I Followed My Heart and It Led Me to ‘Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme’ Marathon

Mt. Pandadagsaan (White Peak)

I knew it was love at first sight.

Likewise for others who have dreamt of scaling Mt. Pandadagsaan (White Peak). There’s something about the mossy forest, trail difficulty, and stories shared that makes the thirteenth tallest mountain of the Philippines so enchanting—one couldn’t take this beautiful mountain off of their must-climb list.

And so, the dream lives on: to one day set foot on this mysterious mountain and see in person its majesty.

But then the pandemic happened. All outdoor activities were put on pause. Camping gears and outdoor equipment were all placed on one corner, counting the days—which took years—before unearthed.

Then the priorities of this novice hiker changed. Like many, the pandemic had me reevaluating all the decisions and choices I’ve been doing. In all honesty, I felt too old and tired to even go pack my things and set forth on adventures.

When was the last time I had my major climb? Ah, 2019, Mt. Hamiguitan. And just the thought of carrying those liters of backpack once again adds pain to my already aching back. Even a simple day hike felt too strenuous for this muggle who has already embraced the sedentary mundane lifestyle.

But I guess the universe has its way of preparing us for the things that we have been waiting for. After Typhoon Odette wreaked havoc in Central Visayas, for some weird schemes I found myself getting engaged in running events.

And not just ordinary running events, but marathons. Series of marathons for that matter, thanks to the cunning duo named Jet and Chiarra. Long story short, before 2022 ended, we registered for Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme, which was set in the first month of 2023.

Mt. Pandadagsaan (White Peak) Road to Trail Extreme

Located in New Bataan, Davao de Oro (formerly known as Compostela Valley), Mt. Pandadagsaan is identified as the highest mountain in the province. Known among Southern Mindanao mountaineers and outdoorsmen, this mountain has sparked the interest of many because of its Avatar mossy forest, technical rope course ascents, and panoramic views.

On most records, Mt. Pandadagsaan’s White Peak can be scaled within two to three days of nine to ten hours of hike. But Race Director Capt. Lordcoy Calleja believes otherwise. After studying the mountain’s data and proving that it was doable, his team, Team Altitude Pilipinas made a breakthrough and successfully negotiated with the local government, tourism office, along with tribal council—and was permitted to organize a road-to-trail extreme event at Mt. Pandadagsaan in New Bataan, Davao de Oro.

Davao de Oro Mountain Run 2023: Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme was made open to the public. However, during the event, we learned that all participants were initially screened before getting accepted. Knowing the trail difficulty and pristine background of the mountain, the organizers made sure that the participants were well aware of the LNT principles, can adhere to strict rules and restrictions, have high regard for the environment, and were capable enough to withstand the technicalities of the trail. It is of utmost importance that both the runners and the environment will be kept safe all through the duration of the event. Hence, the limit of 15 participants per category (42km and 65km).  

Unexpected Solo Trip to Mt. Pandadagsaan (White Peak)

Fortunately, Jet, Chiarra, and I have successfully registered for the event without much hassle. Unfortunately, Chiarra was not permitted to file a leave for the scheduled date while Jet had to comply with the restrictions imposed by his doctor. To cut the story short, it was all up to me whether or not I would push for the event.

I initially had my doubts. It’s been years since I traveled alone. Gone were the rush of adrenaline and the courage to do things by myself. Wala na tayong pinaglalaban. I was actually scavenging for reasons not to go but it seems like the universe has conspired to make everything happen—from the free workday after Sinulog to seat sale promos to an unexpected bonus from my client. And even though I completed a full marathon the week prior to the event (Cebu City Marathon), I didn’t feel any problem with my body to be pointed out as a reason to back out.

And as if luck poured out on me that weekend, after getting out of Francisco Bangoy International Airport, I spotted a bus directly headed to New Bataan. After almost five hours of bus ride, I was guided by the kind tricycle drivers to a boarding house right across the municipal hall (where the event will be held) for my accommodation. It was like a perfectly laid out plan—and all I have to do is to comply.

What Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme Taught Me About the Running Community

When I arrived at the venue an hour before the scheduled gun start, everyone was beyond ready for the activity. As I expected, I was the only delegation from Cebu. Most of them are hardcore podium runners hailing from Davao. Ghad, what am I doing here?

Photo credits: Lui’s Atik2x Photography

During the briefing, the race director reiterated the instructions that were initially provided on the event webpage. He gave strict reminders about the four intermediate cutoffs (jump-off, Camp 1, Peak 1, and White Peak). Failure to arrive within the given time means automatic DNF and exclusion from summitting Mt. Pandadagsaan. No, I did not travel from Cebu to just stay on the foot of this dream mountain.

To say I’m scared is an understatement. There I was, a stranger in unfamiliar territory, embarking on an extreme challenge. But it was too late to back out now.

Mandatory group picture.

If it’s of any consolation, the warmth of the people really radiated on that challenging cold night. All runners gave out words of encouragement. The assigned marshals were very much attentive to the needs of every runner. And the local government, as supported by the tourism office, municipal tribal office, MDRRMO-MoSart Team, BFP, PNP New Bataan Station, and Philippine Army provided all the support needed.

Photo credits: Lui’s Atik2x Photography

Reaching the first cutoff was totally a struggle for a novice roadrunner like me. Eight months into this marathon madness, there I was catching my breath as we tried to complete that 15km uphill road run within the two hours cutoff time.

I tried to give everything that I can but trail shoes on pavements are totally difficult. While we were given the option to use road shoes and leave drop bags on designated spots, I opted to go trails all the way in fear that it would take time for my feet to adjust.

I arrived a few minutes after the given cutoff, but the marshals were kind enough to share that it was actually extended for another hour knowing how tough that uphill run was. Thus, after getting that much-needed nutrition at twelve midnight, I followed the other runners who have already begun their ascent to Mt. Pandadagsaan.

Photo credits: Lui’s Atik2x Photography

But the challenge did not end there. The next cutoff given was to reach Camp 1 before five in the morning. That’s approximately 3.5 kilometers from the jump-off. Marathon Math would tell you it was an insane kind of computation: 3.5 km in 5 hours? We were forced to cover 15km in 2 hours and now 3.5km for 5 hours? How difficult is this trail? Why five hours?

Let’s pretend kaya pa natin.

In less than an hour, my questions were answered. As it was a virgin forest, the trails were mostly made up of steep grassy slopes, mossy forests, and technical rope ascents (plus limatiks and rattan along the way). Like, you really have to hang on for your life in order to go up. And while you continue to gain in elevation, the distance covered remained unbothered.

I almost didn’t make it to Camp 1. In fact, in between conversations I had with the sweeper, who went after me (as I was the last to make it to the cutoff at the jump-off), I have slowly accepted the fact that I won’t be able to summit.

Man, look at that elevation gain.

Truth be told, completing an extremely difficult hike is not exactly the kind of dream that is easily achieved, especially if you have an erratic training schedule, have been gaining through the holidays, and is not backed with the genetics to race like superhuman caliber. Yeah, reasons I’ve made up at 3am. I was actually very sleepy. Not only once did Mac find me, with eyes half-closed, ready to sleep while hanging on that rope.

While he was very patient with me—giving off all the cheer he could muster—I knew that I was draining him. He was a sweeper, not a guide. This was a marathon, not a major climb. By four in the morning, we decided to make a difficult decision: I won’t summit but he will let me sleep at Camp 1 and we will take numerous pictures. Like tons of them.

Picture muna bago mag-away HAHA

So, we took our time, engaged in discussions, and continued hiking (minus the pressure). But it’s like the universe had other plans for me. Before the clock struck five, we arrived at Camp 1 where two marshals were already waiting for our arrival.

We were congratulated by them and were provided nutrition (aka coffee) to sustain the rest of the hike. As much as I wanted to summit, I knew it was selfish of me to ask for more. It was already an achievement to have reached the campsite. It’s the least I could do for Mac.

But the marshals were optimistic about us reaching Peak 1 and even White Peak within the cutoff time. It was just five in the morning and the cutoff for Peak 1 is at 8am while White Peak is at 10am—that’s another five hours for a 2.5km mileage.

Pit Senyor!
Izza major hike yarn?

I knew it was too much of a request but I’m glad Mac agreed. So, Peak 1 it is. I can’t pinpoint if it’s because of the coffee served or the early morning sun that helped us speed up. But we arrived at Peak 1 in less than two hours and even made it to White Peak an hour before the cutoff. Ghad, I wanna cry. There we met the other runners who also busied themselves taking photos. The battle is already halfway won.

Akalain mo. Umabot tayo dito. T.T

The pace going downhill was quite fast compared to the ascent. Thanks to that canyoning adventure in Biliran, I had so much fun rappelling on the way down. Good heavens, my knees also cooperated. By three in the afternoon, I was already pacing back the jump-off point, ready to complete the last stretch of the event: the 15km road back to the New Bataan’s municipal hall.

Photo credits: Lui’s Atik2x Photography

According to my estimate, I will be able to arrive on time with such a slacking pace. What I failed to add to the computation was the fact that my body was no longer performing the way it used to. Plus, sleep is already making itself known. Come to think of it, it’s basically more than 24 waking hours and we’ve been exhausting ourselves since last night.

Again, pessimism took over. At the back of my mind, I was already contented that I was able to summit. But my fellow runners, who just completed the additional Shadol route of the 65km marathon, thought otherwise. “Dapat mahuman ni nimo. Gikan pa raba kag Cebu.” They’ve cornered me, leaving no space to escape; hence, the pressure to pace with them up until we reached the finish line. That’s five minutes before the cutoff.

I couldn’t thank these people enough for literally dragging me to the finish line. T.T

Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme: In a Nutshell

If you’ve reached this part, congratulations. This is probably one of the longest blogs I’ve poured my heart into. I don’t want to leave any detail because every moment of this marathon is so precious to me. I want to recall every part of it just in case my memory fails me.

I’ve followed by heart, and it led me to Mt. Pandadagsaan—to trails only heard on tales, to experiences I’ll keep for life, and to people who were so generous with their time, heart, and effort. They say it takes a village to raise a child, I say it takes a whole running community to complete a marathon, most particularly if it is a road-to-trail kind of event.

I felt so undeserving of the award I brought home. I’m certain that there are those who are stronger, faster, and more qualified to receive the trophy. But not accepting it also means wasting the time and effort of those who contributed so much to this cumulative success. Hence, I dedicate this to all of you (including Chiarra and Jet, whose presence I truly miss).

Mt. Pandadagsaan Road to Trail Extreme is truly worth it. And I couldn’t thank the universe enough for gracing me with all the support (and luck) I needed. Until next time?

May the odds always be in our favor.