10 Things to Know About Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The main purpose of my recent trip to South America was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Although that goal was definitely in jeopardy for awhile thanks to my back issues, my doctor gave me enough pain medication to bring down the Peruvian Army, so I’m thrilled to say that I was able to complete the hike! That being said, there was a lot that I learned while out on the trail that they don’t exactly tell you on the internet.

1. It’s a lot harder than the tour companies make it seem…but it gets easier.

Last summer, when I first started seriously looking into hiking the Inca Trail (a 4 day/3 night extravaganza with the final destination of Machu Picchu), I read a ton of tour companies’ websites. Advance permits are required in order to complete the hike, and they can only be issued through an authorized tour company. With only 200 spots for hikers each day, the spots fill up fast, so you really have to think ahead. Anyway, everything I read said that anyone with a “moderate” health and fitness level could complete the trail. I mean, that might be technically true, but the trail was honestly a lot harder than I expected it to be. Amanda and I were in by far the best shape of anyone in our group (they would definitely agree with that assessment) but it was still pretty challenging. In fact, we started with 15 people in our hiking group and only 10 finished! While the mental aspect of the hike is probably the hardest part, it would also be a good idea to actually work out before hiking this trail. And by “work out,” I really just mean do the stairmaster for like 4 hours a day every day because most of the trail is stairs. Fortunately, despite what the elevation chart will tell you, it really does feel easier every single day that you’re out there, even though you’re getting more sore, so stick it out! It’s worth it.

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Well, we started with 15…

2. The hygiene situation is not as dire as expected.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not into camping. In fact, my only experience sleeping in a tent prior to the Inca Trail was the one night I spent on Great Cranberry Island last summer after the GCI 50k. This is not because I don’t like hiking, it’s because I really value showers and comfortable beds. As such, I was quite concerned about the fact that we would not be able to shower at all on the trek. Between the two of us, Amanda and I easily brought enough baby wipes to clean off our entire group. That’s not an exaggeration. Our amazing tour company, Alpaca Expeditions (who we seriously cannot recommend enough) also provided us with hot water, wash cloths, and soap each morning and each evening so that we could wipe off, and shockingly, we didn’t feel nearly as gross as we thought we would. Sure, I wouldn’t go on a date like that, but our group unanimously agreed that we didn’t feel that bad.

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Not related to hygiene besides the fact that I’m touching a llama.

3. The porters are basically the Andes Mountain equivalent of elite marathon runners.

You know how in a lot of marathons you eventually get lapped by the lead runners? Is that just me? Well, the porters (aka the group of men who carry all of the stuff for the entire group) are the equivalent of elite marathon runners. Each porter has a weight limit of 20 kg (about 40 lbs) that they are permitted to carry, so we had 19 porters for our group of 10 people. They carry the tents, food, most of your personal belongings, sleeping bags, etc. and then basically sprint up and down the mountains to reach the site ahead of you. So let’s say we woke up at 5 am. The porters and cooks would make us breakfast, then send us off and then break down the entire campsite. They pack everything up, load it onto their backs, and then set off after us. Most days, they started about 1.5 hours behind us. They had to get to our lunch site before we did to set everything up again and start cooking. It’s so humbling to see not only how hard these guys work, since we could barely survive the hike with just our daypacks on, but how fast they do it and how easy it is for them. What would take us 3-4 hours to cover, a porter would do in under an hour!

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Some of our porters resting after setting up our tents in under 3 minutes. Those giant green backpacks are what they had to carry!

4. The food is amazing. No, really.

One of the big concerns that a lot of people have about hiking for such a long time is that the food will be bad or sparse. Nothing could be further from the truth! We ate three HUGE (and I mean huge by Danielle/football player standards, not European or weird diet standards) meals per day, plus at least two snacks, plus more tea than I ever thought I could drink. It got to the point where our group was literally asking our tour guide if we could skip snacks because we were still so full from the last meal. At first, we also felt really guilty about how much food it seemed like we were wasting because it was simply impossible to finish it all. Then, our guide told us that in addition to the meals that the porters eat (which we saw, and they also looked very delicious), they also get to finish any food we don’t want. Once we knew that 19 super-fit, hardworking guys got to eat the rest of the food and that none of it was being wasted, we didn’t feel so bad. Our cook even made us pizza (how is still a mystery) and a CAKE while we were camping. Also, the best popcorn I’ve ever had. Despite the fact that we were hiking for 8+ hours a day, I think I still gained weight. You will not go hungry.

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Lunch on the first day, before everyone quit.

5. The ugliest hat was the greatest investment.

Amanda and I started the hike with big dreams of arriving at Machu Picchu looking really cute, and hiking all the way looking adorable and sporty in our visors and baseball caps. I’m sad to report that this was not the case and we made it about half an hour before we had to buy new hats due to the epic sunburns we were about to receive. Because the altitude is so high, the sun is really strong, and you pretty much have to have your entire face and neck covered if you’re as pale as we are. So, at the very first stop along the trail, we were forced to buy giant sun hats. Let me be clear: there are few looks I find less flattering than that of the floppy sun hat. As such, we decided to just go for it and get the tackiest and most touristy ones they had since we weren’t going to look good in them anyway. These hats proved invaluable not only for blocking the sun, but also the rain and wind AND for allowing the rest of our group to find us anywhere on the mountain at any given time.

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Can’t miss those hats.

6. Your hiking guide will constantly lie to you.

It is apparently a universal truth that the hiking guides on the Inca Trail will just lie to you non-stop. They lie about how far you’ve already gone, about how far it is till lunch, how long it will take to get there, and all sorts of other things. While this was initially a great source of irritation (and sometimes very confusing), we learned that it was totally necessary. The fact of the matter is that because of the elevation, the amount of stairs, and a host of other factors, it takes a really long time to do each section of the trail even if you’re in pretty decent shape, unless you’re a porter. Going down is often more difficult than climbing up. If your tour guide told you how long it would really take before you would stop for lunch, you’d quit on the spot. By the third day, we figured out that our guide was constantly lying and it became a source of great amusement for us. All the other groups did it too, so we couldn’t be that upset about it. Just know that they’re doing it for your own good, and that it’s never only an hour until lunch. Ever.

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“Only another half hour and we’ll be at the top!”

7. They say “go at your own pace,” but they don’t mean it.

One of the reasons I decided to even attempt to hike the trail with my back as it is currently is that the internet told me I could “go at my own pace.” Well, that’s kind of true, but as we learned on the first day, that rule only applies if your own pace gets you to the appointed campsite significantly before dark. The 5 members of our group that ended up quitting were going so slowly that we couldn’t even make it to our worst-case scenario campground that first night and our guide had to find a random campsite. Even after those people quit, we still couldn’t make it to our goal campsite on Day 2, so we had a much longer Day 3 than we should have. It all worked out for the best and we made it to Machu Picchu at the same time as everyone else, but we had to hustle. The point is that yes, you can go at your own pace, but only if that pace is still reasonable. It’s kind of like having a slightly tight time cutoff at a race.

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The final 10 at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass

8. The porters, guides, and cooks are glad you’re there.

This might seem obvious at first, but the staff for each hike is genuinely happy that you’re on the trail. All of the porters, guides, and cooks are members of the indigenous tribes in the mountains, and the popularity of the Inca Trail, particularly since it was designated one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, has provided tremendous economic opportunity for the native people. This was actually really concerning for me because I am convinced that everyone who lives in a touristy place hates the tourists. This is possibly because growing up in South Florida, the people who lived there full time were generally not fond of the Snowbirds, aka retirees from up north who come down each winter to jam up our roads and jack up restaurant prices. Fortunately, the people in the Andes are almost universally grateful for the tourists because they provide high quality jobs that help the native people make enough money to send their kids off to good schools and universities in the cities. Our guide talked to us at length about this and it was a huge relief.

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One of our tour guides, Yoel! He likes us. Also, I am wearing like 4 jackets.

9. You will hate the people who take the train to Machu Picchu.

On the final day of the hike, you’re dirty, you’ve been up since 3:30 am, and, in our case, you’re soaking wet from being rained on. When you finally get to Machu Picchu, there are going to be tourists. A lot of them. They will be clean, they will not smell bad, and they will be dressed nicely and holding very heavy cameras that you would not dream of carting around for 4 days. You will hate them. They will talk about what a “tough climb” it is up to the Sun Gate and you will fantasize about throat punching them. You can’t help it. The only people that you like at Machu Picchu are the other hikers that took the long road, and trust me, it is very obvious who they are. Everyone else just kind of needs to get the hell away from the ruins because they are messing up all the pictures. Sorry, everyone who is reading this who took the train. I still love you, but I don’t have to like you right now.

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See the people below us? They are not hikers.

10. It is worth it. It is SO worth it.

Whether your favorite part of the hike ends up being Machu Picchu or somewhere completely different, the experience will be worth it. The ridiculously early wake ups, extensive number of baby wipes, long hours, expense, and difficulty of getting there only makes it that much better. You will make lifelong friends with the people in your hiking group whether you have anything in common with them or not. You will have huge newfound respect for another culture. You may never drink tea again. One way or another, it will be an experience that you will spend the rest of your life talking about! It is worth every single second.

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And then our tour guide yelled at us for jumping.

 

Finally Back Home, and Some Scenes from Colombia!

Whew! I’m back from my trip and catching up on life as we speak. I only have 5 days at home before I leave for Colorado for the event of the year, also known as my back surgery. I’m sorry for being a bad T-Rex and not responding to all of your comments on previous posts yet, but I WILL. In the mean time, here are some pictures from our last night in Ecuador and our short trip (more like a layover, really) to Bogota, Colombia!

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Our tour guide for our two days in Quito invited us out for dinner and drinks with him and his friends! I practiced my Spanish with them. Amanda helped them practice their English.

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They took us salsa dancing to fulfill Amanda’s great South American dream and my worst nightmare. Here she is with Daniel, the self-proclaimed “Mr. Salsa.” He is a salsa teacher so that was fairly legit.

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With Colombian women in traditional dress outside the Museo del Oro in Bogota!

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Next stop – Monserrate! There is a church on top of the mountain that provides great views of almost the entire (huge) city of Bogota! There’s also a long trail that you can hike up for great views, but we didn’t have time, so we took a cable car instead!

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Scenery from Monserrate

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Views of the city

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Ajiaco soup! It’s a potato-based soup with corn, chicken, and cream and then avocado and rice on the side that you could add in. This might have been the best food we ate on the entire trip.

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There’s tons of street art (and just plain old graffiti) in Bogota. We’re posing next to artwork that showcases traditional native jewelry, although there were plenty of other murals to choose from!

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Some of the many colorful buildings in Bogota’s famous La Candelaria district! Amanda is on the right getting a history lesson from Edgar, our fabulous guide.

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On our way to the Salt Cathedral, we saw a protest taking place on a major highway. Our guide said that protests are very common and people lump all sorts of causes into one protest, and they take place in the streets, clogging up traffic! The police were not impressed.

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There is a cathedral located entirely within a salt mine about an hour outside of Bogota! It’s pretty insane, and we got there late so were actually the last ones there. The mine is haunting and beautiful!

My Least Favorite Running Saying

Note: This post is not meant to be depressing, but it might sound that way. It’s more about the many realizations I’ve had during my back issues and coming to terms with how running will be changing for me in the future. 

I hate the saying “running is cheaper than therapy.” I know maybe like three people for whom that sentence would actually be true, and they are not people who need therapy in the first place. “Running is my therapy” has also been a historically irritating phrase to me. While I’d like to say it’s because it’s overused, it’s actually because running has never been enough on its own to get me through difficult spots in my life. I’ve seen more therapists than I can even name thanks to moves (mine), maternity leaves (theirs), and insurance fraud (theirs, and I’m still so effing bitter about that. I can’t even. Ugh.). I think I was jealous of the people who seemed to get through all of their problems just by gutting out a few miles on the roads or trails.

Until recently, I couldn’t identify with either of those phrases at all, aside from the fact that I’ve seen them printed on a lot of t-shirts. But as you may have noticed from the tone of many of my posts lately, I haven’t been in my most fun mood as of late. Fine, that’s putting it mildly. If AJ wasn’t the most relaxed person in the world, he would already have murdered me, I think. It’s not just because of my back, although being in pain all the time does have a tendency to fill people with a Hulk-like amount of rage. Work is pretty busy right now (although when is it not? #StartupProblems) and traveling all the time, while fun, has been difficult with the amount of stuff I have going on. For example,  I will only be in the country for one day (this past Saturday) during an entire 3 week span, and in case you were wondering, the surgery pre-registration hotline is apparently not open on Saturdays. I’m on the cusp of making many difficult decisions in multiple areas of my life, and sometimes I feel like I’m about to lose it.

Suddenly, I get it. Running probably isn’t really people’s therapy, it’s what keeps them from going over the edge. It’s like a safety net. It’s a workout for your conscience and your common sense. Instead of plotting and executing ways to kill your neighbor’s dog because it won’t stop crapping in your yard, running enables you to politely walk over to their house and address the issue in person, or by yelling, but definitely not by killing the offending dog. I never realized how important this safety net was until I didn’t have it anymore for a long period of time and things in my life went nuts.

The other day, I nearly had a meltdown when CVS wouldn’t fill my sleeping pill prescription because it was one day before I was apparently allowed to and Ambien is a controlled substance. Well, what the hell are you supposed to do if you’re leaving the country for 10 days and there are no CVS’s in said country? If I had thought it would help in even the smallest way (or even just not hurt the situation), I would have launched myself onto the ground and finally thrown the temper tantrum I’ve been prepping for since I was a child. I was obviously far too dignified to as a child to lower myself to the level of throwing tantrums. Good news, though! I feel that I am no longer too dignified at age 28.

The fact of the matter is that for many of us, running is a coping mechanism that has replaced another, potentially more destructive coping mechanism. For me, it is my eating disorder and possibly online shopping.  For others, it might be alcohol or drug abuse, or gambling, or compulsive overeating. The past few weeks have been a pretty rude awakening for me; I need more coping mechanisms, or possibly a large supply of pills. No, coping mechanisms. I need coping mechanisms. SEE?

So, runners who rely on running in order to not murder things, I totally get it now. And I’m sorry I judged your sayings. I take that back. Sorry, I’m not sorry. Please get new sayings.  And new shirts.

Only 14 days til surgery! I bet you’re counting down just as much as AJ and CVS are.

Techno Jesus, a Guinea Pig, and a Security Breach

Here are some pictures from Day 2 of our stay in Ecuador! We toured the wonderful city of Quito. I can’t believe how beautiful it is here. I never want to leave! Oh well, it’s off to Bogota, Colombia tomorrow!

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We asked to go to a true local market, so our guide took us to an amazing fruit, food, and animal market run mostly by the indigenous people. Pickpockets are everywhere, but he watched out for us and we had no problem! The hustle and bustle was ridiculous and amazing to watch.

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I found a puppy wandering around the market and I REALLY wanted to keep it. I would have if Amanda wasn’t there to talk some sense into me and remind me that we still have to clear customs in 2 countries here in South America plus the U.S., and that it probably wouldn’t love the Inca Trail. Juan Carlos, you are in my heart forever.

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View from right outside the market. The man carrying potatoes on his back on the far right is typical of what everyone working in the market looked like. Man, and I thought I had back problems!

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Amanda and I at the San Francisco Plaza, right outside our hotel. It used to be a marketplace for the indigenous tribes.

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In the main plaza of Quito. The statue behind us commemorates the first battle in the fight for Ecuadorian independence from the Spanish.

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On one of the most beautiful streets in Quito! This woman is standing with a statue (could have fooled me!) in traditional Easter dress. The statue shows traditional clothing worn during the processional on Good Friday each year. Sinners dress in robes with masks and cones and walk the streets of Quito to repent for their sins. Each outfit varies according to the level of sin. Some of the outfits are eerily reminiscent of the KKK.

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Typical street in Old Quito, aka beautiful and hilly!

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Inside the San Francisco church! Built in the 1500s mostly by indigenous slaves, the church features tons of hand carvings and gold EVERYWHERE. It wasn’t even the most ornate church we saw! Still used 3 times a day for services.

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This is what the inside of a typical colonial house looks like. This one has been turned into a market with restaurants and stores, but the courtyard and balconies are typical of the homes. Our hotel looks just like this inside!

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With one of the guards at the presidential palace! They sometimes smile, but not for us apparently. Our tour guide told us to go in and take pictures. We thought he meant go IN, but really he just meant look through the gate. There was slight confusion and we were escorted out by security after trying to go through the metal detectors without what is apparently a VERY important ticket.

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View overlooking the city of Quito from the mountains! It is just spectacular, colorful, and wonderful.

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Selfie with our tour guide for the past two days and new best friend, Jose! He has been fantastic. He’s quite sarcastic and mostly tolerates us.

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We ate guinea pig (cuy) for lunch today! No, we did not pick the live one out of the box. That was just a picture from the market. It comes fried with the head and limbs still on! It tasted pretty good, but the look is not exactly appealing.

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Amazing handcrafted indigenous art at a local market! The colors are out of control. It’s almost blinding. I wanted to buy everything.

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This picture of Jesus (and several others) in the Basilica has neon lighting behind it that changes colors. It’s kind of like techno Jesus. It’s actually really bizarre. Even Jose agreed.

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Amanda and I in front of the Basilica! It was just completed in 1985. This is the home of Techno Jesus.

Giveaway Winner, A Discount, and First Pics from Ecuador!

Ok, first things first. Congratulations to the winner of the insoles giveaway from Insoles and Beyond, Michelle D! If you were not the lucky winner, don’t worry! Insoles and Beyond has generously offered a 5% discount to all readers with the code TRex5. It’s good for a whole year, which is awesome! I’ll be adding a banner to my page with the code when I get back from South America.

Speaking of South America, Amanda and I arrived in Ecuador late Sunday night, and we spent a full day today on a private tour near Mindo, a small town outside of Quito. I won’t be recapping every second of this trip like I did with Japan, but I’ll try to regularly upload photos to the blog whenever I have WiFi, if for no reason other than to make sure my mom knows I haven’t been kidnapped. She’s very concerned.

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First stop – Pululahua. This protected area is actually a dormant volcano crater. Sixty indigenous families inhabit the crater and farm on the land. You can see their houses below!

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Amanda and I went ziplining through a cloud forest! Unlike any zipline course I’ve ever done, this one included 12 ziplines and was over an hour and a half long from end to end! Best part? It cost only $20. Take that, Asheville. PS – video of this to come. My WiFi connection isn’t good enough for videos. Oh, and my head isn’t that big. I was wearing a bun and refused to take it down because it would have involved way too much effort.

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The view behind us is just some of what we saw while ziplining!

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Ecuador is full of stray dogs that wander the streets. All the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly sweet. This is my main boo Gabriella. I snuck a napkin full of food out of the restaurant for her at lunch.

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We went to a butterfly/hummingbird/flower sanctuary in Mindo. These are some of the many beautiful orchids we saw!

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On the random swings in the butterfly sanctuary

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There is a fascinating outdoor museum associated with the equator. This is not the equator, just an awesome sign.

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One foot in the southern hemisphere and one foot in the northern hemisphere! Straddling the world. Ha!

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We ate dinner at a rooftop restaurant that had 360 degree views of the city of Quito! Amazing.

The Itch

If you spend much time hanging out with many Marathon Maniacs, you’ll notice a common statement from many of us. We like to say that we run marathons so that we don’t have to do long runs in training. We joke and say that if we’re going to run 20 miles, there better be a medal waiting for us at the end and some “free” Gatorade along the way. I can only speak for myself, but most of the time, I was only half joking. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very talented, hard working, hard running Maniacs out there that get in those 20-milers between marathons and do speedwork during the week. There are also a lot of us that use one marathon as  training for the next one. It’s a source of pride for many that we are “always in marathon shape,” that we don’t have to go through a full 16-week training cycle to prepare for the distance, because we’re always prepared, even if many of us notice our finish times increasing along with the number of races we do.

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On second thought, perhaps mid-race moonshine is the reason for the slowdown.

Whether you agree with that mentality or don’t, it exists, and it is certainly one that I’ve subscribed to plenty of times. The full training cycle is hard and was something to be avoided at all costs. If at all possible, I tried to space my marathons just 3-4 weeks apart so that I would never really have to do a 20 miler. Somewhere along the way, long training runs became something to be avoided rather than cherished because they didn’t seem that much fun when compared to the excitement of traveling to a new state, seeing all my friends, and getting a medal at the end of a marathon during which hundreds or thousands of people clapped for me. Even when I started training last year to improve my times (and did improve them by a considerable margin), I still didn’t do a lot of long runs because my marathon schedule was so busy. I focused more on speed work and mid-length runs, never getting up to 18 or 20 miles.

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And yet now, when I think of running again someday soon-ish (hopefully), I think of training. The runs in my daydreams are those through the neighborhoods downtown that I know so well – down the little Kiawah alley, up the hill to the stop sign by Sims Park, that endless, slow climb up Kilbourne,  and the impatient waiting for the next water stop to come so I could get a quick respite from the sticky South Carolina summer air. I think of 3 years ago, when I thought it was a good idea to join Match.com and realized that the only thing good about it (for me) was the crazy stories I had to tell on Saturday mornings. I think of sweat flinging off the elbows of my training partners, of literally wringing out my shirt at water stops, of the girl who was always late for our runs and would track us down along the route in her car and then park in a hurry so she could jump out and join us. I think of the first time I ran up the hill on Harden Street and could still breathe when I got to the top.

Yes, you could say I’ve got “the itch” again. I know I won’t feel this way forever, but for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to building up my distance slowly and enjoying those miles with my friends. I remember coming back to training after the stress fracture in my hip; our assigned “long run” that weekend for Team in Training was just seven miles. Considering I had done a marathon less than a year before, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but I looked at the spreadsheet and thought, “Seven miles?” I can’t run seven miles! That’s insane!” Of course, I ran seven miles that day, and eight the next week, and whether the run felt hard or easy on any given day, I made it all the way through that training cycle. The best part, in addition to the camaraderie, was the constant high of surprising myself every week, of pushing myself to my limit and succeeding.

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That’s part of the beauty of running, and something I lost sight of over the years. I don’t know what running will look like for me in the future, but I know it’s only a matter of time before I look down at my training schedule and think, “No way.” And then I’ll do it anyway.

Insoles and Beyond Giveaway!

Shortly after my back flared up on the day of the Charleston Marathon, I was contacted by Insoles and Beyond to do a product review and giveaway. While I had no idea at that time when I would start running again, I was optimistic about recovering quickly. Both chiropractors I went to recommended trying out insoles as a way to reduce some of the impact traveling to my spine, so receiving the email from Insoles and Beyond was the perfect timing! Insoles can be helpful for all sorts of running injury issues, including shin splints, plantar fasciitis, back pain, and metatarsalgia/sesamoiditis, and I know many people who have used them with great results.

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As you know, I don’t do a lot of product reviews and giveaways on this site. That’s because most of the offers I receive are not products I personally would use for whatever reason, so I don’t feel comfortable telling you that I think you should use them. The first thing that I liked about Insoles and Beyond is that it’s a small, family-owned business based out of North Carolina. The website has just about every type of insole you can think of, including those for every day use, running, and even special splints and insoles for the treatment of plantar fasciitis. They even have insoles that are specific for dress shoes, hiking boots, and ski boots! I honestly didn’t know that many types of insoles existed.

The second thing I really love about the company is the customer service. I wasn’t sure what kind of insoles I wanted or what might be right for me based on my activity level, and I didn’t want to order the wrong kind. Fortunately, because the business is small and focused on customer service, Ashley was willing and able to answer all of my questions and make suggestions about the type of insoles she thought would be best. After about a million emails back and forth, I decided to go with the RunPro insoles from Currex.

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Shiny new insoles!

As you might have noticed, I haven’t been able to run much since I hurt my back, but I think that has actually enhanced my review. I had done several short runs of 3-5 miles with the insoles during the month of February before I completely stopped running after the International Friendship Run in Tokyo, and on each of those runs, my feet felt great. I love the support offered by the insoles, and I’ve found that they are more cushioned than my normal insoles. I’ve also taken them to the gym, where I’ve tested them on the arc trainer, the treadmill, and the elliptical, all with great comfort. I walked around Quebec with them and I’ve done my daily walks with them ever since!

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Quebec is really big on giant staircases.

I would definitely recommend Insoles and Beyond if you’re looking for a specialty pair of insoles but aren’t sure exactly what you need or where to find it. The customer service is rivaled only by the selection! Better news? Insoles and Beyond has been kind enough to offer a free pair of insoles for one lucky reader of this blog!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Definitive Back Injury Update Post

Well, the jury   neurosurgeons are in, folks! Over the past few weeks, I have been to various doctor’s offices and imaging centers hoping to get an answer about what is going on with my back and how to deal with it.

Brief recap for those just joining my pity party: I have had back issues since I was 16 and have two bulging discs at L4-L5 and L5-S1. I have constant mild-moderate pain and sciatica most of the time as a result with several more severe flare ups per year. The most recent flare up occurred on the morning of the Charleston Marathon – January 18, 2014 – which I was unable to finish as a result of the pain.

The first stop was a neurosurgery/spine center in Greenwood that I had never been to before. For those of you not from South Carolina, Greenwood is definitely not the city in our state that one would think of when one thinks of outstanding medical centers, but it was recommended by a very helpful reader and received high ratings, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

My appointment was on March 17, the day after I got back from Chicago. I had an amazing appointment – my doctor was so caring and helpful. He not only gave me a thorough exam and lots of new information about the symptoms I was experiencing, he also answered all my questions and didn’t make an annoyed face when I told him about all of my running (much more rare than you’d think). He said that he had a pretty good idea of what was going on but wanted to get an updated MRI (my last one was from May 2012 after the Flying Pig Marathon incident). He also wanted to get some x-rays of me bending over in various positions, which surprised me because out of all of the spine doctors that I have seen over the years, no one has ever suggested that. I left feeling really hopeful that I would get some new insight.

I went the next morning first thing for an MRI and x-rays and was, for once, actually given the images on a CD when I asked for them. Normally, they just lie and say they’ll send them to you but never actually do until months later after you’ve fought them tooth and nail, at least in my experience. Anyway, I got a call the next day from the nurse at the office I had been to on Monday, and the news wasn’t good.

“You have degenerative disc disease,” she said. “The doctor is recommending that you see a neurosurgeon because you will likely need surgery.”

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I have to say, I was pretty floored. My last MRI just showed my same old dumb bulging discs, pressing on my same old dumb nerves and generally being annoying. I never expected to hear that my condition had worsened, even though I was in more pain. Yes, I realize that doesn’t make sense. I spent the next few days reading every article I could find about degenerative disc disease. It turns out it’s not actually a disease – it just means that your discs have deteriorated and are basically disintegrating, causing your spine to compress. My google search history looked something like this:

“degenerative disc disease”

“degenerative disc disease treatment”

“degenerative disc disease surgery”

“degenerative disc disease running”

“running after spinal fusion surgery”

“how to control a panic attack”

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One of my millions of searches took me to the website for the Boulder Neurological & Spine Associates in Boulder, Colorado. I had read (ok, fine, on a triathlon forum) that Dr. Villavicencio, also known as Dr. V, was doing incredible research on minimally invasive back surgeries AND IS ALSO A 32-TIME MARATHONER who has competed multiple times at Ironman Kona. As luck would have it, BNSA does free MRI reviews, so I overnighted my images to them (which I actually had, thanks to the CD!) in hopes of having one of their surgeons take a look at them. I thought Dr. V would be way too busy for my nonsense, but the very helpful office manager called me and asked if I had a specific physician in mind for my case and then suggested Dr. V based on my running history. Amazing! And Dr. V himself called me the next day. Note: This entire situation was as shocking to me as when AJ and I started dating and he actually did the things he said he was going to do at the exact time he said he was going to do them. Finding the right doctor is not unlike dating.

At this point, I hadn’t been told many details about my MRI since I was waiting for my appointment with the neurosurgeon down here, so he went over the whole thing with me, issue by issue. I was a bit taken aback by the list:

  • Serious degeneration at L4-L5 and L5-S1 (the bottom two discs of the spine), the worst of which is at L5-S1
  • Bulging discs at L4-L5 and L5-S1
  • An annular tear at L4-L5

Sounds horrible, right? Well, it’s actually “moderate” in the world of back issues, which is just crazy to think about since I can’t do anything without pain right now. I’d hate to see what “severe” looks like!

Dr. V explained that I will need a two-level spinal fusion to fix the pain and nerve issues I have, which was my worst fear. He also explained that because I’m 28 years old, he hopes we can avoid doing that for awhile, because basically, fusion is hell. He suggested trying a microdiscectomy first, which is much less invasive and requires much less recovery, to see if that would help enough to put a fusion off for a few more years. He was confident that I will be able to run again regardless because an elite triathlete (and 5 time Kona winner) that he operated on had the exact same issues I have, received a two-level fusion (at age 42), and continued competing professionally for 2 years before choosing to retire to spend more time with his kids. On a related note, I am somewhat concerned that he thinks I am an elite athlete, but it’s fine.

My appointment with the neurosurgeon in South Carolina was today, and I have to say, I am so glad I spoke to Dr. V first. There was nothing wrong with this guy at all – he was perfectly nice (from Canada, after all) – but holy crap, it was like he thought of ways to break the news to me in the most depressing possible fashion before he came into the room. Examples from the conversation:

“If I didn’t know any better, I would think I was looking at the MRI of a 60-year-old, but here you are!”

“You’re not going to be running anymore, so go ahead and get that out of your head now.”

“The only thing that will help you is a multi-level spinal fusion.”

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Thankfully, I was prepared for the conversation thanks to my discussion with Dr. V. All my research came in handy as I asked this doctor about other surgical options, which he agreed did have some chance of success, but admitted that he was not the most qualified to perform them because of the complexity of my case. He was impressed/possibly disturbed by how informed I was about the various procedures and latest research, and I found myself so glad that I love compulsively googling things. He was very friendly and honest but came across so much more pessimistically than Dr. V. If I had spoken to him first, I likely would have considered running/hobbling directly out of his office and into oncoming traffic because it seemed like my life was over. Perhaps I will write him an email with suggestions on patient approach, to include lines such as “You are so pretty; it’s amazing how degenerated your discs are!”

Isn’t it funny how it seems like nothing happens for such a long time and then everything happens at once? That is kind of what this feels like. I’ve been dealing with this issue for 12 years, and then all of a sudden, in the span of a week and a half, all of this happens. It’s nuts. 

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The end result is this: I scheduled a microdiscectomy with Dr. V in Boulder on April 24, assuming the pre-operative exam goes as anticipated. If it works, I’ll be able to start running verrryyyyyyy lightly about 6 weeks after that (beginning of June) and resume training around the beginning of August. If it doesn’t, I’m looking at a fusion at the end of the summer.

My best friend asked me bluntly if I scheduled the surgery with Dr. V because he told me I’ll be able to run again. It’s a fair question, but one that I can answer definitively – no. As we know, nothing in life is certain, so just because he says I will be able to run again doesn’t mean that I will for sure, and just because the other guy says I won’t doesn’t mean that I couldn’t. I think as a runner and an athlete, Dr. V definitely views mobility and activity differently than the other surgeon, but I picked him because he’s the most qualified and made me feel extremely at ease with my options and the entire process. Too bad I have to go to Colorado to see him, but it is what it is.

While the diagnosis and the treatment options certainly aren’t what I had hoped for, I already feel much more at peace about the entire situation simply because I have a definitive path forward and a doctor I feel comfortable with. It doesn’t hurt that it looks like my running career isn’t over just yet, either.

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June will be here before I know it!

Yokohama, the City-Mall – Japan, Part 5

Remember that time Lauren and I met some guys from the Navy and they plied us with liquor and convinced us to meet them in a different city?

I don’t know if it was an excessive amount of Strong or just a strong desire to have a conversation in English with someone other than each other, but Lauren and I quickly set about trying to get a hotel in Yokohama pretty much as soon as we got back from the bar in Nagano. As you might imagine, it was more challenging than it probably should have been. I wasn’t 100% sure we were making the right decision given that we hadn’t even been to Kyoto yet at that point, but by the time we left the train station on Tuesday afternoon after our bike tour, I was really glad we were heading to Yokohama.

I didn’t know much about the city other than it was sort of near Tokyo, so it was bound to be pretty big. When Lauren and I arrived, we once again got in a cab with little to no confidence that we were actually going to our hotel, as usual. We were immediately in awe of the landscape. Everywhere we looked were gigantic buildings, and they were clean. One thing we had both noticed about many buildings in a lot of cities in Japan (with the exception of some parts of Tokyo) is that a lot of them are kind of…dingy, for lack of a better word. Nothing horrible, just noticeably less clean than Yokohama. Yokohama is like a glistening pearl in the oyster that is Japan.

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Oddly enough, I think Yokohama was my favorite city in Japan, and we didn’t even plan to go there.

We made plans to meet up with Colin, who had a few hours to kill before he had to go back into work. We decided to grab dinner before waiting for the other guys to get off, since they were working the opposite shift. We were all staying at the Intercontinental Yokohama Bay, and Colin promised to take us somewhere tasty but cheap, which is actually pretty easy to do in Japan.

So we started walking and noticed we were connecting directly from our hotel to a very upscale mall. Finally, all this amazing Japanese fashion we had heard about was appearing before our very eyes! Honestly, thank God we didn’t go to Yokohama sooner or I would have bankrupted myself in the first four hours. We kept walking and talking to Colin, not really noticing at first that we were walking…and walking…and walking. What we thought was a 10 minute walk turned out to be more like half an hour as the mall seemed to stretch on forever and go from one building to the next, and Colin somehow knew the names of all of them. Inside turned into outside, we passed train stations, went up escalators, down escalators, and through several more buildings only to arrive at…a Japanese diner?

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Obviously I didn’t take this picture but I think it accurately captures how gigantic the mall is.

It smelled like a giant vat of oil, but it tasted like delicious dumplings and udon. It wasn’t long before Colin had to leave to get to work, but we had a few hours to kill before the other guys would be off of work. Colin was like “You’ll find your way! Don’t worry, if you get lost you can just grab a cab and tell them to take you to the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay!” and left us to die in Yokohama in the Japanese equivalent of Burger King.

For some reason, we were feeling adventurous, so we (mostly me) were determined to find our way back to the hotel without any form of assistance. I was also 100% sure that telling our cab driver to take us to the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay would result in another $120 cab ride, since that’s the hotel we were staying at in Tokyo, which is not the same city as Yokohama. Colin’s efforts to get us lost be damned – we not only found our way back unassisted, we found a Sanrio store too! Any other children of the 90s remember Sanrio? We died.

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Even the outside of the store was amazing. WHY DO I SQUAT DOWN IN EVERY PICTURE?

Once the other guys got off work, we met up and headed out to the World Beer Museum. Or the World Museum of Beer? All that’s important is they had beers from all over the world there. We blindly followed the guys, chatting along the way, all of a sudden realizing we were walking through a rather large, dark, and empty parking garage. Lauren goes “Oh, so now is the part when you murder us and chop us into little pieces.” And we all laughed, but no, seriously, thank God they turned out to be upstanding members of the military and not psychopaths because we seriously made it so easy for them to kill us and I really need to up my vigilance in the future. I actually blame Lauren because she lives in a big city and should clearly know better.

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You can’t tell but I was sweating aggressively because it was like a million degrees in this bar, although apparently no one else thought that.

The bar was awesome for the purposes of testing out Japanese craft beer, although there were also beers from about a hundred other countries, and I was the only one drinking Japanese beer. The menu was entirely in Japanese, which was unfortunate, but they had thoughtfully written “IPA” after a couple of them, so I just went with that and prayed for the best. We ended up shutting the bar down and I grabbed a couple of bottles to bring home for AJ since I am nice like that. I think we cemented our lifelong friendships with Matt, Gunther, and Mike at the bar. Good people. Not murderers.

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This tasted fairly terrible but I thought the label was cool.

The guys had to be up for work early the next morning, but we had made tentative plans to meet up with Colin for lunch despite the fact that he had worked the night shift and would be operating on only a couple of hours of sleep. It was so nice of him to meet up with us, but I think he just wanted to see if we had actually survived the walk back. We had lunch at a great restaurant and took a leisurely walk back until Lauren and I checked the time and realized we had about 20 minutes to get back to our hotel and pack or we would miss our train to the airport!

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Colin and Lauren in front of the Yokohama ferris wheel, which Colin had helpfully suggested we use as a landmark to try and find our way back to the hotel.

Fortunately, we had packed most of our stuff and bought tickets for the train in advance, but we knew we would be cutting it close. We ran down to the lobby, jumped in a cab, and prayed that we would make it on time. Ok, so you know how cab drivers in places like NYC or Chicago kind of drive like crazy people and you basically fear for your life every second because they are running red lights and speeding?

That is not what cab drivers in Japan do. They stop at red lights – hell, they stop at yellow lights. They let other cars go in front of them. They are cautious. This is a good thing unless you are down to the second when trying to catch your train. We ran as fast as we could with our luggage, which wasn’t very fast and was probably more like a brisk walk, but holy hell, we worked up a sweat. And we made it onto the train with about 30 seconds to spare, which was a pretty fitting way to end our rather frenzied, random, and wonderful trip to Japan.

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Sayonara, Japan. Arigato gozaimasu!

The Great White North

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You might think that all I do lately is mope around and feel sorry for myself about my back. Not true, friends. I also buy things on the internet and do yoga. And last week, I headed to the Great White North, also known as Quebec City, and to Chicago, which is not in Canada but could have fooled me because it was cold as hell there too. The purpose of my trip was two-fold: 1) AJ went to Quebec City for work, and I figured it would be fun to tag along and write some reviews for Ramblen while seeing a new place and 2) Ramblen sponsored the very first Women in Travel Summit in Chicago!

Note: Chicago friends, don’t hate me for not telling you I was coming. Every minute of our day was scheduled and you’re all too much fun and I would have missed all my meetings if I saw you.

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But first, Canada! I have been to several parts of Canada before, but never Quebec. I was particularly excited to go there since I know they speak French and it is very different than the rest of Canada, but mostly I was really excited because my grandmother has a really deep-seated contempt (Nana hates no one) for Quebecois that no one entirely understands, so I was looking forward to sending her a postcard from there just to torment her. I am obviously her favorite grandchild.

Depending on who you talk to in Quebec, their English is really good or nearly non-existent. I learned the word for “chicken” very quickly so I wouldn’t order anything too weird on the menu. French is a lot easier to decipher than Japanese, although it is just as impossible to pronounce, but I did make an effort. Oh, and there was snow in Quebec. A lot of snow. It snowed 6 inches in like 2 hours and no one even flinched.

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#snowselfie. Despite the total lack of sun, I needed sunglasses due to the snow glare.

I really enjoyed walking around the city of Quebec, although my back and I did not particularly enjoy all the hills. It turns out that it is entirely possible for it to be snowing and very cold but for you to sweat through all your clothes and be stripping down to your base layer in the middle of the city due to near heat stroke. All the passerby looked at me quite strangely, so apparently public nudity is not a thing in Quebec.

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Part of the Old City of Quebec, also known as the place where only tourists go.

I was only in Quebec for a few days, but I’ll be headed back at the beginning of April when AJ heads back up for work. Hopefully it won’t be so cold-hot then and I’ll be able to see a bit more of the city. After Quebec, it was on to Chicago for the Summit! Oh, if only it was quite that simple. My flight out of Quebec to Philadelphia was delayed by about 2 hours, causing me to miss my connection in Philly by 4 minutes. UGH. That in turn put me on a flight 5 hours later, only to be delayed even further by the plane that blew a tire on takeoff and had its nose gear collapse. Instead of getting to Chicago at 5 pm, I got to my hotel at almost 2 am. On the plus side, my plane did not blow a tire or anything else.

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Good thing I have membership in the American Airlines and US Air lounges where beer and wine are free!

Friday was a day jam packed with meetings with some fantastic companies! Susie, one of our fabulous Brand Ambassadors, schlepped us around the city all morning We were fortunate enough to meet Samantha, one of our Brand Ambassadors who is involved with an amazing organization called Atlantic Impact. Based in Detroit, Atlantic Impact is a non-profit that helps inner-city students experience the wonder of local and international travel. Students become involved in the year-long program and attend weekly meetings and local field-trips to learn more about and become involved with their communities. At the end of the year, the students take an international trip to learn more about the importance of global connections – last year, they went to England! So cool.

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Atlantic Impact booth at WITS!

The Women In Travel Summit was a conference unlike anything I have experienced before. The atmosphere was incredible – female travelers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, etc. all convened in one place. As the Platinum Sponsors for the event, we got to do a 5 minute talk about our company before introducing the keynote speaker, which was awesome! What was not awesome was that there had been some miscommunication and I didn’t realize that we were going to be the ones talking – I thought the event hosts were! Natalie doesn’t do public speaking, so guess who does? I have no idea what I said, but I think it was coherent and people laughed at my jokes and came up to our table all throughout the expo, so it must not have been completely weird and awkward.

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Susie insisted we bring the ram hat.

On Saturday night, Natalie met her friend for dinner, so Susie and I headed to Farmhouse Tavern in the midst of all the St. Patrick’s Day bedlam. We did get to see the river dyed green and lots of people falling over drunk, which is the true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day. We got beer battered cheese curds – dyed green, of course.

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I apologized to my stomach in advance and it was still pissed at me but YOLO

After dinner, we all headed over to a WITS party at a nearby bar, but that wasn’t the most entertaining part of the evening. The most entertaining part was the train ride home from the bar. Imagine St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. Everyone has been drinking since about 9 am or earlier and it’s now 11 pm. The train is packed. It smells like all the worst smells of a frat house (are there good smells?) – the stale beer, the sweat, possible urine, and chicken wings. Oh, and there’s a guy dressed in a Gumby costume, but with his head off. You ask him if he is dressed as Gumby, hoping to distract him enough so that he forgets that he is about to puke all over you (and you can’t escape because the train is packed). He leans in towards you, doesn’t really look you in the eye because he can’t actually focus, and then slurs “Nnnnnnnnno,” even though the answer is obviously yes. He then inexplicably announces “My throat feels like a dick.” That, my friends, is St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Chicago.

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Susie and I at dinner

In conclusion, we had a fantastic and productive weekend at the Women In Travel Summit! The response to Ramblen was amazing and overwhelming, and it was great to meet Susie and get to spend some time with her. If you don’t already read her blog, do it! If you’re a female who is interested in travel in any capacity, whether you have a blog or not, definitely check out the Summit for next year! It will be in another one of my favorite cities – Boston!

LEAVE A COMMENT: What did you do to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?