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.
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].
WHAT IS THIS PLACE?!
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.
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 nudity...game 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?
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