Running the “Toughest Marathon in the World” at Age 14
“You’re too young.”
“You can’t run our marathon, but you can run our 5K.”
“Wait until you get older.”
“You must be 18 years old.”
Over and over, these are the responses that I got when I was seeking a marathon in South America as part of my World Marathon Tour for Prostate Cancer Awareness. My vision at age nine was to become the youngest person to run a marathon on all seven continents in memory of my dad and to honor the one in six men and their families effected by prostate cancer. I guess it’s a good that thing my mom taught me to “never take no for an answer,” and to “never accept you can’t, you won’t, and you shouldn’t.” If I had let these thoughts enter my mind, my marathon tour probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. I honestly can’t even tell you how many nos my mom and I got from race directors around the world. I lost count, but never lost faith and hope. Hope that the right race director would come along and believe in me!
That race director did finally come along. Galapagos Island would be marathon and continent number four! Little did I know, six months before the Galapagos Marathon, the race would be cancelled due to lack of funding. However, I wasn’t privy to this information. I guess my mom didn’t want me to worry and stress about it. Without my knowledge, the search was now on for another marathon in South America. As a long shot, an email was sent to the Inca Trail Marathon as well as several others. Unexpectedly, an immediate response came back from Inca Trail Marathon race director, Devy Reinstein. His response, “We would love Winter to run our marathon!”
In the usual fashion, my mom sat me down and said, “I have good news and bad news.” I chose the bad news first because I always like to end on a positive note. She proceeded to explain how the Galapagos Marathon was cancelled, but I would now be running the Inca Trail Marathon, labeled the “Toughest Marathon in the World.” My immediate reaction was, “Bring it on!”
It is funny how things come full circle in life. I had originally looked at this marathon in search for my South American marathon, but my mom said, “No way!” It was not because she was concerned about me racing it, but more her concern about her running and being able to complete that course. My mother is running every marathon with me, so we will likely be the first mother and daughter to have completed a marathon together on every continent. The difficulty with the Inca Trail Marathon is that there are cut-off times in order to finish the race in one day. I really wasn’t concerned about my ability in meeting these cut off times. With my previous two trail marathons, I had a lot left after each race and knew that I truly hadn’t pushed myself to my limits yet. I personally had no doubt, with a little hard work, my mom could complete the race as well. After all, she is a three time Ironman finisher! She just needed a little encouragement.
How does anyone even train for such a race? My run coach, Mark Hadley, was not even phased by this change in marathons and quickly put together a running plan filled with hill runs and more hill runs. Fortunately, I live in Park City, Utah where I’m consistently living and running at 7,000 plus feet of elevation. I did as my coach said and ran a ton! I also threw in a lot of cross training: swimming, mountain biking, aerial ski training, and lots of weight training to maintain a really strong core. I had just come back from setting a world record for the youngest person to run 26.2 miles in Antarctica in March. How tough could the Inca Trail be?
Getting to Inca Trail was much easier than Antarctica. No boats, no hurricane, just a five-mile hike into the start line the day before the marathon. We arrived in a cute, little town called Cusco, Peru on a Saturday where we would spend several days acclimating to 12,000 feet and drinking lots of coca tea. The locals consider coca tea leaves to be the miracle plant for acclimatizing. Everywhere you go in Cusco, there are coca tea leaves that you either chew on or use to make tea. I didn’t experience any significant issues going from 7000 feet to 12000 feet. Some people get nauseated, headaches, decreased appetite, and even fatigue. We did several four to five mile downhill runs over the next couple days to get used to running in the altitude. On Tuesday, we hiked into our race camp near the start of the Inca Trail. We slept in tents and prepared for a 4 a.m. race start time. The park entrance into Machu Picchu closes at 3:30 p.m. every day. An early morning race start would give us 11 ½ hours to reach this gate, which lies two miles from the actual finish line inside Machu Picchu. Those runners who don’t make the cut-off either camp out for the night on the Inca Trail in makeshift camps set up by the race organizers, Andes Adventures, or take a path down to a different finish line below Machu Picchu.
Race night was short and not the most ideal preparation for a long running day. A 2 a.m. breakfast cooked by the Peruvian porters consisting of porridge, pancakes and bananas was definitely a good start though! There would be over 30 porters that would assist us on race day. They would carry our 22kg ration of gear we used for camping and assist us along the racecourse with water stops as well as encouragement and any other issues that might arise. In the 18-year history of this race, only once had it rained! We can now make that twice! Within the first hundred yards of starting the marathon, raindrops began to fall, turning the trail into a rocky muddy mess. The biggest obstacles to navigate in the first couple hours of darkness were the huge “cow pies” on the trail, left by the farm animals that inhabited and roamed the first mountain pass. What a slippery mess they were!
Determining race clothing is always a huge decision in these trail marathons. The weather can be constantly changing and unpredictable, especially on a course like the Inca Trail. Despite the best predictions, you have to be prepared for anything. Fortunately, I had Athleta’s Spritz Jacket, not only to protect from rain but to protect me from the cooler temperatures we would experience during the three mountain passes we would climb that day (roughly 12,000 ft, 14,000 ft, and 13,000 ft). I found myself warmer and drier (thanks to my jacket) during the first two hours of the race despite a constant, steady rain. The remainder of the day was sunny and in the low 70s. As I ascended the mountain passes where snow was visible, temps would drop into the 60s. Having very light, compact gear is essential. I could pull my jacket out whenever I needed it!
The toughest challenge may not have been the climate or the elevation. We would climb about 10,400 feet of gain and descend 11,000 feet over the course of the day. I experienced some swelling in my fingers that was very noticeable as I reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,799 feet. After the race, I realized I wasn’t the only one experiencing this. It is common at these elevations to experience swelling in your extremities. My fingers looked like little sausages but quickly went away after I descended to lower attitudes. The high altitude affected my normal race appetite also. I found myself not drinking and taking in the energy gels as planned. Each of these marathons have been a great learning experience. I have become much better at listening to my body and adapting to the different challenges I face during these runs. Instead of only consuming a ProBar Bolt that had served me well in training runs, I had to switch it up and grab a cup of chicken broth. That seemed to work very well for me. My body was probably craving a little more sodium than usual. Despite my lack of thirst, I knew I was behind in my water intake and had to keep up on my hydration. My Nathan VaporWrap made that much easier, since there was little effort needed to just take sips frequently along the way. Your hydration pack is crucial in these races. I had mine under my Athleta jacket during the race so I didn’t have to remove my hydration pack each time I needed to put my jacket on or off. A hydration pack should just feel like a part of your body. The last thing you need to worry about is something bouncing on your back or chafing you.
So what was the toughest challenge? The rocks and stone steps that lined the 26.2 miles of the Inca Trail were probably the biggest challenge of the day. Climbing the two-foot steps, which never seemed to end, provided a huge challenge to the hamstrings. I can’t even tell you how many false summits there are on that course. You think you are at the top and you get there and realize… you’re not! After all the long climbs there would then be a long, rocky descent which entailed never-ending pounding to your feet on uneven stones. The descents were a true test of how well you had trained your quads.
I never set out to win the Inca Trail Marathon. I just wanted to have the best possible race for me that day. The number “three” has been following me for a while. Third place overall female in the Kenya and Antarctica Marathon! I am always thinking to myself, “Is today going to be the perfect race?” We must admit, we all dream of that perfect race or perfect competition. My training is always purposeful; I fuel my body nutritionally and prepare mentally for success as an athlete, especially as an endurance runner. The Inca Trail Marathon wasn’t the perfect race for me, but I was the best female runner given the circumstances on that course, on that given day. That race proved age is not a barrier; and certainly as the fourth place finisher overall that day, gender is not a barrier.
What do I remember most about that day? It probably wasn’t standing on the finish line with my first overall female marathon win. It is the memories of me trying to race the porters on the descents and still not being able to keep up with them as they descended the stone paths with a 100-pound pack on their back. It was the reality that all the hikers I would pass on the Inca Trail that day would take four to five days to complete the Inca Trail, something I would complete in just 9 hours and 18 minutes. It was sharing my iPhone the night before the race with two young Peruvian girls so they could play games and escape their isolated reality for a while. It was donating my clothing, as well as my brothers’, to the nearly 40 porters that would assist us on race day so that their families would have clothing. Or maybe it was waiting at the finish to not only see my mom run an 11 hour 20 minute marathon, but also to have her end up on the podium with me, as the third place overall female. Remembering back, this was a race she originally doubted her ability on.
The victory on the Inca Trail was not only a personal victory, but more importantly a victory for prostate cancer awareness! In the end, I hope that I inspire others and teach the world to Never Give In. Never Give In despite the odds, despite your circumstances, despite your age, despite your gender, despite what others might say.
NEVER GIVE IN!