Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, Iceland
With light streaming in through our studio at 3AM and the nightlife still going strong, I didn’t even need an alarm clock to wake up. The beauty of Iceland in the summer is the 24 hours of day light, the midnight sun, one of the most unique features of Iceland. Though it would be a long day ahead of traveling (and the actual race), the Laugavegur Ultramarathon was also one of the reasons why we were in Iceland in the first place.
I was immediately drawn to this race because of the remote beauty it had to offer. Not many people can say they’ve run in Iceland before and many immediately think of the freezing temps (which it still was for this L.A girl) with nothing but ice and snow. Though there was a lot of snow on the course, the scenery is much more than that. The Laugavegur course is one of the most beautiful in Iceland, stretching from Landmannalaugar in the highlands to Þórsmörk, a natural reservation area. Normally, this 34 mile trek is hiked in four days, but we traversed through sand, gravel, grass, snow, ice, rivers and streams in one.
Having spent the previous 5 days ‘tapering’ and doing other activities, my legs were more than ready to run.
The bus left Reykjavik at 4:30AM for our 3 hour drive to Landmannalaugar with a breakfast stop at Hrauneyjar. I quickly got to know the locals and their running community and how important this race was to them in Iceland. It is the longest trail race they have and one they train and anticipate for all year. For many, this was their first step into ‘ultra territory’. We got to Hrauneyjar where there was a buffet of sweet pastries, sandwiches, juices, oatmeal and cereal waiting for us. After quickly fueling up for the long day ahead, we headed back on the bus and continued our journey to Landmannalaugar.
As we drove closer to the start, it started to rain, making the green moss that grows on all the volcanic rocks glimmer in the light. The R.D. came on our bus and told us to layer on everything we had because it would be a cold and wet day with lots of snow at the top. Luckily, I had brought a few layers, but didn’t think I would need all of it. On top of my base layer of a t-shirt and long tights, I had on a long sleeve pull-over with a waterproof rain jacket on top, a buff for my neck and for my ears, arm warmers and gloves! I basically looked like a blue version of the Michelin man with purple striped gloves.
The first section is a 6 mile uphill climb from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker. We immediately started up a steep switchback right out of the get-go, power-hiking up rocky terrain before it leveled out a bit. The scenery was breathtaking and everything I had imagined it to be. It truly felt like I was in a postcard with the multiplicity of colors and shapes of the snow on the mountains.
Credit: Laugavegur Marathon
Only 3 miles in, we hit our first patch of snow that continued until mile 9. I’ve run on snow before, but never this continuous for so long. The locals were flying by me and I tried to mimic what they were doing. Instead of hiking on the snow and slipping back with each step, I ended up jogging on the side of the trail because the snow was a little harder.
We climbed slowly to the top of Háskerdingur where it continued to rain and snow. The wind was blowing the snow sideways and all I could do was to look down and try to keep moving to stay warm. We crossed a few big streams and the shock of how cold the water kept my legs numb the rest of the way. I couldn’t feel any part of my body anymore (which might have been a good thing) as all my clothes were drenched and I was slogging around in my shoes which luckily drains really well. On top of all the rain and snow, we were running through sand, which felt like quicksand because of the amount of snow.
The first aid station was at the top and all the volunteers were out greeting each runner with powerade and frozen bananas. I was so impressed by the race volunteers who came out to brave the conditions just to support the runners. Everyone was so friendly and encouraging throughout the race.
Credit: Laugavegur Marathon
The terrain soon became muddy and slippery as we crossed a small sloping geothermal area. Trying to run the downs on a muddy trail only resulted in me slipping and pretty much sliding on my butt all the way down. Luckily there were so many stream crossings on the course so I could easily wash off! We had a spectacular view over the lake at Álftavatn as we made our way down a steep technical wet trail. Grashagakvísl is the first river on the course, which we crossed but wasn’t too bad because of the stepping stones.
Upon arriving at the Álftavatn aid station, we had to check in mid-point before continuing. I caught up to a few friends I had met earlier on in the day as we made our way to Emstrur. Long parts of this section are actually very flat and runnable which gave me a chance to pick up my speed and make up some time from all the miles on the snow. We came across the largest river, Bláfjallakvísl where we were given the option to put on pant legs to help keep our legs and shoes somewhat dry. I was just about to put them on when I saw a runner fall face first into the river from tripping on the oversized pant legs. They had a rope and lots of volunteers helping you across, so I decided to ditch the legs and try to make it across as fast as possible.
Stepping into the river is like taking a plunge in an ice bath. The immediate shock of how cold the water is never really wears off and you never dry off either. They had drop bags at this point where you could change into a dry shoes and clothes, which was pretty pointless since it rained the entire way with more river crossings later in the race.
The last 10 miles of the course was from Emstrur to Húsadalur in Þórsmörk, with a nice slow descent to the end. Having started out so slow because of the snow, my legs were feeling pretty good and I was just happy to be close to the end where I could finally get warm. As we descended down a steep path to the bridge over the Fremri river, a rope was laid out for us to guide ourselves down the slippery rocks.
There were a few short climbs here and there to the end, and from the top of the final hill, Kápan, the Þórsmörk valley can be seen. The final river that had to be crossed, Þröngá, was up to a meter deep where there was a rope stretched over the river with lots of volunteers to help you across.
With three miles to go and all runnable terrain, I decided to pick up my pace and surprisingly was able to catch a lot of runners these last few miles. It’s been a long time where my legs have felt this good at the end of a race where I’m able to give it my all a couple miles out. Usually it’s like the last 100 meters when I see the finish line. It was so exciting the closer you got to the finish because there were also hikers who had been out for days on this trail and were also about to complete their long journey. Everyone was so encouraging and to see these hikers with 20+ pound packs on their backs make their way from Landmannalaugar where I was just at a few hours ago to the finish was just as much of a celebration for me as it was for them.
The finish line was lined with all the race officials and more volunteers and even though it was still raining and cold as hell, there was a warmth that came from the people that were out there that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. I ended up finishing in 7:20:56, but time was never a concern for me in this race. We ended the race in Þórsmörk, one of Icelands brightest pearls, surrounded by rugged and beautiful mountains and glaciers and also right in front of Eyjafjallajökull, where the big eruption happened in 2010.
The volunteers immediately wrapped me in a blanket when I finished and rushed me inside the food tent where they had a nice spread of food and hot coco to warm you up. They had changing tents for guys and girls with all our drop bags neatly organized by our bib color and number so it was super easy to find. I spent some time in the tent getting warm and it felt so good to put on a dry pair of socks and shoes!
It was such a treat to come out to this special place and run through different terrain while enjoying the ever-changing views of Iceland. I am so grateful to the race for giving me the opportunity to come out to their country and experience a run of a lifetime with the local community. It was a privilege to run in such a unique race and make friends with runners from all over the world who share the same dedication to the trails as we do back home. The Laugavegur ultramarathon is a destination race that all adventurous runners should have on their bucket list. No matter what the weather is like, the scenery will continue to blow you away mile by mile.