In third grade, I remember pumping my arms, running full force to the end of the soccer field. Our grade was tasked with running the mile that week in gym, undoubtedly my least favorite activity in my least favorite class. Breathing heavy, I willed myself to round the corner finishing my third lap. Everyone else had completed four. I was the only one still out on the field, and I wasn’t even close to finishing. Our unpleasant gym teacher collected a few cones marking the trek and waved me inside understanding there was no way I would finish the final lap in time for dismissal.
As I grew older, this pattern continued. The pattern of inability to keep up with everyone else in physical activities didn’t really stop me persay from doing what I wanted to do, but it always interfered. This wasn’t from lack of trying or fitness. I was born with _pectus excavatum_, meaning I had an inverted sternum, which compresses the chest cavity meant for the lungs and heart. I had major corrective surgery to fix my sternum when I was young and it certainly improved my condition—I shudder to think what my abilities would be like without the correction. But even after surgery, my lung capacity is about 50% of what it should be, meaning I take in about half of the oxygen other people do when they’re hiking or running or swimming.
Despite how strong and in shape I’ve felt at different points of my life, there is always the disappointment and embarrassment that comes with this limitation. In most instances, I try not to let this control the decisions I make regarding what activities I choose to do. But the reality is that no matter how much I train for something, I will probably never be as good as someone who has full use of their lungs. I was so elated after I finally broke ten minutes to a mile in a jog, I called my parents. I’m not sure I’m up for marathon training.
I wanted to hike the Inca Trail—the high altitude trail through the Andes to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu—for years, and we quickly decided it would be a staple of our trip. I researched, I fretted, I emailed, and I booked. We secured permits for the Inca Trail! Oh God. We are hiking the Inca Trail...with guides...and other people...in a group...for four days.
I generally start hikes mentally prepared to be at the back, knowing I won’t be able to manage a conversations while we hike up an incline. Last time I did a group trek in Antigua, Guatemala, I was at least a hour behind by the end of the first day. As we made our final ascent to the top of the Guatemalan volcano the following morning, I was nowhere near the group. I was counting out ten steps and collapsing to the ground to rest. I made it, but will little time to spare and very annoyed guide impatiently watching over me.
Since beautiful and grueling hike in Guatemala many years ago, I had moved to Colorado and now hiked at high elevations all the time. Even in the last year before the trip, I completed some of the most difficult hikes of my life thus far. We always started earlier than we needed to, and usually Lane would hike at his normal, full-sized lung pace. We would meet for breaks. I knew what to expect from him, and he knew what it meant to hike with me.
But our guides wouldn’t know any of that. Our group wouldn’t either. I could already feel the embarrassment of starting the trek. I would look decently fit and healthy. Our trekmates would learn we were from Colorado, and they would joke how this should be no problem for us. I would shrink from embarrassment knowing that wouldn’t be the case for me, knowing we tried to spend the first months of our trip at a high elevation so I didn’t complete lose the acclimatization I gained while living in Colorado. At the very least, I would have my subpar acclimatization.
The first few months of our trip passed. I exercised regularly, knowing a strong cardiovascular system and body helps. I appreciate the walking we did across many high cities. Couldn’t let my lungs get too lazy on me. Soon, I was exercising in Peru and reviewing the distances and gains on the Inca Trail. I would reference them to those hikes we had completed. “This day shouldn’t be as bad at that hike as Glacier National Park, right?”, I would ask Lane. “I’m pretty sure the 14er from last summer was longer”, I would reassure myself.
Anxiety for this trek tried to bubble over, but I continued pushing it and favoring more measures of confidence. I knew I could hike the trail, I didn’t know how much slower I would be and how awful this disparity between my appearance and my ability would make me feel. This could be a very long four days.
We started the trek. Yes, people did make jokes about this being an easy hike for a Coloradan, and I suppose it is. Lane had no problem taking the lead every single day. I made slow, but steady, pace just like I always did. We took lots of breaks to learn about Inca culture along the way and visit a myriad of other ruins along the way. I struggled my way through the uphill sections and gleefully plowed through the downhill ones. People complain about their knees going downhill, but I just love it! More oxygen for me, please!
Each of the four day trek was stunning. The ominous Andes stood high above us, shrouded in low clouds and fog. The details and intricacies of the forests wowed. We walked through quiet, little towns. Our guides, Mani and Nilton, never disappointed with their stories and information. Our trekmates were absolutely incredible, and we loved making new friends around the world. We laughed through many meals together, swapped stories, and revelled in this amazing life experience.
On the fourth day, we lined up in the dark awaiting the open of the trail to the Sun Gate. Somehow, I ended up directly behind our guide in the front, so I hiked hard and fast to the rhythmic breathing I had near perfected over the past few days. The sun rose over the mountains, and we crossed our fingers the clear morning would still be waiting for us at the Sun Gate. After a fast-paced hour, we climbed the “Monkey Stairs”. Imagine how a monkey might climb stairs, and that paints a pretty good picture. Just another short walk, wind one more corner, and we would be there!
As soon as a passed through the Sun Gate, the small patch of fog hanging over Machu Picchu lifted and the site revealed its glory to all those waiting above. Finally be there at the top, I surprised myself. I imagine seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate would be one of those incredible moments in life where you feel both in exactly the right place and dumbfounded at how lucky you are to have been there at all. The feeling that resonated most strongly with me at the end of this journey was a powerful mixture of pride and relief. The linger worry in the back of my mind was now gone and I would only remembered the hike as an unforgettable, beautiful, and terrific experience. Sure, I struggled but I made it, and I had a damn good time doing it. I cried not from seeing Machu Picchu (I would do that later as we got closer), but from that elated relief and happiness.
Excited to finally be at our destination, our group finished the last stretch of the hike, stopping plenty of times for photos as Machu Picchu grew larger and larger in front of our eyes. The scale, craftsmanship, and precision Machu Picchu nestled within staggering mountains make the incredible setting. We wowed at the stonework, listened with wide eyes to stories of construction, the legends, the “discovery”.
For a few amazing hours, we walked through ancient doorways, marveled at the details, and caught of breaths after breathtaking views of the city within the valley. The scale and the majesty of Machu Picchu’s location is what is often lost in photos. It’s a difficult perspective to capture, and the city itself captives like few other places in the world. It’s easy to become distracted with these structures seemingly growing from the mountain below.
I remember feeling this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever photographed.
This final day of the Inca Trail trek is a long one. A few hours of sleep the night before, and you are awake and hiking to the Sun Gate. Then a few unreal and overwhelming hours in an ancient wonder of the world. A break for lunch, then catching a train...to catch a bus. By my estimates, it’s a long and exhilarating 17 hour day. From the lack of sleep and the thrill of seeing an ancient wonder of the world, this last crazy day can make you feel as if you’re in a dream.
Reminiscing on our time on the Inca Trail, those feelings of insecurity surrounding my ability are replaced by the beautiful views, amazing people, and the knowledge I made it, little lungs and all. I don’t know what my next big physical challenge will be, but I take solace in the fact I will carry with me yet another accomplishment, another marker of proof I can do it.