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ULTIMATE FITNESS FREEDOM: UNDERSUN BANDS AT MACHU PICCHU

Undersun Fitness

- 6 October

The trip that got Undersun founder James Grage out of his comfort zone and into a place of beauty, freedom and, ultimately, personal growth started with a simple question from his wife, Annik Nayler. James and Annik were relaxing on the couch one night in early 2019, just a few months after launching Undersun, when she asked him: 

“If you were to pick the coolest place on Earth to go work out, just like the most epic backdrop, where would it be?”

James didn’t hesitate. He didn’t take a couple days to think about it, or even a couple minutes. The answer popped into his head right away:

“I would love to work out right above Machu Picchu.” 

The destination choice caught Annik off guard, but she didn’t object. A few days later, the couple’s trip to Peru was booked, just like that.

“It was very impulsive, but in a good way,” says James now, looking back on it. “Ever since I was a kid, I would see Machu Picchu in magazines and on TV shows, and it was always a place I wanted to go. I loved the thought of going somewhere with so much energy and power, and then working out there. Through establishing Undersun, I had been training with bands and was loving it. And after years of not being able to do the trips I wanted to because I didn’t want to leave my strict gym regimen, all of a sudden I found this newfound sense of freedom in my fitness.”

Machu Picchu, a centuries old Inca citadel in Peru, may seem like an odd fitness destination for a former physique competitor like Grage. Most gym rats would choose bodybuilding “meccas” like Gold’s Venice in Southern California or Dorian Yates’ Temple Gym in the UK if given the choice to train anywhere on the planet. Problem with those places, though, are the walls and ceilings. They lack nature. They lack creativity. They lack freedom. When your workout doesn’t require heavy weights and machines, historic landmarks – in this case Inca ruins – suddenly become an option.  

“If you’re a surfer, you want to go catch the ultimate wave,” says James. “If you’re a mountain biker, you’re searching out the best terrain in the world to go ride. If you’re skier, you’re searching out the best ski resorts in the world. So, if you’re into fitness and you have the freedom to go anywhere and work out, wouldn’t you want to find some of the coolest places to go train? Doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time, but to do it at least once was something Annik and I wanted to experience.”

Their five-day trip in April of 2019 was a huge departure from their structured everyday lives in Hollywood Beach, Florida, running a business and raising children. But that was the whole point. Below, James and Annik give firsthand accounts of their time in Peru, accompanied by awe-inspiring photos covering each excursion.

Packing Light with the Gym on their Backs

This wasn’t a typical vacation for James and Annik. There was no extensive itinerary and no set-in-stone plans, aside from making sure they hit Machu Picchu and got in a workout. Also, there were no suitcases. Just one backpack each, enough for their clothes, Undersun bands, and a few other essentials like water and sunscreen. 

James: Annik is very much a planner. And she’s an early packer. By that I mean, if we’re going on a trip, she has her suitcase out one week before and is starting to pack to make sure she’s bringing what she wants and everything is organized. But with Machu Picchu, I booked the trip within days of us first talking about it. So, not only did she not have any time to plan, but I also told her, ‘We’re not taking a bunch of suitcases. Here’s a backpack. Put all your clothes and stuff in there. That’s all we’re taking.’ We were really stepping out of our comfort zones, but she really embraced it.

Annik: I was never anticipating James saying that we could only bring backpacks. I was really shocked, because that’s not really how I function. I thought I was going to be defeated by this huge task that James was giving me. But it was good, because I didn’t have to worry about bringing a bunch of clothes or shoes or other stuff. After I opened up to the idea, I really didn’t stress about it. I just packed my backpack and said, ‘Let’s go. It is what it is.’

Enjoying Peruvian Cuisine from Day 1

James and Annik flew from Miami to Lima, Peru, and landed late at night. By the time they reached their hotel, it was 11:00 and they were starving. Fortunately, the hotel was still serving food.

James: We had heard that the food in Peru was good, but that first meal exceeded our expectations. It was just amazing. It was some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. And the food ended up being a central point of the trip, because I wanted better balance in my life. The fitness lifestyle for me was always so restrictive. To be successful in fitness, you have to be so strict and so disciplined all the time, and I just wanted to loosen up a little.

I’ve traveled all around the world, but before this trip I didn’t always eat what the locals eat. I would eat chicken breast and steamed broccoli in New York, and chicken breast and steamed broccoli in Australia, and chicken breast and steamed broccoli in the UK, and so on. I mean, come on. I wanted to start doing it differently this time. I wanted to travel without Tupperware and really experience a different place, including the food. 

So, after that first meal, I said, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna do it right this time.’ But even before the food, it was the drinks. The local drink there in Peru is a pisco sour. And let me tell you, pisco sours became a thing on this trip. I had so many pisco sours I lost count, which is very uncharacteristic for me. A lot of times I don’t drink alcohol because I don’t want the extra calories and it’s unhealthy, and all that. But I decided to relax and enjoy myself on this trip and just eat and drink whatever I wanted. 

We had so many amazing meals in Peru, not just that first night. I’m now a big believer that when you travel you really should try the local foods. If you go to Australia, try kangaroo. When you come to Florida, eat alligator. Now, here’s the thing with Peru: They raise guinea pigs for food the same way we raise chickens. In fact, one of the ways they serve it is literally putting it on a stick and roasting it over a fire, so it’s just a guinea pig on a stick when they bring it out to you on a little platter. So, I tried guinea pig. Another thing they eat there is alpaca. 

People always say different meats taste like chicken. Guinea pig, no. It definitely didn’t taste like chicken. Maybe the reason it’s called a pig is because it has a slight pork taste to it. And then the alpaca was a little more gamey than I’m used to. It wasn’t bad, though. I had it several times on the trip and tried it a few different ways. 

Annik: Oh my God, the food in Peru is the most flavorful, amazing presentation that you can have. You can tell that they put love and care and attention into plating this food. And the flavor was off-the-charts good. That first meal after we landed in Lima, I was hoping the food would be that good the rest of the trip, and it didn’t let me down. It was all so fresh. I had heard horror stories about people getting sick eating food in South America, but no. It was the best food I’ve ever had. 

Coca and Training in Cusco

On Day 2 of the trip, James and Annik woke up before dawn to catch a flight to Cusco, a medium-size city in southeastern Peru that put them within a bus trip and a train ride from the base of Machu Picchu. That would be Day 3. First, they would explore Cusco on foot and get in a workout. 

James: When you land in Cusco, you can already see the Andes starting to take shape, with those round green mountains. Cusco has a unique look to it, different than Machu Picchu. Even though it’s very commercial now, it still maintains a cultural vibe; it doesn’t feel like a total tourist destination. It’s an interesting place, with the Inca history. You have foundations made of old Inca stone masonry, with Spanish architecture sitting on top of it from when the Spaniards came in hundreds of years ago. And Cusco has these crazy narrow streets, only one car wide. The streets literally look narrower than an ally, and it’s very hilly. And then there are all these dogs on the street. They’re like community dogs. They’re friendly and they’ll follow you around, but they don’t belong to anybody. One night, we had like 8 or 9 dogs following us. We were like their pack leaders, their alpha males. 

That first day we were there, we hiked up to the highest point we could find, which overlooks the entire city of Cusco. We took our bands with us and got an awesome workout right up on top of a hill. It was some type of Inca ruin, with old stone walls and a Spanish church nearby. 

In that area, they chew the coca leaves, which is the basis of making cocaine. Cocaine, of course, is super highly concentrated, so you would never be able to eat enough coca leaves to get that effect from them. You can either chew the leaves or make tea out of it. We drank a lot of the tea; it tasted like green tea and gave a nice mild energy. We drank tea, we chewed on the leaves, and then we did the workout. So, coca leaves and tea were basically our pre-workout. We came back down to the city after that, and again had an amazing meal and drank more miso sours. 

The Machu Picchu Experience

The next morning, James and Annik got up super early again to start making their way to Machu Picchu. There are two ways tourists get there. Part of the year, a train goes all the way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a small village just a few miles from Machu Picchu. The rest of the year, the train doesn’t go the full distance; it only starts at about the halfway point. Getting to that point requires a couple-hour bus ride, winding through the mountains of Peru on bumpy roads. In early April, when James and Annik were visiting, it was still bus season. 

James: The problem with that was, Annik gets terribly carsick. She took a handful of Dramamine before the bus ride, so she was half asleep, half carsick, and totally miserable the whole time. When we finally got off the bus, the train ride was actually a really cool experience. They had live music, a five-course meal served, champagne, and an open bar. But Annik had taken so much Dramamine that she was in the back of the train drooling all over herself! She didn’t get to enjoy it. 

Annik: Not that it was James’ fault, but if we would have waited just a couple weeks to do the trip, the train would have taken us the whole way and we could have avoided the bus. It was horrible, dude! The trip was so fast-paced and go-go-go, that it was like my feet were never on the ground. My head was spinning. But I was able to shake it off by the time we got up to Machu Picchu, and we did our thing. 

James: The train is winding through the Andes, and the mountains start getting taller and taller. Pretty soon they start taking that shape people are familiar with when they see pictures of Machu Picchu – that tall, round look. The train stopped near our hotel, but we didn’t check in. We just went straight to the top of the mountain where Machu Picchu is with our backpacks on. 

We got up there, and there were certainly more tourists than I would have liked. There are a couple main paths you can take (high and low), and we took the high side, where you’re kind of looking down on Machu Picchu with the mountains behind it. And we’re like, ‘This is awesome. This is our spot. This is the perfect place to get a workout.’

The Undersun bands are bright orange, and they attract attention wherever we are. I’ve worked out in a lot of weird places. I’ve worked out in the middle of Miami Beach on Lincoln Road. I’ve worked out with the bands in the middle of Time Square in New York. That draws attention, so imagine going to Machu Picchu and working out on the side of a mountain with the bands. I don’t think they’d ever seen that before. 

Needless to say, it drew a little bit of unwanted attention, and we started to hear what would have been the equivalent of a park ranger, and there was some chitter chatter on his radio. We got our workout in, but we wanted to experience it and do it in a way that was respectful. Because this is a sacred place. It wasn’t about getting in trouble; it was about being respectful of the culture. That’s why we went high above Machu Picchu, did an outdoor circuit workout there, and made it a quick one. It was very cool, though. It was exactly what I wanted it to be.

Annik: This whole thing about the bands and having the freedom to train anytime, anywhere… it’s the real deal, dude. I used to always make sure when I traveled that whatever hotel I was staying at had a gym so I could do my workouts. And to not have to worry about that and to be in this amazing, beautiful, historical, remarkable place, and then to be working out there – it just seems impossible that these two things would go together. 

After Machu Picchu, the “train anytime, anywhere” mantra completely makes sense now. I can go outside here in Florida and work out, or go to the beach with my bands. But when I’m at f—ing Machu Picchu with my bands and I’m working out, it’s a completely different world. It’s almost like it opens up your soul. It’s sort of weird to say that, but the world seemed so much bigger to me at that point. I’m at Machu Picchu with the person I love, doing what I love to do, we’re working out, we’re enjoying the moment, and we’re just getting to experience something really freaking special. 

James: After doing Machu Picchu, there was a bus to drive us back to town, and I look at Annik and she’s like, ‘Hell no are you getting me on another bus down a windy road.’ Part of the Inca trail that goes down to the town is a super steep section with a bunch of pieces of old stone for steps. We asked a guy how long it usually takes to get down on foot, and he said around an hour and a half. Annik and I looked at each other, and we get kind of competitive, and we decided to run down. So we ran down, and we made it to our hotel in 30 minutes. We were blazing. People looked at us like we were crazy! 

An Adventure, Not a Vacation

The last two days of their trip were similar to the first few. Hiking on Inca ruins, often times off the beaten path and away from other tourists. Stopping for band workouts among picturesque backdrops, including one lush rainforest and a magnificent waterfall. Eating more incredible Peruvian food. Having a few more pisco sours. 

It was a quick, jam-packed trip, with planes, trains, automobiles, and only one small hiccup (bus sickness). They stayed off their phones entirely, except for one daily call back home to check on the kids. Was it a nice relaxing vacation? Absolutely not. But it was just what James and Annik needed. 

James: I definitely didn’t feel recharged when we got back home. But this trip to Peru wasn’t supposed to be relaxing. It wasn’t a vacation – it was an adventure. We expanded our horizons. It’s when you’re uncomfortable that you grow the most. If you’re not making yourself uncomfortable, you’re not changing. We made ourselves uncomfortable on this trip and stepped out of our comfort zones. 

It’s so easy to stay in your bubble. Doing the same thing every day, rinse and repeat. I’m a big believer that if you want to be successful at something, you have to learn to embrace the mundane. Running a business isn’t always fun. To make it work, you have to do a lot of the same things over and over again. Same thing with building your physique. We call that discipline and consistency. That’s what’s required. But every once in a while, you have to shirk responsibility temporarily and do something different. 

There needs to be a balance between structure and freedom. It’s not about saying ‘screw fitness’ and all of a sudden not working out and getting out of shape. That’s not balance either. It’s figuring out a way to find balance – to still have structure, but to also give yourself more freedom. And that’s what we were able to do on our trip to Peru. 

Annik: Going to Machu Picchu changed how I think about trips. I took a chance and I trusted James. And I just focused on the adventure. I wasn’t worried about what clothes I had packed or any other unimportant stuff. I was always in the moment. Whereas with other vacations I’ve been on, I didn’t always do that because I was so sidetracked with other stuff. 

Nothing will compare to Machu Picchu for me, because it was special in its own right. But I think I have it in me to do another trip like this someday. I don’t know where yet, but I’ve always envisioned the bands at the pyramids in Egypt. Or maybe something more tropical, like Hawaii. There are just so many places on the list!