The Inca Trail Marathon

A race report by Michael Whalen

As it was for most of us, the COVID Years were not fun for me. I found myself working way too many hours and not taking much time to run or engage in much social activity. In November 2021, I found that my state contract was ending and I had the opportunity to take a few months off of work. I was not sure how I was going to spend the time off, but I knew I wanted it to be epic!

As I was deleting a ton of old emails, I saw an email from “Six-minute mile”. I usually delete these without opening them, but I decided to open this one. I am very grateful that I did. There was a small write up about “The World’s Most Difficult Trail Marathon”. That piqued my interest, and the more I read, the more I wanted to research how difficult the Inca Trail Marathon could be. My research revealed that only a few people are entered into each race and the conditions are like no other (as you’ll see in the photos below). As we all do, I decided to pull the trigger and attempted to enter the September 2022 event. Quite rapidly, I was declined entry. Oh, well, I most likely would have had a DNF anyway. I started to investigate other options (Frozen Snot, Hyner View, Laurel Highlands, Vietnam 70k, Call of the Wilds).

A few weeks after the notice, I received an email from the race director asking if I desired to run the August 2022 Inca Trail Marathon. Within minutes, I was sending my credit card info and officially entered in the “World’s Most Difficult Trail Marathon”. I did research and found that most hikers complete this trek in 3-4 days and the FKT is 6 hours 24 minutes (for a marathon!) 

Training: I began training on New Year’s Eve with a hike down Mt. Penn, laps on Weiser, and a race to the Pinnacle. Since I signed up for the Rocksylvania Elevation Challenge, I thought I would begin using this virtual race as the start of training aggressively. For 3 months, I did more hill repeats than I could count. I was lucky to have more than 15 local runners to help me reach a 3-month goal of 141,243 feet of elevation and 702 miles of running. I was excited to have been the overall winner for the challenge. Training was right on schedule. I tapered back and trained with the “run what feels right” theory. I found that in previous years, I really was overtraining. HITT and time in the weight room helped to get me ready for this adventure. The above races went well, and I was really pleased with my performance. In June I hit the trails hard and did a moderate taper in July. I really did my best not to become injured as the race date became closer!

August 3, 2022: The eve of my departure from Philadelphia to Lima. With a full day of nothing to do, I studied the course again and attempted to make a race day plan. The first two climbs are the hardest and taking them somewhat slower may be the best plan of attack. I continue to worry about the acclimation to high elevation. The highest point is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level! I decided to Google the most difficult marathons in the world and across the board this is what I learned:

“While some marathons are described as the world’s most extreme, the Inca Trail Marathon is unquestionably the most difficult. Starting at an elevation of 8,650 feet, the treacherous course features more than 10,400 feet of elevation gain, 11,000 feet of elevation loss and two high passes of 13,000 feet and 13,800 feet. Often described as the equivalent to running a tough 50-mile trail run, the marathon is limited to just 40 to 50 people and sells out quickly. The payoff, of course, is the luxury of running (or walking) across the fabled 500-year cobblestone path amid spectacular views of the Andes Mountains and crossing the finishing line in the legendary Lost City of the Incas.” (www.andesadventures.com)

For the first time in many years, I became worried about race performance. To be honest, I was actually scared about the difficulty of this marathon. But I knew I’d find out what I had gotten myself into in a few days. 

August 4th: We arrived in Cusco (11,000 feet above sea level) late the previous night. I was only able to sleep for four hours, wide awake at 3:30 am. I had a slight headache and an oxygen saturation level 78%. Usually that would be considered a medical emergency, but I knew it was due to the altitude. I rested, drank plenty of water, and began taking Diamox, an altitude sickness prevention medication . 

The team of athletes: We all quickly became friends. As we casually spoke about previous experiences, words like Mr. Rainier, African Safari Marathon, Pikes Peak, Kilimanjaro, 7 continents in 7 days, Great Wall, Everest Base Camp Marathon, Antarctica Marathon, the Germany Rennsteig Marathon, and many more were discussed. What did I get myself into? There were a ton of hard-core runners there.

August 5th: We had an 8:00 a.m. meet time to go on the initial 5-mile acclimation hike. The hike was slow and not very long, but I had noticeable breathing issues. After short periods of rest, the breathing quickly improved. 

August 6th: The first run. We had a controlled downhill 4.5-mile run. The breathing was much easier and there were a few times that 4-5 of us were going at it hard. Toward the end of the run there was a nice, paved area where I was able to let it rip and it felt really good. The day ended with me providing a “how to use poles on trail” class for a few of the accomplished street runners 

August 7: Tragedy strikes. We had another slow 4-mile downhill scheduled. I decided to run in the middle of the pack and take it nice and easy. 100 yards into the run EVERYTHING changed. I rolled my left ankle badly and heard something snap. The person behind me witnessed it and stated, “Oh my God!” I thought that I could run it off but after a mile, I knew I was in trouble. Just as with the race course, there were no exits from this trail. Once I started running, I was committed to get to the end. My mind was racing at 1,000 MPH. Was this it? 7 months of intense training–being careful as often as possible–over 1,000 miles and 140,000 feet of vertical training wasted? To say I was emotional is an understatement.

Then the trail magic began. As soon as I arrived to the bus, it was obvious to everyone that something was wrong. I was placed on the bus steps so I could remove my shoe for an initial assessment. The balloon effect was nauseating. Within minutes I was assisted to a seat, someone applied pain relief cream, 800 mg of Motrin was provided, and condolences were received from everyone. The arrival to the hotel is foggy. Someone carried my pack, and another held me upright on the way to the dining room. I sat down and someone from the team got me a plate of food from the buffet. My leg was elevated and I received an ice bag from the kitchen within minutes. My sadness and dejection was very obvious.

My first savior arrives. Jill is an extreme hiker and a physical therapist. She did an initial assessment, and her impression was not easy to hear. Her plan was ice, elevation, and Motrin followed by a complete assessment after the tour tomorrow. Somehow I was checked into my room and my bags arrived. Packed in ice, on to pillows and nothing to do but reflect. It was a horrible few hours. In late afternoon Adam called and asked if I could join him for a coffee. I declined. The last thing I desired was to be around people, but I changed my mind and joined Adam, Tina, and her husband; they were very reassuring and calming. As we spoke, Tina (savior #2) offered to provide acupuncture for pain and swelling. I was overwhelmed with this opportunity. We decided to wait 24 hours. Motrin, ice, elevation, and no weight bearing until further notice.

August 8th: complete rest. I opted out of the tours and hike to completely rest. Every person on the trip offered emotional support and healing advice. A lot more happened on August 8th. The ankle was swollen–black and blue to my knee–and the race director told me I was unable to start the marathon. I haggled for a final decision after the 9-mile hike to base camp, or to start the race and at the turn for the 30K v. Marathon decide then. The RD said I couldn’t do the Inca Trail Marathon. He explained that the 30k is just as difficult and it is on the Inca Trail. 

August 9: Hike to base camp. Swollen and bruised but with NO pain. The hike went well, and I ran past the RD to show I was good to go! He again explained that I need to run the 30K.

August 10th: Inca Trail Marathon report. The porters went through camp at 2 a.m. ringing the wake-up bell. Ugh, it was raining hard. We all donned rain gear and headed off to the breakfast tent. 3:30–the rain stopped, and we walked 20 minutes to the Inca Trail entry point. Exactly at 4:00 a.m. the marathon and 30k began at the sound of the whistle. We all immediately began the 1st climb of 3300’ in 6 miles.

Mistakes happen. I was feeling great at the mile 3 split until I accidentally turned the wrong way. “Oh no, I am on the marathon course–NOT the 30K course.” The first climb up to 11,900′ above sea level had decent terrain, although I was overly cautious to prevent additional injury. This portion was an out-and-back with 2 water stops. We turned around to a beautiful sunrise over the snow-capped Andes Mountains. In an unprecedented race move, I stopped to take photos and to talk with other runners on this “out-and-back” portion. I had a strange emotion when I realized that I was in 5th place at checkpoint 2. We passed very basic homes, beautiful mountain views, some streams, and chirping birds. The tranquility was indescribable.

As soon as the downhill from the first summit ended at at mile 10 in Wayllabomba, we began the dreaded ascent up Dead Woman’s Pass. I trained hard for this section, but she humbled me quickly. I entered this 20%, 2 mile, 4,000’ of gain monster in 8th place, feel really strong. The Dead Woman slapped me in the face hard. The thin air climbing to 13,800 feet made breathing extremely difficult. Pushing as well as I could, I was able to do 1-2 (not a typo, one) mile per hour. We were in or sometimes above the clouds, so there were not many distractions. I had my Coros watch on high elevation mode and was delighted that the altitude sickness danger alarm did not activate. If my memory is correct, I did say “Hi” and pet a wild llama on the way up. 6 hours into the race, mile 13–I summited Dead Woman!!!!! The hardest of the three climbs was completed–one more major climb to go.

I cautiously descended Dead Woman and began the difficult 1,200′ climb up Runkurankay Pass. Although this is our final time at 13,000 feet above sea level, that fact was not reassuring. I caught a few of the struggling 30k racers and stopped to provide encouragement. It was also amazing to see dozens of porters with 80-pound packs passing by on both the up and down hills. The were all very kind and encouraging.

The research I conducted made me believe that the 70,300 “steps” that we were going to encounter were more like our traditional stairs. These steps were basically sets of lower cobblestones. 80% of the trail was cobblestone and not much of that was runnable. The mountains and jungle vegetation were very enjoyable. We were hopeful to see monkeys but none of us saw any. I did not push any of the downhills in fear of trashing the ankle anymore than it was. At mile 18, I remained pain free but could feel the swelling was increasing. Most of the 5 aid stations only had water. The best aid station (mile 16?) had soup, bars, a simple sandwich, and Gatorade. It is hard to believe that all the aid station supplies needed to be carried 6 or many more miles.

Somewhere around mile 18, Olga from our group caught up to me. Olga and I were passing each other frequently and decided to finish the final 7 miles together. I usually enjoy racing alone but found that the both of us were using each other to keep a good pace. It seemed like that final 10K was taking forever. There was no flat terrain as we conquered through Phuypatamarcia at 12,000′. The miles were slowly clicking off and Winay Wayna, the next landmark was getting close, but I was out of water. We were both grateful that we will easily make the cut off time of 11.5 hours to get through the Sun Gate. Those that did not make the gate needed to take an extra 5-mile detour. Runners that crossed the finish line in more than 13.5 hours also needed to walk 3 miles to the hotel. The only way to arrive in the town of Macau Picchu is by train or foot. There are no roads to the town. The only road is down to the ruins. The bus only operates from 9:00 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. 

We were delighted to see one of our tour guides at the Sun Gate. We checked in and prepared for the final 4 k of the race. Water bottles were filled and off we went! Within a relatively short period of time, we were able to see one of the seven wonders of the world. The Manchu Picchu ruins seemed to appear 20 miles away, but the adrenaline was kicking in and we increased our pace. With less than a half mile to go, we were met by Olga’s son. The excitement to see him and to learn that we were this close to the end was exciting. Around a bend we see Freddy, our guide, and Olga’s family holding the finish line ribbon. How freaking exciting is this! We finished 6th and 7th in the world’s most difficult trail marathon in 12 hours and 20 seconds. Finish line hugs and photos and we head to the bus. 

Ugh, the steps down to the bus took about 20 minutes. The line for the bus was 30 minutes long. I just wanted to take off my shoes and lay down. We arrive to town and learn that the long walk to the hotel was also uphill. We finally checked in!

The next day. Early breakfast to catch the 9:00 bus to the ruins of the lost city. Well, since we were there, we might as well climb the half mile, 970 feet of vert up Huayna Piccho Mountain to see the epic views of the ruins. At 9,000 of elevation, we are again as high as the clouds and the view is wonderful.

The next day we travel 7 hours by train and bus to be in Cusco for the award ceremony.

The award ceremony was very emotional for everyone. This incredible group of athletes became a very tight family. There was plenty of applause, hoots, hugs and happy tears. Additional race photos: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=2181744685347713&set=pcb.2181750582013790

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s