God!  I countered, "Ok, but you have to follow my slow pace." It did not help that teammate BongZ cannot make it to the recon ride. He would have taken some load off me and I can bike in my leisurely pace. While I have been making progress in my cardio-vascular fitness, I am still cautious about taxing my heart too much at current weight.

I planned to use my hybrid bike (mtb frame with disc brakes, road bike wheel size) and have made arrangements to get it back from an officemate who borrowed it for his first tri. I need those disc brakes as security blanket in those terrifying downhills. Give me hills to climb and I shall dare, but please spare me from those terrifying down spirals. I love my life so much I can admit to being a downhill sissy.

Should I muster courage and opportunity to try, I did bring along my ride bike. Upon seeing my road bike inside my vehicle at course start, Challenge ambassador Noelle once again spoke:  Use the roadie. You might be left behind. Everyone else are using road bikes." The female tribe has spoken; I gulped and offloaded the road bike.

Surprisingly, the 4km uphill along Ilanin Road was a relative breeze. A month back, I struggled a bit there during the Subic Fit Festival triathlon. Yehey, I am improving! But I was still slow and still hogging the last man slot. 

I was rejoicing a bit in conquering hill one when suddenly I felt signs of the terrifying downhill. The downhill came like a thief in the night, stealing my wits and sapping all courage within me. It came so fast. I was mentally expecting it after seeing the course map, but I could not have prepared for that level of fright. It was swift, curving, blind descent into the depths of my fears. I was silently screaming in fright. In a hollow, silent voice the child in me cried:  Please, please, please God, make it stop. Make the bike slow down. Imagine a toddler crying asking his mom to make the mini-roller coaster stop. That was me, only silently agonizing.

My right hand was on the hoods with three fingers clasping the brake dearly for life. Friends have repeatedly advised me to put my hand inside the drop bar for better brake grip. I tried before but I only came down much faster. My left hand was clasping the handle bar tightly for balance and stability. They say a biker must do finger brakes to control his descent. I was braking all throughout, but I  still rolled down like a wreaking ball. My effin' weight is pulling me down fast! I wanted to stop and get off the bike, and end my mental suffering, but the damn bike won't stop no matter how hard I press the brake. I wish it was only a dream and I could stop the nightmare by simply waking, but the reality is I was trapped in that mad descent until the ground levels off. I only prayed I would not meet head on any obstruction, and that I would not fly off the bike. Just keep your hands on the bike. Wag kang bibitiw, no matter how much your mind wants to give in. Minutes later, the terror stopped. I was horribly shaken, but alive. I survived. Thank you God and all the saints. I would learn later from Waze that that mad descent is about 2kms of terror. I wish it will get less frightening with time and experience.

I passed moderate climbs enroute to Anvaya Cove. The next challenge was surviving the partially eroded cements road after Anvaya. Rains have removed the top layer cement and exposed the gravelly rocks. It was a gradual but very rocky descent. I was riding an all aluminum Giant, and I felt every rock of that mad road. The vibration was so bad I could feel my mouth and teeth chattering, so bad I wanted to take off my hand off the handle bar. And I was already wearing some shock absorbing gloves! There are also some potholes and deep cracks, so beware.

The second hill (Anvaya Hill) felt a bit more challenging than the Ilanin Road climb. It was at this point that I made my first bike stop. I was already breathing heavily through my mouth and I could feel my heart pounding fast. My objective at that time was to recon the course, not have a heart attack on the road. My legs could take the work even if I was actually riding on Mizuno running shoes, but I dared not test the limits of my heart. I was just happy my bike resistance training in the gym and my Nuvali hill repeats were working. For the cardio endurance, I am still progressively working on it.
Photo: Morong, Bataan. This view is worth a thousand calories. Ang hirap!

Morong, Bataan, past Anvaya Cove

It was at the Anvaya Hill climb that the driver of the support vehicle of the Team Black Pearl would repeatedly and patiently check on me. Black Pearl was kind enough to support everyone, especially big fat laggards like me. To the group of Chance, MJ, Carmina, E. Sanchez and others whose names I failed to catch, a big Thank You. It is support and camaraderie like this that make triathlon a great sport.

The next kilometers are also undulating, hard by themselves, but pale in difficulty compared to the rest of the course. I would pass mahogany forests, seaside views, irrigated rice fields, small communities, the Morong town proper, the Pawikan Center and resorts like Vista Venice which I visited by car last summer. Yes, I have driven the bike course before, and even in my Altis 2.0 I had some difficulty traversing those roads, what more if I am riding a low-end aluminum Giant road bike.

I actually rode part of the relatively flat bike course portion on the pick-up of Team Black Pearl, upon the nth prodding of the driver. My teammate Hanna, whom I was supposed to guide and guard provided she keeps my pace, was already kilometers ahead and the support vehicle driver was worried about her as she rode through the town proper. Baka kasi raw my loko-loko who might get an interest on her or her bike. The Morong people I saw along the way were all nice, but I saw the wisdom in manong driver's point. Hanna would also look for me minutes later and call me to rejoin her. It was also the flat portion I am already familiar with so no loss in training for me.

I tried to keep up with Hanna enroute to Bagac. I was starting to feel the mountain inclines again, pushed a few kilometers and made my second voluntary stop about 2-3 kms from the Bagac course turnaround. The ever reliable support vehicle asked me again if wanted a ride, but I said I needed just about 5 minutes to bring back my heart rate to more cautious levels. After minutes, I did ride up again. Minutes later, I would see the Black Pearl riders going back and also advising me to turn back already. I would also catch teammate Noelle, but I wanted to see Hanna, make my turnaround and join her. I knew I would miss part of the Bagac climb, but in my mind I knew there are tougher hills on the way back anyway.

Somewhere near the resorts our bike contingent met for a quick check on each other. At this point, Chance asked if my quads are already fired up after seeing me not using bike cleats. I told our group that my quads were still fine, pero yung puso at baga ko hirap!  We decided to have Petron Morong town proper as next stop before we assault the climb back to SBMA. There are a few tricky turns at the Morong town proper so I repeaedtly asked bystanders for directions just to be sure. The correct route is to pass through BTPI (Bataan Technical Plant Inc).

I was hoping to catch the group in Petron, and hopefully the support vehicle. I missed the group by 5 minutes although our Endure girl Hanna was loyally waiting for me. Thanks, thanks. Noelle had to guide the rest of the bikers. That time was the only time I wanted the ride the support vehicle back because I thought I had enough lung and heart work-out for the day, but it had to attend to its proper master. But team Black Pearl, thanks really for sharing your resources with us. At that moment, I wished my kennel hand slash weekend driver was not on provincial home leave. 

We initially intended to eat at Petron as it was already lunchtime but there was not real food there. I just replenished my drinks and ate a Magnum bar. Hanna castigated me for the ice cream bar, but I countered that my mind was already set on a heavy lunch. My big body needed calories to propel itself up those damn hills!  Hanna also noticed the 500 peso bills I brought along. Why so much money she asked. I was hoping there were gourmet meals in Morong as reward, and should something happen to me, maybe I can rent out a car or chopper perhaps!

The way to BTPI was a gentle climb full of interesting villas, but mostly the roads are deserted. The abandoned Vietnamese refugee camp looked quaint but eerie. The next big challenge was the Karaoke Hill. I thought it was named as such because you will be coaxed to sing because of the difficulty. It was difficult yes, but it is an actual karaoke machine that gave the hill its name. Midway through the Karaoke hill, probably a few hundred meters from the singing machine, I made my third voluntary stop. Again, I did not want to tax the heart. Not yet. It was at this third personal stop that I felt my left quad muscle finally protesting. The large muscle was not yet twitching, but throbbing and threatening to cramp. The sensation actually worsened when I stopped, but improved when I began to walk up the hill. At the top of the hills, my lungs, heart and left quadricep have recovered.

It was at the Karaoke Hill when I wondered how high was I in terms of elevation. The mountains across seemed already at my eye level, and trees higher than my eye level seemed getting less and less. I must be reaching a peak. The course map actually has this as the second highest peak after Bagac. At that precise moment I shuddered. What goes up, must come down. The memory of the terrifying downhill earlier was still fresh.

I was already on my bike when I noticed the descent. I was familiar with the descent to Anvaya having driven through it before, but I was totally caught unaware by this downhill. I looked at the map just now and indeed this is actually the steepest and longest descent. Whereas the SMBA Morong gate descent was full of trees and spirals, this one is clear space with mostly straight descents. What made this descent highly technical is the gradient and the occasional blind corners due to overgrowth of talahib grass. I keep debating within myself which descent is more terrifying. Let me just tell how I felt about this second one.

Suddenly, I was whisked once more into the depths of my downhill fears. This one was so steep that my brakes were screeching, crying. I thought this type of screeching only happens on carbon brake surfaces, but for the first time in my cycling life, I could hear the wailing of the rubber pads as it tries to hold on to the aluminum rims. It was a scary wailing. I tried to settle for feathering the brakes, but I was simply going down too fast. Once more, I was pleading. Please Lord, make it stop. Please make me slow down. I had the scare of my life when out of the blue, the mostly deserted road end up with an SUV powering up the climb towards me on the left and at the same time, a boy appeared from the tall grass on the right. I think I muttered a quick curse and prayer as I tried to squeeze through them at breakneck speed. I was still moving at dizzying speed when my phone would be ringing incessantly. I rightly thought it was Hanna checking on me. I wanted to stop and answer, but there was no flat ground to stop, only descents that seemingly do not end. The long ringing happened twice, with intervals of quiet, but all throughout that ringing I was clinging and praying that the ground would finally level off. I could not stand my heart being on my throat any longer.

Finally, the ringing stopped, and a little later I was on more solid ground. I felt emotionally spent. Earlier, I gave Hanna the vehicle keys because I know she would finish first anyway. After that descent, I wished Hanna would simply whisked me away. When I finally found opportunity to answer the phone, I realized there was no signal. I was in the middle of nowhere. It was just tall brown grass everywhere. It would take me another 5-10 minutes of biking before I could reply to Hanna. I was probably 8kms from Ocean Adventure at that time. When I finally managed to call her supposedly to request her to get me, she was crying. She thought something bad happened to me because I was not responding. It was thoughtful of the girl to worry about me, when I being older and supposedly more experienced should be protecting her, except that I am not yet fit enough to effectively do that.

I threw in the towel at roughly 6kms from finish line. All in all, I logged in 57kms of mostly hills that day. I missed out on the last hill climb, Manang's special, but it was ok. Hill climbing for me is all about strength training and giving it respect. I shall be prepared for them when race day comes. As for the descents, I wished those twin devils of terrifying descents would transform into knowledge and confidence I can use on race day.

When I signed up for Challenge Philippines on its first day of registration, I embraced wholeheartedly its race slogan:  Challenge Your Self. I am doing it by facing my fears, two terrifying downhills at a time.

Lord, with you I can conquer my fears. Keep me safe.


daytripper1021 December 31, 2013 at 9:28 PM  

Nice post pards. All the best in the Challenge Tri. I rode from Subic Puregold to the airport up to Kamaya(?) Cove and there was that steep unforgiving climb that had me spent. I couldnt imagine doing 7 of those (yet, hehe).

Happy New Year!!!

daytripper1021 December 31, 2013 at 9:30 PM  

Nice post pards. All the best in the Challenge Tri. I rode from Subic Puregold to the airport up to Kamaya(?) Cove and there was that steep unforgiving climb that had me spent. I couldnt imagine doing 7 of those (yet, hehe).

Happy New Year!!!

Rico Villanueva January 1, 2014 at 2:19 PM  

Thanks Roelle. Hirap umakyat bike sa Subic, 'no? Our group will try the Challenge Course again in case you are interested. All the best for you, family and career.

Cecile January 23, 2014 at 9:01 AM  

Hi Rico. I'm so happy for you to have conquered the route! I had a bike crash in the zigzags of Batac and still recovering from it. Actually I wrote about it too in my blog with intentions of informing participants that it is a very tough course - especially the downhills.

Keep safe and good luck on Challenge!

See you on the road soon!


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