Sandi Abahan and Elias Tabac at the World High Altitude Obstacle Course Championships on Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo: Courtesy of Elias Tabac
Elias Tabac, 28, used to climb coconut palms to earn money. Sandi Abahan, 32, has already tried to find her place in duathlons and triathlons. In September, the pair represented the Philippines and won the World High Altitude Obstacle Course Championships held on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Tabac and Abahan, who competed as members of the Pilipinas Obstacle Sports Federation (POSF), beat runners from around the world to win gold in the men’s and women’s divisions respectively, while their teammates Manaloto Divina and Seannah Gutang both won silver.
Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano, is Africa’s tallest mountain and the world’s tallest stand-alone mountain, meaning it is not part of a mountain range. The summit is called Kibo.
The race, which ran from September 12-21, included a 19,340-foot multi-stage ascent to Uhuru Peak (the highest point on the rim of Kibo crater), a descent to the crater (which sits at an elevation of 18,864 feet), a 100-meter obstacle course into the crater, and a rapid two-day 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, from Baguio, a mountain town north of Manila, told VICE.
She explained that while obstacles are typical of any obstacle course, the altitude presents 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 at a high altitude. It’s hard to breathe and it was so cold 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 while running.
While the hot and humid Philippine weather may not have been the best training ground for a run on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tabac said his childhood activities have come in handy.
He started running at the age of 12 as a track athlete and won several other races in the Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong. He also used to climb coconut palms and haul sweet potatoes up the mountains to earn money when he was in high school.
“The obstacles and all the climbing were a part of my childhood, so I had to add them to my running,” said Tabac.
Abahan also started out as a track and field athlete, competing in 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 in February 2019, she said she “really fell in love”.
“I won’t watch any other sport after this,” she said.
Despite the cold weather, they both came ready to sweat.
“I trusted my training and put my trust in myself to be in the top three, if only because the cost for our federation to send us there was so high,” said Tabac. “If I didn’t win, I would be ashamed.
“My mindset was that I had to win because the federation sent me. We were chosen to be there. My goal was to give back and win the race,” said Abahan.
Tabac told VICE he still can’t explain the feeling of having achieved his dream of being a national athlete.
“I dreamed of this, and now my dreams have come true,” he said. “I am part of a national team and I won in another country, wearing the Philippine flag.”
Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.