Friday, July 28, 2017


(late entry: Inca Trail marathon (Cusco- Machu Picchu- Lima Peru, July 1-10, 2017) 

My Canadian Twin Susan periodically texts me that she just signed up for some crazy race. Usually this prompts a sigh or mini-oculogyric episode from me, but when I heard about the Inca Trail marathon it took me less than 5 seconds to answer, “I’m in”.

I had only a vague idea of the Inca Trail or Machu Picchu, but it’s been on my list since reading about Peru on JDKs blog. But since I'm lazy, I wouldn't go there unless there was a race and some company or a tour, I am not one to skip opportunities when they fall on my face.

I learn later, it is usually a 3.5 day hike with 2 mountain passes, uneven stone steps, peak altitude of 13,800 ft (guessing ~10,000 ft elevation). Even in a group of marathon runners, ~1/3 take 2 days to finish. I have virtually no trail running miles this year, and no marathons in the month before (due to RAMROD training) but my capacity for denial is even greater than my pain tolerance. 
Cusco is at >11,000 ft altitude and it was a little scary that I felt SOB (short of breath) just walking up 2 flights of stairs with my overstuffed duffel. It is a beautiful city covered with rainbow flags (their symbol, not a perpetual pride parade). Got try some weird local fruit and gigantic breads at San Pedro market, 

We had amazing local tours including Sacred Valley, Pisaq,

haggling with children in the middle of nowhere, eating boiled gigantic corn with salty cheese, 

And the obligatory hugging/ feeding llamas, learning the differences between llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos.

A group of us decide to ditch White Water rafting to see Rainbow Mtn, a fairly new destination with crazy striped color mountains. It was a long day, getting up at 3:30 AM and riding an overcrowded van 3 hours each way, driving through small towns and cliffside switchbacks, ears popping, blaring first Peruvian music then Led Zeppelin, and stopping for breakfast and to pick up some smelling potion in case the tourists got altitude sickness...

I got a little paranoid because our "guide" who didn't speak English was coughing sneezing on me the whole ride (memories of Comradeds II). I had to stop several times to rest on the 10k out and back hike which started at 14,000 ft and went to 17,000 ft, which the locals in their traditional costumes, though all under 5’ ft tall they make look easy. I was properly scared of the Inca trail after that.

After than more sightseeing at ancient Inca ruins like Saksay waman (pronounced “sexy woman”, like Cusco is pronounced "Costco", the Quechua language of the Incas apparently resembles English more than Spanish”), 
and Ollantaytambo, learned about inca engineering and their philosophy about rocks (they have feelings so they don't cut off all the protuberances),
how those gigantic steps keep people in crops who have torrential rain for 6 months and grey haze for 6 (hmmm maybe I should have some built for my yard….) Saw Jesus (Cristo del Pacifico -¾ the size of the one in Rio),
before returning to Cusco and the complicated task of packing for the race. I realize with horror that the water bladder I had brought was broken and my pack too small to hold bottles, but there are high end mountain stores in town open until 9 pm so I got new gear- whew!

The Peruvian government regulates the number of daily hikers/ porters and you have to get through security gates on the way in and out, and passports are required. The ~6 mile “flat” hike from km 82 to the campsite at the race start was beautiful but it was rocky and not flat.

Once we got there the RD reviewed the course, which we had learned about at the race briefing. It sure looked different in life than on paper, where he points to a “little hill” and we all have to crane our heads to look at the sky. OK I was really really scared now.

We camped and the next morning were ready to go by 5 AM in the dark. I hung in the back so as not to get run over by fast people. Trouble is, pretty soon I lost the headlights of the pack and was in last place with the sweeper Franco, whose headlight didn’t work and who didn’t speak English. We wandered around, went all the way to the river, up another embankment, finally bush-whacked through a field to find the bridge to the path, and by then the leaders were already coming back from the first 4.4km. 

I had lost >10 min which I could not afford. I kept moving but knew already I couldn’t get over the mountain to the first cutoff at 5.7km in under an hour, which meant I was diverted off the 2nd out-and-back which was actually not part of the Inca trail but added to make the distance 26.2M. I didn’t really mind since there is a clause in the rules that you still get a finish but add a time penalty of 1.5 hours for the lost 5.5 km, but I know several runners who wanted it to “count” for their 7 continents wanted to make sure they did a full distance. I never understood those weirdos who will run laps around a parking lot when their garmin says 25.8 miles at the end of a “marathon”. 

Anyhow, I was under the delusion that I could now “relax” because I was now an hour ahead of the pack, and though the leaders lapped me, it was a clear day and the trail though steep was not too technical. Took a ton of pics, was wowed by porters carrying huge packs and wearing cheap shoes leaping like antelopes down the path,
“vamos vamos”-attempted to chat in Spanish with locals who offered me cacao leaves which apparently cure everything from altitude sickness to headaches but taste like ass and may cause your urine to test positive for cocaine, bought overpriced (though still really cheap) coca cola from old ladies in traditional dress.
The leading women passed me toward the end of Dead Woman’s Pass, because as soon as the descent started, they were flying and I was crab walking it one foot at a time with my trekking poles due to my bum knee. I may be the only person who descends slower than I climb at altitude. I started to worry that I might not make the 1st day cutoff. 

At the last aid station before the gate the volunteers were cheering us on as they filled our bottles with 100+ degree water. They said I was fine, they would keep the gate at Winay Wayna open until 4 pm. Normally they close this gate at 3:15, since most hikers take 1:45 to do the last 5km, and they close Machu Picchu at 5. But with a little bribing of government officials and convincing them that “runners” can do it faster, they usually keep the gate open until 3:30-3:40. 3 other runners zoomed past me on the downhill, the last was K, a 27 year old doing her first marathon), all smiles since she was also told they were keeping the gate open until 4.

I got there at 3:50 and there were a bunch of security guards and race guides standing next to the gate. “The gate is closed”. My heart sank. I had missed the first cutoff and now I’d have to camp anyway, all cold and wet, until 8 the next morning. I can’t remember if I started crying or just whimpered “please”. Cesar, our guide said, “go – go- we’re already in trouble with the government”, and “if you see the other girl, tell her to talk to the lady at the gate”. 

I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time, and I was low on water, but I took off like a bat out of hell. I had 65 minutes to do the 5k that normally takes people 1:30-1:45 minutes. I was finally all alone on the trail, I could hear my heavy breathing and feel my heart pounding, which got worse after I ran out of water. Was getting exponentially slower or were the hills actually steeper? Was I going to get stuck on the mountain overnight with no camp or water? 

Then I passed the sun gate and saw the camp and knew I would make it- there was no gate. 
I glimpsed Machu Picchu and it was breathtaking.
I stopped a lady to take my photo. She didn’t know how to use an iphone so that was probably another 5 minutes I didn’t need to kill, but just downhill the last runners who passed me after the aid station were all there at the finish. 12:15 (with penalty 13:45), and I get to shower and sleep in the hotel! (and beeeer!)

Later I find out they had re- opened the gate for several runners, 2 moms whose kids/ spectators were waiting, a guy carrying an engagement ring wanting to propose to his girlfriend (who was the women’s winner), and when K came along, they told her to wait while they talked to the guards, but she took off and scaled a 6 ft fence to bypass the gate and bushwhacked it back onto the trail. So when I came along 5 minutes later (another Asian chick), they were looking for her and had already opened the gate for her, so they let me through.

Next day I saw Susan (who was only 30 min behind me at the last gate so had to camp, but made the first cutoff) and LiChym, along with the 8 other campers who apparently were treated to grilled trout, individual tents, 3 sleeping bags apiece and amazing views camping at Winay Wayna. They hiked down as a group and we did our tour of Machu Picchu and had trout pizza, llama steaks, and pisco sours but didn't brave the grilled guinea pig while looking out on the square, then a celebration dinner with the group, traditional Peruvian music and costume dancers, before getting ready to fly out to Lima. 

There is another long story about how we almost got stuck outside Lima airport for 12+ hours but luckily met up with some tour people who let us tag along their tour group to see Lima in 1 day before flying out. 

Lima is a cool city which is amazingly clean but has some of the worst traffic I’ve seen,
Franciscan cathedrals, the oldest running university in the Americas, pre-inca pyramids, chocolate museum, catecombs
(where someone decided to dismantle the skeletons in order to count them, then arranged the bones by category not person),

Bar Cordano, the oldest in town filled with locals eating pork sandwiches,

the Parque del Amour on the beach at MiraFlores, right next to the “suicide bridge” and tile art reminiscent of Barcelona.

Susan and I both tend to suffer from post-race blues, which I guess keeps us looking for the next high. But increasingly, I am just grateful, both for the opportunity to have gone to places like Peru, and equally glad to be back at the Oasis in Seattle.

1 comment:

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