Take 5: An interview with blind trail runner Dan Berlin
October 6, 2015
At 45 years old, less than a week after his birthday, Dan Berlin will tempt thousands of stairs and dizzying altitudes to complete a 25-mile Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu in roughly 12 hours. If he succeeds, he'll be the first blind man to make the trek in less than 24 hours.
"When I read that you're walking along 1,5000 steps, I know that it will be a mentally and physically challenging," says Berlin, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Fort Collins from New York about eight years ago. "I just keep thinking about traversing those thousands of steps, with steep drops on either side. I've never seen it before and I've never been there before, but I'm comfortable that training in Colorado has prepared me for the altitude."
And that's the trick. Although the trek is relatively short — 25 miles doesn't sound too bad, right? — most climbers struggle with altitudes over 10,000 feet and those vertigo-inducing drops. The majority of trekkers make the hike in four days, and even then it can be difficult.
But Berlin didn't simply want to follow in other's footsteps. When he decided on Machu Picchu, he wanted to tackle the classic route like a true adventurer, even though he's first to admit that he isn't a professional adventurer. He started researching the trip and soon came across Intrepid Travel, a custom adventure company with expeditions across the world, including remote locales like Antarctica. And, as luck would have it, Intrepid also supports adventurers like Berlin through its nonprofit foundation. The match was perfect.
Intrepid helped Berlin navigate the logistics of his world record attempt, including support for his team and a film crew to cover the journey. After losing his sight at 30 years old, he needed something — anything — to stay active. A world record in Peru was a perfect fit, and he'll be joined by a group of three close friends, dubbed Team See Possiblities.
Over the past few months, the four have been training individually, culminating in a high-altitude hike to Greys and Torreys on Sept. 24. They jet off to Peru shortly after Berlin's birthday and begin climbing on Oct. 14. If the pieces fall into order, they'll return to the U.S. in late October with a world record to their names.
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The Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Berlin before the trek to talk about training in Summit, the logistics of blind hiking and what comes after Machu Picchu.
Summit Daily News: You and your team were recently at Grays and Torreys to train for the Machu Picchu run. Why train on those 14ers?
Dan Berlin: It's beautiful for one thing, especially in September. It doesn't get much better than that. On top of it, I live I Fort Collins and I'm here already, but the rest of the team is from sea level. We've done a few great adventures I the past, but when you're coming from sea level and going to Machu Picchu, which is a significant endurance challenge at 10,000 to 14,000 feet, we had to train at altitude. I figured Greys and Torreys was the perfect place for us to attempt two 14ers with a saddle in the middle. The terrain is very different (than Machu Piccu), but the altitude changes and elevation drops will be very close to what we'll see out there.
SDN: How did you get into trail running, especially these tough, high-alpine trails? Have you always done that?
DB: I moved out here for work, bought a company out here and resurrected it, Rodelle (producer of vanilla extract). I came out to co-found that company, but being blind, it was hard moving from New York to Fort Collins. There just isn't a great public transportation system and I was feeling pretty low, so I decided to start running and take advantage of the great outdoors that Colorado is known for. That turned me from a bit of a coach potato a few years ago to someone who said, "I can run a half marathon, I can run a marathon, I can do a triathlon," and then, last October, we decided, why not run the Grand Canyon rim to rim? It's just grown since then.
SDN: What pushed you to take that newfound love for running to the extreme? It seems like there are plenty of people content to just do a 5K on occasion.
DB: I was losing so much ability without being able to see. I didn't want to lose life that way. I wanted to turn that into something new, something that would push me beyond where I perceived my limits are.
That's where the team came together, and they've been very inspirational. When I wanted to run a marathon, I called Charles (Scott), a longtime friend, and he was willing to run the New York City Marathon with me. I just asked him and he said, "Of course."
That's where it all came from. You need a team to do this, a team to support you along the way. It's absolutely a physical challenge — none of us are professional athletes — so it becomes a lot about your attitude first, thinking you can do it, and then comes the effort and discipline to keep it going. That's what it gets summed up into, and that's the way we address these challenges.
SDN: Along with 14ers, how else have you been training for the Machu Picchu challenge?
DB: For me, as far as the team goes, I've got great folks in Colorado to train with routinely. I've been doing lots of runs in Rocky Mountain National Park. Those trails can be very difficult when you can't see — tripping over rocks, falling over things.. I get to the end and just hate rocks, never want to see another one again (laughs). We have a team effort to really get around that. It's where Alison (Qualter Berna) comes in and says, "Step up in three, two, one," then, "Step down in three, two, one." We have equipment, like hiking poles and that, so it's really just up to me to make sure I'm in top physical shape.
I ran Fall River road a few times, starting at Endovalley and running to the visitor center. That's about a nine-mile trip, most above 12,000 feet heading slightly uphill the whole time. I like it because I can get the physical training with a little bit less of the mental component.
SDN: Let's talk Machu Picchu. When did you first set your sights on that route, and why?
DB: This will be my first time to Peru, period. I love the challenge, I love the mountain, and when you're coming from the Rockies, going to the Andes, that has a strong appeal to me. I also like the history and culture. To think that people did this trek thousands of years ago, and that they might have had someone who lost their sight, someone who dealt with that as an ancient Inca, I'm intrigued to see how they still made it through life. I've actually spent a lot of time in Madagascar and Uganda, and I've become really interested in how developing countries deal with disabilities. Just because you're born blind doesn't mean you have to go through life feeling disabled, not able to do what everyone else is doing.
SDN: What kind of planning goes into a challenge like this? I imagine there's plenty of red tape since you're bringing an international crew.
DB: There is so much red tape to something like this, with permits and everything else. We'll be fully self-supported, so we'll be taking everything with us. You're usually told that this is traditionally a four-day hike, with three nights of camping and four days of hiking. Because of the elevation, the altitude, the climbing — there are thousands and thousands of steps — it becomes a demanding hike, even when you do it in four days. If you imagine doing something similar here in the Rockies, something that's four days of hiking, it's pretty similar, and we're doing the whole thing in 12 hours. I expect to be beaten up physically at the end, but mentally, I just want to do it.
SDN: Aside from tackling something brand new, what else is on your mind with just a week left before the trek?
DB: After the trip, the Saturday after, I have a visit and a talk with UNICEF at a blind school in Peru. I know what I went through as a child here, in the U.S., and I'd like to share some optimism with the kids down there.
On the trip, I'm anxious about the actual physical climb, the descent. When I read that you're walking along 1,5000 steps, I know that it will be a mentally and physically challenging. I just keep thinking about traversing those thousands of steps, with steep drops on either side. I've never seen it before and I've never been there before, but I'm comfortable that training in Colorado has prepared me for the altitude, so that's not my main priority.
SDN: I recently interviewed Erik Weihenmayer, another blind adventurer based in Colorado. Have you done any work through his nonprofit, No Barriers USA?
DB: (No, but) I love the message that Erik is sending. We're labeled with limitations, but you don't have to be defined by them. My barrier is pretty obvious — I'm bind. But a lot of my barriers have nothing to do with eyesight. A barrier might be something that I've done before, something that a blind person hasn't done before, but we have to keep facing it down. We grow and we challenge ourselves.
SDN: What comes after you've tackled Machu Picchu? Do you still have the adventurer bug?
DB: We've talked about something in China, maybe the Great Wall, and a few other things. Again, it's all about finding something you wouldn't expect a blind person to go and do. It's about going out and tackling something you'd never expect a blind person to handle. I don't really look at myself as an adventurer — I'm just someone who goes out and does this. I'm a dad, a husband, a business owners, so this is just really my fun, my enjoyment. Having an awesome team to do it with just makes things even better.
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