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In pictures, Dan Berlin looks like a standard, successful endurance athlete. He’s muscular and ultrarunner lean, sports the usual technical gear and has a warm, genuine smile, looking directly at the camera with confidence and poise. You would never guess that since his early 30s, Berlin has been entirely blind.
That hasn’t stopped him from embarking on adventurous feats. On October 14, Berlin became the first blind runner to finish the entire Inca Trail—a rugged 26-mile trek at altitude in the Peruvian Andes—in under 13 hours.
When Berlin was a child, he was diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy, an inherited retinal disorder. In his late 20s, his sight started to fade, and by age 35, it was gone entirely. During those years of failing vision, Berlin picked up running.
“I knew I was going down the path of feeling sorry for myself and not being able to do a lot of things I wanted to do,” Berlin, now 45, said of those years in an article with Trail Runner in October 2014. “I was looking for some way to regain control.”
He started by running the neighborhoods near his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, and in 2011, signed up for his first marathon, the New York City Marathon. He called up Charles Scott—an author, adventure speaker and longtime friend of Berlin—about acting as a guide, which Scott, who has completed many marathons and triathlons of his own, had never done. Although he was apprehensive at first, Berlin reassured him, and together they finished the race. They’ve been running together ever since.
Since then, Berlin has finished a total of nine marathons and two Half Ironman triathlons. The biggest challenge, however, was an attempt at running the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R)—an iconic 41.8-mile round-trip across the canyon and back—in October 2014.
Berlin had never dabbled in the uneven and unpredictable world of trail running. To train, Berlin turned to his local Fort Collins trails. He immersed himself in the local community of trail runners, and ran with ultrarunning legends like seven-time Western States winner Scott Jurek. He even got his wife and daughter into trail running, too.
On October 7, 2014, Berlin and Scott joined up with two more guides, Alison Qualter Berna, a mother, dedicated yogi, ultrarunner and co-owner of a kid’s play space in New York, and Brad Graff, a former naval officer and experienced runner. In 28 hours, they finished the R2R2R route, making Berlin the first blind endurance athlete known to do so.
After the success of the Grand Canyon trek, the foursome decided to establish Team See Possibilities, aiming to inspire people to overcome perceived limitations and raise money for charitable causes.
“We realized the powerful effect Dan’s story has on others,” says Scott. “He could have felt sorry for himself, but instead he took a ‘no excuses’ attitude toward his misfortune. Imagine the impact his story has on a disabled child who decides, despite her disability, to dive fearlessly into her own adventure.”
The Road to Peru
As Team See Possibilities, Berlin, Scott, Qualter Berna and Graff plan to take on one iconic endurance challenge each year. This year, they decided to run the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail starts at roughly 9,000 feet in the small town of Ollantaytambo, Peru, and ascends quickly into the surrounding Andes. Famous for its spectacular Incan stone ruins—everything from quarries and tombs to temples and castles—and dramatic, often vertigo-inducing cliff-top views, the Inca Trail runs 26 miles one way to the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.
The Incans rarely incorporated switchbacks into their ancient trail systems, and the steep Inca Trail—its high point is around 14,000 feet—is usually tackled in a four-day backpacking trip with guides, porters and even mules. Although endurance athletes do occasionally run the marathon-length trail, never before had a blind man taken on the run.
To prepare for the trek, Team See Possibilities ran the Boston Marathon together in April, trained at altitude and hiked up two 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, and mixed in cross training like yoga, cycling and rowing.
Berlin and the others also coordinated with UNICEF to find ways to support disabled Peruvian youth. A few days after the run, the team would meet with a group of visually impaired children, hoping to inspire them to dream big.
On October 9, the group flew from the United States to Lima, and then took a quick flight to Cusco, Peru (elevation: 11,200 feet), to begin acclimating to the altitude. There the team met Elyas, their local guide from Intrepid Travel, who shared his knowledge of the area and its Incan history before leading them onto the trail several days later.
In addition to Elyas, Team See Possibilities had five porters carrying extra gear, in case the group wasn’t able to make it to Machu Picchu in a single day and needed to camp.
From there, they travelled to Ollantaytambo, in Peru’s Sacred Valley, and at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, October 14, started on the Inca Trail.
Berlin, Graff, Scott and Qualter Berna make their way up the first ascent from Ollantayambo in the pale dawn light.
Right off the bat, the trail proved a challenge.
“When we started the trek in the darkness, we were confident in our chances,” says Scott. “But after a few hours we realized we probably wouldn’t be able to complete the trek in a single day.”
In order to be allowed to continue to Machu Picchu, the team would have to make a final checkpoint by 4 p.m. that same day. They hoped to reach the ruins by 5:30 p.m., 13 hours after starting.
The time crunch looked impossible for much of the trek. The rugged trail was rocky and narrow, alongside dangerous drop-offs, with steep ups and downs and three high passes between Team See Possibilities and the ancient Incan city.
The steep downhill sections were particularly hard for Berlin, and when the team reached the first pass, they were already an hour behind schedule. They reevaluated, and, with the help of Elyas, came up with a new guiding method. Two guides joined their inside hands in front of Berlin and used hiking poles in their outside hands to provide a broad base. Berlin held onto the backpacks of each guide, while the third guide followed behind in case he fell backward. One guide in front would call out obstacles (“one foot step up” or “move to the left of this big rock”) and tap at them with a pole so that Berlin could hear the location.
The technique, Scott says, was “based on the trapezoidal construction the Incas used to provide stability to their impressive stone structures.”
Soon, they were moving well, and back on schedule.
“Sometimes one of the guides slipped, and Dan helped pull him or her back up—it was a satisfying turn-about for him to help one of us,” says Scott. “We could tell Dan was frightened but he didn’t complain or give up. He’s a remarkable person.”
The famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.
The team arrived at the final checkpoint just within the cutoff, and after posing for pictures with the rangers, who excitedly applauded the arrival, the team took off again.
They reached the final overlook at Machu Picchu at 5:28 p.m., just as the sun began to set. Dyed the bright pinks of sunset, the ancient Incan ruins felt majestic, and a bit eerie. The local authorities had given the group permission to enter the site after it had been closed to tourists, so Team See Possibilities got the rare experience of having Machu Picchu all to themselves .
Though Berlin couldn’t see it, he says the experience was “beautiful”: “The sensation of the granite and limestone steps alternating with soft earth under our feet, combined with the gentle humidity of the dense cloud forest, made for an exquisite sensory experience … Cool gusts from the high-altitude mountain passes, mixing with the warmth of the sun-heated cloud-forest jungle—it was a swirl of sensations as we progressed over the trail.”