You know when you go to a bookshop, look at posters and calendars and then try to find out where the pictures were taken? That’s how I became a fan of Iceland and its best selling pictures by photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand .
So when I decided to run a bit longer than a marathon for the first time in my life (and therefore needed quite a big motivation), I picked a race in Iceland, to combine it with a nice trip.
It was my first ultra, the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon . I had read that one had to cross rivers while running, and thought this could be quite an adventure. If you hate running and like the idea of a slower option, the same track can be seen in 4 days, walking the Laugavegur Hiking Trail. Here is my experience.
Reykjavic and Around
I flew to Reykjavic 5 days before the race and started to experience the Icelandic way of living. Being in the city mainly to run an ultra marathon, I took it really easy and didn’t do much. I simply walked the streets without any plans. I enjoyed open air music, lovely bookstore cafes, graffiti and street art, free organ concerts in the local church, internet cafes where one can sit down with the locals for hours, shops selling Scandinavian design, friendly people who seemed much less stressed than most city people, and a designer building I never got bored of: the Harpa Concert Hall , that one can visit for a concert, or simply for a walk or a drink.
I stayed in a lively hotel on the port, the Reykjavic Marina, a 4 stars hotel which felt more than 4 stars thanks to its lovely crowd, modern design, funky statues, inventive food, and very good service. I was shocked by the lack of foreign staff and by the total blondness of the team (everybody was from Reykjavic itself or villages very close by, I later learnt), and above all… by the incredible light and the midnight sun. I know I know…it is a well known fact that in Iceland there is sun also at night, in summer. But I had never experienced it and it blew my mind. I absolutely loved it. I felt everything and everybody was so northern, that one couldn’t go more northern than that, on this planet. It was beautiful and extremely energising. Going out of a restaurant after a late dinner and finding full light was absolutely stunning. I kept watching the sky from my bed waiting for the dark that hardly came, and I was in awe.
The morning of the race I took a bus (the only way to get to start line) which left at 6 am. The trip lasted 4 hours. I remember it like a torture. The bus looked like a regular bus, but it scared me off already after one minute, because the driver just drove straight into every available river (or so I thought), like it was totally normal. I still wonder how we didn’t get flooded or stuck. But even the old ladies holding the groceries didn’t blink, so I guess it was just a standard Iceland ride.
I went to start line thinking that after those 4 hours of terror I had already had my adventure and was actually ready to go back home. But no, the hero in me made me go on. We had to wait quite some time, freezing, until the whole organisation was ready for the start. In the meantime I could observe the campers who were doing the 4 days Laugavegur hiking trail: they were having breakfast outdoor on common tables, the steam coming out of their mouths from the cold, and they had the most quiet kids I have ever seen. I guess camping life in Iceland is not for sissies.
Finally we started the run, and I put myself in the slowest group. People seemed to enjoy the landscape so much that they kept stopping and to take pictures. I loved how nobody could resist the beauty. Even the really tough runners sometimes had to stop for a moment and make some comments at the nature.
Water everywhere. Wild pink flowers. Black volcanic rocks. Turquoise hot springs. White geysers appearing from nowhere and scaring you every time – I didn’t expect such a spectacular variation and this was for sure the biggest surprise of the day.
You have to cross many rivers during the day, and often you are in water to your waist. Once I saw the first river to cross I thought “easy”. There were also some people (from the marathon staff) helping, and a rope to hold on to, so it didn’t look impossible at all. But when I went in, I tell you…the water was seriously freezing, and the current strong! I shouted mamma mia!! at least 3 times while entering the icy cold water , so I clearly didn’t look much of a local. I remember people passing me by (I was also slow, on top of all my other shortcomings) and saying: you must be Italian? Ciao, ciao!!
After the second river I started to accept the whole river crossing idea, and kept running with less drama.
I got a bit scared by the steep downhills (they didn’t feel stable at all to me because the terrain was often slippery) and by the fact that sometimes I found myself alone, with no signs whatsoever or people in sight. I was lonely in the nature and it didn’t make me feel comfortable. But this never lasted for too long, and I finally made it safely to finish line. It took me more than 8 hours and I felt like a squeezed lemon to say the least, but I loved it. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had.
At the finish area there was a lot of food, warm blankets and the backpack which I had sent the day before, containing some dry shoes to get changed. They came into a Gucci bag and made everybody laugh. I also had some make up with me, so I put a bit on my eyes and had one of the biggest meals of my life. It was sheer pleasure. Here I was, in the middle of hundreds of people I had never seen before, laughing and eating and sharing big emotions and a deep sense of pride.
Post Race Pleasures
One day after, as a post race treat, I visited the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal Spa where one can enjoy every sort of relaxing treatment, from underwater massage to covering up yourself with clay and look like a zombie before swimming it all off in the warm water.
If I look back, what I treasure most, as a memory, is the wild beauty of the Icelandic nature. I didn’t expect so many different colours and scenarios changing so quickly in the space of one day – I really did wonder if someone was playing games with me and photoshopped the mountains.
No wonder famous photographer like Yann Annus-Bertrand made its photos go viral: Iceland’s landscape are impressive. But even an average photographer like me can collect amazing images: Iceland is truly blessed.