A pinnacle of running

A pinnacle of running

It bills itself as the most difficult marathon in the world. Google “hardest marathons” and the Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu makes nearly all the lists you will find of the world’s toughest races.

Wendy Balthazor of Champaign can attest to that -- and she’s run two of the other races regularly appearing on those lists, the Great Wall Marathon and the Antarctica Marathon.

When Balthazor ran the Inca Trail Marathon in August, it was her seventh continent on which she’d run a 26.2-mile race.

“South America was not really the place where I wanted to finish my last continent, but it was probably the best place. It is really beautiful and surreal and sacred to these people,” Balthazor said.

Blog PhotoShe ran her first marathon seven years ago in Chicago. She and a friend, Neena Tripathy of Champaign, then ran the Solar Eclipse Marathon in Australia in 2012 and the Great Wall Marathon in China in 2013. They decided they should run a marathon on each continent.

They ran the Big Five Marathon in South Africa in 2015 (Balthazor’s second-hardest marathon, run on steep, rocky mountain trails) and the Antarctica Marathon the following year. Last year, Balthazor ran the Berlin Marathon.

She has used the company Marathon Tours and Travel for four of those marathons, and she and Tripathy met other runners at those races who became friends. One of them, Cathy Rubenstein of Charleston, S.C., suggested the Inca Trail Marathon. Tripathy wasn’t interested, but Balthazor agreed.

The marathon is organized by Andes Adventures, a California company that specializes in hiking and running trips in South America. Balthazor and Rubenstein traveled to Cusco, Peru, and spent several days before the race sightseeing, hiking and doing training runs to acclimatize to the altitude. The two had headaches for the first couple of days and drank coca tea to help with the effects of the altitude. They did not suffer from altitude sickness during the race, although they could feel muscle fatigue from the lack of oxygen.

The day before the marathon, the group of 17 runners was bused to a trailhead where they hiked into Maccu Picchu Sanctuary National Park and to their camp. The next day they had a 30-minute climb to the start of the race at 8,650 feet of elevation.

The runners started in the dark, using headlamps to light their way along a dirt trail with a steep dropoff. Other parts of the race ran through forest and meadows and on trails paved with stone laid down by the Incas.

“As the sun was coming up, it was like this majestic, surreal place. It really was gorgeous,” Balthazor said. “There were points where I would turn on my GoPro and let it take pictures for 15 to 20 minutes because I knew I wasn’t going to do it justice.”

The runners had to climb three mountain passes during the marathon. The first, called Dead Woman’s Pass, is at almost 14,000 feet -- the highest pass on the Inca Trail.

Hikers and porters were also on the trail with the runners. The porters with the marathon tour carried all the gear and supplies for the runners’ camp, and they also kept an eye on the runners, helped them along the trail if they needed it and made sure they were able to finish.

Balthazor watched the porters climb the first pass, looking at where they put their feet. She noticed they walked to the side of the steps, rather than on the steps, and she did the same. About three-quarters of the way up the first pass, she was befriended by a porter who saw that she was struggling and also knew she was waiting for Rubenstein, who was behind her. He hiked with Balthazor, and whenever he stopped and rested, he indicated that she should do so as well.

Blog Photo“He got me up the mountain. He wasn’t with our tour. He was this gentleman that saw me struggling and was going to make me get up there. I’ll never forget that man,” she said.

One of the most rewarding things about the trip for Balthazor was a ceremony the night before the race during which the runners gave gifts to the porters. They were told before the trip that the porters don’t have much and would accept donations of clothes and shoes.

After the first pass, the trail descended about 2,000 feet before climbing again to the top of a second pass at 13,000 feet. The trail descends below 12,000 feet again before the climb to the third pass.

The only time cutoff the runners have to reach during the marathon is nearly at the end, at mile 23.5. They must reach that point by 3:30 p.m. in order to finish at Machu Picchu, because the trail closes and the last bus leaves at 5:30 p.m. to take tourists off the mountain. Runners not reaching the cutoff point by 3:30 p.m. are routed along a different trail.

Balthazor was convinced she and Rubenstein would not make the cutoff. But with four kilometers to the cutoff point and 25 minutes to get there, they ran as fast as they could.

“My toes hurt from all that climbing and hitting the toe box of my shoes. Everything at that point was downhill. It was like daggers on top of your toes, every step. We sprinted for the next 15 minutes,” Balthazor said.

They made the cutoff point with 30 seconds to spare, and Balthazor sat down and cried with relief.

The last two and a half miles of the marathon wrap around the mountain and arrive at the top of Maccu Picchu. Those last miles weren’t hard physically, Balthazor said, but they seemed endless. Once they reached Maccu Picchu, they had to claim straight up to finish. At least, they thought that was where they reached the finish. They still aren’t sure, because the national park doesn’t allow a finish line to be set up.

Balthazor has an official finish time of 12 hours and 56 minutes.

“What they don’t tell you is the finish is at the top of Maccu Picchu and you still have a 45-minute walk down the mountain to get to the bus stop. We loaded the last bus at 5:21,” she said.

“When we got done, I said I will never run another trail in my life,” Balthazor said.

But she loved being in nature and hearing a river rushing below as she was running and seeing the gorgeous mountain views.

After running a marathon on each continent, Balthazor has already decided on her next challenge -- running all the Marathon Majors. She already has the Chicago and Berlin marathons checked off the list. Left for her to conquer are the London, New York, Tokyo and Boston marathons.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

 Photos: Top, Once the marathon is over, runners climb down from the Gateway of the Sun to the bus stop. As they descended, the ruins of Maccu Picchu, at 7,900 feet, were visible behind Cathy Rubenstein, left, and Wendy Balthazor. Bottom, Cathy Rubenstein and a guide climb the last set of steps to the Gateway of the Sun. Photos courtesy of Wendy Balthazor. 

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