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Nov 3, 2016
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On October 2, 2016, Rolando Espina, a 43-year old nurse working in Dublin, Ireland, was the first Filipino to touch the foot of King Leonidas in Sparta after the 247-km Spartathlon ultra-race. Essentially, he ran from Athens to Sparta, or about the length of Quezon City Circle to the bus terminal in Baguio City. He finished 89th out of 340 participants. Here, he shares his passion, his story, and his reasons for running.

I am talking about the pursuit of immortality. Or at least, keeping myself alive.

Seven years ago, I was pre-diabetic and was diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol. I love food. Anything juicy and fatty, I'll eat with gusto—medyo carnivorous ako eh. I miss the food in Bacolod, where I am originally from—chicken Inasal, talaba, fresh seafood, street food. Here in Ireland, the food can be considered bland. I was gaining weight, and the doctor gave me two choices—meds or make a lifestyle change. I decided to keep moving. Running is easy, simple, and cheap. No extra equipment needed, just me and my running shoes.

'I decided to keep moving. Running is easy, simple, and cheap. No extra equipment needed, just me and my running shoes'

I was working in a bank in the Philippines when my family and I decided to move to Ireland, running in pursuit of better opportunities, you can say. When I first learned of my unhealthy state, I was already working as a night shift nurse in Dublin, Ireland, where I have been living with my family for over 15 years. After my 12.5-hour shift in the hospital, I run home from work—that's 17 kilometers, just to give you an idea of the stretch of road I need to cover. 

Meet Rolando Espina—proud Filipino Spartathlon finisher

I found out about the Spartathlon from a fellow runner, who told me about it during a chat we had on a 24-hour run in Belfast in June of 2015. He convinced me to give it a go, and told me that I would be the first Filipino to ever qualify and run the most grueling ultramarathon in the world. Being the first Filipino to finish is a source of pride. Many runners from different countries all over the world did not even make it to the finish line. There are a lot of Filipino ultramarathoners out there who definitely need support. A team of Filipino nurses, dear friends, served as my pit stop committee, monitoring my health condition along the way. Kenneth Tenebro, Fermin Bantilan, Amado Damot and Platon Zarzoso—Sparta is theirs as much as it is mine. 

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Team Philippines—represent!

I run two to three marathons a year. Three years ago it started being a compulsion, an addiction, and I have ran 104 marathons since. When you run long-distance, you can stop any time. It's just that, the pressure is on you to continue powering on.

I run and rarely do I look back, what matters to me is the next step. There are many other ultramarathons in the world, each with their own unique level of difficulty. But I believe that Sparta is the hardest because of the pressing time limit. Participants needed to clock in under 36 hours—no times for naps, not even shut-eyes. There was continuous pressure to arrive at every single one of the 75 checkpoints under time. And it was so hot—Greek summers are as unforgiving as they are back home. Energy must be budgeted and focused—no time for whining or feeling sorry for yourself. Triumph can only be achieved if you are willing to take that next step.

Pummeling on...

I officially finished Spartathlon 2016 with a time of 33 hours and 17 minutes. My nose started bleeding at the trail run. At that moment, I realized the true meaning of grit—going big or going home, and keeping on despite everything, forcing yourself to make it to the finish line simply because you've decided that you will.

'I realized the true meaning of grit—going big or going home, and keeping on despite everything, forcing yourself to make it to the finish line simply because you've decided that you will'

Running, you see, is my way of keeping in touch with what matters. I talked to my mother when I ran, may she rest in peace. She was very good to me, and I knew Nanay was always by my side to give me that extra jolt of energy.

When I run I think about things that keep me alive: my wife, my kids, my dogs. Greece is a beautiful and inspiring country, and it gave me so much joy to feel a sense of community from the strangers who cheered us on from the sidelines. Kids got off their bikes and ran with me, asking who I was and where I was from. When I run I make sure to take the time to soak it all in—the gorgeous landscapes, the landmarks, and the people. I always remind myself to enjoy and savor every moment.

But what really kept me running during my stint in Sparta was my sister. A month before the race, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and was scheduled to have surgery on the day of the event. I have a big but close-knit family, and the news broke my heart. Instead of worrying too much, I told myself that I would finish this for her. And whenever I felt like my body was giving in, I thought of her, and how infinitely harder her battle was. Every time my body told me to quit, I reminded myself of what our eldest sister was going through, and somehow I got my rhythm back. Sparta was, and is, dedicated to her.

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I run because, more than any other sport, running is about constantly overcoming my own boundaries. I was a severe asthmatic growing up, and I still am. But that never stopped me. Endurance sports teach you humility and patience. You are constantly working against your limits. You may be able to run 33 hours straight, but the practice and training needed to achieve that takes longer. You can only physically train so much, but it is grit and mental strength and the passion to move forward that will help you when the hot pavement becomes too arduous to bear. Nothing is ever guaranteed, not even the finish line.

Fit at 43

Running gives me peace, tranquility, and happiness that no other material possessions can provide. It's about the mind and body working together. It's almost spiritual. It reminds me that there are very few things I need in this world—just my running shoes, the people I love, and the road ahead.

'Running gives me peace, tranquility, and happiness that no other material possessions can provide. It's about the mind and body working together. It's almost spiritual.'

So, I run. And I will keep on running. And I hope you keep running, too. Take it one step at a time, because in running, as in life, there are no shortcuts. 

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