Walking In The Air

The second day of my attempt to write a blog post a day through May. Time to harness this productivity for a piece on preparations for my overland trip to South America.

IT is, pretty much, the length of a marathon. No mention about any extra yards on the end of 26 miles. Sounds walkable.

Over four days you say? Yeah, no problem.

And then you look a little bit deeper. Those four days walking are not exactly flat. It tops out on the second day at around 4,200m – at the end of pretty constant climbing over several hours, taking you roughly 1,000m up and over what is commonly known as Dead Woman’s Pass.

Can’t pronounce it but prefer the locals’ name – WarmiwaƱusca.

Even the downhills are tough down uneven step dubbed Gringo Killers.

The reward for this, bar some seriously painful calf muscles (and already got one of those)? Watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu at the end of the Classic Inca Trail.

And I’ve signed up for it.

There is another option (once you have dismissed going to Peru on an overland adventure and not heading up to Machu Picchu), taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and pretty much grabbing a bus up.

And with concerns about my fitness and a past tendency to function pretty badly at altitude, it was a serious consideration, posing the first major decision in the build-up to September’s departure on my Trans South America adventure.

Permits to trek the trail are limited to 500 a day, including guides, porters and anybody else whose job will include dragging me over a few very large peaks. They go pretty quickly (the permits, not the guides, hopefully) and having delayed making a decision (while keeping half an eye on how many permits were left for our day), suddenly it had to be made – permits were all but gone.

With the gym regime paying dividends, a bit of research suggesting it was within my capabilities and a fear of forever being told the trek was something not to be missed (the lingering concern of many a traveller), the decision was made.

Just in time apparently as the final permits for our date were snapped up.

It sparked a huge bout of enthusiasm, reading about what to take, walking boots, the tough bits (not such enthusiasm), dealing with the altitude, the campsites, their facilities (likened to those at a festival) and any information out there.

And a string of lengthy, increasingly uphill walks were planned as a warm-up with friends roped in as company alongside an increase in the fitness regime.

Right up until my calf went pop.

We’ll get to that in the next post (let’s cash in on this bout of blogging) but the get fit and clock up the walking miles programme has got us as far as… a total ban on walking on the treadmill, let alone running, while the calf mends.

That and a few sessions with the osteopath moving down from my back to my right calf. Not sure quite what was being dug into the muscle but think he got the message that he had hit the troublesome spot.

So what exactly is that troublesome calf going to have to deal with once it has made its way to South America, spent nearly a month on the road through Ecuador and Peru, a few days in Cusco to get used to the altitude and an early morning start to drive to our starting point.

The opening day is around 6.8 miles to that night’s campsite on the lower slopes heading up to Dead Woman’s Pass before the day that really grabs the attention – that uphill slog before heading downhill for our overnight stop.

Day three is the longest in terms of distance but after one initial hefty climb, the major ascents are over and much of the latter half of the day is downhill.

And then the fourth day day, kicking off far too soon after the third for an early breakfast and trek for an hour or so to our ultimate aim – Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise which makes it all sound worth it.

Oh yeah, the altitude.

Cusco is at 3,310m and we will crest peaks of 4,198m and 3,950m before it sort of levels out (sort of being very relative) and descends to Machu Picchu itself at 2,430m.

No, doesn’t mean that much to me – right up to the memory that my legs pretty much gave way and did not cope that well at the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix at 3,852m, to say nothing of feeling pretty rubbish on arrival at a few of Europe’s higher ski resorts.

So why exactly?

Well apart from banking on a rather more gradual arrival at the altitude, whatever the challenge it does look incredible.

Various accounts online will disagree on how tough it is, from those seemingly intent on putting you off by outlining all the hardships to those dismissing it as a simple walk in a (rather hilly) park.

But they pretty much all agree on it being something you will remember for positive reasons.

And that’s something to hang on to next time my calf is having something pressed into it.

While I’m sat here stressing about walking about 26 miles over four days, a couple of hundred yards away Jamie McDonald is attempting to break the world record for the longest distance covered in a week on a treadmill.
Just weeks after finishing his coast to coast run across the USA, the latest in a long line of endurance adventures.
He is doing this for his Superhero Foundation to raise money for the hospitals which helped him as a child – check out his story, his progress or donate at


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