Desert Vibes

Desert Vibes
Photo: Ben Clark

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Monthly Totals

Totals:
Miles -- 172 miles
Time -- 24h 25min
Elevation Gain -- 3,230 feet

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Didn't run much at all the first ten days of the month (only ran 18 miles total during these days) due to my left calf continuing to hurt. Slowly started adding miles back on and had two back-to-back 55 mile weeks, which isn't overly impressive but a significant improvement over what I had been doing. The last few days of the month were the beginning of a taper heading into my Labor Day weekend attempt at a Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim run. I'm hoping to continue increasing my mileage through September and get back to about 70-80 miles per week. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 27.5 Mile Marathon


We spent the night before our Inca Trail run camping near the Llactapata archaeological site. After I climbed inside my tent and slipped inside my sleeping bag I turned on my flashlight to find my water bottle. Of course, I see a huge-ass spider staring right at me. I am petrified of spiders. I absolutely hate the little (or sometimes big) bastards. So I promptly started beating the hell out of the thing with the water bottle. Once assured of the spider’s demise, I turned off my flashlight for what would be one of the most restless nights in all of my time in Peru and Bolivia. 

I stared at the roof of the tent for what seemed like an eternity until I finally nodded off to sleep. When I woke up I expected it to be several hours later, boy was I wrong. To my surprise I had slept for only 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes! WTF?! Seriously? After a few more hours of gazing at the tent roof Geoff, my tent-mate, woke up to take a piss (somewhere around 1:30-2 AM). I remember making some comment about not sleeping at all and he said he had been lying awake all night long too. Damn, if I had known that at least I could have been talking to the guy. I think I may have got in another 5-10 minutes of sleep during the rest of the night. 

Needless to say, when the porters came to our tent at 3:45 AM for the wake-up call Geoff and I were already awake and making final preparations for our run. Geoff, as well as the other four runners in our group, were all packing Camelbaks full of several liters of water, energy gels, energy bars, sunblock, and just about anything and everything you can imagine. My preparations for the run were pretty easy; I filled two hand-held water bottles and put on a small waist band that was barely big enough to hold my camera. I slept in the clothes that I planned to wear running, which included a pair of running pants (I put these on over my running shorts so I could shed layers if it warmed up too much), a long-sleeved spandex shirt, a wind-proof and water-proof jacket, and a hat. This certainly made getting dressed a lot easier as all I had to do was put on my shoes.  

Eventually everyone made their way to breakfast, which was pretty damn good once again. We had porridge, banana pancakes, and coffee/tea. The coffee reminded me of one of my Golden Rules of running; always take a pre-game deuce. As I was following this rule one of the other runners in the group barged in on me for what was at the very least an awkward moment. I didn’t care, I have no shame. 

The original plan was to start the 15 minute hike from our campsite to the starting line at 4:45 AM so we could start at 5 AM. That didn’t happen. Finally, around 5 AM we left camp for the starting line. I had already hiked this trail the previous day when exploring the Llactapata area so I know what to expect more or less. The porters were making pretty good time heading up the trail and I was right on their heels. I figured the quicker I get up to the starting line the more time I would have to catch my breath before we actually started running…Seemed logical enough to me. 

Once the entire group reached the start line several runners began shedding layers in anticipation of the weather warming up a little. Not me. I’ve been too used to 100+ degree weather in Texas all summer. Plus I’m a huge pussy when it comes to being cold. So I kept all of my layers on, which proved to be a good decision because it was freezing on top of the first pass. Anyways, I would have an opportunity to shed layers at the first full aide station at mile 11 or so. 

We officially began the July 2011 Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 27.5 Mile Marathon at 5:15 AM. I was going to run almost 28 miles with 12,500 feet of vertical on less than 30 minutes of sleep…Fun stuff.
All of the runners charged fearlessly into the pitch-black darkness for an incredible day of running/hiking. I immediately took the lead and was never really challenged for the duration of the run, which turned out to be a bad thing since it screwed up the logistics of getting the runners through the various checkpoints. This meant I had to stand around and wait several times throughout the run. 

The initial 4-5 miles were on decent singletrack trail with rolling hills and an almost imperceptible increase in elevation. Every now and then I would have to slow down and move to the side of the trail for horses or donkeys to pass by since the initial miles of the trail were used by local peoples. 

At first, I took off at a pretty decent pace and my body felt great. After a mile or so our guide, Abelardo, informed me that there was a gate near Wayllabamba (about 4.5-5 miles from our start) that didn’t open until 6 AM (6 AM was our original scheduled time to start the run, but everyone in the group except me wanted to start at 5 AM because they didn’t think they could make it to the final checkpoint by the 3 PM cutoff time). Well, damn…This meant I would either have to slow down my running pace or keep my pace and wait 10-15 minutes for the gate to open when I arrived. I decided to slow down my pace a little, which sucked because I felt like giving the trail all I had at the moment. This was the first of several times I was forced to stop or slow down my pace. 

I arrived at the Wayllabamba gate shortly after 6 AM and began searching for the water-only aide station I thought should be there. After no luck finding the water station I decided I would need to start rationing my water (I started with 32 ounces and was now down to 12 ounces at this point) until the next aide station, which was about 7 miles away and on the other side of the 13,776 foot mountain pass I had to climb. Going 7 miles and another 4,000 vertical feet on 12 ounces of water was not going to be easy at all. I began to wonder what the hell I was doing out there. I certainly had plenty of time to think since I had to stop about every 100-200 feet to rest due to the altitude kicking my ass. This was really the only time during the entire run when doubt crept into my mind. 

Just as I was starting to abandon all hope I came across a porter on a section of the trail that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Beside the porter was a sign reading “Andes Adventures.” That’s me! To my relief he had lots of water with him. I filled up both my hand-held bottles, gave him my flashlight as a gift, and got back on my way. It was amazing how much “kick” got put back into my step after getting some water. 

Along the way up to the first pass I encountered several people. I used each person I passed as an opportunity to stop and rest for a while and also chat a little. The porters were always a great conversation even with our limited communication abilities. Although I thoroughly butchered the Spanish language, they always understood what I was trying to say. All of the porters were extremely supportive along the way and offered words of encouragement as well as applause. That might not seem like much, but it certainly did help.
Dead Woman's Pass is in sight, but it's much further away than it looks

Looking back on the valley where I started my ascent of the first pass. I'm between 1/2 to 3/4 of the way up at this point.

A mossy, wooded section of the trail

Awesome snow-capped peak in the distant view from the trail

Another great snow-capped peak

Eventually, I reached the top of the Warmiwanusq’a Pass, or Pass of the Dead Woman, at an elevation of 13,776 feet. It took me exactly three hours to reach the top of the pass from our starting point; a journey that covered about 10 miles and 5,000 vertical feet. Whew…Let me just say that it’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to look down all the way to the valley at the bottom and realize that you just ran/hiked your ass all of the way up to the top of the mountain pass. I paused at the top for about five minutes to take in the views, snap a few photos, and reflect on what I had just accomplished. I was still a long way from my goal of Machu Picchu (18 miles to be exact), but after making my way up Dead Woman’s Pass I had no doubt in my mind that I would finish easily. 
Finally at the top of Dead Woman's Pass. Looking back down to the bottom of the valley where I began my ascent.

Sun rising over the snow-capped peaks

After casual chit-chat with some Danes and Aussies atop the pass I decided it was time to move along. I began my descent to the next aide station (I believe it was near the Pacaymayu campsite, but I’m not 100% certain) about 2 miles down the mountain. Most of the descent was stone stairs, which were uneven and barely wide enough for half of my foot to fit. To make things even worse, near the top of the pass the stairs were covered in frost. Oh well, I decided to run down them anyways. To my surprise, I never fell. 
Top of Dead Woman's Pass. Looking over the other side that which I to descend.

Looking back up at Dead Woman's pass after descending part of the way. Look closely at the top of the mountain and you can see people. Those are the Danes and Aussies I talked with.

After about 25 minutes I reached the second aide station. Abelardo and a few porters were there waiting with water, Gatorade mix, hot soup, cheese sandwiches, bananas, oranges, and granola bars. I had worked up quite an appetite getting over the first pass. So the food sure did hit the spot. 

I spent about 30-45 minutes at the aide station, eating and talking with Abel and the porters. I used this opportunity to shed my jacket, but decided to keep the running pants, long-sleeved spandex shirt, and hat. I was somewhat encouraged to hang around the aide station longer than I would have liked. Apparently I was pretty far ahead of the other runners and it was messing with the checkpoint logistics. 

Well-fed and ready to go, I finally started up the second pass of the trail, Runkuraqay (elevation 12,470 feet). This pass wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the Dead Woman’s Pass; it covered 1,000 vertical feet in 1.25 miles. Abelardo informed me that it should take about 50 minutes to reach the top of the pass. I started out hiking up the pass because it was actually steeper than the first one. However, a goddamned bumble bee the size of a bird kept chasing me and wouldn’t leave me the hell alone. So I ended up running up several parts of the trail. When I got to the point where I felt my heart was going to explode I would quit running and pray that the bee quit following me. Moments later I would inevitably hear the buzzing of the bee, which made me take off running again. This happened several times until finally the bee decided to piss off. Luckily for me, this happened right about the time that the Runkuraqay ruins were in sight. I managed to catch up with one of the porters who went ahead of me from the aide station and had him snap a photo of me with the ruins. 
Ruins at the Runkuraqay Pass


Taking a break going up the Runkuraqay Pass

A nice little pond near the top of the pass

Looking back on the trail as I ascended the pass
 
At the top of the pass I stopped to talk with a group of three Colombians and their tour guide. They were doing a multi-day hike and seemed surprised at the fact that I was doing the entire trail in less than a day. I talked with them for 10 minutes or so which gave me plenty of time to recover from ascending the pass. I would have loved to sit and talk with them all day, but I had some running to do. 
At the top of Runkuraqay Pass looking down the side I would descend

Pausing for a photo on the descent from the Runkuraqay Pass

After the Runkuraqay pass it was literally almost all downhill to Machu Picchu. There were some small rolling hills and one more pass, but they were nothing compared to the two passes I had already climbed. This runnable section of trail made me realize that it’s fun to run past people who are slowly hiking along, using their trekking poles, and hear them say “what the hell?” as you pass by. Of course, I would stop and explain to them what I was doing mainly because I wanted to see their reactions. Some would ask if I was crazy. Some would ask if it’s even possible to run the trail in less than a day. However, all of them would say how awesome it was to do something like that. 
A few miles after the second pass (I think). Look closely at the mountain side and you can see a waterfall.

One of two or three tunnels on the trail.

Taken from the third pass looking back at the trail I had just run.
 
At about mile 17 I climbed the third pass (it was hardly a pass at all when compared to Dead Woman’s Pass and Runkuraqay) and arrived at the third and final aide station at the Phuyupatamarca campsite. As I entered the aide station area I was greeted with a truly pleasant surprise; about 10-20 porters started yelling and clapping for me! It was a great feeling to have all of these guys who bust their asses on the Inca Trail countless times a year cheering for me. 

Once again, the aide station had soup, sandwiches, fruit, etc. After eating and refilling my water bottles I was ready to hit the trail again. However, I was asked to wait around a little for the others to catch-up to me. Although I was ready to leave the aide station in 5 minutes or so I ended up spending 45 minutes there. This was the second time in the day I was forced to stop and wait for the others. Eventually Abelardo said it was cold at the pass and asked me if I was ready to start running again. Of course I was ready!

Abel led the way and I was right behind him the entire time. Even though this section of trail seemed to have an endless supply of stairs, it was one of the more runnable sections of the trail due to the constant descent. We ran without stopping until we reached the ruins of Winay Wayna, which offered some spectacular views. The agricultural terraces at Winay Wayna made a perfect rest stop for the two of us as Abel tried to make radio contact with the other tour guides. Apparently I was really far ahead of everyone else now. So there was no real urgency on my part to hit the trail and finish since I would just have to wait for the others to finish.
Photo of me on the terraces of Winay Wayna

Same photo as above only not as good since I'm not in it.

Photo from same spot as the previous two photos only includes some of the Winay Wayna ruins.
 
After Abel made some more logistical arrangements we hit the trail and started running again. Within a few miles we had reached the gate to enter the Machu Picchu site. This gate was the last checkpoint that everyone had to reach by 3 PM or else not be able to enter Machu Picchu that day. Abel decided to wait at the gate for the other runners while I opted to push on to the finish. 
The last checkpoint and entrance to the site of Machu Picchu. We had to arrive here by 3 PM or we would not be allowed into the park.
 
The next few miles proved to be the best running section on the trail since the first 3-4 miles. It was all singletrack, mainly dirt with some rocks, and best of all, little to no stairs! Yippie! I tore up this section of trail as fast as I could and most likely had an ear-to-ear smile on my face the entire time. Eventually I reached a steep staircase that led to Intipunku, Gateway of the Sun. On the way up the stairs I talked with a tour guide who asked where my group was. I explained to her that I was running the Inca Trail, which seemed to surprise her quite a bit. Anyways, I decided to stop for a few photos before reaching the Sun Gate and try to catch my breath (damn stairs) while she went on to the gate. 

When I finally reached the Sun Gate I was not only greeted with my first view of Machu Picchu, which was nothing short of life-changing. I was also greeted with about 20 or so people (maybe more) all clapping and cheering for me. Random strangers were coming up to get a picture with “the guy who just ran the whole trail in a day.” Apparently the tour guide I talked to on the way up to the Sun Gate told everyone up there what I was doing. It was a wonderful feeling. I stayed around the Sun Gate for 10-15 minutes taking photos, talking with random people, and just admiring the view. I had wanted to visit Machu Picchu for at least the last 10 years. Maybe longer…I can’t remember. Now, here it was, right in front of me. Words really can’t describe the feeling you get in a moment like that. So I won’t even try…
My first view of Machu Picchu after passing through Intipunku, The Sun Gate. Breathtaking...

Photo of me after passing through the Sun Gate
 
I soon realized that even though I was looking right at Machu Picchu I still had 1-2 miles to run and almost 2,000 vertical feet to descend to reach the finish line. Damn…I said goodbye to my new friends at the Sun Gate and took off running carelessly downhill. I couldn’t remember where the hell Abel said the official finish was so I just kept running until I saw someone that looked familiar. Eventually I saw Geoff’s (the New Zealander, remember?) family who told me I was about 100 meters from the finish. I crossed the finish line at around 1:45 PM. I believe the next finisher came across at 3:30 PM or so, but I can’t remember. 

The 27.5 mile Inca Trail, which includes about 12,500 feet of elevation gain and 4,500 stairs, is typically hiked over the course of 3-5 days. When it was all said and done I ran/hiked the Inca Trail in about 8 hours 30 minutes. Not too shabby…
Me at the finish line of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 27.5 Mile Marathon. Couldn't be happier :)

After the run my body felt great. I could very likely have kept running at least another 10 miles, maybe more. The other two finishers looked like they had seen better days. After a little rest and some photos we made our way to the bus station at Machu Picchu for the ride to Aguas Calientes. I wanted to run the approximately 5 mile trail down to the town, but to my disappointment Abel strongly suggested I just get on the damn bus. So I did. Oh well, I decided I would just run it the next day. 

Looking back on the race I feel that I’m capable of finishing much, much faster than 8.5 hours. I probably spent at least 1-1.5 hours waiting at the aide stations due to gap between me and the other runners. Another 0.5-1 hour can be attributed to stopping to take photos, of which I did plenty. I can’t even begin to imagine how much time I spent talking to anyone and everyone I passed on the trail, but odds are I could shave at least 1 hour off if I just shut the hell up and run. I’m fairly confident that I could run the trail in around 5.5 hours or so. Guess I will have to go back and try again…

Friday, August 19, 2011

Run Along the Urubamba River to Llactapata

Upon arrival at kilometer 82 Piscacucho, I promptly exited the bus, screamed “land!”, fell to the ground, and gave it a big kiss. I was happy to get off that goddamned death trap. I can run along cliffs and mountainsides all day long and not worry at all, but being in a charter bus and driving on one lane roads with drop-offs scares the shit out of me. 

Piscacucho was the start of our 6.5 mile run along the Urubamba River to kilometer 88, Qoriwayrachina, and on to the archaeological site of Llactapata where we would camp for the night.

Kilometer 82, Piscacucho

Nice snow-capped peak in the distance

Our run began on some smooth singletrack trail with some great mountain views and the Urubamba River alongside the trail. After a mile or so we made our way down to the railroad tracks that lead to the town of Aguas Calientes and tip-toed on the railroad ties for maybe a half mile before getting back on the singletrack. Overall, the run was quite easy with little elevation gain, very few hills, and smooth singletrack throughout. 
Urubamba River

Urubambaba River with trail
 
Eventually we came to a crossing of the Urubamba River. The crossing was on a wood plank bridge that looked like it dated back to the original Incan times. As I crossed the thought of falling through the bridge and into the white-water rapids below kept creeping into my head. So, naturally I decided to stop in the middle of the bridge and take a few photos. 
Sketchy old bridge to cross the river
Stopping in the middle of the bridge for a photo
 
After crossing the river there was about one more mile to go before reaching our campsite. The terrain was slightly more difficult than the previous few miles since it included several decent climbs. However, it was still very runnable. I ended up getting lost at a fork in the trail and had to back track a little. When I got back to the right trail one of our porters was there to meet me. He and I ran together to our campsite across from Llactapata. 
Me after the run. Llactapata in the background.
Llactapata without me in front of it

Home for the night :)

This was by far the most amazing place I had ever camped in my lifetime and I seriously doubt I will ever find anything that tops it. I spent the next 30 minutes or so speaking horrible Spanish with our porters while we waited on the rest of the group to arrive. Once the group arrived they all headed directly for the tents and took a nap. Not me. There were trails around the area begging to be explored. The fact that I just ran 6.5 miles and was going to run 27.5 miles the next day wasn’t going to stop me from exploring either. 

The trails around our campsite offered some pretty amazing views. I probably spent two hours or so wandering around the area (with the occasional burst of running), taking photos, and just taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. Being there just had a way of making me forget about all of the bullshit back in Texas, of making things seem good and right in the world. It’s a difficult feeling to explain, but for those who have felt it you will never forget that feeling.
Chasing ass up the trail

Another view of our campsite

Looking up at Llactapata

Another awesome view of Llactapata

It was about 4 PM now and back at the campsite the porters had prepared tea/coffee and snacks for us. The sun was settling in behind the mountains and the temperature was beginning to drop. So the nice, warm cup of coffee certainly did hit the spot. 

Not too long after coffee one of the porters brought a bucket of drinks from a nearby shop. I couldn’t help but notice there were three Cuzquenas in there. This certainly brought a smile to my face since my typical routine the night before a race or a long run includes having two or three beers. I asked around to see if anyone else wanted a beer. No one else wanted one! Jackpot! I popped the cap off my first beer and sat down to enjoy the scenery of Llactapata with the river roaring in the background. Life was good. 

As I popped the cap off my second Cuzquena two girls had just arrived on their way home from school. They had a soccer ball and seemed interested in kicking it around so I kindly obliged. I haven’t played soccer since Kindergarten so my skills are pretty much non-existent. Geoff, the family-man from New Zealand, joined in with us. We played until the sun went down and then continued to keep playing. At the time, there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been. Even now I would go back in a heartbeat. It’s an amazing feeling anytime I can bring a smile or laughter to a child. 

It was now time for dinner and sadly that meant time to say “adios” to my soccer friends. Again I was surprised at how great the food was. The porters really were amazing cooks. After I had second and probably third helpings; our guide, Abelardo, brought out a bottle of Chilean wine to celebrate the journey we would begin bright and early the next morning. Abelardo said a traditional toast, we poured out a little wine on the ground for Mother Earth, and imbibed. 

Everyone turned in to bed relatively early as our 27.5 mile run on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was to begin at 5 AM the next day with a 3:45 AM wake up call.


Sightseeing in Ollantaytambo


“The village of Ollantaytambo is the best surviving example of an Inca town” or at least that’s what our guide told us... Apparently damn near everything in the village is exactly as it was built in the Inca times: stonework, street plan, cobble-stone streets, family courtyards, water system, etc. I’m not quite sure if all the old ladies and little kids trying to sell hand-crafts and Gatorade were there back in the Inca times; I forgot to ask that question.   

Anyways, we wandered around the village for a bit and explored more Inca ruins (mostly agricultural terraces). Not too much to say so I’ll just show a few photos of the area.

Street in Ollantaytambo

Agricultural terraces

Terraces

View from atop the terraces

Still atop the terraces

Valley view

Still atop the terraces

Last one.
We piled into the bus again to drive about 45 minutes on roads that likely were never meant for charter bus travel. I thought we were going to go over the edge a few times, but the driver didn’t seem too concerned so I shrugged it off. Eventually we reached the end of the road, kilometer 82 Piscacucho, where we would begin our run for the day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Run: Salt Mines of Maras to Urubamba River


After viewing the ruins at Chinchero, our group enjoyed a nice and easy run to the Salt Mines of Maras and on to the Urubamba River. In all, the run was about 4.5 miles and mainly downhill. So the altitude didn’t really have too much of an effect. The run was full of amazing scenery and varying landscapes including snow-capped mountains, deserts, and river valleys. The salt mines themselves are a sight to behold. 

The run began on a relatively flat gravel road in open grasslands featuring spectacular views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. Just change the road into some nice singletrack with the same scenery and I imagine that is what heaven would be like. 
Mountains where we started our run

The road we began our run on with mountains in the background

Switchbacks began to appear on the road after 1-2 miles of flat, straight running. We began our descent to the Salt Mines of Maras. From a distance, the salt mines look like white dots in the desert landscape. As you descend further you begin to develop a greater appreciation for the immensity of the salt mines.
First view of the Salt Mines of Maras
Salt Mines, mountains, and the Urubamba River in the distance. You can see the trail we ran going from the salt mines, down the side of the mountain, and to the river.
Close-up of the salt mines

Sprawling view of the salt mines. If you look in the upper-left corner, on top of the mountain, you can see some cars...We ran from up there down to where this picture is being taken.
 
Shortly after arrival in the salt mines area the gravel road turns into some fairly technical, rocky, and nearly all downhill singletrack…Just the way I like it. This was where the run got fun for me (or more fun than it already was). I approach technical downhill runs with a bit of reckless abandon. Not too long ago I came to the realization (after falling several times) that it’s going to hurt almost as bad going slow down these sections of trail as it does going fast. Since then I’ve been flying down trails that bring most people to a walking pace. I don’t have too many photos from the singletrack section of the run since I didn’t want to stop due to having too much fun zooming downhill.
Great view coming out of the canyon and entering into the valley
Urubamba River valley view from the trail


Eventually, all good things must come to an end. This run was no different. Our run ended at the Urubamba River in the bottom of the valley, one of the many spectacular finish lines for the runs in Peru. Lunch was in a restaurant right beside the river with great mountain views all around. They could have served the shittiest food in Peru and it would have tasted instantly better due to the 360-degree views.
Urubamba River

Another river view

Restaurant where we ate lunch. I ran/climbed up a mountain across the river from the restaurant to take this photo.

Me finishing up the run...Just in time for lunch...
 
We hopped into the bus one more time and ventured to the town of Yucay for a night at the Sonesta Posada del Inca Hotel. This hotel was ridiculously awesome with more 360-degree mountain views, scenic singletrack trails within 5 minutes of my room door, and a great sunrise. I definitely would have loved to stay there more than one night. 

Of course, I decided to make use of the quick and easy access to singletrack mountain trails. Shortly after arrival at the hotel I already had my running gear on and headed for the mountains. Once again, the trails were rocky and moderately technical. The real "killer" on this run was the vertical gain. I ascended about 2,500 vertical feet within two miles, whew! I finally decided to turn around since it was already pretty damn dark outside. The run back was fun to say the least. Running in the dark down technical trails that are essentially all rock and no dirt is quite a rush. One wrong foot placement (which is easy to in the dark) and you're falling face first into a bunch of huge rocks, ouch! I did have a flashlight with me, but I opted not to use it in favor of being more adventurous. When I reached the hotel, it was pitch black outside. Not a bad run to end the day on...
Beginning my run in Yucay

Stream alongside the trail in Yucay

I came across a farmer burning his fields on the way back down. At first I thought it might be some ancient Inca sacrifice ritual and they were going to kill me or something...
Good morning, Yucay! View just outside of my room before sunrise.