Skyscrapers and Summits: Trail Running and Ultrarunning Communities of the Philippines

A look at the trail running and ultrarunning communities of Manila and Rodriguez, Philippines.

By on October 26, 2023 | Comments

The city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is a highly urbanized space. As of 2019, the city of 1.8 million people was ranked the most densely populated in the world. This might not be somewhere you would expect to find trail runners — yet they are there.

They manage their training in novel ways during the week, making use of tall buildings to train on staircases, as well as the relatively open space of the university campus. On weekends, they make the one-hour trip east to trail running mecca Rodriguez, a city located in the province of Rizal, in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains. Featuring protected landscapes, nature reserves, and miles of unspoiled trail — this is another world from the bustling city of Manila.

For this article, we caught up with some of the trail runners who call Manila home, and learned about the community that is at home on the trails of Rodriguez.

Wawa Dam - Rodriguez, Rizal

Wawa Dam in Rodriguez, Rizal, Philippines. Photo: Ramon F. Velasquez via Wikimedia Commons

City Dwellers at Home on the Trails

Photographer Jaja Ferrer Capili and her husband, Aleksis Capili, met at a 100-mile trail race. Thus, the sport is a huge part of their lives and their story. The couple now lives in Manila with their son, A.J., and journey out to Rodriguez to train and explore on the trails.

As Ferrer Capili said, “Most of the people living in Manila who trail run go there. It’s considered like our Chamonix, France.” She went on, “The terrain is mixed. There are parts of the trail that’s runnable, there are parts that are technical. It will depend on which route you’d like to go, but I think if you’re a seasoned runner it’s mainly runnable.”

Manila itself lacks the wealth of accessible urban trails found in cities such as San Francisco, California, Hong Kong, and Cape Town, South Africa — but runners get by. As Ferrer Capili said, “People have this awareness that during the weekdays, I can train on the road in the city, or in a building where there are stairs.”

Jaja Ferrer Capili, Sarah Brady, Aleksis Capili

The author (center) with Jaja Ferrer Capili (left) and Aleksis Capili (right) in San Francisco, California, after Aleksis completed the 2023 Western States 100 and Jaja helped iRunFar cover the race. Photo: Garth McGimpsey

Ferrer Capili herself came to the sport from a road running background, but said that many people who train on the trails of Rodriguez found obstacle course racing as their first port of call. She said: “The community is evolving. Obstacle course racing is quite big here in the country. After the COVID-19 pandemic, it grew in popularity. There are teams who go to the trails to train, and many transition to competing at trail running also.”

While Ferrer Capili and the others who train at Rodriguez regularly travel to races, she said there is not a huge number of races in the region itself: “There’s one or two races. But mostly it’s a playground where people train and meet each other.”

Fundraiser Run - Rodriguez, Rizal

An informal, fundraising group run in Rodriguez, Rizal, Philippines. Photo: Jaja Ferrer Capili

In terms of competitive aspirations, like runners everywhere, many of the local runners travel to follow the UTMB World Series. But closer to home and with similar appeal, is the Asia Trail Master series. The series, popular with runners in Southeast Asia, has an extensive calendar of events and culminates in the Asia Trail Master Championship Final, which for 2023 takes place at the Siksorogo Lawu Ultra in Central Java, Indonesia.

The numbers of women taking part in trail running in the Philippines are still sadly lagging behind, but Ferrer Capili can see this changing. She said, “I think particularly in the Philippines trail running is more of a male sport than female.” But added that, “More and more females are competing, and you can see that there’s a variety of female runners more in Mindanao, [an island in] the lower part of the country. There’s a huge chunk of female runners who compete there, but they are not that well known.”

The beautiful southern island of Mindanao — the second largest of the islands that make up the Philippines — features rugged mountains, stunning coastlines, and acres of botanical gardens, and yet has somehow escaped a mass influx of tourists — making it home to a thriving but somewhat under-the-radar trail running scene.

Trail Running Groups in Manila and Rodriguez Helping to Develop Community and Culture

Back in Manila, one group of trail runners and ultrarunners, who manage to keep up the momentum during the week when they cannot access trails, are the UP Night Runners. Archie Tesoro is one of the founding members of the group.

Tesoro himself first ventured into the world of ultrarunning at the age of 40 in 2015, when he completed a 50-kilometer and a 50-mile race. His new hobby quickly escalated the following year. He said: “A friend of mine was encouraging me to try the Hardcore 100 Mile. We call it the mecca of trail running in the Philippines. I decided, ‘Ok, I’ll try.’ In January I started training. By April I was able to finish a 100k race, but I was not lucky enough to finish the Hardcore 100 Mile. It was still an unforgettable experience.” The notorious Hardcore 100 Mile in the Philippines takes in 37,098 feet (over 11,300 meters) of elevation gain and is renowned for being very challenging with a high attrition rate.

While looking for a way to keep their midweek training interesting, Tesoro and a small group of friends started meeting in the grounds of the university to train one evening a week. Their simple idea grew legs. Tesoro said: “It started about seven years ago. There were five of us. We started just once a week in September. By January, the numbers were up, and we decided to make it Tuesday and Thursday. And then those runners invited more friends, and the rest is history.” UP Night Runners now train every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., with between 20 and 35 runners showing up to each session.

UP Night Runners, Manila

The UP Night Runners assemble for training, on the grounds of the University of Manila, Philippines. Photo: Archie Tesoro

Many new faces have come and gone over the years, and Tesoro shared: “Right now there’s only a few of us left from when we started. I have decided to give the leadership of the coaching to Ryan Rentillo. He’s been leading most of the sessions since January. Whenever I have time I join the session, especially on a Thursday.”

Although the sessions are open to everybody and cater to a range of abilities, the majority of members are ultrarunners. Thus, the sessions are generally structured in the form of a training block to build up to a particular ultramarathon. Tesoro shared, “Normally that is how we elect our training — we see which race most of our members are going to join and we try to plan a program for at least 16 weeks for that race so that most of the members have an idea what the training is for.” He added, “The training is a little progressive. We have on a regular basis some tempo runs, speed drills, or core workouts depending on the schedule.”

The group organizes itself through Facebook, and many of the members make arrangements to head to Rodriguez on the weekends for their long runs and hill training — but the midweek sessions with UP Night Runners form a vital part of both their training and running social life.

Away from the city, and back on the trails of Rodriguez, another community group borne out of a love of running is the youth running group Bernardo Carpio Running Club. One of the group founders, Eric Y. Solina, told iRunFar: “We formed the group when it was only the three of us: Mark Sison, who is now a police officer, Jhun Sofia, a volunteer firefighter, and myself, a teacher. We have a passion for running, therefore we frequently run in the mountains near our home in Sitio Inigan.”

Solina and the others’ running in the mountains caught the attention and curiosity of local youths. Solina said, “They eventually joined us, for fun and out of curiosity. These little children were quite powerful, since they frequently visit the mountains in their daily lives.” He went on, “We once ran upon fellow police officer, Sir Lao Ogerio, who encouraged us to form a running group. We named our group after the legendary warrior from the area, Bernardo Carpio. According to legend, he separated the two colliding rock mountains.”

The group now has 20-plus members, which at the minute is mainly boys and young men, and they not only train together regularly on the trails, but also learn about training philosophies, to help them in their later athletic lives. Solina said: “Right now, the group already knows how to make their own training program with the help of our friends, who are professional coaches. As a physical education teacher in a public school, I’m experienced at coaching and training younger kids. Not only in trail running, but also other sports like basketball, volleyball, and swimming.”

Bernardo Carpio Running Club

Members of the Bernardo Carpio Running Club on Mount Parawagan, Rodriguez, Philippines. Photo: Eric Y. Solina

Filipino Runners at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships

Two of the young men in the group, Randolf Gonzales and Jeffrey Zonio, were selected to represent the Philippines in the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria.

Solina said, proudly, “Randolf Gonzales was my former swimming athlete, and one time I brought him to a trail race as a volunteer marshal, and he asked me if he could join the race.” Gonzales was a natural, and has now won most of the races he has started.

Zonio had been long preparing for the event not just through his running training, but through a life lived in the mountains. Solina said: “His daily living is to go to the mountains to harvest fruits and other mountain products and bring them to our town to sell.”

The overlapping trail running and ultrarunning circles of the city of Manila and the more rural Rodriguez bear many differences in terms of the daily life, but are bound by a love of the trails — a love that binds people and builds community the world over.

Call for Comments

  • Are you a member of the Philippines trail running and ultrarunning communities? Leave a comment to share about them.
  • Have you been to either Manila or Rodriguez, Rizal, in the Philippines? Tell us about your experience!
  • Do you know of any other thriving trail running or ultrarunning communities in urban places?
Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.