Thursday, June 30, 2011

TR - Philippines

East Timor & Philippines
6/14 – 6/28/11
Part #2

Sun, Jun 26/11
Manila, Philippines
Manila International Marathon
Marathon # 346 – Country # 109

Now where was I? Oh yes – on a plane from Singapore to Manila for the next marathon/adventure of this trip. I arrived early afternoon on Wed and my first experience in the Philippines was a wild/exciting taxi ride to my hotel. It quickly became clear as my fingers dug into the dash and my foot was trying to push an imaginary brake through the floor that the only rule for driving in Manila was “there were no rules”! The driver laughed and explained “the marked lanes on the roads and traffic lights are only suggestions – nobody pays any attention to them”! But we did make it to the hotel safely.

After checking in I explored the area close to the hotel on foot to get my bearings. The hotel was in downtown Manila – an area called Malate where the marathon started/finished. This is the business, tourist and ‘red light’ district of Manila. I quickly discovered the 3 ‘H’s – hawkers/homeless/hookers!
The street hawkers were hawking many products and typically in this order:
1) Money exchange. This is typically a scam where they short change the tourist.
2) Viagra and Cialis at bargain rates. I was advised by a hooker that these products were fake.
3) Fake Rolex watches – but at least you knew they were fake.
4) A ‘pretty lady’. Many had an 8x10 sheet of photos of the available stable.
5) If all the above products failed then the really good hawkers would offer a ‘pretty boy’?
I am sure that the offerings/products didn’t end there. I believe you can buy anything you want in Manila?

Next were the homeless –hundreds of them sleeping and begging in the streets. I ignored them and refused to give them any money. A few times they tried to pick my pocket and grab my watch and I would have to shout a stern “NO” and slap their hands! However whenever I ate a meal I would leave some and have it packed in a doggy bag (or homeless bag) and give it to a kid on the way back to the hotel.

Lastly but not least were the hookers – thousands of them! Many were selling on the street and many from shops or bars that advertised a basic rate of 930 pesos ($22 US). At first it was amusing – but quickly became annoying! I avoided going into any hooker bars because hookers would swarm all over the customers and a scam warned in the guide book was that they would drop drugs into a customer’s drink and they would wake up later in alley w/o money/watch/passport, etc. I tried to find a regular bar to enjoy a cool beer but even there I was harassed by hookers. But at least the bar served my beer with a napkin stuffed into and wrapped around the neck of the bottle so that no drugs could be placed in to the beer. I held that beer closely and never let it out of my sight! And I never returned to another bar – I either bought beer at a convenience store and drank it in my room or used the bar in the hotel.

The good hotels had security at the entrance that kept the 3 Hs out of the hotel. Luxury hotels had security and metal detectors but that was like going through an airport every time you entered the hotel. Another option I soon discovered was a huge modern shopping mall (Robinsons) a few blocks from the hotel. It also had security at every entrance to prohibit the 3 Hs. There were many fast food restaurants and a few good restaurants inside the mall and I am almost embarrassed to admit that I ate most of my meals there because of the safe and hassle-free environment.

I managed to shop and buy many of my ‘required’ country souvenirs at that mall which was convenient. The one item I couldn’t find was a silver charm for Nicole’s charm bracelet. After checking several souvenirs shops in Malate I still came up blank and I realized this item was going to be difficult to find? After dinner (at the mall) it was raining hard when I returned to the hotel. On Thu I planned to run a few easy miles but it was still raining hard and blowing like crazy? I asked the desk clerk for the weather forecast. I was informed that a typhoon was approaching the Philippines and would be slamming the country for the next 3 or 4 days! Oh! Oh! How would that affect the marathon? I called Dino, the race director, who advised me that the race would go on – ‘rain or shine’. He wanted to meet me at the hotel to personally deliver the race packet but I asked him to wait till my friend, Edson arrived from NYC to join me.

I thought about running in the rain but realized that a huge blister I had developed on my left heel during the Dili Marathon was bothering me? I visited a few pharmacies trying to find a special band aid called a blister patch or ‘2nd skin’ to cushion the heel but those products were not available in Manila. Out of desperation I visited a Chinese Pharmacy – they have been healing blisters for thousands of years with herbs, etc? I described my problem to a young clerk who translated to a little old Chinese lady who mixed me up a special salve. I asked what was in the salve but she wouldn’t tell me? So I told the clerk that I would use it but if my left foot fell off I was coming back to complain! She translated that to the little old Chinese lady who must have thought that was funny because she was laughing hysterically as I left the shop? The salve did work and my foot never fell off!

Later that afternoon Typhoon Falcon slammed into Manila and the winds and rain were torrential! At dinner time the typhoon was raging and the streets were flooded and I wisely refused to leave the hotel. I ate dinner in the hotel – it was convenient and dry – but the food was mediocre. I was again worried about the marathon and also about Edson making it to Manila? On Fri morning the winds and rain let up for a few hours – long enough so that Edson’s flight from Hong Kong arrived safely. I joined him at the Hyatt Hotel – one of those luxury hotels I was talking about. I thought it was overpriced and on top of that they wanted to nickel and dime us for every added item. I refused to pay $20/day for internet access (it was free at my previous hotel where the hotel rate was half the Hyatt).

By dinner time Typhoon Falcon was raging again and the streets were flooded again. Now we were really worried about the race. I tried to phone Dino but couldn’t get an answer? On Sat morning the winds and rain let up again and it actually looked like the weather was clearing up? Friends of Edson’s had left a phone message that their flight from the US to Manila had been diverted to Malaysia on Fri. and they were returning to the US? I finally managed to reach Dino and was not ready for the BAD news! The race committee had met Fri night during the height of the typhoon and decided to cancel the race – actually postpone it until Sept 18/11. We were stunned initially and then I explained very emphatically to Dino that we had paid a lot of money to come to Manila to run a marathon – and we were going to run a marathon – ‘no matter what’!

Dino apologized, said that he understood our position and offered to provide any help he could. We agreed to meet at 4 pm to discuss the situation. In the meantime the weather did improve. The wind and rain stopped so Edson and I decided to walk over to the start/finish line and check out part of the marathon course. Our thoughts were that we should try to use as much of the official course as possible to create our own route/course. The official course ran along Manila Bay – a 10.5 Km loop out and back that had to be completed twice. We walked a section of the course along Bayfront Walk – a pedestrian walk that was about 2 miles long. We figured the worse case was run that 2-mile loop 13 times? By circumstance Dino’s running shop was located near the Bayfront Walk so we visited the store to check the list of runners. There were 5 runners from the USA (two had notified us that they were returning to the US) but maybe we could get the other American and foreign runners to join us? The shop was full of runners picking up their race packets and being informed that the race was cancelled! I made an announcement in the store that we had travelled all the way from the USA at great expense and we were not going home w/o running the marathon! I invited the local runners to join us at the start line at the official start time of 4am. A few indicated that they would join us. We were optimistic that we might get 8 to 10 runners to join us to run the marathon?

Later we met Dino. He delivered our race packets with Bib #s and race T-shirt. He had kindly reserved Bib #109 for me to commemorate Country # 109! We discussed the race. I believe that Dino was already regretting the decision of the Committee to cancel because the weather had cleared up and it looked like it would be nice on Sun? We told him about our plan and asked how much of the official course we could run ‘safely’. He offered to drive us over the course and we confirmed that if we stayed on the bay side of the road we could safely run the entire course. There was one section from 9 to 10.5 Km that was along a major road but there was a narrow sidewalk we could use. While we were driving the course many runners called to ask and then complain about the race being cancelled and Dino informed them of our plan and invited them to join us. The next problem was water? Because the route would have lots of people using it we couldn’t leave or hide water because it would probably be stolen. We couldn’t carry enough water to last 5 hrs? Dino offered to provide a support van to follow us and provide water and any other support needed. He also offered to provide a local runner to guide/pace us through the course. We were satisfied – the race was on!

Edson and I enjoyed a nice pasta dinner, retired early and arrived at the start line about 10 minutes before start time. We had purchased several bottles of water to place in the support van. Thankfully Dino was there as promised. We were joined by another foreign runner from Korea, a pacer and 14 local runners! We explained to Dino and our pacer that our goal was to finish under the official course time limit of 5 hrs! We started promptly at 4 am. The temp was 77 F and it was humid after all the rain!
I felt sorry for the pacer because I asked him what his normal time was for a marathon – sub 2:50. I know how difficult – and painful – it can be to slow your pace down that much! But he was a trooper and stayed with us and shouted out major distance markers as we passed them. We were lucky and appreciative that Dino was supporting us because the Baywalk was full of homeless people sleeping. We could not have left any water along that section of the course! And it was more difficult than expected at our informal water stops. The van had to find a place to stop and we had to open doors, get our water, drink, return the water, etc. A typical water stop wasted 2 to 3 minutes! We passed 5Km in 34:29 and 10Km in 1:08:35. The section we assumed would be difficult was OK on the 1st loop since there was not much traffic but we still sucked in a lot of exhaust fumes from cars and buses. The rest of the course was fairly safe since it was used by local runners and bikers as their usual training routes. We couldn’t believe how many people we had to share the course with at 5 am? But it made us feel safer. We finished the 1st loop and Half in 2:20:20. I knew the 2nd half would not be that fast because of the heat and humidity but I figured if we ran/slowed to 2:30 we would still beat the time limit. I told Edson that I wanted to stick to a more regimented run/walk cycle in the 2nd Half: run – 20 min and walk-1min. We were surprised and a little upset when the Korean dropped out at that point. We had stopped and walked a few times to let him catch up since we figured that he was going to stay with us for the entire marathon? Our pacer also dropped out but he was replaced by another pacer on a bike. He carried our water on the bike and this made for smoother and quicker water stops. By the time we reached the ‘difficult’ section at 31Km I was overheating and my old bod was having difficulty venting heat to cool down. I started to struggle during that brief loop along the major road and we reached 34Km in 4:00:48. We had 1 hour to finish the final 8 Km. Edson started to worry about beating the 5-hr time limit but I knew that we would be OK as long as we stuck to a regimented run/walk cycle. My legs were fading because of the heat and humidity and I told Edson that I was going to reduce the cycle to run-15 min and walk-1min. He was worried about the time limit and started to push the pace. I had no push left in my tired old legs and sadly let him go ahead. But I managed to keep him in sight. I asked the pacer to let me know when we had 5 Km and 3 Km left so that I could be sure to beat the time limit. When I reached 39Km with 30 min left I finally was confident that sub-5 hrs was in the bag and I let myself relax and cruise to the finish line in 4:51:16. Edson finished in 4:48:13.

Dino was waiting for us at the finish line. After some finish line photos and a brief rest to cool down Dino awarded Edson and I with finisher certificates and medals from the official marathon. Everyone was happy with the outcome. The locals had run the race as a training run and planned to run the race again in Sept. We walked back to our hotel for a long hot soak and shower. The typhoon had prevented me from exploring the city and countryside but now I was determined to do both before I left Manila. Thus I joined a group of tourists for a city tour on Sun afternoon while Edson rested and slept.

The city tour started with a visit to Makati, the financial district of Manila. It is modern, clean – no 3 Hs to contend with! We passed several luxurious, gated communities where expats and rich locals live. We visited the American Memorial Cemetery where 17,000 Americans from WW II are buried. The tour then passed through Pasay City and Malate to stop at Rizal Park – a National Park in the center of the city that is dedicated to the Philippine national hero Dr Jose Rizal. Rizal Park contains a monument to Rizal and a huge relief map of the Philippines. The final stop was Intramuros – the old city- settled by the Spanish in 1572. We visited the Manila Cathedral and Fort Santiago – built by the Spanish in 1572 to protect the city. The tour provided us with a brief overview of Manila and its history. Unfortunately – stops at a few souvenir shops still didn’t produce the much-needed charm for Nicole’s bracelet.

That evening Edson and I enjoyed a celebration and farewell dinner before departing on Mon. Edson had an early flight back to the US and since I had an evening flight I booked a tour to Tagaytay to get out of the city and explore the countryside. Tagaytay is located 60Kms south of Manila in the Cavite province. It is located on a ridge overlooking Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano. On the way to Tagaytay we stopped in Las Pinas to visit the San Jose Church that houses a bamboo organ built in 1816. The organ and sound is so unique and special that a Bamboo Organ Festival is held every year and top organists around the world are invited to visit and play the organ.

After leaving the church we visited a Jeepney factory. The guide introduced me to the owner who claimed he used to run marathons until his knees gave out. When he heard that I came to Manila just to run a marathon he gave me a personal tour of his factory. It was interesting. The original Jeepneys were built from surplus Jeeps left by the Americans after WW II. The chassis was cut and extended much like stretch limos in the US. Today each Jeepney is built by hand from scratch. The engines and transmission are Isuzu from Japan. The chassis and length is custom built to specs requested by each buyer. There are no electronics. The entire vehicle is strictly mechanical so that it can be easily repaired and maintained by anyone with basic mechanical skills.

We arrived in Tagaytay in time to enjoy lunch in a nice restaurant overlooking Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano. The lake and volcano lie within a massive prehistoric volcano crater. Taal Volcano is an island in the middle of the lake formed by an eruption in 1911. It is no longer active but recently has started spewing sulphur fumes so trekking tours to the island and volcano have been cancelled. I enjoyed the best meal I ate in the Philippines – a whole grouper grilled over charcoal and washed down with a few San Miguel beers while enjoying the fantastic views of Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano! On the way back to Manila we passed through an agricultural valley (pineapples on sale for 5 pesos or 12 cents) and an industrial section of Manila with many auto plants. It was a nice trip and day out of Manila. I told the guide about my search for a charm and he made a slight detour to the largest souvenir shop in the city. They didn’t have a charm that represented Manila (I would have liked a Jeepney) but they did have a charm that would work. Success finally!

When I returned to the hotel I still had a few hours to kill before going to the airport. I decided a massage would be nice and useful to prevent problems with DVT on the long journey home. But the problem was where to find a legitimate massage? There are hundreds of massage shops in Manila but most of them offered ‘Happy’ massages as I call them. I remembered passing a Spa near the Italian restaurant so returned there and spoke to the manager and masseuse. Yes – they only offered legit massages and the masseuse was qualified to provide a deep-tissue massage. I booked 2 hrs for $20!
The masseuse was tiny – maybe 4 ft 10 in and 90 pounds max – but she had fingers of steel! It didn’t take her long to find and fix a lot of aches and pains I didn’t even know I had. I left feeling good – not ‘Happy’ – and asking the question: “Why can’t I get rates like this back home”? I would get a massage every day!

After another exciting taxi ride to the airport I was on my way back to Singapore. I had a 10-hr layover in Singapore and had wisely booked a room for 9 hrs in the transit hotel inside the airport. After a good sleep, shower and breakfast I was ready for the 30 hrs of flights and airports home. And with a good massage – no DVT!

I am back home and suffering severe jet lag. I stay up as late as possible – go to bed – sleep two hrs and then at midnight I am wide awake and can’t sleep. My old bod still thinks it is 8 am in East Timor and wants to get up?

On top of that I need to resume training for my next international marathon in 6 weeks. I had just acclimated to the high altitude before I left for this trip and have now lost all that advantage and have to start all over again! Based on my performances in the past two races I am still not in shape to run an entire marathon so I have lots of work to do!

Stay tuned!

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