High in Colorado

High in Colorado
Photo: Mandy Lea Photo

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…


  1. "Dead Woman's Pass is in sight, but it's much further away that it looks"
    What a true statement that is!

    AMAZING feat!!!