26.2 miles, over 9,000 feet of elevation gain, 9 hours and 49 minutes and the most peaceful adventure I have ever taken on. The Official Inca Trail Machu Picchu Marathon (took me the entire trip to nail that spelling down) was a combination of hiking Colorado’s 14er’s and a really hilly trail run. Most people do the trail over a 4-day period, we did it in 1. Erik Rasmussen and his wife Myra of Erik’s Adventures organized the entire trip and they did such a phenomenal job, I cannot even begin to imagine the hours of preparation they put into planning such an event.
The trip started in Cusco at 11,200 feet above sea level. I was unsure how I would fare in the altitude. Last summer I spent most of my time over 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but the past year I have been living at sea level in Connecticut. Erik’s itinerary was great allowing us to have a day to recover from the red eye and then start moving about to get acclimatized. We did a couple of easy runs (legs felt like feathers whilst my chest was on fire, not a feeling I am used to) and I spent some time like a lunatic running the stairs of the hotel. This activity and the magnificent mate de coca tea meant I was breathing like a native Inca in no time. I later found some coca leaves (the raw material for cocaine) that the crew gave me instructions on how to chew like tobacco. Not particularly natural for me, especially when the picture of me unveiling my leaves was more reminiscent of a bag of spinach.
The day before the race we hiked into our campsite from KM 82 after spending the day exploring the ruins at Ollantaytambo. Our guide Victor, a plethora of knowledge even to my incessant questions, was with us along the way. The hike was beautiful, maybe not my normal pre-race day activity, but it allowed us to become familiar with the terrain we would see the next day and practice our downhill skills. Erik set up the some tape that read “danger” as course markers, which we all found quite funny. Follow the danger! Exactly what we signed up for.
The morning of the race we woke up at 3:30am to Stewart’s “Hey, Soul Sister” alarm clock. I slept really well considering, after I read Karen a nighttime story with my taped together broken Peruvian headlamp. I instantly put my contact lenses in, very apprehensive to do so in a pitch-black tent, but finally success! We all met in the dining tent for breakfast and tea and discussed race strategies. Sam asked me for some words, and I said that I always tell people that if they are feeling good, to go for it. This is a race, not a training run and now is the time to seize the moment and show what you are capable of. She summed this up as essentially “Battle your Body,” which became the phrase of the day I shouted out during the out and back loops of the race.
I packed up my camelback with the plan of being self sufficient for the run. Having no idea how long the race would take, and what sections would take what time I wanted to be prepared. I packed off with my 3.5L of water, dried fruit, and nuts, bonk breaker bars, X2 Performance, almond butter packets and electrolyte tabs. Oh and my passport, very customary race day essential. Put it this way, when I put it on my back, I was happy I trained with a 15 pound weighted vest!
At 5am we congregated at the race start line steps from our campsite. I told the others how I like to be a bit late for races; the anxiety gets me all amped up! My family knows this all to well. There was no possibility for that on this one! We had a laugh about the conflicting national anthems we could sing and after a few pictures off into the night we went!
I immediately had a difficult time running in the dark, this wasn’t something that I had practiced or prepared for. But it was a blast! I loved hopping up and down between the shadows and the sense of adventure of was I even running in the right direction? Daylight came in about 45 minutes and I got rid of my headlamp. It was gorgeous running in the Andes; with the sun rising and I knew that this was going to be a day I would never forget.
I had meticulously separated the race into 6 sections to be mentally prepared for each with a surge of adrenaline completing each one. The first portion was extremely runnable and I was able to get into a good groove, with no thoughts of the altitude. It was such an experience running through the little towns and I smiled when a local Peruvian boy yelled “Go Chica!”
Dead Women’s Pass. Challenge #1 of the day, 3.4 miles, 4,500 feet of elevation gain. I started to see a lot of hikers at this point, as this was the start of their second day of hiking. The pass was extremely steep and got steeper as it went on. This was were my climbing 14’er’s experience came in and I was able to keep a steady pace climbing up. It was humbling to see the porters who were carrying heavy bags and hiking the same terrain. I used my patchy Spanish to try and tell them I was impressed with what they were doing. They said the same back despite one porter screaming “Impossible, there’s no way!” Many tourists were in awe of what I was trying to accomplish.
After the pass was the first descent. The porters were flying doing these sections as if they were barley even touching the floor. All of the steps were uneven so you had to be very careful. This was where plyometric training came in handy and I was able to use my fast feet to get down relatively quickly. At the bottom of the descent I saw Jessica, one of our guides, at the aid station. She amazingly predicted the exact time where I would get to the next aid station.
Challenge # 2 came the second steep pass of the day. .9 miles and just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. I mentally went into this one thinking it was a 1/3 of the challenge of what I had already conquered and was ready to dominate. This was probably my favorite part of the race because I was completely isolated. I did not see or hear another person. I have never felt so peaceful in my entire life. I tried to take a moment to soak up the atmosphere, and feel gratitude for the experience I was having.
The last two sections of the race blurred together. They were very up and down with some climbing, some runnable sections and some steep descents. I met some llamas along the way and people camping who cheered me on. They were all excited, screaming, “You are the first person!” I had no idea…
I was very excited to reach Winya Wanya. This was the 3:15pm cutoff point. If you did not make it here by then you would not be able to continue to Machu Picchu because of the closing time at 5:30. I arrived around 1:45pm so I knew I had plenty of time. I saw Victor our guide and he was very excited to stamp my passport and I made my way on the final 5K of the race. I still had so much energy at this point; the diversity of the climbing and the technical descending meant that I was so excited to be running I felt like I could have gone on forever!
When I reached the sun gate (1 mile from the finish) I started to encounter tourists who had hiked up from Machu Picchu. They literally thought I was insane as the final leg adrenaline took me hopping down the steps. The view was breathtaking; it was such a magical experience to follow the footsteps of the Inca’s and to imagine what they must have though upon arriving at such a beautiful location. I saw Myra at the end cheering me on and reached the finish line overlooking the ruins. I think my words were “Is that it?” at the end referring to the exact location of the finish line, but everyone laughed hysterically asking if I was even out of breath.
After 9 hours and 49 minutes I had made it there. The first finisher and the fastest female to have completed this race thus far. I think I might be up to the challenge of keeping that title next year! Challenge 7x7 is my attempt to see what I can do under circumstances that may not be ideal and that push me to perform outside of my comfort zone. The Inca Trail Marathon certainly did that.