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Last push up the side of the mountain leading up to Mt. Ugo on the course of the Cordillera Mountain Ultra. Photograph by Harry Tanoja

To Save a Pristine Wilderness, Run an Ultramarathon

The shadows of the forest grow longer each minute, the sun is starting to set, and we’re nowhere near the village we intend to get to tonight.

About 15 kilometers back on the start of this long descent on the southern ridge of the Philippines’ Mount Ugo, one of our companions started suffering from ilotibial band syndrome (ITBS). Our run around the mountain has been reduced to a slow walk, and we now have to start reassessing our plans for the day. Between the five of us we have a small bag of nuts, less than a liter of water, and one headlamp.

It’s already getting dark, and trying to find our way through 20 more kilometers of forest to the road in darkness with an injured mate is going to be a real struggle. My mountain running companions had decided to leave their headlamps in the car, confident in their ability to run up and down the 50-kilometer Cordillera Mountain ultra route in daylight. The only sane non-ultralight runner, I have the lone headlamp, and they’re all regretting their decision.

A few days ago I had invited some good friends—Jovencio Luspian, Harry Tanoja, and George Killo—to join me for a mountain run around the route I had been planning for the Cordillera Mountain ultra this coming June. Christian Carranza, now suffering from ITBS, was a late addition, invited by George to join our little band of mountain runners. At this point, in the dark, hungry and limping, I think he’s beginning to regret his last-minute decision.

Since 2005 this has been my job: to get lost in some beautiful mountains. No, I ‘m not a sponsored athlete, nor do I have the genes to be one. I work for the Cordillera Conservation Trust, a small environmental organization based in the northern Cordillera mountains on the island of Luzon. Our work is to help conserve our wild spaces.

And our chosen methodology is adventure.

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Running on the pine-clad ridges leading up to Mount Ugo; Photograph by Harry Tanoja

The Overnight Shift

In a developing nation like the Philippines, the conservation of wild spaces has to compete with traditional economic activities like mining, logging, and destructive agriculture. Many of the wild areas are inhabited by indigenous communities that have to choose between feeding their families from the land or moving away to seek jobs far from home. For many of the communities, the aesthetic and recreational values of these wild spaces are altogether nonexistent—the resource is simply seen as something to take from because it’s necessary for survival.

In 2005, after being awarded a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to traverse 500 kilometers of trails across the Cordillera range, we thought there had to be another way of development that would allow communities like these to prosper while also conserving wild spaces.

What we found after that expedition was a treasure trove not of gold but of wild spaces, from the ridges and peaks to the deepest valleys: dense mossy oak forests perpetually covered in clouds, immense pine forests, crystal-clear rivers, and numerous villages that were as diverse as the landscape in which you found them.

So how do you make all this beauty work for the people without having to cut down a single tree? Here was a resource of trails, dirt roads, and beautiful wild spaces. Now to find a way to conserve it while still being able to provide for the needs of the locals living within its beauty.

More than ten years later, we’re standing in the dark in the middle of a forest kilometers away from civilization. We find an abandoned hunters camp and decided to make ourselves cozy for the night, building a small campfire to keep warm and making our beds with pine needles as padding from the cold ground. With nothing to left to eat we all wander into our dreams under a carpet of stars.

This is all part of the job of creating value for wild spaces, making adventure pay for conservation. The problem is that in order to clock out we need to get off the mountain. I guess this is going to become an overnight shift.

Adventures in Economics

Each year since 2008, three years after our traverse, the Cordillera Conservation Trust has organized mountain biking and trail running events in some of the most remote spaces of the Cordilleras. These events are our solution to creating value from a wild space without having to cut down a single tree, burn down a forest for a farm, or dig underground for gold. This is creating value from the wild itself—pristine, untouched, and beautiful—and making it tangible for the people who live within it.

Each year we go through the motions of looking for routes through the different trail systems in the mountains and creating opportunities for mountain communities to be able to access this wild value through our events: the Cordillera Challenge Mountain Bike Epic and the Cordillera Mountain Ultra Trail Marathon. Both of these events bring hundreds of people into otherwise forgotten spaces, areas whose inhabitants rely on the land directly for subsistence. This creates new opportunities from a previously unknown resource—the pristine wild.

Through these two events we’re able to employ over 300 individuals from remote villages—as marshals, guides, trail maintenance crews—and create economies around homestay lodging, local food, transportation, and even local crafts and organic farming, which supplies our catering needs.

In many of these villages we are the largest employer each year in a place where no jobs are otherwise available. We create a significant value chain that relies on leaving the trees in the ground and the rivers flowing freely while creating more advocates to protect these beautiful wild spaces—not only from the mountain bikers and trail runners but also from the local villagers themselves, because now they benefit directly from its beauty.

An even greater value from our work comes after the events, when the routes we create for mountain biking or trail running become permanent destinations for adventure travelers, creating continuous value for the local populations throughout the year. This generates income for locals and avoids exploitation of natural resources for short-term gain.

Adventure in this case is an important strategy for conservation. In addition to generating a local it economy, it creates a constituency of outdoor advocates from the hundreds of people who experience the beauty of the wild spaces firsthand during our events each year. And the locals gain a new appreciation for their homes from wide-eyed visitors.

Keeping It Wild

It’s now 3 a.m., and the fire has burnt down to embers, offering very little heat for the coldest time of night. You hear some snoring coming from across the embers. And then the ground shakes.

It’s an earthquake! It lasts 10 to 15 seconds—long enough to wake everyone up from their sleep. Then it starts drizzling, and here we are without even a tarp to give us any cover. I doubt we can bury ourselves in enough pine needles to avoid the rain, and I think, What else can go wrong on this trip? Thankfully, the shower passes quickly, and the trees above give us enough cover from the light drizzle. By this point none of us can sleep so we simply stay awake until the first rays of sunlight rise above the ridges, and we finally start moving down the mountainside.

Minutes into our walk down we stumble on some guava trees and quickly take what Mother Nature has offered. A few kilometers later we finally reach the small village of Oling, perched on the side of the ridge a thousand meters above the river. This is to be one of the aid stations during the Cordillera Mountain Ultra in June, providing snacks in the form of local fruits and products from the area—and an income for some of the villagers.

From here it’s a steep downhill, and we we’re finally be back in the car and ready to get everyone back to their wives. I’d had to send messages last night that we were OK and “just decided to spend some extra time on the mountain.”

Two hours later we’re finally crossing the last long hanging bridge across the Agno River, and we’re eating some halo-halo (shaved ice and evaporated milk topped with sweet beans, ice cream, and fruit) from the local store as a reward for our exertions. Despite spending the night on a mountainside with pine needles for a bed and no dinner, everyone has big smiles on their faces from the adventure, and this is the same experience—albeit without the hunger and cold night—that we want to share with participants of the Cordillera Mountain Ultra.

The race starts and ends in Dalupirip, in Itogon, by the lower banks of the Agno River, a village not on most tourist maps and whose villagers had subsisted on farming and gold panning. It’s also in an immensely important ecological area on the slopes of 2,150-meter Mount Ugo and surrounded by immense pine forests and the mighty Agno.

We wanted to give them a reason to protect this mountain for its beauty, a reason not to harvest logs from the large pines we had just slept under—a reason to keep it wild.