A morning run through Metro Manila after the pandemic stopped it on its tracks.Somewhere before kilometer zero, I have built an imagined map of certain parts of Metro Manila, recreating a route that portrays my personal geography of the city, to begin what I call The Run.
It is 5:30 in the morning and the sky is marked with strands of unmoving clouds, the sun nowhere yet in sight. The newly installed street lamps illuminate the entire stretch of Taft Avenue, a stream of yellow blaze amidst the red glow of led signages from the surrounding McDonald’s, Kenny Roger’s Roasters, and Jollibee stores. Two vehicles take a turn to Pablo Ocampo, slowly passing by three pedicab drivers stationed outside the fences of the Rizal Memorial Stadium. One motions his right hand to me as I approach them, raising an index finger, to which I shake my head in reply. In Taft Avenue, the road unravels itself anew every minute with the crisp air over the city, with warm and moving bodies in its wake, a kind of burning.
There is this unfamiliarity in front of the stadium, for almost a year now, which I still need getting used to: a portion of road narrowed down by orange traffic barricades as a precaution to pedestrians and vehicles alike. It is one of those first shrewd signs for the unsuspecting passerby to keep one’s distance. Beyond the barricades, plastered on the fences, are more distinct signages for those who cannot seem to take a hint, bearing the words in red: THIS IS A QUARANTINE FACILITY. FOR COVID-19 POSITIVE CASES ONLY. Exiting one of its gates is a uniformed man in camouflage green, walking in the dim light, holding a cigarette in one hand. There is a cold breeze that blows across the street as I see this and so I tighten up my shoelaces and zip my windbreaker up to my neck to ready myself for the morning’s 12-kilometer route.
Every other day, this is where I mark the starting point of my mental map for the usual course in Manila. And like all other paths in this new world, I measure my physical perseverance at the starting line with my gear, finding myself moving past the usual pair of running shoes, shorts and layers of shirt and outerwear. These days, I also make sure I tighten the plastic wire of a surgical mask into the contour of my nose bridge before stepping into the pavement.
At what point did the world come to the assumption that it was once again safe to run around and see the city at daybreak? Certainly the orange barricades that lined a few meters from the fences of Rizal Memorial Stadium say otherwise. If anything, the blockade had become an unintended warning for the ordinary citizen that Malate, like the rest of the city, would be partially unpassable for an indefinitely long time. As I stretch my lower calves and bend my knees, I see a flow of people walking – some jogging – along Pablo Ocampo Street, making their way to Roxas Boulevard to catch the sun in approximately half an hour. After warming up, I scurry to the same direction, running past a group of teenagers along the way, treading slowly at first, then picking up my pace towards the scent of the salty and open sea.
What a mercy it is to be outside on a cold November morning. The streaks of cloud and the faint yellow hues at dawn assure good weather ahead. I chart down the roadways in my head that I will take: Taft Avenue, Vito Cruz Street, Roxas Boulevard, Diokno Boulevard, Sunset Avenue, and the greater expanse of Aseana City in Parañaque. I approach the intersection of Vito Cruz and Harrison and realize that I am breathing harder than usual, my mask becoming unsteady on top of my nose. It was only last night that I was rummaging through webpages to find information on mask-wearing while running alone, out and about in the city.
The results that returned were abundant but could not arrive at a consensus. Some health experts say that a face covering is not needed since the virus is not absolutely airborne in wide open spaces. Others say the opposite, asserting that the pathogen moves in unknown ways, making transmission possible even among runners crossing paths quickly down the road. And then there are those who harp about quitting running or going out altogether, especially in the morning when the temperature is low, since it is a risk that cannot be taken lightly in such dire times. I press further on my mask’s nose wire as I approach Roxas Boulevard, its eight lanes still almost empty during the early hours. It was initially difficult to weigh in the hundred risks of resuming my run eight months into the pandemic, but I figured out a hundred more ones on how the excessive amount of quarantine was ruining my body.
The boulevard’s medians open coyly to the waterfront promenade, which covers the shores of Manila Bay with coconut trees and the low-rise white structures of the Philippine Navy Headquarters. Runners from the surrounding area mark this stretch fronting the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) building, where they move over its concrete ramp on a loop. I move past the group of teenagers across the complex, running underneath the shadow of trees illuminated by the white light coming from the street lamps. What used to be a vacant lot of the Rotary Grove in front of the Folk Arts Theater is now home to a cluster of makeshift container rooms that serve as an extension of the surrounding quarantine facilities. Among the trees of the Folk Arts Plaza along Guerrero Street, I hear the faint chirping of maya birds nearby.I think it has always been like this, the city at dawn. Even before the pandemic hit, my morning runs were made across a seemingly stark and abandoned Manila, its streets hollow up close and its skyline blanketed by a fog from afar. It is a rare thing to experience something as bustling as Malate and Ermita districts temper their roads from the worst traffic and shush their people away from the narrow sidewalks. This is why, when I started running six years ago, I made the conscious choice to do so early in the morning to encounter what I cannot possibly experience during a normal day and night. The city is somehow alive and already astir in the early hours, but there is something in its slow stride that accounts for this feeling of calmness when one sees empty roads of the CCP complex or the vendor yelling “taho”at one of the arcs of the Vicente Sotto rotunda.
In the morning light, the grand Roxas Boulevard, with its island adorned with a stretch of trees, looks as striking as the dubious Donada Street and its rundown stores that line the curb, near where I live. There is something about absence and bareness that depict the leftovers of a world that supposedly operates on the everyday routine. The relationship between Manila at dawn and the course of people’s new lives in the pandemic only expose the oddness of the everyday, the way we are indebted to human connections. Like the bleak and empty roads during the lockdown, the Metro Manila I have come to know in the morning has always magnified what I tend to shun daily – from the unbearable traffic that choke EDSA and all other roads that lead to the massive crowds in the largest SM malls.
Passing the Coconut Palace and the Sofitel Hotel, I steady my pace towards the infamous Manila Film Center, where I climb its façade up to the concrete landing to pause, looking at the distant view of the Makati’s high-rise silhouette. The sun is almost out, slowly peaking in between the nearby condominiums fronting Roxas Boulevard, intersecting with Buendia Avenue. The city is a sight to behold from the concrete landing. From where I stand, it is easy to see how the metropolis in the early hours shares a certain eerie trait with the notorious Manila Film Center, its colossal abandoned structure standing next to a body of water. The eight pillars in front hold up the building’s weight, giving no hint of its history of neglect from the inside. In some ways, the streets I walk and run across in Manila mirror the same sense of abandonment, with its roadways becoming a bed of grass and shrubs, from which an earthy scent arises. On the side, water streams through open and murky canals that lead to the city’s basins underneath.There is a type of grandeur that cloaks Manila, one that could probably be mistaken for a haze that shrouds a haunted place, now with its millions of people as kindred ghosts roaming around in limbo. It has been said that the Film Center is haunted, too, by the people who were crushed under its immense weight during its construction back in 1980s. No way could their deaths have been marked by the drying that sprout from the cracks at the bottom of the building, whose shades of brown are almost unseen in the dim light. The chirping of birds from the nearby theatre’s canopy accompanies the sound of steps from other runners and the bike horns of bicycles along Atang Dela Rama.
I pause to catch my breath next to the middle pillar and take in a breeze that blows across the CCP open grounds in front of the Film Center. The wind whistles through the edifice, slowly turning into a howl that somehow flusters me as I am reminded of the bodies that had been buried underneath. A friend once swore to me that ghosts haunted the main theatre, roving across its deserted halls and concourse. For the countless times I have made a stop here, I do not think I have ever experienced any unusual sighting or troubled soul, at least from the center’s landing. If there were indeed ghosts here, the believer in me would like to think that they are as gentle as the breeze that hits the building’s hindmost foyer.
When was the last time that I truly felt the wind? I cannot say for certain when, but more than half a year into the community quarantine, my body’s response to it as I run now betrays all feelings of seclusion that I had harbored at home, in the office, and in the essential in-betweens. Running along Diokno Boulevard, I catch a glimpse of the sky in blue and yellow hues coming together in a gradient descent. I steady my pace crossing the Senate building where there are patches of moss along the curbside, a marker before the bridge over the Libertad Channel, which is home to a group of vendors shaded by colorful Micromatic umbrellas.
A few years ago, while running along the same road, I stepped on and slipped over some patches, bruising my right knee. I walked with a slight limp towards the bridge, blaming the wet pavement and the moss that enabled my fall. Back then, I found it convenient to put the fault on the overgrowth, not minding my own stride and cadence on the road. The patches of moss are still here, growing inch by inch, and the channel waters still look as murky as they did back when I fell. But to run this course now in a city in quarantine is like leading a double life: to be moved by the grit and hustle of life one day at a time and to encounter them anew under the burden of a world that has temporarily stopped on its tracks. In Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s says that mosses and other small beings can become an invitation to dwell at the limits of ordinary perception, allowing us to discover an entirely new world. With the way we live now, covering our faces and beholding our spaces, perhaps we all need to look at moss better now.The sun now rises over Sunset Avenue of the Mall of Asia Complex, where I find myself sprinting towards its juncture. The gateway to Aseana City of Parañaque feels like a new world that opens up to the pedestrian and runner with its cluster of glass buildings and patches of barren land that unfurls to the bay. There is a raw facet to the area that extends itself to the solace of its open spaces. I think the business district has weaved stories on its rise on reclaimed land, its emergence barely touched by the pandemic itself.
At kilometer six, somewhere near Solaire, I turn back. I retrace my morning route, thinking to myself I am somehow running back in time. I speed through Macapagal Boulevard and see the motorcycles stopping at the EDSA intersection. I make my way through shadows of a condominium complex, shading myself from the morning heat. I am somewhere back at the bridge over Libertad Channel, its waters now carrying two green bangka through its gentle waves. I feel the soles of my feet starting to ache as sprint above the water, indulging myself in the fact that the bridge runs under me as well.
The last few kilometers become a blur as does the city. Out of breath, I feel something I can’t exactly put a finger on, something almost euphoric, but profoundly unknowable. Near the famous Dampa Seaside, I dash towards the juncture of Buendia Avenue as a lone body in the morning light as though I had mastered the track. And yet, despite the normalcy the city wants to exhume amidst the pandemic, I only get by with a map of the route in my head, where the world is not still.
I make a run for the Service Road, taking a turn to Pablo Ocampo Street. I walk the last few meters, my body glazed in sweat, out of breath. I arrive back at the barricades of the stadium, its resident pedicab drivers asking me if I want to catch a ride. My smartwatch signals to me the digits: 12.1 km. In a safe spot, I remove my mask to take in some air that smells like morning dew with a hint of smoke. Breathe in, breath out. I carry the city’s scent in my last steps towards the finish line, through the streetways that define Pasay and Manila borders, now alive with the buzzing of cars and buses, all against the backdrop of high-rise condominiums and brutalist architecture. Walking to the direction of the bay, a man in his 70s comes out of nowhere and is gone again.
Home, at long last.