In front of the traffic sign that announced a 20 kilometers per hour (kph) speed limit inside the Asiatown IT Park, Aileen Tolentino gave her all.
She covered the last 300 meters to the finish line within the automotive speed limit but at a combustive endgame 18 kph before collapsing at the finish line in a guttural scream.
“Aaahhh!!!” her victory cry a shriek of pain. Tolentino snatched the Cebu City Marathon Women’s 42K crown from Mary Grace delos Santos in the final minute and paid for it with a body racked by cramps.
The celebration would come later.
Three hours, 15 minutes and 30 seconds from starting her run, Tolentino lay screaming in agony, her head saved from slamming into the pavement by race organizer Meyrick Jacalan. Thirteen seconds later, delos Santos crossed the finish line, buried her face in her hands, and leaned slightly on pacer Elmer Bartolo.
Until that 20 kph traffic sign, you’d have thought the race was delos Santos’s to take.
Delos Santos, the top female runner in Cebu, built an early lead at the South Road Properties, running at least a minute ahead of her long-standing rival. Someone who saw the two runners there said he thought Tolentino was done for, lagging behind a still fresh-looking delos Santos.
But near the Bureau of Internal Revenue office in Banilad, Tolentino already caught up with delos Santos. With their teammates and pacers, the two ran in a pack.
“Ayawg bira! Untol lang, untol” Bartolo told delos Santos at the downhill portion of Escario St. Let the momentum carry you forward, he said, “let your feet bounce.”
With more than two kilometers to go, the runners were taking stock of what’s left in them to expend in a final burst of speed to the finish line.
Delos Santos was withdrawn, her eyes permanently fixed on a spot about 10 meters ahead. Her stride rhythmic and effortless.
Tolentino was three steps behind, her eyes focused on a spot further ahead but once in a while directing an intent gaze at the back of delos Santos’ head.
As the pack turned toward University of the Philippines Cebu College, Tolentino’s teammate passed around a liquid in a plastic pouch. There was a strong acidic smell. Ice candy? Ice candied Gatorade? Vinegar?
The two runners kept the same distance until at that point shortly after they turned towards the IT Park when, with her legs about to give up, Tolentino ran with her heart.
Four hours later, with Tolentino and delos Santos long gone with their medals and other prizes, the organizers were still gathered at the finish line, waiting for the last few runners to finish.
Lawyer and broadcaster Haide Acuña was fidgeting. It turned out she was waiting for her husband, Eugene, who ran the marathon for the first time despite lacking the required mileage in training.
Haide, in an eloquent post in her blog, said Eugene ran the marathon for her because he wanted to understand her.
“Because I want to understand you. I’m doing this for you,” Eugene told Haide shortly after signing up for the full marathon.
When all but a few had left the IT Park last Sunday, a poignant scene unfolded at the finish line.
Haide erupted in cheers as her husband limped his way to the finish line. She then broke into tears while tightly hugging Eugene, who embraced her while mumbling about how one shouldn’t skip training. All the while, Eugene continued to walk in place to stave off cramps.
Eugene, who ran for one runner’s heart, has a runner’s heart. He never gave up.