Friday, August 15, 2008

TR - Peru - Part 2

Trip Report – Part 2
7/29- 8/12/08

OK. Where were we? Oh Yeah- starting our hike at Km 82 of the Inca Trail to base camp. We hiked beside the train tracks on the opposite side of the Urubamba River to the Inca Trail. Most of us had decided that we would hike – not run – the 6 miles to camp because of the fast training run the day before and the race started early on Wed.
We reached the official government checkpoint at Qoriwayrachina at Km 88 where we crossed the Urubamba River and entered the Machu Picchu Sanctuary National Park. But not without problems! A few runners had renewed their passports and the permits had been issued with their old passport numbers so they didn’t match. And the Peruvian officials were not going to let them enter the Inca Trail! After much scrambling and promises to correct the problems they were finally allowed to enter the Trail and we hiked another mile to a base camp at the foot of the Inca ruins at Llactapa (Town on the Hillside at 8592 ft). We arrived just as it started to rain? Fortunately our luxury accommodations (read –tents) were already set up and we settled in.

After afternoon tea in the mess tent I hiked up to the top of a hill on the Inca Trail where the race was to start. I wanted to check out the trail and get a bird’s eye view of the camp and the Inca ruins. I was happy that the trail was dirt and the rain had not made it slippery! If only I could have guessed? Read on.
We enjoyed a great buffet dinner including pasta in the mess tent. Some of the marathoners decided they wanted to get an early start. Since we had to pass through another checkpoint around 4 miles that didn’t open until 6 am there was not much point in starting before 5 am. The official start was 6 am! Since it was already dark we all went to bed early. As I climbed into my sleeping bag I suffered flashbacks to the Everest Marathon. I swore I would never spend another night in a tent on a cold mountain! But this was much better – the tent was roomier and the weather was warmer. I crawled into my bag with two thermal layers on and had to remove one in the middle of the night because I was too warm? As we settled in for the night it started to rain again – and it rained hard – and it rained all night! All I could think was “the trail is going to be muddy/slippery and there will probably be snow above 13,000ft? Oh Goody!

My tent mate, John – a Brit in my age group- decided to start early so he (and I) were awakened at 3:30am. The early group started in a light rain and the dark at 5:10am. By then I was up and packing my bag to be carried to Machu Picchu and making final preparations for the 6am start. Breakfast was served but I can’t eat before a race. Luckily the rain stopped as we hiked in the dark to the start line. It was cool so I started with two layers. After some photos the official marathon started a few minutes early! I carried a backpack/Camelback with enough water to get me to the first aid station at 4 miles. The trail crossed the Cusichaca River and climbed gradually out of the Urubamba Valley to Wayllabamba (9100 ft). The first three miles were nice, soft dirt and I was able to run at a good pace. Then the trail entered the Llullchayoc Gorge and started to climb steeply over the next 5 miles to the top of Warmiwanusscca Pass (Dead Woman’s Pass) at 13,779 ft! At three miles the nice, soft dirt disappeared and was replaced with stone paths and stone steps built by the Incas 500 years ago. The stones were uneven and slippery from the rain – and the steps were even worse! They were steep, narrow and slippery! I reached the first aid station at 4 miles in 51:13. I stopped to remove my 2nd layer, fill my Camelback with enough water to get me to the next aid station at 10 miles, take a photo, and continue the grueling, relentless climb up Dead Woman’s Pass. We climbed thousands of steps that climbed straight up the mountain – obviously the Incas didn’t believe in switchbacks or dirt trails? We passed through mossy woods (with mossy steps) and a thick forest before emerging into a large meadow (pampa) at Llulluchapampa at 12,400 ft. It started to get cold so I wasn’t surprised when I soon reached stone steps that were covered with snow and ice! Oh Great. Steep/narrow stone steps that are now covered with snow/ice! And did I mention that in many places there was a sheer drop of 1000+ feet off the sides of the steep/narrow/slippery stone steps? I reached the top of Dead Woman’s Pass in 2:09:25 where I caught up to my tent mate and another early starter. It was very cold so we all stopped to add another layer of clothing and take photos. Then they bounded off down the stone steps on the other side of the pass. I took one look down and FROZE – from FEAR! The stone steps were steep/narrow and covered with ice and going DOWNHILL! Climbing uphill on steep/narrow steps was scary but gravity and altitude kept the pace slow and safe. Going downhill was terrifying! One bad step or slip and I would fall a long way down the steps. Did I mention the sheer, 1000 ft drop off the side of the steps! I didn’t want to think about that option! I was so terrified of falling that the only way I could make it down the steps was to side step – one step at a time and always leading with my left foot so that my right/dominant side would fall into the steps if I made a mistake! I had to focus strongly on each step and foot plant to prevent a fall and to control my acrophobia. I was afraid that if I looked at that sheer, 1000+ft drop I would become dizzy and fall off the mountain! I had to use this method/routine until I descended back below 13,000 ft where the temps warmed up and the ice had melted. At that point I decided if I wanted to finish the race that day I would have to teach myself how to hike down the steps in a normal mode i.e. like going down the steps in my house! That’s a lot easier to say than do but I did manage to get into a somewhat normal pace until I reached more steps that were very steep and narrow and then it was back to the side step routine! It took me 50 minutes to descend 1 mile and reach the 2nd aid station at 10 miles. I had reached 10 miles in 2:59:30. I knew my pre-race goal of finishing under 8 hrs was not going to happen! And I didn’t care – I was too terrified of the downhill steps to take any risks for the sake of time.

I stopped at the aid station to fill my Camelback with enough water to get to the final aid station at 17.5 miles. The race director had told us that there would be bottled water at every aid station. He lied! The porters were boiling local stream water to purify it. That was OK but the water was still hot when I filled my Camelback so I had to drink hot water for the next 3 hrs. Another first for a marathon!
The trail then began to climb again (lots more steep/narrow stone steps) as it ascended to the top of Runkurakay Pass (13,100 ft). I swear that climb was worst than the 1st Pass? The steps seemed to be much steeper and went on –and on – and on - without any relief. I caught and passed a few more runners from the early group as I struggled to the top of the pass while sucking for air. Near the top the steps became so steep and narrow that we had to crawl/scramble on our hands and knees to get to the top! I stood on the top of Runkurakay Pass at 3:49:33. Then the fear began again – I had to go down the steps on the other side! Back to my terrifying and slow side-step routine for the steep/narrow steps at the top and finally eased into a normal pace by the time I reached the Inca fortress at Sayacmarca (12,234 ft). I missed a turn at the ruins and climbed a series of steep steps up into the ruins before I realized there was no trail out of the ruins? I had to back track to the steps and at that point one of the runners I passed was approaching the ruins and he asked a Quechua porter for directions. I had to descend the steps and follow a narrow stone path along the perimeter of the ruins. I kept catching up to my fellow runner as we passed through natural and Inca-made tunnels. We joined up again at the final water station near the ruins at Phuyupatamarca (Town in the Clouds – 11,674 ft) at 17.5 miles. This was the overnight camp for the runners completing the trail in two days. It had taken me 6:08:39 to go 17.5 miles. Maybe I should stay overnight at the camp? The final checkpoint closed at 3 pm?

I stopped to fill my Camelback with enough water to get me to the finish line. Surprise – more hot water! The next surprise was the very nasty/steep/narrow steps leading down from Phuyupatamarca Pass. They were steep/narrow and in bad shape – back to the side-step routine. When I finally managed to get down that terrifying stretch of steps I commented to myself that it couldn’t get any worse than that. WRONG! I reached a rock outcrop of granite that bulged out of the side of the mountain like a big belly. The Incas had carved very narrow steps or toeholds into the granite but time, water and use had rounded the steps. I looked at those steps and said” I ain’t going down there”! I looked for an alternate route – there was none! I considered quitting but it was 8 miles to Machu Picchu down those terrifying steps or 19 miles back to the start line! There were no other alternatives! I tried my side-step routine but that required looking down (to where I would most likely fall and die) and the steps were too rounded and narrow for the side of my foot. So I laid on my belly and clung to the rock outcrop - dug my fingers into the granite and clawed my way down that 30-ft section of terror. I bet my claw marks are in that granite for a long time!

The trail seemed to get better with less steps after that and I was able to make good progress until I reached the ruins at WinayWaya (8692 ft). The trail passed through the ruins and down another terrifying series of steps inside the ruins. My knees were throbbing and sore by then and the only way I could make it down those steps was to use my side-step routine and cling to the walls of the ruins. At the bottom of the steps the trail had dirt and small stones and I was able to hike faster (almost jog) until I reached the final checkpoint near 22.5 miles (7:43:09). Abelardo was waiting at that checkpoint to pass us through and I was pleased to discover that after the checkpoint the trail descended gradually and actually had a section of dirt trail? I could catch glimpses of other runners ahead of me and hear voices. I started to run ‘easy’ in hopes of catching them but never could because they had also started to run. Unfortunately after 1 mile the trail became stone paths again and stone steps as it started to climb? I heard footsteps behind me? Abelardo had decided to follow the group ahead and me to the finish line. That worked out well for me because I didn’t have to worry about taking a wrong turn (again). Like a kid in a car I started asking “Are we there yet? How far to the finish line? “ Since the trail was climbing again and I expected it to be descending to Machu Picchu I asked what was going on? Abelardo informed me that the trail was climbing around and UP the backside of Machu Picchu Mtn to Intipunku – the Sun Gate (8860 ft) - that overlooks Machu Picchu (7900 ft). I asked “How far”? Instead of distance he answered “about 40 minutes”! The trail kept climbing and climbing – more steep/narrow steps. My knees were killing me but Maddog refused to stop for a rest in case Abelardo think he was a wimp. Finally I reached a short set of very narrow/steep steps (supposedly built that way for defensive purposes) that climbed up the Sun Gate. Those steps were so steep that I had to crawl/scramble on my hands and feet and the last few steps I had to crawl on hands/feet/knees to drag myself over the top and through the Sun Gate (8860 ft). My first look at Machu Picchu! It was awesome! I stopped for photos and then asked Abelardo “how far to the finish line”. He again answered in time – “about 40 minutes”! I had reached the Sun Gate in 8:30:06. I didn’t have 40 minutes if I wanted to finish under 9 hrs and recoup some self-respect!

I became determined/obsessed about breaking 9 hrs even if it meant taking some risks. Luckily that final section of trail to Machu Picchu - known as the Royal Trail - was all downhill and built with larger, flat stones that provided better/safer footing and I was able to jog that final two miles and reach the finish line at the ‘flat rock’ overlooking Machu Picchu (7900 ft) in 8:51:23! It was a good thing that Abelardo was behind me because I would have missed the finish line like many other runners did. He took a photo of a jubilant and glad-to-be-alive Maddog jumping up and down on the flat rock.
I had noticed on the final jog down the Royal Trail that I had lots of physical energy left because I had had run/walked so slowly. But as soon as I reached the finish line I became mentally exhausted. The stress of focusing on every foot plant and each and every of the thousands of stone steps and controlling my acrophobia had totally exhausted me mentally. I asked Abelardo “how far is it down to the bus that takes us to the hotel”? “10 minutes” I told him that I didn’t care how long it took but I was going to relax and walk down in a normal/easy/slow fashion!

When we reached the bus stop the runners from the early group that had been ahead of me were waiting for the bus. They had finished only a few minutes ahead of me. Everyone complained about sore knees and calves and a few had bruises and cuts from falls but everyone was happy and healthy! During the thrilling 30-minute bus ride down the mountain to Aguas Calientes I started to question my performance in the race? At first I was disappointed with my time but then I reminded myself how difficult it had been to control/overcome my acrophobia and fear of the downhill steps and how lucky I was to have finished ALIVE and injury free! I could never have attempted or finished that race 5 years ago before I started climbing 14ers in CO and learned how to control my acrophobia! No, I should be pleased and proud that I overcame those difficulties to finish the race!

When we reached Aguas Calientes our leg muscles had tightened up and everyone had difficulty getting off the bus and walking to the hotel. The Sports Manager was waiting at the bus stop to see if I had survived? Unfortunately our room did not have a tub so I had to make do with a hot shower before joining my fellow runners for a pizza and beer and to discuss our memorable race.

Thu was a rest day as we waited for the runners completing the trail in two days to finish. My legs – and especially my knees - were very sore. I haven’t been that sore in years? So I scheduled a massage with a Thai masseuse who helped a lot and then I went for a soak in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes. Unfortunately the hot springs (100 F) were not as hot as my hot tub (108 F).
The runners who took two days had the advantage that they finished less beat up than us and got to see/enjoy a lot more of the Inca trail.

Fri was an organized tour of Machu Picchu. We started early to beat the crowds – and believe me there are crowds because they don’t limit entry to the ruins! Our guide, Abelardo, led us on a very interesting and informative tour of the ruins. There are lots of steps (surprise) in the ancient city. The Sports Manager had a very difficult time since she is more afraid of heights and steps than me. We had to coax/coerce her down some steps from the top of the ruins but she did it. We visited all the sections of the city –agricultural, industrial and industrial - and the religious temples. See photo website for some great pics of Machu Picchu. After an excellent lunch at the exclusive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge located at the entrance to the city I coaxed the Sports Manager into climbing more steps to the flat rock. She was afraid at first but very glad that she made it to the flat rock for the postcard views of Machu Picchu.

On Sat we took a train back to Ollantaytambo to visit the Inca ruins overlooking the city. The city was abandoned before completion because of the Inca civil war between the two sons of Huayna Capac. We continued by bus through Pisac to Cusco and returned to our old hotel and one final night in Cusco. That evening the tour agency held an award ceremony at the hotel in Cusco. I had come to believe that we weren’t going to get a finisher’s medal or race T-shirt but they did come though. No special awards but every runner received a finisher’s medal, T-shirt and certificate. To nobody’s surprise Roxanne won the race - in 6:12 – an amazing time under the conditions. I was pleased to learn that I finished in 4th place overall.
On Sun we flew back to Lima and were guided on a city tour of Lima. We visited the Plaza Mayor in old colonial Lima as well as the San Francisco Monastery before returning to our hotel in Miraflores one last night. The Sports Manager and I skipped the ‘final’ tour dinner to enjoy a private seafood dinner and a bottle of Peruvian wine in a small restaurant (we couldn’t face more chicken).

Mon was a very early wake-up call and a long flight back to Colorado!

This 2nd part- especially the race report- was long but I needed to record the facts and memories so that when I get old and think about running the Inca Trail Marathon (again) I can read the report and remember why I would never – ever- run this race again! It was the worst/toughest/slowest/most terrifying marathon I have ever run. But that is a personal opinion due to my fear of heights and running downhill steps. If you are a good downhill runner this marathon would not be as difficult as Everest!

The marathon tour/organization was good but had some problems that I will not review in the report to keep it from getting longer.

It is over. I am happy that finished Country #92 ALIVE and injury-free and now I must focus on more altitude training to prepare for my next marathon/adventure in a few weeks in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.

Stay tuned!

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