Friday, March 27, 2009

Inca Trail 1999

I found this story I wrote way back in 1999 when my co-instructor from Outward Bound, Bill Jacox, and I went down to Peru to run the Inca Trail Race and to climb Alpamayo. We had an excellent run and an even better climb ( I may have the Alpamayo story somewhere, whcih I will try to dig up.)

I believe that these days a runner needs to be accompanied by a local outfit or guide service in order to run the Inca Trail from Kilometer 82 to Machu Picchu. I know there are some gringos who lead running trips down there though.

Here 's the story of the run.

Full of eager, excited runners, all ready to tackle what would turn out to be among their most memorable and exotic runs. We took a bumpy ride over dirt roads to kilometer 82 of the railway line which follows the Urubamba River Valley. After pre-race pictures with some of the race sponsors's banners, Cusquena Beer, Smartwool, and Odwalla, we jounced over the Urubamba River on a rickety footbridge onto the first 8kilometers of rolling dirt and rock trail. The start was located at just under 8000ft in elevation, an altitude to which Bill and I were well acclimatized, having been in the ancient Incn city of Cusco (11000 ft) for over a week. Living in Colorado helps too. There were some runners who live at elevations under 5000ft who did very well, though.There were 20 people running the race; an Austrian, 13 Front Range Coloradans, Bill and I, and 3 Peruvians, including a national steeplechase champion named Marco, and a national Inca Trail legend named Edgar Rodriguez who holds the record for racing the trail in 3 hours and 50 minutes. This was an enthusiastic, outgoing bunch of ultrarunners with respectable resumes of races they´d completed in Colorado and around the world. Some of them were perennial Leadville 100 runners. The Austrian fella, Carl, was completing the Inca Trail run as his 96th marathon or ultrarun, and afterward was heading off to Huaraz, Peru for a multi-day 190 kilometer race. They all held with a passion for the ultrarunning that is more a lifestyle than actually asport. For any person who had only run the Boston or Grandma's Marathon, this was not a good race to start ultrarunning.Edgar, Bill and I ran for the first 2 kilometers together, taking some action photos, skipping over rocks and roots, chatting, etc. Edgar said in Spanish that we were going out too fast, and that we should relax a bit, but I felt good and felt I knew what I was doing so I went ahead a bit. There were a few minor snafus in the run, some things that are only are learned by experience in peruvian culture. Things that are planned with Peruvians only happen when they are meant to happen rather than when one may want them to happen. Unknown to me, Edgar was the trail marker, therefore the pace-setter. The first 10 kilometers of the run through beautiful campesino(a Peruvian country person) farms and several drainages that empty in the sizable Rio Urubamba. It is a steep walled valley on one side covered with lush vegetation, and our side had many side trails that led to the farms and rural homes along the trail. I had almost gotten myself through the rolling, mazey first 10k until I took one wrong turn over a pile of cow pies on a trail that led to a farm. Through the bushes, retracing a few game trails, over some barbed wire, under some logs. Yikes! I bushwacked along another game and cow trail for 5 minutes until I got back to the main trail. I was a bit perplexed from there, so I stopped and decided to wait for the rest of the front of the pack Bill turned a corner near some bushes, running along in his longstrided way, power hiking up the short, steep section to where I was waiting, followed a few minutes later by Edgar. We called out to Edgar,40 feet behind "Que camino?!" No response. I really think he may have been trying to help us slow down to conserve our energy for the next 42 kilometers. Bill decided to keep going the way which we thought the trail went and I decided to wait for a response from Edgar. After thoughtfully marking the trail so the next runners would know where to go, he gestured vaguely in the direction that Bill went. Back in run mode finally!I caught up to Bill in a few minutes, talked shop for a few minutes and then kept going. The trail was pretty well defined it seemed from there. At about kilo 14 the trail did a sharp left and headed up the switch backs. Here is also where I thought that I´d find an aid station and having drank the last of my H2O out of the hydration system I carried on my waist, I yearned to down a quart or two. The aid stations, 3 total in the run, were to be attended by some Cusquenos(people from Cusco, a few hours away) who had hiked out days ahead of time. This was a lesson in how "time" is perceived in Peru and much of Latin America; things happen at a different pace here, and reliable workers can be hard to find. Bananas, water, energy drink, bars(not the alcoholic kind of bar), shelter and radios were to be at each feed station. This is where is the first ascent to the 1st of 3 passes starts, a 6000 ft climb over the top of Dead Woman Pass (Hmmm..Interesting name). The climb started on loose dirt and rocks, and after a half hour of huffing, power-hiking, and feeling "a bit dry", I was caught up to by a running Edgar, and he offered a few words of encouragement. "Mas Rapido!" he said. I thought, "Great. Yeah. I' right along. Go ahead without me." Was this the same Edgar who seemed to be taking his sweet time only 1/2 hour ago? Amazingly, the rest of the way up, he was just ahead of me as the trail turned to the stone steps that the Inca Trail is known for. We entered the clouds and a semi-tropical lush forest. Astonished European, Peruvian, and North American hikers, as well as porters carrying giant loads stopped to let us pass. "Are you guys running some kind of race?" they asked. "You guys are loco!" Given that most people take four days rather than four to 12 hours, I guess these kind of runners were loco.Now in mountain running, the reality is for most of us that on the steep ascents, it is not at all "running". It is surviving. And the only consolation for most is that what goes up must come down. And even then the stark reality still exists that knees are joints that can cry out real loudly when compressed. There are only 3 runners I have ever seen run ascents like that, Edgar being one of them, and myself not one of them. The guy is built like most Peruvians in size, about 5 ft 5 or 6 in , only he has powerfully built legs under him. A couple of those porters decided to race me up the hill and actually kept up for awhile...with a monstrous load of tourist trekkers' gear on their backs! Some of the racers were passed by loaded porters on the descents too!Still ascending to the saddle of the pass, the clouds thickened. There were silhouettes on a flat looking area maybe a mile ahead. "Goats, burros, Peruvian yetis, but those aren't people, are they?" I thought, knowing the legacy of false summits that comes with going up mountains. A bottle neck of hikers on the trail appeared before the silhouettes. The trail was steepest here , and Edgar was still in sight as he topped out. Finally the pass, situated near the silhouettes was a tent was set up with water, Odwalla bars, coca tea, Edgar and the small aid crew. After a few minutes of recharging, I said my thanks to the crew and Edgar and started down the steep descent, with a very full, watered and Odwallaed belly. The steps were works of art. Evenly spaced Incan carved, placed meticulously centuries before. I love going down hill, and some times letting gravity take over with some speed is best for the knees and legs. 3000 or so feet down, and at the base of the next pass I pit stopped in some grass, took care of business, and Edgar cruised by. I managed to catch him up before the next aid station, and after that never saw any other runners for until Machu Picchu hours later. The rest of the run was dotted with ruins here and there. Walls of precisely carved granite that must have taken years to build were the foundation for these ruins. With all the tectonic activity in the Andes, these walls and ruins have stood the test of time. Huaraz, where I am now, has been destoyed several times by earthquakes, and Incan walls from before the conquistadors are one of the only constants. Alluviones, walls of mud, rock, ice and snow, that crash out of the mountains from collapsed glacial lakes, happen every few decades. The Andes are a geologically dynamic range only rivalled by the Himalayas. A local Peruvian guide and his charges of American trekkers steered me the right way when I took a wrong turn into a particularly large ruin. Usually in the US if you get lost in a mountain race it's because you either spaced out while racing, the race director screwed up marking the course, or you got stuck in the trees. Only in Peru will you get sidetracked in archaeological wonders. The last aid station actually was a mobile aid station. Juan, the man in charge of the feed station was completely flabbergasted when I ran up behind him before the 3rd pass. He hustled along, his pack full runners' aid, asking questions about where I'd come from. He never believed that anyone would be there cso fast. I was one of the lucky ones though who found him. Turns out that other runners who arrived at the 3rd pass aid station never even saw him nor an aid station. I guess Juan found other things to do that day. From there, the water, or lack thereof, left my body. It is really hard to stay hydrated, if not impossible, on these long runs. It was a long haul into Machu Picchu. The trail went through a gorgeous ruin in the clouds, and after getting pointed in the right direction again by some hikers, I started the long, long descent down from 12500 ft to 8000ft. The sun started to shine in the hot and steamy lower elevation. I preferred the damp mist that fell up high at that point. A mud puddle started looking like a delicious thing to drink. I stooped over to sip, and then saw the tracks and a bit of the remains from a burro's standing in the same spot. I stood up to plod through the last 8 K. Finally, up over a rise and through the ancient gates of Machu Picchu!
(For some reason the last bit of this story got clipped but I recall getting to Machu Picchu and there was no finish line there! The organizers had misjudged how quickly we would finish the run and arrived wayyyy late. I had no money to buy a drink from the gift shop and wondered if I had misunderstood that the finish was in Aquas Calientes, a few kilometers downhill from Macchu Picchu. I ended up hiking all the way down to AC and then back up to MP, to find that the finish line had indeed finally arrived to MP! I was so wasted by then.)


  1. Dave,

    Great story! What's PA school? If you get in you'll love the Bay Area. Although it's a bit lower than Boulder. Glad you'll be at WS. Should be a good day!


  2. Thanks AJW. PA school is physician assistant school. Not sure if I will make the cut this year; fingers crossed. I hear there are some okay races out in Cali if it works out though. See you in cauldron of Cal Street!

  3. Boulder Spring Half, 3rd dude, 4th place!

  4. It looks like a great race but I would rather go with a local than a "gringo". Because you can learn more about it from them that they have been living their lives there.

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