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Athlete Race Report: Bennett Isabella – Marathon to Machu Picchu

Thanks to BPC athlete Bennett Isabella for the great race report. And an amazing performance! 

Peru race report, Marathon to Machu Picchu

Readers Digest Version

Time started: 4:00AM

Miles traveled: 27 miles

Time lost in the dark: 26 minutes

Thorns still stuck in my arm at the end of the race: 4

Total elevation change: 20,000ft

Offical time: 7:07:42, 1st place, new course record, wishing I had not got lost and went sub 7…


Generally our travels revolve around a race.  Last week in Peru I ran the marathon and Jess ran the 30K. This was along the ancient Inca trail and it was one of the most beautiful races I have ever done.

This marathon is bid as “The World’s Toughest Marathon,” and after doing it I have to agree.  These are terrible running adventures to go on because you are with a group of people who have done all sorts of other races in the world and your bucket list keeps growing as a result.  After the race a few people who had done the North pole marathon, the Mt Everest marathon, the Great Wall marathon, etc., said this was definitely the hardest they have done.  The Inca people did not believe in switch backs. If there was a mountain in front of them, no matter how steep, they just went straight up it. There were thousands of giant stone steps on this course and the path was paved with big rocks that had been placed into the dirt making each step a choice on where you wanted (or did not want) to land and each downhill a stairway that if you fell were guaranteed at minimum a fractured something.

We stayed in camp the night before at the base of some Inca Ruins just a few kilometers inside of Machu Picchu National park.  We woke up at 2:00AM so we had time to eat, and get ready and hike a couple kilometers to the start line.  The marathon starts at 4:00AM because the gate to get into the area of Machu Picchu closes at 3:30PM. With an average race time of 10-11 hours, all the time is needed.

Two days previously I went on a run/hike trying to get up to the Glaciers I could see off the balcony of the hotel where we were staying. We almost made it before we had to turn around so we were not stuck on the mountain after dark.  That days accent was 4088 feet within 8.9 miles. Normally not recommended 2 days before a difficult marathon but it may have been a once in a life time opportunity so we had to take it.   It left my hamstrings pretty tight but overall I felt okay.

At 4:00AM it is completely pitch black, with absolutely no lights except the ones we had.  I had my Black Diamond head lamp with 90 lumens showing me the way and I started off feeling strong.  I went right to the front keeping a conservative pace but putting a little distance between me and the next person.  The race starts out on a dirt path with little streams every couple hundred feet to jump over, and the beginning is all up hill.  I felt good and kept my pace going as I was coming up toward what I thought must be the top of the first climb.  It was still dark when I crossed over a little wooden bridge and saw a path going straight and one going to the left with no signal to which was the correct one.  I thought the one going straight looked more used so I took it…going the wrong way.  In the dark with only a few feet of light in front of you its very hard to make a decision with such limited data.  The first indication that I might have chosen wrong was when I noticed a bunch of Yellow Eyes staring at me.  I had run into a cow pasture.  In most races this would be a big indication of something wrong but I had passed some donkeys, dogs, and cows on the path already so I went around them and the path turned very narrow.  I ended up running through a bunch of thorn bushes, got turned around, and ended up at the bottom side of a cliff next to a stream.  I decided to try and make it back to where I had come from and eventually wound my way back to the cow pasture.   At this point I found another racer. After a few minutes we found the correct trail. In my state of complete frustration, I took off fast and furious after losing over 20 minutes of time and bleeding in multiple locations.

I got to the next check point where I had a good down hill for a few miles to make up ground.  By this point it was getting light and I could let my legs loose.  It was uneventful for a while until we started the accent up to “Dead Woman’s Pass.”  This accent went up tons of uneven stone stairs.  About half way up I passed everyone that was in front of me and was in first position.  As I got closer and closer to the top it was extremely hard to keep going and a couple times I bent over on all fours on the steps and had to stop so I did not throw up as we got up to 13,799 feet.

After getting over the top you can see the trail going just as steep down for a very long time.  I could not really catch my breath so I started to descend as best I could with only half breaths.  At the bottom of this trail, the worst part is you immediately start the next climb which is even steeper and may be even more difficult than the first.


About half way up I started climbing with one of the local porters.  He was a younger guy and he was fast.  He had a 25 kg pack on his back, and he was wearing sandals. He was flying.  I just tried to keep up with him, even though being near him made me feel like a complete wussy because I had only a couple handhelds and a small camelback along with trail shoes.   I could tell he liked the challenge of keeping ahead of me so we ran for an hour and a half together.  I could not believe how smooth he was going down those dizzying rock descents in sandals, never missing a beat. Once we got to the aid station at Phuyupatamarca he stopped to rest and pointed me onto the last portion which was mostly down hill.

Along the trail there are 6 large archeological sites, a couple that you run right through. Quite amazing scenery.  After running all these stones and stairs I got good at picking my spots and could see them a few steps ahead of time.   The trail for the last few miles is a little easier with some patches of dirt to run on which felt ohhh so good by that point.  There is one last stair case that is straight up which I took on like a monkey using my hands to pull me up to the Sun Gate from which you get to run mostly down hill to Machu Picchu.

It was an amazing finish. As it opened up you saw only the amazing ruins in the Andes Mountains of Machu Picchu.

My official finishing time was 7:07:42, good for first place and a new course record even while getting lost.  I was pretty dang happy about that.  The best time previous was 7:13.  If I had not gotten lost I would have been under 7 making it look really cool, but hey that’s part of adventure racing.

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