Tag Archives: blessings

Inca Trail: By the Senses

I turned 40 in September.  So far, forty is most certainly fabulous.  In addition to running the NYC Marathon at the beginning of November, my husband and I celebrated this milestone birthday with a trip to Peru this month.  The cornerstone of our trip was a four-day, three-night trek along the 45 kilometer classic Inca Trail, finishing at Machu Picchu.   As an architectural historian-turned-fitness trainer, this trip has been on my travel bucket list for a while.

I’ve struggled with trying to recap the trip.  Every time I sat down to write a review, it was as if my whole being was still on sensory overload.  So instead of a typical trip review, I’m going to describe the Inca Trail by the senses.

The trekking group of Alpaca Expeditions.

The trekking group of Alpaca Expeditions.


Just a few hours into Day 1, our guide Saul asked us to step off the trail.  He asked us to link arms and close our eyes.  We then walked toward his voice, near the edge of a cliff.  It was a real trust test.  Just as I was getting really nervous, he asked us to stop, take a deep breath, and open our eyes.  In front of us was the great pre-Inca site of Patallacta, first inhabited around 500BC.  It was a transforming experience, immediately heightening the awesome reality that we were really on the Inca Trail, where people have walked, lived, traded, and built for centuries.


Patallaqta, from the cliff edge


Being high up in the mountains, we were in “the cloud forest” for much of our trek.  Watching the clouds roll in, lift up, and blow through a valley was surprisingly captivating.  My favorite example of this phenomenon was when we arrived at Phuyupatamarka (“village above the clouds”) in the morning of Day 3, and our guide Saul told us that Machu Picchu mountain was across the cloud-filled valley.  He looked out and across the sky, and he said, “Let’s wait about five minutes; the clouds will lift, and you’ll get your first view of Machu Picchu mountain and Aguas Calientes.”  Sure enough, we waited and the clouds evaporated just as he said they would.  He told us the history of the site—a communication post to call across the valley to the sentries stationed on Machu Picchu mountain–and just as he finished and we set off, the clouds descended on the valley once again obscuring the view.

Village Above the Clouds-- when we arrived

Village Above the Clouds– when we arrived

Five minutes later, the clouds lifted just as Saul predicted.

Five minutes later, the clouds lifted just as Saul predicted.

On Day 3, we hiked through the rain forest and jungle.  There were a lot of beautiful butterflies, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  But what caught my eye was this shimmery, iridescent white butterfly that had purple and yellow under its wings as it floated across the sky.  It was so perfectly magical, it almost seemed fake.

In the jungle

In the jungle

Before the trip, I was a little afraid that seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate wouldn’t live up to the hype in my head.  I was wrong.  Standing there on a bright, clear morning, looking 1000 feet down at the forgotten city, I got tears in my eyes.  It was, quite literally, a breathtaking experience.

From Inti Punku (Sun Gate)-- the original access point to Machu Picchu

From Inti Punku (Sun Gate)– the original access point to Machu Picchu

The stars.  One of the reasons I wanted to hike the Inca Trail was because I wanted to really escape and surround myself in the natural world.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a wide night sky.  We were blessed with clear weather during our trek, and the nights were positively spectacular.  Being able to see the night sky in its magnificence was a perk to waking up early (like 3:30am early) while on the trail.


The climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass (13,829 feet) on Day 2 had the soundtrack of heavy breathing.  We would walk for 5 minutes, rest for a minute, and repeat…for two hours.  The trail itself was quite good on the climb—mostly dirt trail as a ramp with a stone step up every 10 steps or so–  but the altitude was a challenge.


After lunch Day 2, we descended a series of stone steps for about 30 minutes before coming to a clearing.  It was so magnificent; we just stood and took it all in.  The next thing I knew, Saul had pulled out his pan flutes and was playing “Let It Be.”  Rather than being cheesy, it echoed beautifully among the mountains and filled the vastness.


I loved listening to the chaskis (aka “porters” — Chaski is the Quechua word for “Inca runner”).  The Quechua language is one-part guttural, one-part clicks, and one-part fluid language.  As they passed us, heavily-laden with enormous packs, they’d be chatting.  The chaskis also laughed.  A lot.  It was clear that each trek brings together a community of men who enjoy each other’s company while working hard.  I admire that.


There was a thunderstorm during lunch on Day 3.  The thunder rumbled so loudly, bouncing around the mountains.  One time there was even an extra “POP” after the thunder from atmospheric energy.  I’d say it was cool, but I was freaked out of my mind.

Having time to talk with—and listen to—John was a real treat.  After fifteen years, we had nine straight days of uninterrupted conversation, and I still love hearing his voice.  I did tell him to quit singing “I hike the Inca Trail in the morning sun” after the 1,000th time, though.



Coca tea—the coca plant grows in the rainforest of the Andes, and its leaves are used to combat everything from nausea to headaches.  As such, the leaves are steeped in hot water to be used as a tea to combat (or help prevent) altitude sickness.  It tastes fine, but OMG the smell.  Nasty.  I found that if I exhaled while sipping the tea I could drink it fine.  But if I forgot, the smell turned my stomach.

Popcorn.  You’re smelling it right now, aren’t you?  Imagine coming in to camp after 8 hours of hiking and smelling popcorn.  Pure awesome.

We had a 10 minute rain shower as we sat on the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2.  As we descended the million uneven, slippery stone steps down the backside of the pass, the air had that freshly scrubbed clean smell.  Maybe it was just the altitude, but I couldn’t get enough of it.

Descending the back side of Dead Woman's Pass

Descending the back side of Dead Woman’s Pass

Llamas are endearing to watch.  But they stink. A lot.

Llama at Intipata

Llama at Intipata

Llama at Winay Wayna (Forever Young)

Llama at Winay Wayna (Forever Young)

Free advice: If you’re going to trek the Inca Trail, choose a tour company that has its own toilet.  Just trust me on this one.



The best part of hiking the Inca Trail is getting to explore the many Inca archaeological sites along the way to Machu Picchu.  At these sites, we were given a history by Saul, then we were free to wander around, see the Inca’s handiwork up close, and examine the constructions.  The smoothness of the precise Inca stonework is well-known.  But to run your fingers across it and realize it was made by hand provides connection and meaning on a very human level.


Sayaqmarka (“steep-place town”) at the junction of three valleys


Exploring Sayaqmarka

Exploring Sayaqmarka

Hand-hewn cornerstone at Sayaqmarka, probably  originally used to anchor a roof structure

Hand-hewn cornerstone at Sayaqmarka, probably originally used to anchor a roof structure

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of using hiking poles on the trek.  The grip of the poles in my hands not only helped take some of the work of the challenging 45K hike out of my legs, but it gave me confidence when going down the steep stone steps.  So many times I commented how glad I was to have a firm grip on the poles.

Descending the steep steps at Intipata

Descending the steep steps at Intipata

The bowl of warm water that our chaskis brought to our tent each morning and night was wonderfully refreshing.  Washing my face with warm water was a simple pleasure for which I was grateful.  We also had water to wash hands before meals.

On the narrow ledge at Winay Wayna campsite (night 3)

On the narrow ledge at Winay Wayna campsite (night 3)

The weather is extremely varied along the trail.  In the course of one day, I would wear a short sleeve shirt with either a long sleeve shirt over it or arm warmers.  Sometimes I’d throw on my fleece jacket, too.  My headwear alternated between my running hat and my running skullcap (with earflaps).  Gloves went on and came off multiple times a day.  Feeling the weather change as we hiked through several microclimates every day heightened my appreciation of the physical nature of our journey.

Day 2, morning, on the ascent of Dead Woman's Pass

Day 2, morning, on the ascent of Dead Woman’s Pass

Day 2, at Runkuraquay, on the way up the second pass

Day 2, at Runkuraquay, on the way up the second pass

Let’s face it. Camping isn’t really comfortable.  John had never camped a night in his life before this trip.  Muscle soreness from hiking + aches and pains from sleeping on the ground = A clear reminder that we’re not 20 anymore.  But the views from the tent were priceless.

Out of the tent, looking right at Machu Picchu mountain.

Out of the tent, looking right at Machu Picchu mountain.



Do you like eggs and fresh fruit for breakfast?  Or do you prefer pancakes?  Hot chocolate, tea, or coffee?  We had all of these things, each and every morning.  If none of that appeals to you, stick around for lunch and dinner, where each meal included some kind of chicken, some kind of fish, two vegetarian dishes, yucca and potatoes, and other foods I can’t even remember.  So.Much.Good.Food.  All while camping.

Dinner options

Dinner options

I never knew Peru had such awesome soups.  Each of our dinners began with a soup course, and each soup was better than the last. Maybe it was the warmth of the soup, or maybe it was the varied but always fresh flavors, but MAN that soup was good.  We had a professional chef as part of our eight-person tour group, and he even commented that the soups were outstanding.

Soup's on!

Soup’s on!

To celebrate our three days of hard hiking, the chef steam baked a cake for us on the last evening.  We shared it with the chaskis, savoring the satisfaction of hard physical work and delicious cake—two of my favorite things!

Saul and two of our twelve chaskis

Saul and two of our twelve chaskis

In the end, there’s so much I’m leaving out of this review.  The trip lived up to–and exceed– expectations in so many ways.  Ironically, the only tiniest bit of disappointment was Machu Picchu itself.  After three days of exploring ruins like this:

Practically deserted Intipata, free to explore as we wished

Practically deserted Intipata, free to explore as we wished

…it was really hard to a) follow a prescribed path around the site and b) share it with 3000 other people.  As such, if you have interest in going to Machu Picchu, I encourage you to hike the Inca Trail.  You’ll gain an incredible appreciation for the Inca people and culture as a whole, thus better contextualizing your understanding of Machu Picchu itself.  Even better, you’ll have had the experience of so many other Inca sites, exploring them as you wish, and completing the trek is terrifically satisfying.

I concur with our tour operator, the fabulous Alpaca Expeditions, whose motto is “the journey is the destination.”






Three Years of Surprises

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I can’t believe it.

Today my daughter The Stowaway turns 3.

This is my surprise baby, my baby who I spent months thinking about before she was born, wondering how she’d fit into my life and our family.

Friends assured me that I’d love her and that soon I wouldn’t be able to imagine my life without her.

I loved her immediately, but it was all too easy to imagine my life without her.  My business was really taking off when I found out I was pregnant.  I was so worried that continuing to build my client base while I had a newborn would be challenging.  It was, but I pressed on and made childcare arrangement after childcare arrangement and things have flourished.  I also imagined a life without her that would include doing more things with my boys—taking them roller skating, ice skating, mini golfing, rock climbing—all kinds of things that are just impossible to do with an infant.  It’s not that I wished her away, it’s just that life with a small person is awfully inconvenient.  But as the bond between The Stowaway and her brothers grew, I learned that while I could imagine our family without her, they could not.

I don’t know when it happened—sometime in the past year—but I have most certainly come to find a life and family without her an impossibility to imagine.  She has become my sidekick, entertaining me everywhere from playgrounds to the grocery store.  To be around someone who is so joyful and ebullient all the time (well, except when she’s not…..and then, WHOA!) is contagious.  Her personality, her wonder, her affection, and her joy are, indeed, an unexpected blessing.

We have our rituals, The Stowaway and me, and one of our favorites is going hiking after we eat our lunch at Taco Shack every Friday.  I love to watch her run.  I love to watch her play in the water.  I love to watch her climb on boulders.  I love to watch her throw rocks into creeks.   It is on these trails that we are in our element.

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Happy birthday, Sweet Girl.  You upended my world only to bring me great balance.  Thank you for being you.

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Healthy Holidays


It’s mid-December.  Are you running around like crazy?

I’m doing pretty well.  My tree isn’t up (that pic is from last year), no presents have been bought (it’s the grandparents who load up on the gifts for the kids), and the weather in Austin can’t decide whether it’s festively cold or unseasonably warm.  I’m still feeling the peace and joy, though.

In this season of often doing too much, I remind myself that sometimes it’s good to say ‘no’ and just enjoy a little downtime.

In that spirit, today’s blog post is a rerun of an oldie but goodie.

From 2009, I give you my best tips for a Healthy Holiday season.  It’s a survival guide for party goers and party throwers.  Take 2 minutes and give it a look.

Then enjoy some deep breathing before you leap back into your day.

I say it’s my BIRTHDAY!

Here I am, starting off the final year of my thirties, living a life of unexpected wonder.

If you’d told 21-year-old-me that when I turned 39 I’d be married to the person I am, I’d’ve laughed my fool head off.  It would have been a conversation-ending, on-the-floor-laughing kind of event.

If you’d  told 21-year-old-me that when I turned 39 I’d have three kids ranging from 2.5 to 10, I’d’ve just looked at you like a crazyperson.

If you’d  told 21-year-old-me that when I turned 39 I’d have a successful personal training business and be working to reach even more people year-after-year, I’d definitely be skeptical.

If you’d  told 21-year-old-me that when I turned 39 I be on the brink of launching a business development course for fitness professionals, I’d be pretty sure you were confusing me with someone else.

And, yet, here I am.

And (with apologies to Pete the Cat) it’s all good.

What I learn year-after-year is that I really have no idea what I’m doing with my life.  It wasn’t until I mentally rebranded that “lack of direction” into “following my passion” that I started to really grow, both in my relationships and in my business.  While it’s important to have a clear desire for growth in life, it doesn’t have to be a concrete and unchangeable plan.  To breathe deeply and listen to the wisdom of each moment allows me to enjoy what I am doing and chart my course based on what I find reasonable and fulfilling.

I look forward to the coming year, where I’ll share my time with my growing children, my awesome husband, and all of the clients and friends of Balance that make working in wellness so wonderful.

PS- If you’re in Austin, come on over for Aqua Kriya Yoga tonight.  It’ll be a deep-breathing party of mindful movement in the pool.

PSS- Also for you Austinites, I’ve started my prenatal/postnatal group exercise classes again.  Spread the word to your mama friends!

Falmouth Road Race Recap

I posted a few months ago that I was training to run the Falmouth Road Race as part of Boston Children’s Hospital Miles for Miracles Team.  I wanted to do something to give back to the Boston running and medical community after the attacks at the finish line of this year’s Boston Marathon.  Well, folks, today was race day, and here’s how it went:

My husband (who was running to raise money for Alzheimer’s Association) and I left my in-law’s house at 6.30am for the 45-minute drive to Falmouth.  This small Cape Cod community is packed on race day, with 13,500 runners and what seems like at least that many spectators as well.  We wanted to have plenty of time to park, find the buses to the start, and stake out a place to wait for the 10am start.

We had two hours to wait in the staging area before race time.  I was thankful to have my husband there, and sitting in the shade chatting with him for a few hours was a real treat.  As 10am neared, we left our shade and made our ways to the starting corrals where we went our separate ways.  

It was in the low 70s at race time, but thankfully the humidity was low.  I could have done with more clouds and less sun, to be honest, but this Texan can’t complain about running in August in the 70s!

The weather proved not to be much of a factor, as it paled in comparison to the difficulty of running smoothly in the early miles of the race.  For at least the first two miles of the race, we runners were so wedged together that I could do little more than shuffle along with the crowd.  I have run major races before (notably Boston Marathon & London Marathon) that are run on crowded, narrow streets, but those races are wide-open compared to the early miles of Falmouth.  I tried not to burn too much energy getting frustrated being stuck in the crowd, so I looked for good seams to weave in and out of my fellow runners when possible.  I looked up long enough to enjoy the sight of thousands of runners in front of me as I climbed the hill and made the turn at Cape Cod’s famous Nobska Lighthouse.  I managed to clock decent splits for Miles 1 & 2 regardless, but I was still off my pace just a touch.

The middle miles of the race are along Surf Dr, the fully-exposed road that traces the shoreline of Vineyard Sound.  While beautiful from the windswept front seat of a convertible, the pounding sun made this stretch of the race a challenge.  I was grateful for all of the spectators lining the course, especially the guy singing “Dirty Water” with so much enthusiasm and all the people who called out to me “Go Children’s!” because of my bright singlet.

My flagging spirits were lifted just after Mile 5, when someone on the sidelines shouted, “Hey, it’s Frank Shorter!” and I saw the guy running about 5 feet in front of me give a little wave.  I’m enough of a running nerd (and a child of a first-generation running boomer) to know Frank Shorter even when I see him from the back.  (If you don’t know Frank Shorter, he was a gold-medal-winning US Olympian in ’72 and ’76 and a two-time winner of Falmouth Road Race.  He was also the head of the US Anti-Doping movement for a while.  He’s truly one of the class acts in all of Sports.)  I ran over to him, and I told him I had a poster of him on my wall when I was a kid.  He laughed and said, “You’re cute!”  We chatted for another minute or so before I continued on my way, feeling inspired by the serendipity that allowed me to meet one of my running heroes.

About 1/2 mile later, I saw a big group of people from Boston Children’s Hospital.  They gave me a good shout out and a reminder that the race is so much more than just people out running on an August morning.  I’m so proud to have raised $1000 (and counting!) for the research and treatment efforts at our country’s leading pediatric hospital.

I realized at the 6 Mile mark that my split for the previous mile was slow.  I knew I was going to have to turn in a fast final mile if I wanted to meet my goal.  Inspired by Frank Shorter and on behalf of the kids, families, and physicians of Children’s, I put my head down and started to run.

About 1/2 mile from the finish there is A Hill.  I knew about the hill, as it’s given me fits before in my running career– in the 1998 Cape Cod Marathon, this hill is where I realized I wasn’t going to make my Boston-qualifying time.  I was determined not to let this hill get me again.  I slogged my way up, knowing I was decently close to the finish.

At the crest of the hill I could see it: a giant American flag hanging from a crane.  The finish!!  (Or so I thought.)

I came down the hill as fast as I could, really working hard.  I glanced at my watch to see that I had 45 seconds to finish the race in under an hour.  I put my head down and ran.

As I got closer to the flag, I saw that the finish line was actually another 20 yards or so beyond….not much in a 7 (actually 7.1) mile race, but it was enough that my best efforts couldn’t get me there.  I finished in 60:06.

A few years ago, I would have felt a great sense of disappointment at missing my goal by such a fine margin.  But when I think back on today, I realize that my extra 7 seconds….just 1 measly second per mile….were spent while I was chatting with Frank Shorter.

And this is what I love about running and why I felt so personally affected by the Boston Marathon bombings that I wanted to run Falmouth for the benefit of Children’s: above all else running is a democratic sport.  What other sport allows regular people like me to compete in the same event on the same day in the same conditions with Olympians like Frank Shorter?   It’s pretty darn cool.  Just like democracy.

Vacation Ground Rules

Dear Karen,

I just thought I’d write a little letter so we’re clear on the ground rules for the vacation you just started.  I know it seems like it would be So!Much!Fun! to just laze about, eat whatever you want, and generally be slothful for a while, but you know that doesn’t actually make you feel very good.

So here are my Top Ten Vacation Ground Rules for Summer 2013:

1. Eat ice cream.  Just order the kiddie size and pay attention to the yumminess while you eat it.

2. Do 100 lunges across the beach before you ever sit down in the beach chair.

3. Find a new hiking trail each week.  Remember how excited the kids were when you took them out to the Brewster Mud Flats last year?  Let’s try to find another new Awesome Spot this year.

4. It’s a bazillion degrees back in Texas, so enjoy the cooler weather for long runs.

5. Lobster is delicious.  Go easy on the butter.  And double the steamed broccoli on the side.

6.  No matter how good the mindless chick lit is, playing with the kids in the ocean is what you came to do.  And pulling them on the boogie boards through the waves is a great workout.

7. Remember the year you ate a salad every day for either lunch or dinner?  That was a good idea.  Do it again.

8. Sleep is your friend.  Use this time with both parents and grandparents around to rest.  You never regret good sleep.

9. At least once, round up all the cousins for a day of baseball, paddleball, and relay races on the beach.  Sure, you’re a noisy lot, but the world needs more unbridled joy.

10. Practice Aqua Kriya Yoga in the ocean!  It’s going to be great!

And a BONUS:

Eyes on the prize– Falmouth Road Race is on August 11th.  Your running not just for yourself but for all the good people of Boston Children’s Hospital.   Make them proud.



Happy Independence Day!

If you’re in the US, you may be thinking today is all about taking it easy.  After all, it’s a federal holiday that’s going to kick of a lazy four-day weekend for a lot of people.

I’m here to encourage you to rethink your Fourth of July.  Rather than turn this holiday celebrating our freedom into a stereotype of what much of the world thinks of when the think of Americans (see lazy, above), why don’t you use this break from your work life to try a wellness challenge.

Maybe you want to dig way back into the onbalance blog and try my Explosive Independence Day workout.  The plyometrics will really get your heart rate thumping before you see your first firework.

Going to a hang out in someone’s pool today?  While you’re there, see if you can sneak in some exercise in the water.  There are some simple-to-do but good for you exercises in that workout.

If you’re in a part of the country where summer is only just arriving, you may be able to head out for a hike.  Exploring a new part of our great country– even if it’s just down the road from you– can give you a fresh perspective of all the beautiful resources we have.

Regardless of how you decide to exercise your freedom, take a deep breath and give thanks for all of the blessings it affords you.

Good health and great happiness to you!