My race began...
the moment I touched down in Cusco, Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. That trip and that adventure had been years in the making. And like so many things in life, it wasn’t until the end that I truly understood just how much it would mean.
When I was a kid, my mother told me about a book she had read as a child. It was called Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. Inside, my mom found a gateway to the world. She learned about Mt. Everest and Hong Kong, Paris and Ancient Greece. She also learned about Machu Picchu, the mysterious Inca city located high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. When my mom talked of Machu Picchu, I understood that to visit it would be an incredible journey and a highlight of a lifetime. Her enthusiasm made me decide that someday, I would visit that ancient place and see the marvel for myself.
That someday finally came just a couple months ago in September 2016. After talking about the trip for years and putting it off for various reasons (including an ankle surgery), my friend Brenda and I finally committed. We assembled a group of 10 friends, booked a guide, and made our way to Cusco, Peru for our hike to Machu Picchu. Over the course of four days and three nights, we would hike 26 miles and over 7,000 stairs to reach the ancient city.
We started our hike on Monday, September 5. It was a stunning day and as we drove the few hours to the start of the Inca Trail, I looked out at the blue sky and towering mountains. My stomach was a bundle of nerves. I knew that I was taking on a huge challenge unlike anything I’d ever done before. And, I knew that once I got out on the trail, turning back would be very difficult. I’d have to keep going, no matter what. I was nervous but excited and ready.
After signing in, we crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River and our hike began. That first day, the hike was what our guides called ‘Inca Flat.’ It was full of gentle ups and downs. After years of ankle issues, I’ve learned to be a slow and careful hiker. I was consistently at the back of the pack but enjoying myself and feeling strong. And when we got into camp that first night, I was on top of the world. I was tired but exhilarated and so incredibly proud. I had made it through the first day and felt anything was possible.
Day Two arrived cool and clear. We woke before dawn and headed out onto the trail. After a short couple hours of gentle trail, we began to ascend towards Dead Woman’s Pass. At 13,800 feet, it’s the highest place on the Inca Trail. To get there, one must hike up a vertical gain of almost 4,000 feet. To put it simply, that’s straight up. The ground is uneven, there are thousands of stairs, and the increase in elevation can make breathing incredibly hard.
For some in our group, that day was a breeze. They steadily walked up the stairs, stopping occasionally to admire the scenery. Sure, their breathing was labored, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary. For them, it was a gorgeous but normal hike through the mountains.
For me, it was a day of stunning mental and physical challenge. My legs felt like they were on fire and I couldn’t catch my breath. I had to stop every twenty steps to breathe and mentally psych myself up for the next twenty steps. Over and over and over again, I psyched myself up. “Just make it to the next tree, Holly. You can rest at the next tree.” I struggled to stay positive and excited.
Finally, we reached the top. The sun was starting to dip in the sky and the rest of our group was long gone. It was just three of us (the aptly named Tres Tortugas) and our two guides, alone at the top. It was incredible. We made it down the other side of the mountain in record time and got into camp just as the dark was falling.
When we got into camp, my tent mate and I crawled into ours and promptly burst into tears. I was tired and in pain and never in my life had I felt so mentally exhausted. Because here’s the thing I didn’t know: it takes a HUGE amount of mental energy to overcome physical challenges. I had anticipated all the beauty and all the fun but I hadn’t anticipated that certain moments would require me to dig deeper than I ever have before. I didn’t know that I might have to draw upon every part of myself in order to keep going and not fail at this challenge. As I lay in my tent that night, I thought about all the people who struggle with physical limitations. I thought about the incredible endurance of athletes. I thought about myself and the limits I place, without even realizing it, on different parts of my life.
The next morning, our group of slow hikers started before everyone else. Even with a head start, we were the last group into camp that night, nearly 15 hours later. Early in the day, I slipped on some uneven stairs and after that, I felt every single one of the more than 3,000 stairs we descended to get to camp. With my joints grinding and my toes bleeding, I limped into camp that night more tired than I have ever been in my life.
But by 9:00 the next morning, I was at Machu Picchu. After 26 miles, thousands of stairs, and more tears and laughter than I can count, I had made it. The dream that started so long ago from a conversation with my mother…that dream had come true.
After all the pictures were taken, I stood and looked at the ruins of Machu Picchu and cried. This time, I cried not from exhaustion or pain but from joy. And, I cried from pride. Over the course of four days, I had struggled through anxiety, pain, exhaustion, worry, and in certain moments, desperation to breathe. I had pushed past all the voices that told me I wasn’t athletic and who questioned, even after months of preparation, if I could handle a hike of that magnitude. I had pushed past my own lack of confidence in so many parts of who I am. I had pushed past a lifetime of not loving myself as much as I should. And in pushing past all of that, I had found a part of myself that I didn’t know existed.
It has been two months since our hike. I think about it every single day. I think about how much it hurt and how tired I was. I think about how, in good and bad ways, it was so many things I hadn’t expected. Mostly, though, I think of the view. That incredible view of Machu Picchu was worth all the pain and struggle it took to get there. The view of myself, though, was worth even more.