Gerald’s Story: “Into the Volcano”

This is a personal story of Gerald Moore, a friend of July Oconer, on his 3-day stay in the Philippines.

I have some photos and a story now- hope you enjoy!

I checked out of one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in the Shangri-la  – after a buffet breakfast so wide in scope it could easily have covered lunch, dinner, barbecue, gourmet, France, Italy, Hong Kong, Mexico  and of course, Manila!

July and I got our last minute supplies in a big supermarket next door, cases of water and boxes of granola bars. I bought a couple ‘Coach’ designer shirts – for about $10 each! Every salesperson called out to me SIR, SIR (sounds like ‘sah’) Almost everyone speaks English well.

Manila is sprawling and impromptu.  The central city is clean and pretty  Security is everywhere, rifles, dogs and Xray machines.  The people don’t seem to care and they don’t know of any threat – that’s just the way it is.

Decorated and sparkling WWII “Jeepneys” and motorcycle sidecar taxis are everywhere. And they have Shakey’s Pizza – haven’t seen that since I was 11 years old.  I rode through Bataan Death March country in the back seat of July’s  well-customized turquoise Honda Civic northward out of the city of 10 Million bound for Mount Pinatubo. 

In 1991, Mt Pinatubo exploded in a climactic strato-eruption that lasted 12 days hours, during that time it ejected enough ash, smoke and sulphur to decrease the entire earth’s atmosphere by 1/2 a degree Fahrenheit. On the same day, Typhoon Yunya struck the island, passing about 75 km north of the volcano. The most violent phase of the eruption, lasted about three hours. Typhoon rains mixed with the ash deposits and caused massive lahars. For 3 years ash circled the globe.  If not for close geological monitoring and widespread warning, tens of thousands would have perished.  This eruption forced the closure of Clark Air Force Base which had operated continuously as a beneficial, respected and locally valued United States military station since World War II.

On the straight, flat roads around July’s hometown people walk perilously close to speeding traffic late at night, motorcycle sidecar taxis are the primary transportation.  Signs say ‘vulcanizing’ (tire re-treading) and ‘Junk Shop open 24 hours’. Beyond the row of buildings and houses that line the road endlessly are soaking wet rice fields.

July found me a comfortable country inn  while He and his Fiancé went further into the country to visit and stay with his parents.

We left for Mt Pinatubo at 130am and met people at a couple places along the way traveling through the dark straight roads with flashers on as a convoy of ultramarathoners. 

As we neared the starting point we passed the concentration camp where 11000 US and Philippine soldiers were killed at the hands of the Japanese, and at every kilometer along the way, a stone marker memorializing those killed on the march.  To this day they find gravesites amongst the rice fields. All these ultramarathoners devote their effort and struggle to the soldiers killed here in many ways.  That I knew of the march, had met survivors and ran the Death March at White Sands Missile Range made me an instant family member: Sir Gerald.

The starting point was a small village schoolyard’s covered bandstand with bare light bulbs hanging.  Our little convoy filled the yard and runners were getting their gear together on the stage there.  The 3 Toyota Landcruisers arrived driven by the Pinatubo Guides and parked facing out.   Supplies were being stacked inside – bags and ice chests.  I added my case of water to the community chest.

Then the Great Baldheaded Runner arrived in shiny Prius to a round of applause. This is Retired General Jovie Narcise of the Philippine Army whose base includes the area we’d be running in.  He’s has nice gear, and is very fit and totally bald.  Jonel, the race director, participant and magazine publisher (also bald) gave some cut-off times and last minute advice and then said a very short prayer.  Everyone crossed themselves before and after, twice.  

We take off walking as the dawn begins to break and the little group of 35 or so streams out of the school yard and up the main road. The road immediately goes into innumerable creek crossings and every single runners’ feet are totally wet throughout the entire 55K.  The course is one continuous lahar – a valley that had been filled in by the eroded ash and cinder rock moved by water ejected from the cooling volcano.  All the water is warm, a murky tan-grey and running fast in wide shallow sheets.  Some of the rocks are so light they actually float with the current.

Most of the surfaces were very similar to running in Calabacillas or Los Montoyas arroyo, except the whole thing is wet and well compacted. We pass poor farmers bringing banana blossoms to market on their ox-drawn carts. For all their squalor they sit their animals nobly and from them they spectate with interest.  As we ascend into the lahar, we stop to regroup one last time with the guides to re-supply before going past 20K, because the Land Cruisers can no longer keep up with the runners. The area looks like a barren moonscape inlaid on an emerald forest. Aborigines from a local village gather on the edge of the lahar to wave and shout as we run below them.


The gap in green narrows and becomes deeper and more rocky but we keep a steady brisk pace. The grade becomes steeper and at about 25K,  we arrive a several thatched huts, the water flow slows down to a trickle and the trail becomes a narrow cut through dense bush thick with green vines and covered completely in places by umbrella trees joining branches overhead.

Finally we reach a summit and the walls of the lahar open to the tremendous open maw of the crater, steep, jagged and green all around and a great lake fills the bowl with turquoise water – a mile across. Transfixed by the vista, July and I stand in awe – then we quickly descend to the edge of lake and start removing sweat-drenched shoes, shirts, water bags and swim in the warm copper-rich lake.  Some of the other runners start showing up and doing the same. We rinse rocks out our shoes.


Rejuvenated and cleansed, we begin the descent, meeting our support crew at the summit.  They had come the long way around in Jeeps for re-supply and photos.  We split up again as the lahar again becomes mostly water and the runners pick up the pace on the descent. At 42K the sun comes out and we meet our support convoy again – everyone needs water, shade and fuel for the final 13K. We quit praying for sun and start praying for rain. A flood of mixed emotions wells up in me.  I’m thoroughly fatigued, constantly measuring the remaining distance and yet elated and energized and wishing it would never end. 

At the finish we’re treated to a cold, hand-pumped shower (after which I smell slightly like sulphur – an improvement!) and a regal buffet – in honor of July’s August 1,  40th Birthday.  The Philipino Barbecue spread traverses the stage and is crowned by a bouquet of flowers, bananas and Roast Pork replete with the pig’s head, hearty beef skewers, school fish, spinach, lovely rice, halved tomatoes with salted eggs and shrimp paste. Also a special beef stew with rich broth and Oso Buco-style chunks of meat and marrow!

I’m honored to be seated between July and the General and by watching them I learn the technique for eating the stew. For dessert the General brings us each a tree-ripe banana which we peel and eat with a fork.

Getting late, it rains and people start saying goodbye.  I grab my gear and again am treated to a seat of honor, riding shotgun in Jonel’s Montero with 4 squished into the back seat. I’m dropped off again in Manila at the  foyer of another stunning beautiful and welcoming Hotel.


I’m still feeling good! In fact I’m still on a runner’s high!

Also wondering how to appropriately thank all the people at this special and challenging event.

 I shall return.


Gerald W. Moore

Environmental Health and Safety

Fab 68 Dalian, China 

3 thoughts on “Gerald’s Story: “Into the Volcano”

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