Savoring the Inca Trail Marathon

Savoring the Inca Trail Marathon

“Good Mooooooorning!” called out our guide followed by the shrill of a whistle. It was 2:00 a.m. I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag, camped across a stream from the Llactapata ruins deep within the Peruvian Andes. The day had finally arrived for me to run the Andes Adventures Inca Trail Marathon – an event that had captured my imagination nearly a decade ago. Sleep had eluded me most of the night. Two o’clock barely qualified as morning. At over 8,000 feet of elevation, the mountain temperatures had dipped into the thirties making the idea of emerging from my sleeping bag seem insane. My tent mate stirred and sighed and fell back into rhythmic breathing.

Two basins of warm water were quietly placed outside of our tent. Andes Adventures had been pampering us like this all week: accommodating us in boutique hotels, providing lavish buffets, and showing us around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Our pleasant Peruvian porters on the trail prepared our early morning breakfast not long after cleaning up our post-dinner mess. We had until 3:30 to eat, pack the gear for our porters to carry out, and ensure our day packs were loaded with the vital necessities: water, food, and clothing layers. I grabbed my headlamp, slipped into my training pants, down jacket, and running shoes and ventured out to relieve myself. The latrines were buckets carried in by our porters and would be packed out complete with contents. Leaving no trace is taken seriously in Peru.

Gazing upward at the stars, the constellations were foreign to me. In Incan astronomy, shapes of creatures are found within the dark spots of the milky way; positions of the sun and the moon on the horizon were used as a calendar to plan their agriculture and spiritual celebrations. I could spot the llama and the serpent but that was the extent of my Inca stargazing skills.

The dining tent was marginally warmer than outside but felt increasingly cozy as it gradually filled with our group of 31 runners. We sat huddled together on tiny camp stools nursing steaming cups of instant coffee or hot chocolate. Plates of pancakes were passed around the table. I thickened a bowl of quinoa porridge with a serving of my personal stash of almond butter. I wasn’t hungry, but ate anyway knowing that the calories would serve me well later.

The Classic Inca Trail is a 26-mile portion of a vast network of stone roads built throughout the ancient Incan Empire between the 13th and 15th centuries; it begins in the Sacred Valley and ends at the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Along the way are jungles, beautiful mountain vistas, and numerous sites of Incan ruins. Peru tightly controls the number of people on the Inca Trail by issuing only 500 permits per day – this includes 300 porters and guides. Visitors are required to have an official guide. A typical trek along this stretch takes 4 to 5 days and is not for the weak of heart or knees. The trail lies in the elevation range of 8,100 to 13,800 feet and requires the ascent and descent of thousands of stone stairs.

Training in the mountains of Colorado gave me an appreciation of the challenge ahead. Given the technical nature and altitude of the marathon, I estimated it could take me up to ten hours to complete it – this was an effort equivalent to a 50-mile trail run.

The day before our run, we hiked six to seven miles along the Urubamba River to our campsite near the starting line; this brought us to within 18.5 miles from Machu Picchu along the Classic Inca Trail. To fill out the traditional 26.2 marathon distance, organizers added an eight mile out and back segment that left the Inca Trail and took us through remote villages and mountain terrain. This section, splitting off from the typical tourist route, offered a peek into the current native culture of the Peruvian Andes.

The Incan Empire was an agricultural society ruled by nobility. Taxation was paid in the form of labor and tasks assigned by each citizen’s skill set. Harvests were shared among the inhabitants. Many of the structures and trails were built in the 15th century when the population was thriving and an enormous pool of labor was available. The roads were used primarily for military and government business. Fleet-footed couriers ran messages all over the empire on this extensive trail network. The Incas, having not yet adapted written language, conveyed their messages with intricately knotted strings.

At 3:30 a.m. we began our 800 meter hike up the trail to the starting line. I wore shorts, long sleeves over a tank, and gloves. Layering was important in preparation for the variable temperatures that accompany the dramatic elevation changes. I carried two liters of water on my back in a hydration bladder and a collection of energy bars and gels. There would be five opportunities along the route to refill our packs with either bottled or boiled water. My headlamp had fresh batteries. I was ready to go.

We started off in a pitch-black forest, our bobbing headlamps showing the way. My heart was pounding from the excitement and thin air. We strung out early and within a mile I was running alone. I settled into my pace and looked forward to the sunrise.

Four miles into the run, at the village of Wayllabamba, the course split us off the main trail onto the out and back segment of the marathon. The turnaround was at Chakrachay at 11,950 feet. The trail weaved through mountain villages and along the rim of a river gorge. Heading up the trail in the dark I could hear water rushing below me but I couldn’t see beyond the edge of my light. I encountered cows and llamas standing on the trail, their eyes reflecting the light of my headlamp; a boy on horseback, presumably minding the cattle, was quiet when I greeted him with “Hola!”. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the people in rural mountain villages of Peru spoke a language completely unrelated to Spanish.

Our porters had hung glow lights in the trees to keep us on the course and at one point I was personally escorted through a tricky section where one could easily wander off the trail. I was chased by a barking dog that rushed out from a home and was relieved when it stopped at the invisible line delineating its territory. The glow lights and porters gave me confidence that I would not get lost.

As I approached the turnaround point, the sky began to brighten enough for me to turn off my headlamp. The leading few runners had already flown by me on their way back down to the main Inca Trail. I checked in at Chakrachay and was happy to finally run full stride down the trail and to enjoy the mountain and river gorge views that earlier had been shrouded in darkness.

The next ascent was 4,000 vertical feet in 4 miles to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass — named for its shape resembling a woman lying supine. Now that daylight had broken, there was more local activity on the trail and I marveled at the size of the loads these stout Peruvians could carry up the steep mountain trails. Locals greeted me with respectful acknowledgment: a silent nod and a gentle smile. The jungle was so thick with vegetation that my camera refused to take photos without a flash. Finally, having climbed high enough to clear the jungle, I saw the sun kissing the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.

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The altitude and steepness of the trail had reduced me to power hiking for most of the climb. Training on the 14,000 foot peaks back home in the Colorado Rockies made this effort feel familiar but there is a distinct difference in Peru; while the trails in Colorado consist of uneven rugged terrain switching back and forth up the mountain side, the trails in Peru go straight up the mountain on remarkably horizontal stone stairs. The Incans didn’t believe in switchbacks.img_2123

Cresting the top of Dead Woman’s Pass is a special memory forever etched in my mind. There before me was a giant stairway, still in the morning shadow, leading down through the Pakaymayu valley. Beyond the valley mountain peaks were bathed in sunlight. Standing completely alone, I was awestruck by the beauty and peace of the moment. The sun warmed my back and I no longer needed my long sleeves. I paused for a few minutes to soak it all in.

Dead Woman’s Pass was 15 miles into the marathon and the highest point at 13,800 feet. As I descended into the shadows, the cool mountain air felt refreshing. The stairs on this section were uncharacteristically deep and wide as if built for giants. Many were slanted backward leaving only the leading edge to perch my feet. Concentrating so as not to twist an ankle or pound my legs excessively, I intermittently ran and stepped cautiously down this 2000-foot vertical descent for about 2 miles. As the trail bottomed out, I was met by a quiet Peruvian crew manning an aid station stocked with fruit, hot soup, and boiled water for drinking. The aid station crew, speaking in their native tongue, conveyed to me that I looked strong. I was grateful for the encouragement; the savory soup was a welcome break from sweet energy gels and bars.

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Next was a steep climb to the top of 13,000-foot Runkurakay Pass. The temperature was getting warm and the day felt to be in full swing; I began to see trekking groups on the trail. I was traveling comparatively light and fast, so to squeeze by the hikers I had to announce myself from behind. I started by using Spanish, “permiso”, then realized the languages I heard on the trail were literally from all over the globe and decided “excuse me” would suffice.

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I inadvertently left the main trail following a group of hikers up a narrow set of stairs and found myself wandering through an impressive Incan fortress. This strategically located structure commanded impressive views of the valley below. I snapped a few photos and spotted the trail far below me. Realizing I had taken a detour, I turned around and retraced my steps back to the trail thinking to myself how often wrong turns reap surprising rewards.

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On the approach to the back entrance to Machu Picchu, the trail descended steeply down stairs through the ruins of a terraced Incan farm village that clung to the side of the mountain. Llamas roamed freely on the terraces and one stood its ground facing me on the trail. The Urubamba River snaked through the valley far in the distance. The steep drop of the terrain combined with fatigue in my legs gave me a shaky unbalanced sensation.

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As the trail descended closer to Machu Picchu the warmth and humidity became uncomfortable and fatigue crept into my body. Some playful porters cheered me on and ran ahead of me, light-footed despite their loads and flimsy footwear. Perhaps they were descendants of the couriers who ran messages through the Incan Empire. Running wearily through the cloud forest I rounded a bend in the trail and came upon some stairs so steep it appeared I had run into a wall. I was so incredulous I exclaimed with the only profanity of the day. Scrambling up to the top required both hands and feet and my nails filled with Peruvian soil.

Shortly after noon, I arrived at the Sun Gate and was treated to an incredibly gratifying grand finale: the dramatic view of the city of Machu Picchu!

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The Inca Trail Marathon offers spectacular scenery, intriguing remnants from the ancient Incan Empire, sweet encounters with the locals, and thousands of crazy stairs of all shapes and sizes. I absolutely loved every step of it!

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