I couldn’t stop smiling.

A beautiful summer’s day in the mountains in Iceland.  The snow crunched under our feet as we ran, and the sun warmed our faces as the wind blew across the mountains.  The footing wasn’t easy, so I was looking down a lot.  Every time I looked up around me, my joy was palpable.  The views of the lava fields, the multi-hued mountains, the steam rising from the hot springs, the drapings of snow and ice.  Every look in every direction was just spectacular.

I had found Nirvana in the Laugavegur Trail running the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon.  Trail runners’ paradise.

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Midnight Sun

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Not yet 4 in the morning!

Race day started with a 3:45 am alarm clock in order to catch the 4:30 am bus from Laugardalur in Reykjavik. But hey, it’s really not hard to get up that early when it’s nearly full daylight outside!

21-IMG_4217With a breakfast stop en-route to Landmannalaugar, we arrived at around 8:20, with our wave scheduled to start at 9:05. This meant a very cold 45 minutes of waiting at the start, marvelling at the hundreds of tents containing runners who opted for an icy night but a leisurely race morning.

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Some pre-race acrobatics in the vain hope of warming up

 

Did I mention it was cold?

The Laugavegur Trail starts in Landmannalaugar, going directly up into the mountains with around 600m of climbing to the top at Hrafntinnusker.  It then sharply descends down to Álftavatn, then up again to Emstrur and finally down to Húsadalur in Þórsmörk.  Hikers normally take 4 days to cross the 55km, camping along the way near the mountain huts.  The perfect setting for an ultra marathon!  This year there was the added challenge of unusual amounts of snow for this time of year.

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Going by the allocated race numbers, there were around 430 runners divided into three waves.  After the usual shuffling and shivering at the start line, our wave was called, and up we went!

Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker ~ 10km with 600m climbing, around 1:40

There was good reason for the wave start – we immediately headed up a single track mountain path, nose to tail.  We had been warned several times by the race organisers to take the whole of the first section very easy, not only because it was steep, but as we climbed higher into the mountains, the snow took over.

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The start of the race – photo thanks to marathon.is (all other photos are ours unless specified)

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Landmannalaugur – photo by Mattias Klum

In retrospect, I think they perhaps overly emphasised the need to take the first section of the race easy, because it meant that 1/6th of the runners had the devastating consequence of not meeting the cut-offs imposed in the later stages of the race.  Our goal from the beginning was to enjoy the race and to get around it comfortably, without actually racing it.

And enjoy we did.  Tom took a few short videos of me running through the snow, complete with questionable commentary:

I’m originally from Canada so I grew up with snow as an integral part of my life, but I left the country when I was 19 and haven’t lived there since.  I didn’t get into running properly until I was in my 30s, so…. I am most certainly not used to running in snow.  The occasional light dusting in London never meant more than a bit of slippery footing and wet feet, and it never lasted long.  So Iceland was my first real time running, and racing, in the snow.  I loved it.  That crunch!  The bit of slip, the slide!  The views!

No surprise then that this first section was my favourite of the whole race.  As we neared Hrafntinnusker, we crossed around 8km of continuous snow.

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The depth of the snow is made evident as some nearby hot springs melt a cavern underneath! (me in black waving at the camera)

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After nearly an hour and a half, the mountain huts at Hrafntinnusker came into view – the very first aid station.  A quick loo break and we refilled our water, ate a banana and set off sliding down the snow.

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Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn ~ 12 km, with 180m climbing, 600m descending, 1:35

We continued to climb up into the snow, then slowly down the other side only to find the very best views yet. On one side we had dark mountains with a glacier in the background.

53-IMG_4334On the other side, spectacular sandy mountains with hues of red, orange, and brown and lacings of snow so beautiful and almost so unreal as to look like a painting.

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Further along, we could see the lake near Álftavatn, our next aid station and the first checkpoint.  We had to get there within 4 hours in order to be permitted to continue the race.  We began the sharp descent, and the air grew warmer until I was sweating heavily in my waterproof jacket.

And we eventually hit the valley, complete with a glacier-fed stream that we had to cross – the first of many.

We hit the checkpoint with about 50 minutes to spare, although we didn’t think much about it at the time. We refilled with water, sat down in the sunshine for a few minutes to eat another banana, stripped off a layer and headed off again.

Álftavatn to Emstrur ~ 16km, with 220m climbing, 280 descending, around 2:20

This was the hardest section of the race for me, although the terrain was perhaps the easiest.  I enjoyed crossing a few more glacial streams and rivers, and when we reached Bláfjallakvísl, we were able to change our shoes.  Given the heavy snow on the mountains, both Tom and I had opted for very heavy Salomon trail shoes, which did their job perfectly but were feeling pretty heavy on the feet after nearly 4.5 hours.  Mine were waterproof too, which had been great in the snow, but not so good once we started fording all the rivers (water goes into the shoe, but then doesn’t drain out unlike in a normal shoe).  So it was a very welcome to change to put on our minimalist trail shoes and to feel the trails beneath our feet again.  Although the new shoes didn’t stay dry for long!

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Soon we were heading across a great expanse of lava fields.  We could still see mountains around us, but the terrain was completely different from before.  The ground underneath was fine lava sand.  A moonscape.  I had read that NASA had come to Iceland to have its astronauts do a simulation moon-walk before they landed on the moon, and I could see why.  Were we really just in the snowy mountains the hour before?

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We had spent a good chunk of time at Bláfjallakvísl changing our shoes, and we were stopping frequently for photographs.  When we reached a mini aid station and refilled our water, we heard another runner ask how far it was to the next checkpoint – around 6km, they said.  I looked at my watch and realised that we were cutting it fine.  No more photographs until the checkpoint!  Time to get going!

And so we tried to pick up the pace as we headed across the lava fields, as best we could over 5 hours into a mountain ultra marathon.  We made it with just 15 minutes to spare – and what a huge relief.  I later found out that many runners were forced to retire from the race. I can’t imagine how disappointing that must have been.

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Reaching the mountain huts at Emstrur, so relieved to know that we had made the cut off.

Emstrur to Húsadalur in Þórsmörk ~17km with 380m climbing, 645m descending, 2:30

This last section of the race brought us down out of the mountains properly, although with plenty of uphill on the way down.  The pressure was off now that we knew we had made the cut offs and could just enjoy the rest of the race. Would you believe the terrain changed completely again? Suddenly we were running atop a big canyon with waterfalls and views spreading out before us that looked like a scene from the Lord of the Rings (or, New Zealand). Spectacular in a completely different way from the previous miles we had covered, and very hard to capture on my little camera.

How about this? Mountains, glacier, river, and just beyond, a waterfall…..

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Down begins to hurt as much as up, or even more, after a while.  As we headed down down down the mountains, we welcomed the occasional up as relief to our poor pounded quads.

We certainly hadn’t run this ultra fast by any stretch of the imagination, but our slow and steady approach meant that we overtook a lot of runners in this last section to Þórsmörk.  But first, more river crossings.

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Although not deep, the river had a fierce current and we were holding on for good reason.

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We knew the end was within reach.  We had enjoyed this race so much, but we were most definitely tired and ready to stop running.  Just a few more hills to go.  We grabbed some pieces of Snickers bars and gulped some flat Coke from the last aid station, and headed up the last few hills. Up the hills. Up, up, down, up, down, down. The grass grew red alongside us and we could see down into a valley full of nothing but the same short, fine red grass. Then through another river, then a stream, then a short tunnel of foliage that looked like it was straight out of England.

Then suddenly the path was littered with people cheering us on, shouting, and we could hear the finish line. Without comment, our pace increased. We came down the last hill, and we could see all the tents at the finish line. We ran together, as we had done the whole way, and passed through the finish line. Still smiling.

91-IMG_4879Total time: 8:29:07

Total distance:  55km, ~1900m climbing, 2200m descending

We placed 313th – nothing fancy, but we made it to the end, and we loved it from start to finish.

In fact….this was the best race I’ve done to date.  Most scenic, most beautiful, most enjoyable, most fun, most tremendous. If you’re thinking of running it and want more information (what? My thousands of photos here aren’t enough?) or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.  I mean that wholeheartedly.

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NB – The 19th edition of the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon took place on July 18, 2015.  The winner, Þorbergur Ingi Jónsson, finished in an unfathomable 3:59:13, setting a new course record!

12 Comments

  1. Amazing, Julia. Did you carry all your gear (extra shoes, clothes), or were you able
    to leave it at the various aid stations?

    • Thanks Tammela. I should have said – we had the opportunity to have one drop bag on the course at Bláfjallakvísl. We had to leave it with the race organisers in Reykjavik the day before. Tom and I both had shoes and socks in the bag. The elite runners wouldn’t have bothered, of course. But for us it was great to be able to have the heavier shoes for the snow and then change into the lighter shoes for the rest of the race.

      Everything else we carried in our packs.

  2. David Fairgrieve

    Fantastic, Julia! Do you have the dates for next year’s Ultra Marathon yet? I’ve started my training already, as well as my Icelandic language classes… See you there in 2016! Congrats, David F

    • David, I’m thrilled you are going to join us for the marathon next year. I will write up a training plan and send it to you asap. In return, you can teach me Icelandic. Looking forward to it! J

  3. Great write up, and 100% accurate 🙂

  4. Eduardo Jesurun,Colombia.

    What a beatiful experience.Only for the real tough.Admirable physical achivement.
    I was there too.So I felt reading your article.Your writing is like a poem.
    English is not my first language and I feel like dancing in your story when I read you.
    It was cold but happiness and your love for life is evident in every word.
    Congratulations!!!

    • Thank you Eduardo! It was such an amazing place. Tom and I enjoyed the run so much. I send you much love! Looking forward to seeing you in Colombia next year for the big boda!
      Julia

  5. Gudmundur Eyjolfsson

    i was there too and it was great. Thanks for the pics and a good article. I am definately going next year!

    • Thanks for reading, Gudmundur! I hope to be back next year…. fingers crossed!

  6. So enjoyed reading about your race and looking at your pictures. I just returned from a week in Iceland and loved it. It was great running in the cool mornings knowing all my friends in North Carolina USA were melting in the heat.

    • Thanks for reading, Carole. Isn’t it the most fantastic place? I miss it too.