At 9am on 15th July, there was nothing left to feel anxious about. I was dressed in the appropriate clothing. I had stretched and taken painkillers. Two nights of sleep deprivation were fading into forgetting. The lava field rose above the crowd of brightly-coloured waterproofed runners. Off to the side, the ground steamed where I knew hot springs were descending to mix with the cooler water of a stream. It began to rain just a little. There was nothing left to worry about, nothing to do except line up and wait for the whistle. And run.
Laugavegur Ultra Marathon was to be my first ultra-distance race. Billed as a total distance of 55km (though more realistically 53km) through semi-challenging Icelandic highland terrain, six or seven river crossings, two endless dusty windy plains, and volcanic ground on either side, it was the perfect combination of a race testing enough to stretch myself beyond a marathon without totally consuming my social life or superseding my anxiety thresholds. And it turned out that I was indeed stronger than I thought, and had a lot more to give, even when it felt hard and painful.
Race Recap – it’s a long one!
The race actually began at 4:30am, boarding the bus from Reykjavik. The firm but kind Icelanders running the race checked our wristbands to make sure we were on the right bus for our predicted finish time of around 8 hours. I had packed a neck pillow, which felt indulgent, but I really needed the extra two hours of bumpy sleep that I managed to snatch. At 7:30am we pulled up at a hostel, where breakfast was available for us. Without knowing how long we would be there, we rather foolishly queued for the toilet before getting food, meaning that I was stuffing porridge into my cheeks and making sandwiches as we were hurried out.
Properly awake now after some essential coffee, I was pleasantly reminded of the familiar sights of the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the start of the race at Landmannalaugur. As we rolled into the campsite, the traditional array of souped-up jeeps and camping vans lined the perimeter, while tents surrounded the inner huts, held down by rocks instead of pegs as the ground is often too firm to hold them. We made quick use of the bathrooms, deposited our main bags in the bus to be taken to the finish, and after some stretching got swiftly into our corral. Having read a few race reviews online, I knew that there was likely to be a queue to get up the short hill which led onto the lava field, so Laura and I got to the front of the corral pretty quickly. A short amount of hanging around, and we were suddenly going, gently moving over the easy paths and then fast-hiking up the lava hill.
Once on top of the lava field, the running could start. Fairly level for the first kilometre, the race route then starts going swiftly uphill in the toughest part of the course – at least, if you don’t like hills. Surprisingly, although I live in a very flat city, I love going uphill, and really enjoy the pressure to push myself to the top. As we ascended, the rhyolite mountains on either side gave us fantastic backdrops of red, orange, blue, green, yellow and white.
Steep climb completed, the going got more tricky underfoot with long slushy snowfields that proved awkward and energy-sapping, although to my mindset, they fell into the category of “hills I must defeat”… so mentally it didn’t feel too bad. Having hiked this trail twice before, I wasn’t expecting this much snow, and the obsidian fields that I have learned to expect before approaching Hrafntinnusker were invisible. At this point the wind became much stronger and brought hail, snow and sleet with it.
We passed the first checkpoint at approximately 1hr 30mins, our goal time, despite all the snow and weather. (This race famously has strict cut off times at 4hrs and 6hrs and many of the field did not make it in time). From this point, the rain kept up reasonably regularly, blowing into our legs and soaking my bottom half. I was running in thick long leggings that had kept me incredibly warm on a recent training session in Norway, but this rain really got into my bones and made my lower legs heavy and stiff.
And yet, the snowfields continued to be exciting and interesting to cross, even though they turned the legs to jelly. My favourite regular snowfield is one that remains all year round and is wonderfully patterned by dirt and glacial blue reflections. It was strange to find it on the trail so quickly – even though we had walked most of the uphills, running was clearly much quicker than hiking the trail with a large rucksack…
As the route climbed again, we reached a wide ridge and turned directly into a headwind. The rain had stopped and we started to descend, gradually and then swiftly. The course marshals had warned about the difficulty of this section, indicating it would be slippy underfoot and that we should even police each other about not going to fast (!). In the end, the path down seemed fine, and we dropped out of the weather cloud into gentle sunshine to our first river crossing. At mid-calf height, this was not one to be concerned about.
Reaching Alftavatn, second checkpoint, not feeling great
Here, on the flattest part of the course, I started to struggle. At not even halfway, and nursing a hamstring tear on my left side, I was finding the flat running really tough. My taper had been an enforced three-week ban on running, except for a 0.8 mile limp around my local park. At this point, the stress of not having made the halfway mark, feeling tired and lacklustre, and with rising pain, made me stressed and unhappy.
Laura, thankfully, responded to my request to “just talk at me” by regaling me with stories about near vertical races near where she lives, and how she occasionally runs into Norwegian ultra runner Stian Andermund-Vik in the mountains (Stian recently came second to Killian Jornet in the Mont Blanc Marathon). Buoyed by the distraction, I managed my pain, and after some flat coca cola, pretzels, stretching and some painkillers at the second checkpoint, I was ready to go on.
The sun came out and we wound our way through some of the prettiest parts of the course. Alftavatn sits on the edge of a large lake and the mountains here are deep black, footed with vibrant green. The wind was light, and the running felt easy, and even our times were on track.
About halfway into the race, we tackled the largest river crossing of the trail. Having done this twice before whilst walking, I knew what to expect, and wasn’t too phased by it. The support crew were also amazing – one of them stood directly in the water to hold a guide rope for us sugar-depleted runners, and there were plenty of others on hand in case of accidents. It seemed as if the best way was not to overthink it and just plunge in – the same could be said of the whole race, really. The swift shock of the cold water felt phenomenally good, and buoyed us up for the next part.
Later in the race, some concerned hikers expressed shock at me running straight through a shallow river – “But your legs, won’t they remain wet?” they asked, as they dodged the water by balancing themselves and their large packs on rocks. I did feel a tad smug as I shrugged off their concerns – but honestly, it just felt better to get wet, and then drain and dry off naturally.
At this point in the race, you can opt to stop and change into gear that you have in your drop bag. Some people even change shoes! However, Laura and I were not feeling uncomfortable, so we agreed that, since we both had clean dry socks in our race packs, we would continue on to Emstrur before changing. I also knew that the next part of the course would be mentally and physically challenging, and I was keen not to waste any time. With two long, exposed stretches of plain, and a 20mph headwind coming at us strong, we would need to work hard to ensure we didn’t miss the cut off times.
The endless, dusty, windy plain
At this point, Laura and I pursued different tactics to get us through. She opted for music, whilst I put my head down and counted steps, occasionally chatting to people, but mostly focusing on passing. There was a bit of a race dance taking place, as I overtook and then got overtaken by the same group of runners again and again.
The pass started to rise and get narrower, and looking at my watch, I was distressed to find that we were behind our planned times. We had wanted to arrive at Emstrur with a comfortable 50 mins to spare, but this was looking more like 20-30 mins to spare. At this point, I was desperate not to DNF so I spoke to Laura and we agreed that we would both keep pushing for the next 5 miles at our own pace, and that we would meet up again at Emstrur. Mentally I just needed not to stop, to continue at a pace that I knew worked for me.
Making the final cut off – Emstrur in 5hrs 30 mins!
The second plain arrived, and with it, two or three mini hills, each one not revealing the expected sight of hut roofs beneath… at least until I saw one of the race buses gloomily parked on a promontory and knew that the cut off point could not be far. With 30 minutes to spare, I sang happily to myself as I descended that hill right into the waiting checkpoint. “I’m so happy to be here!” I cried, to which the charming marshal replied, “It’s very good to see you too.”
Now it was certain that we would finish the race. I changed my socks, refuelled, and then headed off for the final 10+ miles. We took it easy to begin with, walking through the green and black landscape, but a nice steep descent beneath a glacier got the legs moving again. A calm, windless valley followed, and then another short sharp climb. The final sections of the race were gently undulating, across a steppe-like landscape, with grasses and distant volcanoes. Our final climb at the 44km mark was a long slog but at this point I felt balanced and meditative, as if I could keep going and going. With our final long descent we could see the last river crossing and the sight of Thorsmörk (Thor’s Forest) on the other side.
The final few miles through the forest were charming to experience but longer than I remembered, and I was very thankful to hear the loudspeaker calling out names through the trees. We turned the corner in the evening sunshine and ran across the finish line hand in hand, crying and laughing. They even called out our names individually. 8 hours, 22 minutes of movement, and the race was complete.
To begin with, I couldn’t stop crying. The emotional weight I had been carrying throughout training had been lifted. I had done what I had never thought I could manage – run an ultra marathon, run close to 35 miles. I – who was never sporty at school and who struggled for years with running – could do this. Laura had to keep convincing the marshals that they were happy tears! Finally I pulled myself together and went off to get changed and fed. The buffet put on by the race organisers was delicious, even though I found real food a touch challenging at this point. Without any energy to look around at Húsadalur (a shame, as it is a stunning place), we boarded the race bus back to Reykjavik, exhausted and happy.
- Inov8 leggings
- Inov8 merino socks (untested before race but fantastic!)
- Salomon S-Lab Speed trail shoes
- Inov8 gaiters
- Icebreaker long sleeve top
- OMM Kamleika waterproof jacket
- Kari Traa head buff
- Combination of fingerless gloves and wool mittens (purchased in the Icelandic Hand Knitting Association shop)
- Sweaty Betty peaked cap
- Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek vest (men’s)
- Cheap vest top (unbranded)
- Sports bra (unbranded – elastic crop top style)
- Dried meats (biltong, Norwegian sausage)
- Nakd energy bars
- Kendal mint cake
- SIS gels
- Mule bar salted caramel gels
- Bounty bar
- Salt pills
- Rehydration tablets
- Flat coca cola
- Half pint of beer (right at the end!)
Would I do it again?
For now, I think I’m done with the Laugavegur trail for the time being. It’s been amazing to walk it twice and then run it, but I need a new challenge. 🙂