Wednesday, June 6
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Weather - Overcast and chilly at the start and over the passes, some rain, some sun
A few years ago a friend posted pictures of her trip to Peru on Facebook. It was before I had even run my marathon in Athens, yet I already had plans of running one at Machu Picchu. I put my initial deposit money for the trip down in 2010 before I lost my job. I had to postpone due to unemployment, but luckily was able to make it for the 2012 Inca Trail to Machu Picchu marathon.
I had NOT slept well. I woke up more than once to the sound of heavy rain. This SUCKS. Running in the rain is NOT what I want to be doing. The official wake up call was at 4:00, but I was up and out of the tent at 3:58 (no alarm necessary), hoping to be the first to the use the bathroom. I was. Relieved that it was not still raining. Breakfast was a bit different than what I usually have, a big pancake and a banana. Sat around and talked over the food, got some last minute suggestions/feedback, and then it was back to the tent to get dressed and finish packing up. I had chosen to wear a Lulu skirt and tank, and at the last minute decided to bring a long sleeve shirt as a “just in case.” Apparently the weather at the peaks can be somewhat unpredictable and I didn’t want to end up freezing.
We had to walk about a mile to the start line. We misunderstood what Devy meant by “bathrooms” at the start. Turns out it just means – find a bush. We took some pictures, and then next thing I know, we are counting down the start of the race. This is unlike anything I have ever done in the past. For one thing, there are only ten official starters to the marathon, in addition to Devy, the race director, and our guide, Abelardo, who were also running. Porters who doubled as sweepers accompanied us along the way. They had walkie-talkies to communicate with Devy and Alejandro, who would be waiting for us at the finish line and was the official race timer.
Well, as you can see, it was NOT a crowded start, and obviously I was going to be in the “back.” As far back as you can be out of 10 people anyway. According to the information I was given, the first 3-4 miles were the most “runnable” and the suggestion was not to walk early on, but to take it easy to save energy. So when we started at 6:00, I was in the back, and was “taking it easy.” We had camped at 8,400 feet but the mile walk to the start was definitely uphill. Not sure of the elevation at the actually start. The beginning of the course was mostly dirt and ran along the Cusichaca River, exiting the Urubamba valley in a “gradual incline.” Knowing I was likely going to become BFF’s with the porter/sweeper, I took it easy right from the start. At about 8 minutes in, I was already short of breath and doubting my ability to run this race.
I’ll stop the recap briefly to say that I’m not entirely sure bow to recap this. My background information on this race had it pegged as one of the hardest marathons in the world, and to estimate a finishing time 3+ hours beyond a normal finishing time. With that hanging over my head, and the way I had struggled in our two acclimatization runs, I will admit, I was pretty nervous – which I honestly never am before a “regular” race anymore. Anyway, I’ll try not to ramble too much and I’ll be sharing TONS of pictures. Anyway.
8 minutes in and I’m already dying. I live in Denver, which is about a mile above sea level, or 5,200 feet. One of the major problems the other runners were experiencing was adjusting to the high altitude. Living at a higher elevation, I had never really heard of altitude sickness and didn’t even know that there were medicines one could take to avoid getting sick. I figured it would be no big deal since I live so high up. WRONG. I was gasping for air and walking. And this was the easy part??? I could tell that the porter/sweeper was IRRITATED with me. He was literally just a stride or two behind me. I immediately felt the pressure to keep moving. Even though there isn’t a set in stone time limit, the restrictions of the trail require check in at a control station around mile 22 by 3:45 pm – or the trail is closed and a DNF occurs. I had never contemplated NOT making the cutoff but due to the problems I was having so early in the race on the “easy” and “runnable” sections, I began to get concerned. I also wanted to capture the scenery, as it was some of the most spectacular views I had ever seen.
The course. Up. And up. And up. And up. And up. I caught up with Josh somewhere around mile 2.5 or 3. My watch kept losing satellite, so I’m not exactly sure how far we were. He was also walking a lot, which made me feel a bit better that I wasn’t the only one having such a hard time. We stayed pretty close together through the control station around mile 3.5 (?) and the water station at mile 4. That’s when shit got real. Keep in mind that the average person that covers the Inca Trail does about three miles less than the 27.5 miles I was doing and take 3-4 DAYS to complete. The trail was not closed so we ran into other porters and hikers. I was pretty jealous of how slow they were going. I was finding that climbing the first pass I had to stop VERY frequently because my heart was beating so fast I thought I was having a heart attack. I was getting panicky and feeling SO incredibly out of shape. I had NEVER felt unprepared for a race in my life.
|Water station at mile 4|
Somewhere shortly after the water station, I started moving ahead of Josh. He had told me his plan was to walk the uphills and run the downhills. I’m not the greatest downhill runner, so I figured if I moved as fast as possible overall, we would meet up later on the course. At least I was relieved that I wasn’t being shadowed anymore.
|Pretty much the last I saw of Josh|
|The Pittsburgh guy|
A porter asked me at this point how long I had been out there. I looked at my watch and told him about 2 hours. He pretty much screamed at me “necisitas MAS RAPIDO!” (You need to be much faster) – and I freaked. Was I already that far off? I mean, I was NOT making a lot of progress, that was for sure. According to my watch, I was practically moving at a snail’s pace. But the HILLS AND STAIRS WOULD NOT STOP. I was stopping a ton and taking a lot of pictures. For every obscenity I muttered, it was almost inevitably followed by – “but this is the most amazing view I’ve ever seen.”
|Meadow of sheep|
The course entered the Llullachayoc gorge and got even steeper – who knew that was even possible??? I started to get cold and put on the long sleeve shirt I had tied around my waist and my gloves. The course briefly flattened out at a huge meadow. There was a section off the course with some one selling snacks and drinks. I could even have bought a beer or a pack of cigarettes. Although how anyone could smoke without having their heart explode at that altitude is beyond me. I looked up the mountain and saw that the trail was continuing to ascend. Holy crap. How am I going to do this?? I’m already EXHAUSTED and I have so much longer to go. I’m so discouraged. But I keep going because there is really no other option. This trail is literally in the middle of nowhere. There is no way to quit – I would have to keep walking anyway. Up. And up. And up. And up. I look up and think I finally see a peak. Can it be???? I was told that a “respectable” time for the first peak would be 2.5-3 hours. I was pushing 4 hours and feeling like I could keel over from a heart attack at any minute.
Finally, I reach the top of Warmiwañusq'a pass (Pass of the Dead Woman” at 13,779 feet – the highest pass of the trail. I get a random person at the top to take a picture (which I’m a bit disappointed of how it turned out) – and then looked around. As much as I had been suffering, the view was WORTH IT. So beautiful, it literally took my breath away. I was PSYCHED to the uphill out of the way for the time being, although when I came to the trail, the downhill was CRAZY STEEP. Two porters came barreling by me at what appeared to be a reckless speed, yet they ran down like mountain goats, never misstepping. The descent was easier on my lungs, and a bit easier on my legs, although I found I was too scared to truly “run” down the stairs. They were so steep and uneven, and I was being very cautious about where I stepped. I was definitely moving faster than I had been on the uphills, but I felt like I wasn’t moving as quickly as I should have been.
|I'M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!!|
I got to the first actual aid station and grabbed a half a cheese sandwich and a banana. My watch said I was at mile 8. As I took off down the course, eating while I walked to save time, I thought. Damn . I thought the aid station was at mile 10… this is going to be brutal trying to go another 9 miles to the next aid station. I began to get VERY worried about my time. Shortly after the aid station, the second climb began. I ran into our second porter (essentially he was a “timing mat” to let the finish line know where we all were on the course) at the Runkurakay watchtower ruins at 12,464 feet. I briefly thought I saw the Australian brothers (Chris. Rich and Ants) ahead of me, but I was struggling again and couldn’t seem to get close enough to tell for sure. Passed by a few small lakes and then reached the top of the second peak at 13,100 feet.
I was rewarded with more downhill, but this was even harder than before. It was super steep and the rocks weren’t even so much in a “stair” formation, just rocks randomly on the ground. I felt like the faster I moved, the more likely I was to roll my ankle, so I had a difficult time finding a good pace. My watch started to beep for low battery at 5.5 hours in, and according to it, I had only gone 10.79 miles. WHAT. THE. HECK. This didn’t even seem possible. I mean, I know I had been going slow, but I was really going THAT SLOW?? Doing the calculations in my head, unless I was going to get lucky and come across a flat section of only dirt trail, I would really have to move to get to the control on time. I was cursing under my breath about how hard this was and how I felt so unprepared and out of shape.
The trail really had everything. There was a 20-meter long cave with carved steeps we went through. I had to go SUPER slow in that section because it was pretty slippery from all the rain we had the night before. In a shocking turn of events… MORE INCLINE AND STEPS. &^%^%!!! I’m absolutely wasted. I feel like I have nothing left. Keep the climb and then arrive at Phuyupatamarca, “Town in the Clouds” at 11,674 feet. I arrive at the aid station and try to ask the porters what mile we are at. My Garmin is no longer working, but I have an idea of what time it is and I want to gauge my pace. They can’t understand me and keep telling me the altitude. Arg. I grab a FULL sandwich (I’m sooooo unbelievably hungry) and a banana, and keep going. There is a slight downhill before we climb. Yet again. I turn around and can see quite a ways back and cannot see Josh. I’m a bit worried and feel a little guilty for leaving him.
I finally manage to catch up with the brothers and am BEYOND relieved when they tell me that the check point is only a mile or so away. WHAT??? I thought I still had like 8 miles to go??? Apparently my watch was way off from losing satellite so often on the course. It was the biggest relief in the world to find out I was much further along than I thought and that I was in NO danger of not making the course cut off. What a freaking relief. They took off and I tried to chase them but they were keeping too fast of a pace. Blah.
Relaxed a bit and took more pictures. Ran by the ceremonial Inca baths and the Winay Wayna ruins. FINALLY, there was a section that I deemed runnable of mostly dirt (a few rocks here and there). The problem by now was that I had essentially spent 20+ miles on the Stairmaster and my legs were SHOT. I was barely able to manage a jog. Could not even guess at my pace since my watch wasn’t working. My legs kept giving out on me and my quads were getting VERY tight. I hit the control station at 1:18 – plenty of time for the cutoff. I knew at this point that there was somewhere around 4.5-5 miles to the finish. I finally tell myself that I CAN DO THIS.
The next 3.5 or so miles are pretty shaded and again, mostly dirt. A brief rainstorm cools things down a bit and I just keep going. I had been told that it was “all downhill” from the control station. WHICH WAS TOTAL BS. I came across a few sections of uphills that nearly brought me to tears.
Then I came to the final staircase leading to Intipunku “Gateway of the Sun” at 8,860 feet and almost lost it. It was so steep that I was seriously concerned about scaling it and literally felt like I was rock climbing up it. I was hungry and tired and my vision was getting wonky. Light headed and exhausted. I hit the top in time to see an obese woman smoking a cigarette (HOW, HOW, HOW did she make it up there??)
I then turned to the left and saw Machu Picchu. The smile on my face got GINORMOUS.
I knew from this point I had only a mile or so to go and I really wanted to run as much of it as possible. At this point the trail got very crowded and there were points where I couldn’t get around the crowds of hikers and tourists. The trail widened and I started my slow and hobbly jog to the finish. A group of students thought it was HILARIOUS to jog behind me, commenting “I don’t know why anyone would run this” and “this is so awkward and weird-looking” – which was ANNOYING.
I get to the “end” and there is no one. I don’t see anyone and there is no signs where to go. I yell “ where do the runners go” and no one answers me. A couple of English speakers ask where I’m supposed to finish and I say “Maccu Picchu?” and they tell me that to officially gain entrance, you have to go all the out and around. All I remember hearing in the briefing is that I’d see Alejandro and “a rock.” Annoyed, I start to run down, I go a few minutes and then think I must have missed something. I go back up and am wandering around and yelling and FINALLY Alejandro spots me. Very annoyed I comment something about him not seeing me and then he asks where “everyone else” is. Well I don’t know. He asks if I have my bus ticket and then says he will wait there. I’m so out of it, I don’t even comprehend that I’m really done and at the end. I forget to ask for a finisher picture from Alejandro since NO ONE waited at the end. I keep running and it’s about another 5 minutes before I realize I’m done and I can stop. I get on the bus. Alone.
It seemed like such a let down to me after the hardest (yes, hardest) run of my life. More than once I thought that Moab was “easy” compared to this. I was disappointed that NO ONE waited and that there wasn’t a real “finish.” I was smelly and thirsty and hungry and there was nothing at the end. I sat on the bus next to a stranger who kept inching further and further away. Not that I blame him, I know I smell terrible.
I get off the bus and try to find the hotel we are staying at. All we were told is that we would cross a bridge and it would be “right there.” Well I cross a bridge and ask some people a few minutes down the road where it is when I don’t see it, and am told I’m in the wrong part of town. Grrrrrr. Turn around and keep walking. I keep asking people every few blocks and I keep getting directed to different places. I am so irritated at this point. Probably 15-20 minutes after getting off the bus, I finally find it, and as I am walking in to get my key, Devy comes up. He tells me I need to go across the street to eat “right now.” I tell him I just want to go to my room for a minute. He was pretty insistent and I’d argue rude about me wanting to clean up a bit. When I tried to explain I was cranky because if the finish and not being able to find the hotel and being lost, he told me not to “exaggerate” and just head over. All my frustrations almost had me in tears, but WHATEVER, I headed over.
I was glad I went, I was really happy to finally see some people from my group. After getting a small pizza and beer I did feel better. As we were finishing up, we heard that Josh had finished. I immediately felt like a jerk because I hadn’t waited for him either. Find it ironic that our room is on the third floor and there is no elevator… ouch. I check in to my room and took a quick shower and then went back down to meet up with Josh. It turns out that he had a great “race” and harbored no ill feelings toward me for not waiting. He spent the entire time with porters and pretty much got a personal tour of the course and a lot of pictures of himself. Actually a bit jealous. We had a beer together and then after he showered it was already time for more beers in the bar and then dinner. I bet I was in bed by 9:00.
Bib # - None (not permitted on the trail)
Official Time - 8:25:28
Official Distance - 27.5 miles
Overall Place - 9/10
Gender Place - 3/3 (FINALLY A PODIUM FINISH!)
Thoughts about the race:
- I obviously can’t share mile splits, as my watch didn’t really work during this race. It was maddeningly difficult, yet completely worth it.
|The only data captured by my watch. INTENSE.|
- I did NOT bring enough food for this race. I did know in advance that there would not be a lot of aid stations, yet I stupidly did not comprehend how hard I would be working and that I would get hungry. I had only brought one Luna bar with me, and I ate that by… oh, mile 5.
- I think I hydrated well, I had to stop twice on the trail to pee. No worries, I’m glad I had my hydration vest.
- Super glad I brought gloves and long sleeves, as I used both.
- I really wish I would have learned more about the race and not gone in so blindly. I felt very out of shape and tired and I think with proper training it might not have been so “hard.”
- The views were AMAZING. I really can’t think of another adjective that might better describe the scenery I was lucky enough to encounter on this course. My pictures really do not do it justice.
- I understand the complications of a race of this nature, and honestly, there probably wasn’t much that could change. I was lucky enough to not get lost DURING the race, but a few fellow runners made wrong turns. With the race ending at Machu Picchu, they are not allowed to bring up food/water. (I didn’t know that until the next day though).
- I 100% would recommend this race. It is challenging and frustrating but SO WORTH IT.
Sorry for the long recap, I really hope you enjoy reading about my misery (sorta joking) and like the pictures. I'm pretty blessed to have had the opportunity to do this.
I'll skip forward ahead briefly to post what I received at our awards ceremony that wasn’t until the last night of my trip: