Friday, October 7, 2016

Berlin Marathon & Bavarian outing

After enduring months of hot and sweaty training through the summer, I flew to Berlin via trans-Atlantic flight and made it to Berlin early morning on Thursday September 22nd. My biggest panic at that moment was not knowing a word in German. My plans to quickly master basic German on the flight was a miserable failure.I stepped off the flight knowing only "Danke" & "Bitte" :). Took the U-bahn trains (super easy to navigate) to the Airbnb I had booked 15 minutes south of Tiergarten Park in Central Berlin.Race location was about a 20 minute walk from my place of stay. Later figured that 38th KM aid station was on the street where I was staying just in front of my room. I checked into my room and spent the day walking around and getting oriented with the city.Despite my best efforts to stay awake during the day, Jet lag kicked in and I couldnt sleep at all that night. Next morning took it easy and woke up late, did a 30 minute easy running visiting some historic monuments like Berlin Wall, Topography of terror and Brandenburg Gate. Race expo was a zoo and ridiculously crowded. This expo was bigger than any of the race expos I've visited in the past. Made it back to my room in one piece. Next morning did my own shorter shake out run and it was amazing to finish the run at Berlin Olympic stadium. Returned back to the room and spent the whole day off my feet and trying to gather things for the race.

As the street where I was staying was on race course, the roads were closed on race day and buses were not running. I walked to the race location for 20 minutes and another 20 minutes from bag drop off location to the race start area. Activity monitor on my phone was impressed with my 4 km walk and I hadn't even started the race ;) . Elites took off right on time at 9:15 am. Few more minutes passed and they announced Elites had crossed 5k mark in under 15 minutes. I was in the last wave and I finally crossed the start line at 9:45 am. Weather conditions were comfortable and temperature was in the low 60s. My wave was the most crowded and it was difficult getting any sort of rhythm and I ran my first mile in 8:35 min/mile pace which felt like a comfortable pace at that point. I continued to elbow runners left and right and crossed the 5k mark in 27.12 and felt great. I told myself to stop grinning and start focussing on the race. Weather was slowly warming up as I crossed 10k in 54:46 and half marathon point in 1:56:11. I saw some one holding a poster saying Ethiopia's Bekele had already won the marathon in 2:03. Dang .. I felt like a crawling slow poke. They were predicting a warm second half of the race and I made sure to drink at every aid station. I also chugged down a Gel at every 45-50 mins. By mile 15 my calves started tightening and twitching and I was bit concerned as it was way too early in the race. My strategy for second half of race was to pick up the pace a bit and catch and pass runners as much as possible. I stuck with this plan from mile 13-17. Fatigue was slowly creeping in and it got very warm to 80s. I kept telling myself im not tired and focussing only on the runner in front of me. I crossed the 30km mark in 2 hours and 45 minutes and felt I had run my fastest 20 miler. It took few minutes to realize you hit 20 miler after crossing 32 km and it was still not bad as I made it to 32km in 2:57. My calves were twitching harder by then and I continued to ignore it as I was on top of fluid and nutrition. I had to badly goto bathroom and wasted few minutes at a porta potty. I was seriously pissed at myself but there was nothing I could do. I tried to stay calm and worked through fatigue and cramping. My mind had wandered off from focussing on the runner in front of me. I crossed 40km in 3:45 and told myself to run like hell as there is only 2km left. Miraculously I was able to run faster than previous few miles and sprinted under Brandenburg gate to the finish line and looked at my watch to see it had clocked 3:57:35. At first I was disappointed as I felt I would be under 3:50 but within few minutes I cheered up as I realized my original goal was to go sub 4 hours and I had done it.

Felt awesome picking up race medal and walking slowly towards to recovery area. After about 30 minutes of sitting in the recovery area ,I saw my runner friend Heather at the recovery area. We spent the next few hours walking around, eating and taking pictures. Race course is really as flat as they claim. It seemed hard to break through the wall of runners and I felt my pace was pretty much controlled by folks running around me(not that im fast anyways.. lol). I guess this is what happens in big city marathons with 40K+ runners.

While I was sitting in the recovery area I met few runners in their 60s and they told me they were from East Germany and they were not allowed to run the marathon until the wall came down in 1989. It made me realize how historic Berlin Marathon truly was. They had tears in their eyes and the conversation made me tear up too. I spent the next few days sight seeing and some of historic WW2 and Cold war sites around Berlin that brought me chill and sadness. Its amazing how Germany has rebounded from the dark historic times. After spending 6 nights in Berlin I went to Munich. Munich truly is a green city and surroundings are spectacular. Oktoberfest is fantastic time to visit Munich. Beer everywhere and festivities and dancing in the city is ridiculously impressive. My legs felt great and was able to hike up Zugspitze mountain which highest peak in Germany and also tripped to Berchtesgaden, Eagles nest and also did some hikes in Austrian Alps. I was finally feeling homesick and ready to head home. Besides I was worried if I stay any longer in Germany I'll baloon up by over loading of chocolate crossants and pastries. Europeans do rob you before handing out an American sized cappuchino. Near perfect running vacation came to an end and I feel ready to get back to work and get back to running again.

Here are some pictures taken during the trip:
Munich & Bavarian Alps

Friday, April 1, 2016

Easter weekend - Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim / 50K

My first ever trip to Grand Canyon was in 2007. Spent about an hour wandering around the South Rim looking at jaw dropping views before driving off to Vegas. Second trip in 2012 and this time it was a backpacking trip from North rim to south rim spread over 4 days. During that trip I saw a bunch of runners running Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and I convinced myself these are super human nut cases and vowed I'll never attempt running on a brutal terrain like Bright Angel / Kaibab trails. Fast-forward 4 years I've actually made a ton of ultra running friends and a few of them inspire me to go beyond my self imposed barriers. Heard from my ultra machine friend Elaine (Ninja) that she and Tom (Dragon) were planning to run Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (double crossing the river) on Saturday before Easter. This was their crazy way of celebrating Tom's 47th birthday with 47 running miles. Two more friends Sally and Paul were considering Rim-to-Rim (start from South and ending up on North Rim). I reluctantly signed up to join for Rim-to-Rim single crossing with Sally and Paul. As we started to figure out logistics we found out that North rim is closed for winter till May 15th and there really is no way to get back to South Rim upon finishing Rim-to-Rim. So Paul, Sally and I kept an open mind to do Rim-to-River or Rim-to-Box canyon out and back run. Being the most inexperienced and amateur runner in the group, it was very overwhelming to sign up for this "we are gonna have fun" adventure. To add to the confusion I had done no long runs since November and I crammed up few 10-12 trail running miles at Sour land and Tammany and ran Naked Bavarian 20 miler 3 weeks before the trip.

After weeks of planning and exchanging a million Facebook messages we were ready to roll. Sally, Paul and I flew to Phoenix on Thursday Mar 24th evening and stayed overnight near the airport. Tom and Elaine joined us Friday Mar 25th morning and picked us up from our hotel.

Ready to roll
We had made grand plans of reaching Grand Canyon by 4 pm and sleeping early. But a lousy car rental service at Phoenix followed by a flat tire within few miles into the journey threw our plans out the window.
Tom and Paul did all heavy lifting. I'm just pretending to help :P
We reached Grand Canyon just before Sunset. Took a quick few obligatory photos at the south rim and checked into Yavapai Lodge.

Tom & Elaine crashed early as they had to start their R2R2R run next morning at 3 a.m. We made a bold plan that we'll meet Tom & Elaine on their way back from North rim at Ribbon falls so we all could run back together to the south rim. We were super confident that we'll make it back to the lodge by 7 pm and go for the celebratory dinner. Paul volunteered to drive them at ungodly hour to trail-head. As expected Ninja got to post flat runner posts before crashing for the night. Next morning she & Tom were dressed for cold weather and started their adventure run around 3 am.

3 am start for Dragon & Ninja.
The three of us got ready and ate a solid breakfast at Bright Angel Lodge restaurant and began our run around 8 am. Sally did manage to slide & fall over covered ice near BA trail-head and shrugged it off next instant. Trail was super crowded with lots of hikers and backpackers. Weather was bit chilly at the start but we got really warm barely a mile into the run. We were in ridiculously high spirits and stopped at will to take action photos. It truly was a great morning for taking pictures and brought me back all the memories from the backpacking trip.

We made it to the river in about 3.5 hours and it was surreal running on the Silver bridge crossing Colorado river towards Phantom ranch.

Ate a packed lunch at Phantom ranch and relaxed a bit and then started running towards Box canyon on North Kaibab trail. It was very toasty and temperature was probably hitting 80s as we navigated through the narrow trail.

We crossed a series of bridges and then Sally turned around to get a head-start for the return ascent.

Paul and I ran further to Ribbon falls hoping to meet Tom and Elaine on their descent. We were positive that we'll be able to catch up to Sally at Phantom ranch so we could all run back together to South Rim. Upon reaching Ribbon falls we waited for about 45 minutes and there was no sign of Tom & Elaine. Instead we saw a helicopter flying towards north rim and we dreaded hoping that's not a rescue helicopter trying to get Tom and Elaine.

That better not be for Dragon & Ninja
On a positive note we met a runner coming down North Kaibab who had met Tom/Elaine and told us they were in high spirits.

We were worried.. but they were having fun..

We felt relieved but didn't want to wait forever so started running quickly towards Phantom ranch to catch up to Sally. On the way I saw couple of backpackers heading to Cottonwood camp-ground on north rim and gave them a message for Tom/Elaine. We got to the ranch in under an hour only to see the ranch was closed and Sally had already left towards South rim. Disappointed at missing Sally we crossed the river and continued our ascent towards South rim on Bright Angel trail. By then fatigue was catching up slowly and power hiking made more sense than running the steep climbs. Sun was also going down and a hiker coming in opposite direction told us we were 15 minutes away from Indian garden camp-ground and also confirmed he saw Sally leave Indian Garden towards South rim about 45 minutes ago. We were relieved at the news but at the same time worried that Sally would be climbing alone in the dark. We got to Indian garden camp-ground at 7 pm and it was completely dark by then. We put on extra layers and turned on headlamp and continued our climb towards South rim.

Thats not the lodge.. Its Sally's headlamp !!
We did see couple of moving headlamps higher up on the mountain and wondered if one of that is Sally. We kept looking behind hoping to see headlamps of Tom/Elaine but saw nothing but darkness. We turned off headlamp few times just to catch glimpse of stars on the sky . It was truly mind-blowing. It took us close to an hour to climb 1.5 miles to 3 mile rest-house and another hour to get to 1.5 mile rest-house. I was beyond exhausted and developed a bad cough trying hard to breathe with my heart-rate going to ridiculous levels. My hips were ready to give up and I was wobbling like a drunkard. Awesome Paul was right behind me the whole time. He gave me one of his hiking poles to ensure I don't loose balance & fall of cliff. We were getting closer and closer to the headlamp that was ahead of us and we finally caught up to the headlamp about a mile to go. It was indeed Sally and I was beyond thrilled at finding her in darkness. She was exhausted and had trouble breathing but kept moving on. I developed an immense amount of respect for the toughness and bad-assery she showed by climbing alone like that on a dark remote trail.

Super proud of my friends.
I knew we were less than a mile to the finish and goal was to cross the two arches we had passed earlier in the morning. We were hitting our lows but had no choice but to move along. Paul was fantastic help and he stuck with Sally the whole time. Took a long brutal hike to get to the finish around 10:45 pm. We were physically and mentally beaten up to have any sense of accomplishment. Paul showed his wicked sense of humor suggesting we should do this again next day.
Paul said he might have seen some headlamps down in the trail and dropped the two of us at the lodge and headed back to trail-head to wait for Tom/Elaine. By the time we cleaned up and searching for food in our room, Paul had miraculously received a text message saying Tom/Elaine were about 4 miles away. I woke up to some noise in our room at around 3:30 am and saw Elaine sitting and chatting with Sally. I immediately jumped up with joy and was thrilled to hear Tom/Elaine finished around 3:15 am. Holy smokes !!. Thats close to 24 hours to do this 47 miles of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim adventure.
Finished at 3:15 am !! and still smiling.
It was hilarious to watch this outside our room.
No explanation needed.
Apparently keys to Tom/Elaine's room wasn't working and Tom was too exhausted to care about that.. We quickly fixed the issue and got Tom and Elaine back to their room before crashing for the night.

We celebrated the following Easter Sunday morning with giant breakfast at Bright Angel lodge, took few more photos at the rim and headed towards Flagstaff.

Picked up another car rental drove to beautiful Sedona. Ate pizza for lunch and waved goodbye to Tom/Elaine who were flying back home that night. Sally, Paul & I spent another day exploring Sedona before heading home.

Parking lot pic @ Sedona
It still amuses me that our estimates were off by many many hours. Kind of funny we thought it would be piece of cake to get back to lodge to eat dinner by 7 pm. I'm still awestruck at witnessing so much bad-assery from these friends during the trip. It was an epic adventure for Tom and Elaine running 47 miles on a merciless trail close to 24 hours. Sally was ridiculously tough in climbing Bright Angel trail in pitch darkness. Paul gets all round gratitude for his selfless help to everyone throughout the trip. I'm truly lucky to have these seasoned ultra runners as my friends who would go above and beyond to help. I can only hope to be in their sweaty shoes some day. Remarkable weekend journey filled with epic highs and lows came to an end. I can't wait to enjoy a similar journey with these friends at another place & time..

Here is a link to pictures that were taken during the trip.

Photo Album

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Big Sur Marathon - Running on the rugged edge of the western world

Its been over couple of weeks since Big Sur Marathon and I still can't stop raving about it. I registered for this marathon last year when I was in the middle of training for NYC marathon. I only started checking the course profile in December and started picking brains of folks who had done this race. One common suggestion from everyone was "Do tons of Hill training". I took that advice pretty seriously and incorporated hilly courses into every long run in addition to standard hill repeats for speed work. Despite all the training I was still nervous and flew to west coast three days prior to the race. After spending a night with family members at San Jose, I drove to Monterey on Friday morning. Picked up my race packet at the expo and spent the next two days getting used to the surroundings. Did my final shake out run with a bunch of runners from Runners world and spent the most of Saturday carb loading and getting my gear ready for the big day.
Big sur Course profile
Alarm went off at 2:45 am and I got ready quickly and was on the shuttle bus to Big Sur by 3:45 am. Met a lot of folks who had done this race few times and it was interesting to hear their interpretation of hills as the bus drove the course in reverse from Carmel to Big Sur. Weather was super comfortable around lower 50s and the race began exactly around 6:45 am and within minutes after the start I found myself cruising comfortably on highway 1. My goal was to run comfortably till half way point and then doing a head-to-toe check to figure out next strategy. First 5 miles of the course is all downhill and I ran without any perceived effort just enjoying the tall redwood trees and the gorgeous surroundings. As predicted, we were running against some serious headwinds. My cap flew few times and I felt my BIB my get torn off at times. Miles 5 to 9 was a slight climb which was clearly an indicator of whats coming next. This is the part of course when you get the glimpse of jaw-dropping pacific coastline on the left and the mountains covered in green moss on the right.

Foggy cloud cover over the mountains made the scene even more spectacular. Mile 9.8 marks the lowest point of the course and also the beginning of the infamous 2 mile climb to the notorious Hurricane Point. The beat of drums got louder at each step and I passed a huge group of Taiko drummers just before this ascent.

I simply trusted my training and took shorter steps and "I can do it" mantra kept running in my head at every turn. To my surprise this two mile climb didn't feel bad at all and even though my pace was slow I was actually passing quite a lot of folks. It was a surreal scene with lots of runners walking and some of them stopping to take pictures of the gorgeous ocean views. It felt absolutely fantastic when I reached the summit of Hurricane point with a ascent of 560 ft in 2 miles. Just after mile 12 I had to remind myself to hold back for one downhill mile as the elevation was dropping by 500 ft.

I made it to half way point in 2:15:32 and after waving at the Piano player Michael Martinez I suddenly felt the urge to pick up my pace.

I was actually feeling comfortable and I passed the 4:30 pacer around mile 15. My goal was to stay ahead of him as much as possible and see if I can catch 4:15 pacer. My legs seemed to be comfortable with hills by then and continued that way till Mile 18 or so. It felt great when I was handed real fruits (orange, banana and water melon) at aid stations. I was getting sick of chewing gels. I passed 20 mile marker in about 3 hour 10 minutes and as expected fatigue started to creep in. I told myself thats normal and continued to push. At mile 23 both my calves started cramping. I had to stop few times to stretch and continue. I probably lost couple of minutes I think. Mile 24 had the best aid station ever as they hand out strawberries dipped in salt. I accepted I have to continue dragging my cramping legs and kept pushing forward. I was bummed I couldn't catch the 4:15 pacer but felt amazing crossing that finish line . My official time was 4:22:13. It was not a PR and about 6 minutes slower than my time at NYC marathon last fall. But I did manage to get a negative split of 9 minutes in the second half. I was pleased with myself to be able to run those hills comfortably. I guess I have to really thank the local hills of Bridgewater and Readington for helping me with hill training during long runs. But one thing I’m not happy about was my pain tolerance level. Moment I started cramping at mile 23 I kind of got into defensive mode. After that it felt difficult to switch to aggressive gear. So I have mixed feelings and I cant help it. Guess that’s some motivation to work harder next time.

Finish Photo Courtesy Big Sur Gallery

Saying this is a gorgeous course is an understatement. It was hard to switch focus between the views and the hills. It truly is a spectacular course and superbly organized race. Here are few pictures I managed while sightseeing around the area.

Foggy evening @ Bixby Bridge
Pacific Grove
Point Lobos State Park
Mcway falls @ Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
17 Mile Drive

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sleepy Hollow Half Marathon & Big Sur Training

I happened to be in front of computer when they opened registration for Big Sur marathon last year and some how got in within seconds. After NYC marathon in November I did rest my running legs for a while but did some amazing hikes in mighty national parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce & Capitol Reef) in December for couple of weeks. During my time in Utah I also did get few trail runs at various elevations ranging from 5000-9000 ft. It was almost New Year when I returned and my legs felt ready for another marathon training.
Most of my trainings are heavily focused on cross and strength training and running only takes up about 30% of workouts. I did invest a lot of time in January and February building strength & trying to get some leg speed in parallel.  Cold weather and icy conditions kind of forced me to do all speed workouts on the Treadmill. On Tuesdays & Thursdays I spent about 90 minutes to 2 hours beating myself with various strength, core, balancing and plyometric workouts. Then step on the treadmill to do some intervals, hill repeats or tempo runs. Idea was to simulate running on tired legs scenario. For first few weeks they were dreadful and I had hard time keeping 10 min/mile pace on the treadmill. Gradually I embraced the torture and was able to get things going.  I made sure to run long runs on Saturday outdoors (irrespective of the weather) and mapped routes with tons of hills.  All my long runs had about 1000+ ft of ascent and somewhat equal amount of quad busting downhill.
 I invested in lots of cross training like speed intervals on Spinning, Elliptical and stair master machines and a long bike ride the day after long runs.  Swimming and Yoga became great active recovery workouts on Mondays. Weather improved in March and I was able to get few weeks of out door track workout, hill repeats and tempo runs. I was surprised I was able to run about 90 sec-2 min faster than Treadmill and certainly lifted my confidence a little bit.
I felt the need to test myself by running a hilly half marathon and River town runners put up a great race in Sleeping Hollow NY. I ran this race on Mar 21st the day after a big snowstorm. It was cold and windy but roads were quite cleaned up.
I had beaten myself with killer track and tempo workouts and went into the race on tired legs with no expectations. But my goal was to go slightly below my tempo pace for first half and then try to go bit faster. Guns went out and my first mile was flat and my pace was around 7:50 min/mile and I realized if I don’t slow down I’ll regret it.  Next few miles had some ridiculous climbs and my pace naturally fell closer to 9 min/mile. After that I seem to have gotten used to running both uphill & downhill and maintained a steady 8:30-8:45 pace for the rest of the race. I noticed I could never go all out during the whole race due to hilly nature of the course.  Just after mile 13, I wanted to give 100% but that’s where they put a huge climb of over 10% grade. I ran like hell and by the time I was finished I was gasping for air and almost felt like passing out. I looked up my time and it was 1:53:49 seconds and avg pace of 8:37 min/mile.  That was a PR by 70 seconds since my half last year at Adirondack’s half marathon.  For a moment I felt like celebrating, as this was much harder race with 1100+ ft of climb and 1000+ ft. of downhill.
I just wrapped up two more weeks of hard training. Yesterday’s 17-mile long run was mentally and physically hard. I was ridiculously sore and stiff from my track workout on Thursday and throughout the long run it felt like I was running at mile 20 of a marathon. I was glad to be done and I’m very much looking forward to taper for next couple of weeks.  Flying out to San Jose on 23rd and eagerly looking forward to run Big Sur Marathon on the 26th. I’m still nervous about those monster hills & road camber at Big Sur. We’ll see how it goes… Goal is to stay calm and enjoy the race and see what happens.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Life Elevated Part 4 - Capitol Reef National Park

After three nights at the Center of the universe, I left Escalante and drove east on highway 12 towards Capitol Reef. What an amazing drive. I was stopping at every turn to take pictures. I took pictures of course profile for Escalante Canyon marathon (this starts from Boulder and finishes in Escalante). Thats one of the spectacular marathon courses I've seen. Some of my running friends are going to be hooked at Escalante race after looking at these pictures.

I made a turn into one of the viewpoints about 15 miles away from Capitol reef. This is a point at 9600 ft elevation and you get a spectacular view of the mountains of Capitol reef. Drove on that access road for about 15-20 feet and my car got stuck in a foot of snow. I did everything I could to back off and my 4 x 4 just wouldn't move. Fortunately a couple driving on highway 12 noticed my struggle and came to help. This Gentleman was a local and he got the shovel to clean the snow around and get my car back on the road. I'm really grateful for his kindness. I could have been stuck there for a while. These pictures would explain why I was so excited and didn't pay attention to the snow.

Mind blowing. Never seen anything like this !!

Cloud cleared and finally was able to take this shot.

I finally made it to Capitol reef late noon. Picked up maps from visitor center and did some short hikes at Gooseneck, Panorama and Sunset point. 

Checked into Days Inn, which was probably the only hotel open around here. 

It was sunny 50-degree perfect weather next morning and I had a blast exploring Capitol Reef National park. All those mountains and peaks that appeared tiny from highway 12 were monstrous. I headed to hike Hickman Bridge first thing in the morning. Sunlight was directly on the bridge at around 9 am and lighting was perfect for photography.

Easy hike to get this spectacular natural bridge

Upon descending I drove east on 24 and turned south on Notom Bullfrog road just to enjoy the dramatic scenery and take pictures. Made a U turn after about 10 miles (where unpaved road start). Return trip to the park was equally amazing.

Then drove on Scenic road all the way to Capitol Gorge and did the 1 mile hike. Captured some unbelievable pictures from Pioneer Registry and Tanks.

It was almost 2 pm and after a quick lunch I headed to hike Cassidy Arch. I enjoyed the elevation it provides and the views along the way were spectacular.

But this was one hike that went totally wrong for me. I saw the arch from a distance and a direction indicating it’s about 0.5 miles away. I hiked in that direction for about 20-30 minutes and for the life of me couldn’t figure out where the arch was. Directions to the arch at that point are non-existent. 

I was standing on top of a huge rock and realized I’m lost pretty badly. I moved in all directions for 100-200 feet and couldn’t find any sign of the arch. Frustrated returned back to the trail and I had a struggle finding it too. Anyway I barely made it to the car by sunset and drove back to the hotel.
I checked at the visitor center at Capitol Reef and ranger told me for Cassidy Arch you end up on top of the arch.Thats exactly where I was and I'm relieved I wasn't lost.. :) .
I went back to the park next morning for a run and saw sun, rain and snow all within 1 hour of my run. It was quite dramatic.

Saw this beauty during the run on Scenic drive.
Decided Capitol Reef would be my last destination in this trip.There is no point pushing to reach Moab/Canyon-lands/Arches when I cant do justice to those parks. I'll probably do those parks another time. I had two more days to get back to Vegas and I decided I'll drive back west and take my time to transition my legs from hiking to running mode. I stopped at Bryce canyon for a night and was able to run at 9000 ft elevation for an hour and felt quite comfortable doing it. Next day I headed to Zion to spend a night and ran Angel's landing hike to Scout's lookout which was equally comfortable. I felt acclimatized to higher elevation.. Too bad I couldn't stay here and train for my upcoming marathon at Big Sur. Made it safely back to Vegas and then flew back home to NYC without any issues. I'm incredibly thankful to my friend / colleague for suggesting this trip and for all the inputs and guidance he poured on. And also huge thanks to destination experts at Trip advisor for their tips in making this a successful & safe trip. Even after two weeks I feel like I haven't seen anything and cannot wait to go back to explore the elevated grandeur of these national treasures.