I soon met Linfa, a lovely young women, who invited me in for soup with her family. When they heard my story, I had an invitation to spend the night in their modest home. While Linfa went off to help her father with his animals in the surrounding hills, I was adopted by the children, who gave me the tour of the town, and a wrestling match on the local soccer field. Hours passed and before I knew it, and I found myself stranded at a friends house in the darkness, in a town without electricity. An eleven-year-old guided me to Linfa’s, and in the absence of light, I was set to hit the bed by eight. I asked Linfa’s brother where the bathroom was. “His response…everything is natural in this town. We go outside. But we will be building an outhouse soon.” Natural huh? I figured I’d hold it until the run the next morning.
I awoke at 6:30 am, had some boiled water (I was taking some serious water treatment precautions after realizing their methods of waste disposal), and was ready to go. I was greeted by my friends, who were concerned about my departure and the fact that I was heading out alone without a pack. They didn’t think it was possible for a “foreigner” to do it in day. I promised I would call their community phone when I arrived to the next town that evening; otherwise they would send the horses out for me. I was touch by their concern for a person they knew for just one day.
I started the uphill jog, at a snail pace. Climbing at altitude is challenging, but running in the thin air is just another level. I had climbed a big peak just two days before, and hoped that would help with acclimatization. But it didn’t help with muscle fatigue and I soon worried that I’d be cramped up by mile 15. I passed a few small villages and was enlivened by the cheers coming from houses and the children who ran alongside me. I needed this. Soon I would leave civilization for the rest of my run, and I was about to confront at a 3000 foot climb to a 16,000 foot pass.
I didn’t even bother trying to run the pass. I had not the energy nor the notion that running it would help my overall day. Instead, I settled in behind an arriero (burro driver), who was transporting food and gear for trekkers, who distracted me with condor viewings and jokes about how slow foreigners are. I crested the pass and sat down for a candy bar, some 3 hours and only 12 miles into my run. If this were a regular marathon, it would be over by now. I jogged down to the mountain valley below, and although low clouds obscured my views of my longtime summit aspiration – Alpamayo, I was inspired just to know that it was looking over me. The running became a bit technical, and although my movements felt fast, the rock hopping pace couldn’t have been faster than 15 minutes per mile. This was going to be a long day.
I set small goals for myself. I would run for 45 minute intervals and then take a 10-minute walking break to take photos, and rehydrate. After 3 of these intervals I knew I had to be within five miles of the finish, but I was never exactly sure because I didn’t have a map. I encountered a native couple, and asked how far we were from the trail’s finish in Cashapampa. “Four-and-a-half hours walking” was their reply. I was crushed. Four and a half hours walking for them was going to be at least another two hours of jogging for me. My legs said no way, and I resorted to walking once more.
As I walked down valley, I felt like a failure. My blood sugar was really low, the altitude was killing me, and I was wondering if I would even make it out before nightfall. But within minutes, I was welcomed by an unimaginable oasis. A store! What a dream. I chugged a 3 dollar bottle of Gatorade and fell asleep on a grassy knoll. I slowly awoke to the view of a sign for Cashapampa in the distance. It read just 6 miles and 3000 feet of descent to go. I overcame my wall and ran into town some 90 minutes later. I jogged around a bit get an extra .2 miles in (runners you understand right?), and stopped my stopwatch at 7 hours and 13 minutes. Wow. That’s a marathon time some 3.5 times slower than the world record, and three hours longer than that run by Oprah Winfrey fifteen years ago. I felt so proud.
I’m sure this was one of the most beautiful and most challenging marathons in the world, but more important than the run was the discovery of how to travel by running. I have dreamed of the idea of running across South America, but was grounded by the logistics and the terrible notion of running with a pack. However, once in a beautiful place, a runner can ditch her pack in a hostel for a few days, and head out with just a water bottle, purification tablets, and the clothes she’s wearing. Run a 20k mountain run on ancient Inca trails by morning, and arrive in a remote Andean town to play with the children and arrange a homestay by evening. And then repeat. Now that’s a way to travel.