Running across the remote interior of Iceland offers a stark blend of natural beauty and rugged terrain.
Just a few miles into the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, a demanding mid-summer trail race across the top of Iceland, I suddenly feel as if I’ve been transported to some kind of prehistoric land forgotten by time.
The first part of the 55K course winds through a still-smoldering caldera, rich with geothermal features, including miniature geysers, bubbling hot springs and whistling steam vents. The subtle odor of sulphur hangs in the air. Slogging up a trail of ink-black, lava-infused dirt amid a surprisingly humid microclimate, I’m completely drawn in by the awe-inspiring scenes all around me. I half expect to come across an ancient dinosaur trolling among these fascinating features.
The spectacular trailside attractions serve me well by taking my mind off the arduous 6-mile, 1,700-foot climb that demands a short stride, strong lungs and a positive mindset. I snap out of my race-induced hallucination when I recall learning, at the Reykjavik City Museum the previous day, that Iceland is a relatively new land formation created by erupting volcanoes long after dinosaurs became extinct. But this isn’t reality-morphed Jurassic Park either. This is real.
Moments after ascending out of the sweltering dreamscape, I am trudging through slushy ice and sun-cupped snow peppered with volcanic dust on top of the Hrafntinnusker Glacier. I shorten my stride again and sense it’s going to be a long day out on the trail, but so far the start has been completely exhilarating.
Iceland is known for a lot of things— the Northern Lights, active volcanoes, sheep, thick wool sweaters and salted codfish, herring and other seafood delicacies—but the realization that it’s also an untapped adventure destination is just starting to become known. The tiny island republic just outside the Arctic Circle has amazing options for backpacking, kayaking, glacier trekking and, as I discovered, trail running.
The Laugavegur Trail bisects the country’s southern highlands and connects the Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork nature reserves. The 34 miles of rolling terrain in between are stunningly diverse and completely treeless in all directions. Some of the land is entirely barren and seemingly lifeless, while other parts are unthinkably bright green.
“You’re going to love this course,” Björn Margeirsson, the 2012 race winner, tells me the day before the race. “I guarantee it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
Even without knowing Margeirsson’s perspective is based on his experience of having run through several U.S. national parks, he’s spot-on in his assertion that the raw ruggedness is otherworldly and breathtaking. By the time I reach the high point of the race—on top of the glacier—I’m quite chilled. After being soaked to the skin with sweat during the climb, the moisture-wicking fabric of my shirt never has a chance. Plus, the temperature quickly drops from the balmy mid-50s to the biting low-30s with a brisk headwind. My shoes slip and slide with every footstep for more than 4 miles, making the relatively short glacier traverse more laborious than necessary. But that seems to be the case for everyone in the colorful single-file line of runners that bisects the field of grayish white backdrop. Needless to say, after shivering for an hour or so, I’m overjoyed at the 1,500- foot descent into a lush wonderland of greenery—so much so that I run a bit too hard to the 22K aid station.
Although I warm up to a more comfortable temperature, I have to get back into battle-hardened ultra mode to endure a vexatious wind and an icy cold stream crossing, followed by a series of short, thigh-burning climbs. After slogging through more geothermal features (this time a series of percolating mud cauldrons) and crossing a raging, knee-deep river that requires a safety rope for balance, I see a sign that marks the halfway point of the race. The real work has only just begun.
The course drops about 800 feet over the final 17 miles, but only a 6-mile portion is somewhat flat. And with a steady drizzle, that section proves to be the toughest, both physically and mentally. My legs are already trashed, my feet have been wet for hours, I’m still soaked to the skin and I’m continually daydreaming about dipping into one of the many warm spa resorts near Reykjavik.
There is something primal and spiritually galvanizing about running in inclement weather when you have no choice but to endure it. In some ways, the essence of trail ultrarunning is about immersing yourself in the environment around you—less because you want to perform well, and more because you love the freedom and positive vibe running provides and, well, you should enjoy it to the fullest, rain or shine.
What makes races overseas so gratifying and unique are the small cultural differences amid the universally shared passion for running. Trading words of encouragement with other runners and backpackers clad in waterproof attire—some from Iceland, others from Scandinavia and central Europe—offers a gritty solidarity and easy camaraderie, knowing we’ve all chosen to be in this majestic corner of the world in spite of the rough weather.
At precisely the moment the course starts to get interesting again—with an undulating trail, numerous creek crossings and a descent so steep, a knotted rope is necessary for safe passage—the rain stops, and my legs feel surprisingly full of life. (OK, it’s probably no coincidence—I gulped down a warm cup of cocoa and devoured the Icelandic equivalent of a Snickers candy bar at the last aid station.) Although the sun never comes out during the race, the hills and valleys are alive with vibrant green hues in all directions.
For the final 8 miles, I run in an amazing flow state, becoming one with the trail and cherishing every moment to the finish line, including one last cold river crossing. When I finish, there’s a mixture of immense euphoria and minor regret, knowing that my journey is over—even though it will not be forgotten. “I’ve never run through so many different kinds of terrain in one race,” says Colorado’s Gina Lucrezi, one of 16 fellow Americans in the 2013 race and the women’s winner in 5 hours, 28 minutes. “That was simply an amazing course. Iceland is a magical place.”
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The 2014 Laugavegur Ultra Marathon will be held on July 12. (Registration is closed for 2014.) The popularity of the race has grown in recent years, partially because of the easy access from central Europe and the U.S. (Nonstop flights to Reykjavik on IcelandicAir originate from Boston, Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York.)
For more information, visit the Laugavegur race site. This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Competitor.