Selected one of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime 2013 

"Running to the Lost City" By Alex Acceta.

The author joins 22 others for the adventure run of a lifetime. Their destination: the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu

Adventure Reference: Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu

Published in the April 1998 issue of Runners World Magazine (Copyright Rodale Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.) Request a copy of the article!

The Southern Cross had already set by the time we crawled out of our tents for breakfast at 4:00 a.m. By the soft glow of candlelight we ate warm, sweet Andean quinoa, a high-protein cousin to oatmeal, and sipped dark, viscous coffee. A fine mist fell from the Peruvian night.

Devy Reinstein, our trip leader, guide and fellow runner, went over last-minute preparations: "Sign in at the checkpoints. The two aid stations are at 10 and 20 miles. And don't forget your ticket for the bus ride down." It was mid-August in Peru, the height of the dry season, and Devy optimistically finished, "This is a good rain. It'll stop in 10 minutes, and we'll have a clear day to run to Machu Picchu."

The Lost City of the Incas lay more than 27 miles away. Starting at Llactapata, the Town on the Hillside, 23 of us were preparing to run this grueling section of the Inca Trail in one day. We would follow the narrow trail over three passes, through jungle thick with leafy trees and past a series of ancient ruins perched on dramatic outcroppings. The highest point, Warmiwañusq'a Pass, the Pass of the Dead Woman, was 13,779 feet in elevation. It would be our first climb of the day.

Machu Picchu is thought to have been the last stronghold of the Incas fleeing from the Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century. Situated on a narrow saddle between high peaks, 2,000 feet above the Urubamba River, the city covers roughly 5 square miles of agricultural terraces, celestial temples and living quarters, all formed of the hand-carved stone that marks Inca architecture.

Although the invading Spaniards pillaged most of the Inca Empire, they never found the hidden structures of Machu Picchu. Thus the ruins remain much as they were over 500 years ago. In Quechua, the language of the local people, "Machu" means "old," and "Picchu" means "mountain." Revealed to the world in 1911, this mysterious city has become one of the New World's most sought-after destinations, both for its enchanting beauty and for its mystical significance.

As we left our camp, the light drizzle still fell out of the darkness. We each ran with a flashlight, decorating the trail like a string of white Christmas lights.

Eddie Pizarro, one of our local guides, came up behind me out of the darkness. As he went by, I turned off my flashlight and followed him. Without my light it was easy to imagine that I was a chasqui, an ancient Inca runner. Sliding along the great trail system that links Ecuador to Chile, I was an Inca Pheidippides, delivering an important message to the great ruler Pachacutec. Under his reign and that of the later ruler Huayna Capac, it's estimated that the Inca Empire controlled between three and sixteen million people within an area the size of the Atlantic seaboard.

Eddie eventually slowed as the trail grew steeper. The drizzle had turned to rain, soaking my gray shorts and old, "water-resistant" jacket. A chocolate stream coursed down the rutted trail. If the weather had been clear, we would have seen the spectacular Llulluchayoc Gorge behind us. Instead, the sky had turned shades of gray, the clouds above steel and unwelcoming. Taking a deep draw from the water bottle in my fanny pack, I tasted the coming freeze.

The unpredictable and unruly El Nino was about to wrap us in his snowy arms.

We were on the fourth day of a 12-day running vacation. Produced and organized by Andes Adventures of Santa Monica, Calif., the Southern Highlands Run is the brainchild of 42-year-old, Peruvian-born Devy Reinstein. His company offers running and trekking adventures of various lengths and difficulties throughout Peru. With his fluent Spanish and knowledge of the culture, Devy helped move us seamlessly through every phase of the trip.

To keep on top of the daunting logistics of our 12-day journey, Andes Adventures employed 29 porters, a kitchen staff of two and 10 support staff. Thirty-nine horses and a dozen animal handlers ferried our loaded bags between camps.

We stayed mostly within a hundred miles of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire. Some of our 12 days were devoted to sight-seeing, sometimes by foot, sometimes by vehicle, and after our run to Machu Picchu, by helicopter back to Cusco. Between runs we took guided tours of archaeological sites, shopped for handmade sweaters of Alpaca wool and shot roll after roll of photographs.

We also did our share of earnest running, covering 80 miles in the course of our trip. In addition to the Inca Trail run, we spent four days circumnavigating the massive, 20,905-foot Mt. Ausangate, considered by the Quechua people to be an apu, or mountain spirit. It took us two days to run the grasslands at the mountain's base and two days to climb passes over 16,000 feet in altitude.

But the Machu Picchu run was our major goal and the highlight of the trip. As I left the protected canopy of the alpine jungle and entered a windswept meadow, the rain turned to a wet snow, shrouding the summit in a swirling cobweb of clouds. The higher we climbed along the winding switchbacks, the thicker the snow fell, and I could barely make out Cathy Mather and Lorraine Lees in the blurry distance.

Good friends from Kelowna, British Columbia, the two bore strong credentials for this kind of adventure: Lorraine holds the Canadian record for the 12-hour run, and Cathy spends her summers doing research in the backcountry of the Alaskan wilderness.

As I pushed ahead to catch them, my already-ragged breathing deepened, and my legs stung from the cold. Though I've never run a marathon before, I can spin a mile in close to 4 minutes, and I live at 6,500 feet in Durango, Colo. But climbing a 13,000-foot pass at 12-minute pace hurt like no track race I had ever run. My lungs heaved like a fireplace bellows. And this was only the first of the three passes that awaited us. I kept moving up and soon reached Cathy. She, too, was tired, but together we continued our slow advance into the white wind, hoping for the summit at every switchback. Instead, each turn revealed even more of the snow-covered path. Though we were only 2 miles from the aid station at the 10-mile point, I was in trouble.

"Should we turn back?" I hollered at Cathy through the gale.

"No. Lorraine is making good progress; we should try and stay with her." Cathy had much more confidence than I; the snow didn't seem to faze her.

"What about the others?" I asked, thinking of the 20 runners behind us. We still had 20 miles to go, and I was worried about them.

"I hope they make it. At least we can break the trail for them."

"I don't know--I can't see everybody making it through this storm."

High school counselors, grocery clerks, computer programmers, marines, doctors and nurses all numbered among the diverse group of adventurers. Eight participants were over 50 years old, and more than half were women. Seventy-four-year-old Helen Klein, the oldest person to complete the five-day, multisport Eco-Challenge endurance race, embodied inspiration. Helen, who began running when she was 55, approaches running simply: "The more energy I expend, the more of it returns. I don't believe in limiting myself because of gender or age. . . . I realize my time is limited, and I can only slow the aging process by remaining very active and healthy."

Still, there's a difference between staying active and healthy and running the Inca Trail. As Cathy, Lorraine and I reached the summit and began our descent into the foggy valley below, we were uncertain whether more than a few of the others would make it through the blizzard.

While the three of us, filled with food and warm tea from the 10-mile aid station, were climbing the misty stairs of Runkurakay Pass, most of the group were still traversing Warmiwañusq'a. Vicki DeVita and her mother, Pat, from Southern California, sat huddled in a tent halfway up the first pass, warming themselves with soup that some Australian trekkers had boiled for them. For Pat and Vicki, both experienced ultrarunners, the snowstorm was merely a teeth-chattering, hand-shivering inconvenience.

Simultaneously, Lisa Demoney, a novice runner from San Francisco, was nearing the top of Warmiwanusq'a Pass, crying. She had taken this trip with her father, Ed, as one more in a continuing tradition of father-daughter adventures. Knowing that an aid station was ahead, Ed, a veteran of 10 different 100-mile races, encouraged his daughter to keep moving forward. On the verge of hypothermia, Lisa found motivation in, as she later said, "a mad desire to push beyond any limitations I previously created for myself."

World records on the track are impressive feats, but the courage and determination of our group matched that of even the fastest runners. It turned out that my doubts were groundless. Everybody made it through the storm and came out with a renewed sense of confidence and a deeper appreciation of their almost limitless potential--attributes much grander than a new PR.

As we covered the remaining miles, with the sun now shining, our surroundings grew more spectacular around every corner. Soaked, more from sweat than rain, we floated past magnificent ruins, ran over stones smoothed by thousands of feet and hundreds of years, and bounded down narrow, hand-carved stairways. Clouds, earlier our nemesis, now framed spectacular views of jagged, snow-peaked mountains.

Alive with trekkers and porters, the trail's final section snaked high above the Urubamba River and was covered in a sun-dappled shade. Reaching Intipunku, the Gateway of the Sun, we had found the Lost City. We had taken our bodies beyond our expectations, and we bounded down the slope to the ruins, racing with the porters in unabashed joy. Machu Picchu was worth every step we had run and every self-doubt we'd conquered.

Alex Accetta coaches cross-country at Durango High School and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and hopes to qualify for the 2000 Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters.

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