Elias Tabac, 28, used to climb coconut trees for extra cash. Sandi Abahan, 32, previously tried to find her footing in duathlons and triathlons. In September, the two represented the Philippines and won at the Altitude Obstacle Course Race World Championships held in Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Tabac and Abahan, who participated as members of the Pilipinas Obstacle Sports Federation (POSF), beat racers from around the world to take gold at the men’s and women’s divisions of the race respectively, while their teammates Manaloto Divina and Seannah Gutang both won silver.
Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano, is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, meaning it is not part of a mountain range. The summit is called Kibo.
The race, held from Sept. 12 to 21, included a 19,340-foot multi-stage ascent to the Uhuru Peak (the highest point on Kibo’s crater rim), a descent to the crater (which is at an elevation of 18,864 feet), a 100-meter obstacle course in the crater, and a two-day speed descent. The obstacle course included a cargo net crawl, balance beams, monkey bars, and mountain swings, among other challenges.
“But the hardest part of it all was the altitude,” Abahan, who is from Baguio, a mountain city north of Manila, told VICE.
She explained that while the obstacles were typical of any obstacle course race, the altitude posed a real challenge, even for someone like her who does most of her training at higher altitudes.
Tabac, originally from Agusan del Sur but now based in Davao del Norte in the southern Philippines, agreed.
“The obstacles were easy, but the climb up the mountain was difficult because it was high-altitude. It’s hard to breathe, and it was so cold that I thought I might die,” he said.
The temperature got so low, he said, that he couldn’t drink the water he brought because it froze, increasing his risk of dehydration during the race.
While the hot and humid Philippine weather may not have been the best training ground for a race on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tabac said his childhood activities proved helpful.
He started running when he was 12 years old, as a track and field athlete, and has won several other races in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. He also used to climb coconut trees and carry sweet potatoes down mountains for extra cash when he was in high school.
“The obstacles and all the climbing were part of my childhood, so I just had to add them to my running,” said Tabac.
Abahan also started as a track and field athlete, competing through high school and college. She tried her hand at triathlons and duathlons, but said they just weren’t for her. When she ran her first obstacle course race in February 2019, she said she “really fell in love.”
“I won’t look at any other sport after this,” she said.
Despite the cold climate, they both came prepared to break a sweat.
“I trusted my training, and I put my confidence into making the top three, if only because the cost of our federation to send us there was so big,” Tabac said. “If I didn't win, I’d be ashamed.”
“My mindset was that I had to win this because the federation sent me. We were chosen to be there. My goal was to give back and win the race,” Abahan said.
Tabac told VICE that he still can’t quite explain the feeling of achieving his dream of being a national athlete.
“I just used to dream about this, and now my dreams have come true,” he said. “I’m part of a national team, and I won in another country, carrying the Philippine flag.”
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