IT WAS one of the slowest marathons ever for Mary Joy Tabal and it was also the most difficult.
Tabal made history when she crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 1 second for her fifth straight title in the women’s division of the Milo Marathon national finals—an unprecedented feat—yesterday in the Cebu City Sports Center.
Moments after crossing the finish line, Tabal knelt and broke down in tears, while holding the finish line tape.
It was Sunday, 6 a.m. She was crying because her father wasn’t at the finish line.
At 8:30 a.m. last Saturday, Tabal’s 58-year-old father Rolando died of a heart attack after a long battle with diabetes. The two last saw each other in October before she left for her training camp in Italy. She got back in Cebu last Tuesday and though she wanted to visit him, her father told her not to because he had pneumonia and Rolando didn’t want to infect his daughter, who had just endured a long-haul flight.
They agreed to see each other at the finish line on Sunday. But at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Joy learned it wasn’t meant to be as she was finally informed of her father’s death.
She thought of not running but she knew that her No. 1 fan wouldn’t want her to quit, the most important lesson Rolando had taught her.
“Even if he’s not here, I can feel his presence. He helped me relax when I wanted to stop,” said Tabal, who said she wanted to quit at the 10K mark, the first turning point near Cebu City’s Plaza Independencia.
Wearing Bib No. 1 as the defending champion—aside from being the face of the Milo Marathon—Joy wasn’t running for herself but for her No. 1 fan.
“I thought about my father. Then I felt he was there. I began feeling comfortable. I started to forget everything for a while. I did not think about what time I will get or what would be my ranking. I just decided to finish it for my father,” said Tabal.
With that in mind, the record holder of the women’s division of Milo Marathon at 2:47:49--who also holds the country’s best time of 2:43:31--crossed the finish line almost two minutes under 3 hours. She became the first runner to win five straight titles in the Milo national marathon.
And she did it despite not having slept a wink the night before.
The fighting spirit that her father taught her when she was just starting out as an athlete paid off. Tabal and three other siblings were raised by Rolando, a single parent, and they shared both tough and happy titmes together.
“He always said to never quit, just keep chasing your dreams. When I was starting, he said that to me. I’ll remember it forever,” Tabal said.
The older Tabal was very supportive of the career of his daughter. SunStar Cebu had a chance to interview him after Mary Joy won the gold medal in the 29th Southeast Asian Games (Sea) Games last August.
“I’m happy for my daughter’s achievement. I was able to see her achievements while I’m still alive,” Rolando said last August.
Tabal was not immediately informed about the death of her father; she learned about it two hours after he died, while she was at the CCSC to get the race bibs of her grassroots kids, a group of children she’s been coaching.
“I was planning to visit him when I arrived but he told me not to because he had pneumonia and I might get sick because my immune system was low after a long flight and hard training abroad. So we agreed to meet on race day,” said Tabal.
After learning about her father’s death, Tabal at first wanted to quit. But after two hours, she decided she wanted to fulfill her promise.
“I thought of not racing. But then I thought I need to do this for my father and to deliver my promise to be at the finish line,” she said.
“I told her to continue for your father. I really admire her strength. As a coach, I have to be strong for my athlete,” said Tabal’s long-time coach John Philip Dueñas, who paced Tabal in the first 20K of the race.
Four-time Milo Marathon champion Christabel Martes finished second in 3:04:20 and Jho-an Villarma came in 3:11:26 for third place.
Tabal had a double win. She also made it to the Top 3 in the women’s open 42K, placing third behind foreign champion Elizabeth Chepkanan Rumokol (2:41:32) and second placer Nancy Joan Rotich (2:50:35).
She earned P200,000 for her women’s crown and an additional P150,000 for making the open division’s top three.
For her fifth straight crown, the Olympian Tabal credited the all-out support of the Cebuanos who cheered her on to continue.
“I was amazed as most of the people know me, it was not like that in my previous races. These people helped me stay alive,” said Tabal. “I had no sleep since the death of my father and every cheer gave me the strength to continue.”
Tabal trained for six weeks in Tuscany for this race, which is also part of her long preparation for the 2018 Asian Games and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“This is the hardest race I’ve ever joined. I asked myself why, and why it happened on this day. My father and I agreed to meet but he did not wait for me. I know there’s a purpose for everything,” said Tabal.
In the men’s division, first-timer Joerge Andrade of Digos City surprised the stacked men’s field with a win in 2:39:34.
The 24-year-old Andrade, who works as a salesman for mountaineering products, never expected the win as he only finished third in the qualifying race in General Santos City.
“It’s very unexpected, I could not even believe that I won and beat all the veteran runners in the field. They all have good records in running,” said Andrade, who broke away in the first 12K of the race.
“I think they did not know me and they just let me lead in the first phase of the race. But I was able to maintain my pace until the finish,” said Andrade, who dedicated his win to his eight-month-old baby.
Eric Panique finished second in 2:42:10, while former Olympian Eduardo Buenavista was at third place in 2:43:34.
Milo Sports Executive Robbie De Vera said that Tabal showed the spirit of a true champion by running despite what she’s going through.
“She persevered despite the emotions that she’s going through. A true champion,” said De Vera.
One of the organizers, Ricky Bellesteros thanked all the individuals involved in the event’s success.
Arian Arbois and Marychiel Morales ruled the men’s and women’s 21K race. Arbois clocked 1:15:21 to win the men’s division over Ychon Agustin Jr. (1:18:22) and Prince Joey Lee (1:18:32). Morales won the women’s class in 1:39:19, Jocelyn Elijeran came second in 1:39:34 and Lovely Andrin was third in 1:39:59.
Ruel Algufera (35:01) topped the men’s 10K followed by Jason Padayao (35:05) and Arnel Florentino (35:59). Melody Perez (42:13) won the women’s 10K. Geniecel Saballa (45:03) finished at second place and Geneda Arcuino (45:31) was third.