Running For 12 Hours Straight Taught Me Real Confidence

Photo: Courtesy Of Author
Author running

When I hear people say, “You can do it!” I’m usually skeptical.

People tend to say that when they have nothing else more encouraging to say. So that kind of positive affirmation — while appreciated — does not exactly provide the substantial and “real” encouragement I’m looking for.

Nowadays, when I find myself lacking in self-confidence, or when I’m feeling like a big failure as a writer because my short stories and essays keep getting rejected by publications, I find myself thinking about that fateful morning in early 2018 — when I first started to get into trail running.

It took me 12 hours to finish my first 25-kilometer mountain race.

For those unfamiliar with trail running, 12 hours is a long, long time to finish 25K. The race’s cut-off time is 8 hours — which is already generous. Yet, I didn’t make it.

Nevertheless, that 12-hour 25K run taught me what real confidence is.

It was the Mount Ugo Marathon, which had qualifying points for UTMB. The UTMB, set in the French Alps, is one of the biggest and most prestigious mountain races in the world. To qualify, a runner has to gather enough points from difficult, qualifying races — like the Mount Ugo Marathon.

The Marathon offered 50K and 25K distances. And since it was my first time, I joined the 25K.

We started at the base of a mountain in Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya. The first few kilometers were paved roads. Then it turned into dirt roads and eventually trails. Over mountain ranges, it was 10 kilometers of almost vertical uphill.

I’d lift each leg over the other and feel my ankles threaten to rip from the constant battle against gravity. I no longer bothered to look up because the damn mountain just kept going on and on. And I cursed myself for not having more uphill training.

Eventually, we reached a more forgiving part of the trail — flat enough that I could jog it. And I started gaining speed and momentum.

Photo: Author running in race/John Pucay

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When I hear people say, “You can do it!” I’m usually skeptical. People tend to say that when they have nothing else more encouraging to say.

At the turning point for 25K runners (the 50K runners had a different route), a race official told me I was running 11th. I was excited. I thought if I maintained my pace and outran another runner, I’d be part of the top 10! Not a bad way to finish my first half-marathon.

I reached an intersection that had no marks or ribbons. I was confused. And I kind of assumed trail races would be like roads; you just keep going, and you’ll eventually find the right way because the signs will be so obvious. This is a big mistake because, I would later learn, mountain trails don’t work that way at all!

But I wanted to get that Top 10 so bad that I simply picked a path, hoped it was the right one, and gunned through.

I thought I’d turn back if I didn’t see any markings/ribbons after five minutes of running. But then I saw one! So I kept going.

A few mountains later, the ribbons suddenly stopped appearing. I started getting nervous.

Am I on the right path?

But the ribbon indicated this trail path. There were no intersections so far.

Should I keep going? Maybe there’s another ribbon ahead.

I’d later learn I followed some old markings from the previous year’s race. I guess the race organizers didn’t thoroughly remove all markings in that area since it was supposedly far from the designated route. If only I studied the course map, I’d have known something was wrong. But I didn’t, so I kept running through the previous race’s 50K route.

Back then, I didn’t have a smartphone. I had an old Nokia from my dad; the kind that can only call and text. And the signal was bad. So I had no way of knowing where I was via GPS, and I also couldn’t call someone for help.

I decided to reach the peak of the closest mountain I could find.

Maybe if I can get an overview of the place, I’ll have a better idea of where I am.

I reached the mountain’s summit and stared at a panorama of rice fields and cows. No houses or humans in sight. I knew then that I was very much lost.

At that point, I’d been running for over five hours in the mountains. The sun was high above, painful on the skin. I’d traveled so far from the race route that I’d run out of food and water. I only had one last bottle of Gatorade left. And not a single morsel of food.

The fatigue was growing underneath my muscles. My legs felt like chunks of cement blocks; they felt so heavy I could barely lift them.

I thought of Bear Grylls and whether I had to drink my pee while waiting for rescue.

I took a sip of my dwindling Gatorade and tried to push the panic away; those thoughts attack you when you’re in a vulnerable state. Thoughts that I might end up dying on that mountain of hunger or thirst or wild buffaloes. Or that they’d find me delirious, babbling about cows and rice fields, after days of searching.

Photo: S Migaj/Pexels

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I started walking back, slowly. I climbed one hill after another. Midway up the last hill, I sat on the trail. My legs couldn’t walk anymore. Like, literally. People often say, “I can’t walk anymore” — even if, with enough willpower, they still can. But for the first time, regardless of willpower, I felt that my legs couldn’t take another step. So I sat in the middle of that trail.

My calves cramped for the third time and I screamed in pain.

The pain came along with the panic. Am I going to go Bear Grylls from here?

Freaking Bear Grylls. Why did I have to think of the man in the middle of a crisis?

I focused on my breathing to calm myself. I have to survive. So I rested for a bit. And slowly, while conserving my energy, I made my way back up, one super slow step after another.

When I finally returned to the intersection where I first got lost, some race officials were there. They were sweepers — race marshals who were going through the route to support laggards and slowpokes like me. At that point, more than eight hours had passed. The sweepers pointed me in the right direction. And I limped until I reached the final Aid Station, which was 10 kilometers away from the finish line.

My body had never felt so broken, so tired, so truly and utterly exhausted.

At the aid station, I thought I saw a bunch of angels — helpful, smiling volunteers who fed me fruits and nuts and marshmallows and chocolates. They gave me water and electrolyte drinks. They sprayed my legs with something that helped ease the cramps. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

After I recovered enough to speak, I said to one of the volunteers:

“I don’t think I can walk the next 10 kilometers. When does the sweeper transport arrive?”

The transport was used to ferry people who could no longer finish the race on their own feet.

“The last transport just left,” the volunteer replied. “Another truck would arrive in four hours to sweep the 50K runners who’ll drop out.”

I took a deep breath. Four more hours. What do I do? Wait?

I’ve already lost the race. Even if I reached the finish line now, I’d still be a non-official finisher. But how do I go home and not feel super bad about the failure of my first 25K? Then a small thought came:

Why don’t I try limping my way down? Maybe the transport will arrive earlier and they’ll be able to pick me up along the way. Or if not, another sweeper will pass me by and help me.

Since the volunteers at the aid station couldn’t leave their posts to assist me, I decided to see how far I could go.

I filled my running vest with food and my bottles with electrolyte drinks. I bid farewell to those angels at the aid station, and then, finally, I dragged my feet and started limping.

I limped my way to the finish line after 12 hours.

I avoided the finish line itself. I was embarrassed to have people see my race bib and know that I was actually from the 25K, not the 50K, and that it took me 12 hours to reach the finish line. But apparently, the race director knew about this lost 25K runner after the sweepers reported it. And he kindly welcomed me and congratulated me for finishing — even if it wasn’t an “official” finish.

I made it back on my own two feet.

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And that’s when I realized it: I did it even though I thought and fully believed I couldn’t.

I did it, even when I felt like giving up. I did it, even when I didn’t believe in myself.

So whenever I face something that destroys my self-confidence, I often return to that memory.

When I feel like giving up, or I’m spent and exhausted, and my brain and body are telling me I can’t do it anymore — I push myself to take one more tiny step. Just a little step forward, to see how far I can go.

Because I have done it before and succeeded. And I’m confident I can do it again.

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John Pucay is an author from Baguio City, Philippines. His novel Karinderya Love Songs received positive reviews on BookTok and Booksta. He blogs about relationships, polyamory, running, and life. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.