Thursday, April 23, 2015

Iceland: Höfn Dip

Our road trip with the boys (and I don't mean The Boys, but they could probably earn a few extra krona by pretending from time to time) continued along the SE coast to Höfn, where we holed up for the night. Our primary requirements for our lodging and feeding quest were the ability to watch soccer and the ability to drink beer that we had purchased elsewhere. One of these was easy to fulfill...

Anyhow, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves making a midnightish excursion to a nearby hot spring with a couple of locals that Svein knew (because Iceland). Unfortunately, the hot spring was closed for the evening, much to our dismay, so we retreated dejectedly to Höfn and vowed to return in the morning.

Random midnight twilight wildlife sighting

I'd say that we returned bright and early, but cute lower-latitude phrases like "bright and early" don't make as much sense in a place where it doesn't get dark. Anyhow, we went back in the morning after a leisurely and delicious breakfast at our hotel and treated ourselves to a soak.

You might die

These springs, maintained by one guy, are pretty simple, but there's no reason to make things fancier than they need to be. Because the setting makes up for anything that could be perceived as missing...

Horrible view

Sniped during a selfie...

...and from the other camera

Iceland is the world's largest green energy producer per capita, with ~75% coming from hydropower and ~25% coming from geothermal. Astonishingly, 85% of Icelandic homes derive their heating from geothermal sources. In other words, they're winning.

The relevance to this post is that there are vast areas of the country that are simply known as "hot areas" due to the proximity of the geothermal sources to the surface. End result: hot springs everywhere.

Murphy practicing crucial relaxation skills

Somebody else finally came to enjoy this particular spring, and having more than just us within a few kilometers felt a little crowded, so we let them have them place all to themselves and continued on our way.

Campervan paint jobs...always good for a laugh

Our meanderings were starting to take us back toward Reykjavik, but it'd be a looooong time before we showed our faces there; too much else to see!


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Iceland: Jökulhlaup at Skaftafell

We'll start with a couple photos from the road.

Much of Iceland is covered in lush lush moss, most of it impossibly green and impossibly soft. It's draped thickly over cheese grater volcanic rock, and it's fascinating because it's unique, and, well, because it's awesome.

Yes, you can sleep on this stuff. Just don't damage it.

Random waterfall #447

Sweet relief

OK, so this is what we're really here for. Let's take a volcano, a real volcano, and just plop a glacier on top of it. Like, a real glacier, super thick and stuff. And cold. So what happens if that volcano erupts with that glacier sitting on top of it? Well, not much, at first, and nothing spectacular, at first.

Eventually, though, the magma melts enough of the bottom of the glacier that a river is created underneath the glacier, and that water has to go somewhere, and that "where" is down and out.

And there's stuff in the way of that water. And that stuff gets wrecked. This flooding is called a jökulhlaup and the wikipedia page is worth a read.

Near Skaftafell, a big jökulhlaup happened thanks to an eruption of Vatnajökull in 1996, and it included flow rates of 50,000 m^3/s. Fifty thousand cubic meters per second is a LOT OF WATER. And, as promised, stuff got wrecked.

Conquer that nature

So there's a well-traveled pulloff on the one highway in Iceland that features some pieces of steel that used to be part of a very substantial bridge. And these steel beams are a ready reminder of how much smaller we are than the forces that shape our world. And this is awesome.

Yes, conquer it

I generally feel as though anything that makes us seriously consider our place in the order of things is valuable. So there ya go. And Svein makes for one hell of a model :)


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Iceland: Secret Cave at Dyrhólaey

Continuing our meanderings along the SE coast, we find ourselves subjected to a constant drizzle. Unfortunately, this would be representative of the weather during most of our trip, but hey, you can't expect wine and roses all the time on a tiny rock floating way up in the North Atlantic.

One of our stops is well-visited; Dyrhólaey is home to an imposing promontory, a lighthouse, and a really cool black beach.

Yup, lighthouse

The black beach also includes vast expanses of pebbles, all worn smooth by smashing storms and incessant waves.



...and I call this Pebbles of a Thousand Selfies

Coolest cairn ever

At some point, while cruising around on this beach, I notice what appears to be a hole that a person can crawl through. We squirm through and find ourselves in a cave that's quite big; big enough to stand in and dark enough to hit one's head on all sort of unpleasant things.

Murphy chills

Because our itinerary for the day is largely non-existent and because Murphy, Joe, and Svein are exceptionally tolerant travel mates, I hobble back to the car, dangle more camera gear over my shoulders, and hobble back to the cave, because why not?

Joe pretends like the whole thing isn't at risk of collapsing

Sometimes, the little discoveries hold so much more fun than the main attractions! Word through the grapevine is that this cave either filled in or got blocked by rock or something, so we did well to enjoy it while it was there.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Iceland: SE from Thorsmork

I've noticed a funny thing regarding post-race alcohol. I'm not a big drinker, and on a typical day, three or four beers would put me totally down for the count. After hard races, though, I seem to be largely unaffected by alcohol. I can only surmise that one of two possibilities is responsible for this: first, the body is so desperate for calories and nourishment that any intake is converted, Mr. Fusion-style, into Sparkling Unicorns and whatever other nutrients fend off death. The second possibility is that the body is in so much pain that the effects of alcohol can't even come close to chipping away at the enormity of it, much like shooting at a tank with a BB gun, and that the pain centers of the brain don't even begin to register the onslaught.

In any case, three beers deep, we pack up after the race and admire the Joe/Svein fording skills at a couple dozen river crossings, and then we are footloose and fancy free for the next few days. Most racers are returning to Reykjavik, but Joe and Svein have broken free for some sightseeing and we're all pretty excited to go get amongst it.

Near þórsmörk

The weather has finally cleared a fair amount (could've used that during the race...), and we're rapidly aware that we're surrounded by a stunning environment. All glacial and volcanic, green-smeared sharp black mountains plunge straight down to raging braided riverbeds. In every direction.

Also near þórsmörk

Once we're out on the ring road (only real highway in the country), we quickly fall victim to Sightseeing Attention Deficit Disorder. This is a part of the country that Svein hasn't spent much time in, so he's as curious to see stuff as we are, and the end result is screeching to a halt damn near every time we round a corner because some [cliff, waterfall, glacier, etc] displays impossible attributes and we have to stop Right Now.

At some random roadside waterfall; hard to tell that we ran 55km today!

Iceland is tiny: it's about the size of Kentucky (thank you, Wolfram Alpha), but it's got so much natural wonder packed into it that it'd take us years and years to feel like we've seen it all. This is due in no small part to the fact that a lot of the amazing stuff is quite difficult to access, which is good, because paved roads and parking lots are the devil's playthings.

Bonus points for finding Svein

One of the mandatory stops is at Skógafoss, but by now we're nearly nonplussed by yet another gigantic roadside waterfall. One bummer is that there's a neat-looking trail up the side of the waterfall, but Ethel and I are not exactly in fightin' shape, so making it to the base of the fall seems like enough of a triumph.

Skógafoss selfies


And of course, every turn down a side road brings new jewels. It's apparent to me that we're barely scratching the surface, and this is one of the eternal dilemmas that comes with traveling for races. Before a race, you want to stay off your legs and stay fresh, which is largely incompatible with tramping around a foreign land. After a race, stepping up onto a curb is a Big Task and you're too shattered to do much besides spoon Nutella into your gob, which is also largely incompatible with exploration.

This is a single frame from the middle of the pano below...unreal green

Much green (click for bigger)

There's really only one solution to this: flyaway races should be part of ~6wk holidays, such that there's ample time to race well, recover well, and still see the dang place. I'm currently accepting applications from patrons who commiserate with me, and I've also mentioned this to my boss, but somehow things are not happening at quite the pace I expected :)

The next few posts will be full of our hobbling adventures throughout various parts of this spectacular country. Despite my whinging, we did manage to pack a fair amount into our twelve days there!


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Iceland: Laugavegur 55km Race Report

Where to begin? Well, it's all Ethel's fault, really. She's the one who found the race.

The Laugavegur 55km ultramarathon (pronounced "Laugavegur" LOL) is held on a stunning course that traverses a 4-day hiking trail approximately in the middle of nowhere. In Iceland, however, "middle of nowhere" roughly translates to "unspoiled raw landscape unlike anything you've ever seen on this planet, and also, you might die."

So when Ethel sent me the link to the race during the time we were figuring out if the trip was feasible, I took it as a sign, clicked "buy" twice, and told her she'd better get ready. Well, the weeks leading up to the trip and the race weren't the best for me, but we both plugged along, got some good runs in, packed every stitch of contingency running gear we had, and figured that we'd be in for an incredible experience if nothing else.

We'd only have one full day after arriving in Iceland to catch up on time zones and sleep and all that silly stuff, but there wasn't really any other option. The best information on long-travel races says to either fully acclimate before racing (10+ days) or to just show up right before the race and GO, so we're at least not in the no-man's land between the two.

At the registration the day before the race, we witness both a bucketing rainstorm (and the non-effect it has on the locals), and also the instant camaraderie created between the nervous virgins and the seasoned veterans. We're also thrust into the utter hilarity of pretending like we're able to understand Icelandic place names. The seasoned vets are solemnly telling us things about certain sections of the course, but they're using names like Hraftinnusker and Bláfjallakvísl, so we smile and nod and act appreciative. I make mental notes that what they're telling us is probably actually important, but I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with this meta-information. It's all good fun, though, so we leave there feeling just confident enough to be able to sleep for a few hours during the short Reykjavik "night."

Course map with amusing place names

Course profile: big climb, big descent, lots of bumps and water, ~1900m of climbing, net downhill

Race day begins with a comically early bus ride (4am?), which is billed as "highly recommended" because you need an armageddon-worthy vehicle to travel to the race start otherwise. So we sit on a bus for nearly four hours from Reykjavik, with a full breakfast stop midway, and largely contemplate our foolishness while the bus careens through this alien landscape. The weather forecast for the day is mildly unfavorable, calling for wind, rain, and snow all day, but the Icelanders don't seem to be the least bit fazed, so we play along like that's sweet, too.

Fairly representative of how we feel after waking up at 2:30am

Our destiny lies ahead

Destiny becoming unclear...

We arrive at Landmannalaugar with enough time for everyone to check in and seek the nearest shelter. Even though we've all signed in at registration the day prior, they take safety seriously, so this is a count-people-entering-course-count-people-leaving-course type of race. Adds to the mystique.

They've separated the start into three waves through self-seeding, and I've been gullible enough to end up in the first wave. Ethel and I kiss goodbye in the frigid drizzle, and I spend the last few minutes before the gun convincing a concerned volunteer that I am indeed wearing enough clothes and that I'll be fine once I'm moving even though I'm shivering uncontrollably. I also spend the last few minutes burping up the sausage, yogurt, and toast I ate about an hour ago. Whatever, was hungry.

Note: Ethel kindly volunteered to carry the GoPro with her, so these are a bunch of her photos from along the course. She's also posted an excellent race report here. The race website has been kind enough to have some pretty good photos from various places along the course (all on a sunny day, haha, come to Iceland, suckas!), so feel free to peruse them to supplement Ethel's GoPro work.

Lovely day for a race

Ready as we'll ever be

Into the fray

When the gun goes off, there's a silly sprint for the first climb 50m ahead, which is dumb because everyone who sprints around me immediately starts walking up the climb. The trail is too narrow and I'm forced to hang in line while the few racers who are actually running disappear off into the distance. As soon as the trail opens up a little bit, I find go-go-gadget mode and start bouncing around people in search of the leaders.

The course climbs continuously for the first 10km, and we're quickly into the clouds. After picking off some singles and some small groups, there are fewer and fewer targets ahead. One guy is wearing short shorts, and it takes a good long while to pick him off. New friend Siggi after the race tells me that his little group wasn't worried when Short Shorts Guy blasted past them in the opening kilometers, but that they collectively took me more seriously. Thanks guys; good to know I can still fool someone by looking the part :) After Short Shorts Guy is safely behind, I can finally only see one guy ahead, but I can't be totally sure as the holdup at the start has put me sorely out of contact. As we climb, it's colder, windier, and sleetier, and eventually the first of the several aid stations appears out of the storm about ten steps in front of me.

In desolation comes suffering

Nothing to say but LOL

After chugging a cup of blue something, I pad off silently into the howling sleet, now acutely aware that I'm pretty much all alone out here. While the course would be easy to follow on a clear day, a few moments of inattention today could be disastrous, and not just from a race standpoint. The course description notes areas of rigorous geothermal activity. And snowfields.

Before too long, I find the snowfields. This is some of the most surreal running I've ever done, crunching in total isolation over summertime snow while blanketed in thick fog. Every few minutes, the fog thins just enough that I can see a single blue-jacketed figure running ahead of me. I never bother to look behind.

Some of these snowfields have more passable snow than others, but it's hard to tell until the foot falls which type it'll be. One in particular looks a bit slushy, but quick glances left and right don't show any obvious way around. One foot and then the other immediately plunges into shin-deep slush. Insta-frozen. Wasn't planning on getting my feet wet until the river crossings many kilometers later, but that ship has just sailed.

After a few more kilometers of snow/ice/slush fields, there's an extra-special section of increased geothermal activity, but in addition to the bonus chance of injury/scalding/death, it means that the "trail" surface is slick, sticky, and deep clay. I do my best to pick a good line, but within a few steps I'm doing the one-step-forward-two-steps-back thing on a maddeningly gentle hill. Eventually, and I'm sure comically, gravity gets the best and I find myself clawing on my hands and knees in the ultra-sludge. I'm an absolute mucky mess, but I eventually scramble through it and get back underway. For the remainder of the race, I will smear clay all over myself, unintentionally, and this contributes to me feeling like a disgusting dirtbag.

After some more "mixed" (read: filth- and hypothermia-inducing) trail, I start to descend and the fog finally gets thinner. I haven't seen that pesky blue jacket ahead for awhile, but the visibility has been nil, and I haven't looked behind yet, either. I finally turn a corner just as I drop below the cloud layer, and I'm greeted with the most surreal Technicolor dreamscape I've ever seen. The cloud base fades rapidly to reveal a vast landscape of chartreuse green, ink black, and sculpted white, and it's all dotted with lakes and veined with swollen rivulets.

Mind. Blown. Visual cortex seared for life. All I really want to do is sit down and stare at this for approximately eight hours, but oh wait, there's a race to run.


One of the more exciting crossings that doesn't involve getting wet

We're only about 10k out from halfway, and there's a steep and gnarly descent to navigate. I don't think I'm being overly cautious, but all of a sudden I hear footsteps and tumbling rocks behind me. I quickly yield the trail to this assailant and look behind, only to see another approaching! Caution gets thrown to the wind as I give chase. The next chaser catches but never passes, and the guy who did catch me is evidently a downhill specialist, as I dispatch him quickly at the bottom with a fleet kilometer or two. In the remaining kms before the halfway mark, another guy appears in the mix, and we exchange places and pleasantries for 15 or 20 minutes.

Stout bridge

Not to be trifled with

Then, just as I'm contemplating changing shoes and dropping layers at the gear bags just past the deathly glacial river crossing (equipped with ropes and SAR teams), dude surges past and disappears off into the distance. So my strategic plan of managing shoes and clothes and nutrition kind of goes out the window, I dump my gloves and hat and disgusting glasses in my bag, and I give chase.

This next section of trail is different in character yet again. Arrow straight and flat but flanked by impossibly shaped mountains, it gives me more time to take stock of my condition than I've had in the last couple of hours. It suddenly occurs to me that I'm 28km into a ridiculously hard mountain race and, save that gulp of blue stuff up in the clouds, I haven't had anything to eat or drink. You DUMBASS. I know better, I really do, but something about survival running while simultaneously playing Chase the Leader has allowed me to trick myself out of being smart. So, in perhaps the smartest move I've made all day, I stop, pee, eat a gel, and drink some water [Ed. note: you probably don't want to know the exact order in which those operations occurred, or where there was overlap between them].


Inky descent

The next 10km or so, probably about an hour, are largely a blur of bonking and being shaken to my core by the landscape we're traversing. I'm pretty sure that these two things are not related, and thankfully the photos reinforce my memory as being largely correct. I go through stretches of feeling unequivocally awful, but forward progress always trumps comfort. I eat more and recover more in an iterative process, but second place keeps inching away from me. Chatting to him after the race reveals that he was redlining to get away from me, and hey, it worked. I finally reach another aid station that's equipped with chopped up Mounds bars: chocolate and sugar-laden coconut. I cheerfully stuff my face like a squirrel, filter some water through whatever mouth-hole is left, and sprint down the trail with refilled sails. Just like that, I feel like I'm back in the race; "only about 15k more" has never sounded so doable!

There are countless more stream crossings and another big river crossing, discrete markers in an ever-changing landscape of the most striking desolation I've ever witnessed. Second place never reappears, but neither do any chasers. I do admit to looking behind me quite a bit in the closing kilometers, as I'm keen to fend off any battles before they begin. I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping my nutrition mistake from getting worse, but there's no doubt that it was a really stupid and avoidable mistake. I'll admit to secretly thinking the course record was in reach (hey, assume the best until proven otherwise, right?!), but I refuse to speculate how my result would have changed if I hadn't made that mistake...que sera, sera.

Deep gorge

The finish appears around a blind corner in Thorsmork after 5:01 of racing. I'm rather happy to see it, even happier for the beer on the other side of it, and happier yet to chat to first and second to trade some war stories. Highlights of the war stories include first place telling me that seeing me so close to him for so long made him work hard to get away, and then finding out that second place was last year's winner. First ended up smashing the previous course record, too. I guess if you've gotta lose a race to two good guys, gooder guys could not be found! I pretty quickly work my way through several rounds of everything hot, salty, and liquid, then totter off to find Joe and Svein, who have been occupying their afternoon by chatting to girls.

Before too long (maybe a beer or two), Ethel crosses the line in 6:27 as the 13th woman, which exceeds her expectations by about half an hour and makes me amazed to this day that she can do so while being so bloody cheerful. 55km is way way further than she's ever run before, and she's in truly good form at the finish. She's even spent the day making friends with other racers, which is super awesome.

I'm also pleased to report that Laugavegur represents the least mechanical damage I've ever suffered during a long running race. I wore some Dirty Girl gaiters over my shoes to keep abrasive and pokey stuff out, and I also taped known problem areas on my feet with some unobtanium tape. I've really gotta say that it's nice to not have shoes full of blood, missing swaths of skin, or gaping blisters [Ed. note: or broken bones, dipshit] at the end of the day!

We eat like royalty, get a shower (tent with hot water hoses and gratuitous on), and pack our gear up. Svein provides expert Icelandic river fording advice to Joe, which comes in handy about two dozen times in not too long a distance. Instead of slinking back to Reykjavik, we'll spend the next few days gallivanting around the southeastern part of the island.

River Crossing 101: Don't Die

One minor tragedy is that the Laugavegur trail needs to be seen at a slower pace. Running through this landscape without the time to enjoy it (and without a proper camera) does a disservice to its uniqueness, and the most probable solution is hiking it as penance...

All in all, I'm blown away by how raw and challenging this race was. I think we got exactly what we bargained for, which was unfiltered fun and suffering with awesome people in an otherwise inhospitable place. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and may just have to...who wants to come with?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Iceland: Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja is another gem in Joe's neighborhood. Instantly recognizable and eminently unpronounceable, it's the second tallest building in Iceland (just recently eclipsed by a drab office building).

Earlier this day, we braved a smashing rainstorm to get to race registration, but the storm broke around dinnertime and allowed me to wander around for a little bit.

Reaching skyward

Architect Guðjón Samúelsson (good luck with that) designed it to evoke the Icelandic landscapes shaped by basaltic lava flows, and the statue at the bottom is Leif Eriksson. There's also a nice coffeeshop nearby...obviously as important!


Monday, March 23, 2015

Past Detritus