I said my goodbyes to the family at the plaza in Ollantaytambo and Ben and I joined the other runners on the bus headed for the start of the Inca Trial. I'm not sure if what I was feeling was excitement or nerves. It had been a long time in the planning but the time had nearly arrived to see if I really could run the Inca Trail in one day.
From km 82 we had 8km walk in to Llaqtapata where camp was set up for us by the race organiser. During the walk we had light showers, an ominous sign for tomorrows run. That afternoon we had a look around the ruins, had a runners meeting and early dinner and into our tents for an early night. Wake up was going to be 3.30am!
Not much sleep was had as my little brain was whirling away with what lay ahead for me. Infact i was relieved when 3.30 arrived and could stop trying to get to sleep.
Breakfast was served at 4am and we all met at the start point just prior to the start time of 5am. The Race Director counted us down and with head torches lit we enthusiastically took our first steps in what was going to be a very long and eventful day.
We started at 2600m elevation and ran the first 6km which was and out from and back to camp in the dark. There was a cut off for this of 1hr. If you missed it you were pulled from the marathon course and re-directed to the shorter 30km Incathon. I passed the mark in 48mins and headed down the next out and back. Out of the 21 marathon runners 7 didn't make this cut off and were elimated from the marathon. The reason given was if you were unable to make this time you had no chance to make the 3.30pm cut off at Winay Wayna which is the 36km mark.
By now my running mate Ben had disappeared into the Peruvian darkness and was pounding out fast kms. I wasn't finding it so easy. I felt really lethargic and had jelly legs. I was worried that if this relatively flat section was causing me trouble how the hell I'd be able to tackle the climbs up to 4200m.
With the sun well and truly up I made it to the third aid station at Wallabamba in 2 1/2hrs having covered 19km. The next leg of the run was up Dead Woman's Pass. 5.5km climbing from 3000m to 4200m. This was a grind like no other. It was one foot in front of the other for hour after hour. The relentless uphill mixed with the altitude was soul destroying. As the air got thinner it was getting harder to breath - each step seemed to be harder than the last. To add to the challenge it was now raining and getting cold. I was now getting up to the height of Mt Cook. The saving grace was the encouragement from the hikers on the trail. By now word had got out that a group of idiots were attempting to run the trail in one day. All those doing the walk in 3 or 4 days were great support - there kind words and occasional company was greatly appreciated. I spent time with a mixture of Brits and Americans who would spend 5-10 mins walking with me before they fell behind and I carried on my way.
This part of the day I started feeling quiet emotional - I was finally on the Inca Trail which was a childhood dream. All things going to plan I would see Machu Picchu at the finish line. The previous few days our guide Jamie had explained how the Inca's had created this trail and how important it was for them. Here I was walking the same route they had for centuries. It also gave me time to think about my family and how important they are to me. That part of the day was so incredibly hard but one that I learnt a lot about myself.
Reaching the summit of dead woman's pass was a huge relief. It was 10am and I had been on my feet for 5 hours. A guide from the running group talked to me at the top and told me not to stop as it was too cold his advise was to carry on the steep decent. Taking his advice I made my way down. Still one foot in front of the other as the gradient was too steep to be able to run. Also with the rain getting heavier it was to dangerous to try move quickly on the slippery stones. By now I had caught up to another runner. I passed him on the downhill only for him to catch back up on the 2nd climb. It was another epic climb and to add to the drama it had started to snow!
Climbing back up from Pacamayo to Runkuracay the snow was starting to fall heavily. It was bitterly cold. I was wearing 5 layers with gloves and a hat but was still freezing. My fellow runner overtook me only for me to catch up to him 15mins later where he was standing still shivering. We chatted for a bit and decided to keep each other company for the rest of the climb. I was starting to fear I would become hypothermic, I had numb lips and had no feeling in my fingers. It was really hard to keep motivated but there was no choice. At this point the only safe option is to carry on. There is no getting off the trail without walking out.
My goal was still to get to Winay Wayna before the 3.30pm cut therefore be able to continue the last 6km to Machu Picchu. If you don't, you have to camp the night there and finish in the morning. Not what I was wanting.
The snow started to subside and the rain took over again as I made the top and started another decent. This gave me some encouragement as I knew I had no more major climbs. For the next hour the only people I saw were the stream of Porters running past me with there heavy loads carrying gear for the hikers. Carrying up to 30km each they fly by as if your standing still.
I then started to catch up to some of the other runners. The ones who had been pulled from the marathon. Two of them who were inadequately dressed were holding hands walking at a snails pace. I stopped and asked if they were ok. They were freezing and asked me how much further to the camp. Not knowing I guessed and said to keep moving and I'd let a guide know where they were. An hour later at an aid station I met the race director and told him about the couple. The next day I was relieved to see them both well. They didn't make it off the mountain that day but had camped the night. They had expected to run the marathon in a day and instead only been able to cover 24km.
Still freezing I contemplated pulling myself from the run and getting to the camp at the 36km mark. All runners had to provide a drop bag in case we couldn't make the finish. I had packed a set of thermals and warm clothes. The thought of getting out of my saturated running gear and into them was very appealing. I was suffering from the cold and wanted to stop what I was doing.
From the summit of Dead Woman's pass I had traversed two ranges over a 4 hour period. Those 12 kms were horrific. The soreness in my legs was nothing compared to the mental anguish I was suffering with being freezing. However upon reaching Winay Wayna camp after 9hours all that seemed to disappear. I had made it an hour and a half before the cut off. The altitude was down to 2600m and it was a lot warmer than being up at 4000m. Still wet I was in a state of euphoria as I saw the aid station and the guides. High fives and smiles were just what I needed.
I was given the option of taking some gear from my drop bag but instead took the entire bag. Even though I had 6kms to go I was quiet happy to carry it in my hand knowing I could have some warm clothes to change into at the finish line. That last 6km I'm sure I was running a foot off the ground - bounding along like I was beginning the run and not 9 plus hours into it. As I caught up to hikers I would shout "Ola" to let them know I was approaching. In one American group the lady at the back called to rest of the group "porter coming" I laughed as I went by and said sorry I'm not a porter just a wet kiwi in a hurry!
I reached Sun gate just in time for the rain to stop, the cloud lifted to unveil the wondrous sight of Machu Picchu. Again the tears rolled down my cheeks. I was nearly there and felt overwhelmed by the day I had just endured.
I was also in awe of what my little brother and his family had achieved by hiking the trail a few years before. His two young daughters Georgia and Sam had walked the trail which I am still amazed at. I can only imagine how brutal it was for them and the mental toughness they had shown to complete the trail.
With only 500m to the finish line I saw my running mate Ben again. He had smashed out an amazing time and waited in the rain for and hour and a half to cheer me over the finish line. Such a class act from a great bloke.
It was such a cool feeling and to have a friendly face to celebrate with.
I had finally finished the run. I arrived just before 3pm. Minutes short of 10 hours. It was everything I had expected and more. The terrain was harsh and the conditions that day matched it. The Inca Trail had given me something special, something I am very grateful for.
Out of the 23 runners that had started the day 21 attempted the marathon. By days end 13 had completed it -the rest had to finish the following day or do the shorter 30km course.
The Inca Trail marathon is brutal and that it what makes finishing it so special.