An Icelandic Adventure
by Ken Monks - July 1998
In a remote corner of an isolated and beautiful arctic island lies a rugged and pristine wilderness trail known as the Laugavegur. This hiking trail runs 55 km through a varied and untamed terrain which is as beautiful as it is fraught with natural perils. On July 25, 1998 a group of 79 intrepid souls set out to test their mettle by running the length of the course. I had the great privilege of being one of these 79. I record here a few of the pictures and details of this exciting ultramarathon.
I trained for and ran the course with my brother in law, Mario Matriccino. We trained mostly on paved roads near my home in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Our training schedule worked up to about 50-60 miles per week with a long runs of 20, 22, 20, 24, 20, 26, 20, 28, 20, 30, 14, 10 miles on the Sundays prior to the race itself. Hazleton is located on top of one of the mountains in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania, so many of our runs included some "rolling hills" (a term which has quite a different meaning in Iceland, as we would soon discover).
It was to be an adventure of "firsts" for us: our first ultramarathon, our first trail race, our first time in Iceland. We tried to prepare ourselves for what lie ahead by reading the official description of the course, but as we found out, the description does not capture the reality of the terrain or the true spirit of the event.
We left the US on one of the hottest days of the summer, 99 şF in downtown Philadelphia. When we arrived at Keflavik airport we were greeted by damp bone-chilling gale-force winds and a 44 şF temperature with overcast skies and intermittent rain! However, it turned out that we just happened to arrive on a bad day, even for Iceland, and the weather was much nicer for the rest of the trip.
For several months before the race, I had been in email contact with an extremely friendly, knowledgeable, and humorous ultrarunner who had participated in the Laugavegur the previous year, Gisli Asgeirsson. Gisli was very helpful in answering my numerous questions about both the race and Iceland in preparation for our trip. At the registration on Thursday evening we finally met Gisli, several other ultrarunners, and the race director, Ágúst Thorsteinsson. Ágúst was also quite helpful in answering race related questions via email prior to the race, and did a wonderful job of organizing such a complicated event.
In addition to individual competition, the Laugavegur also has awards for three-person teams. Gisli suggested that he, Mario, and I form a team. The task of picking a team name was left up to Gisli, as he was the only one who spoke Icelandic. We were dubbed the Fjallamenn, which means "mountain men" (at least that is what Gisli tells us it means!).
We had a nice pasta-loading meal at Pasta Basta with two other runners, David Liberles and Suzanne Cunningham, who we had met at the race registration. Suzanne is a student at the university in Reykjavik, and has ridden her mountain bike all the way around the ring road encircling Iceland. She was very helpful as a source of information about Iceland and thus became our local tour guide of sorts.
On Friday night we took a bus ride for several hours into central highlands to Hrauneyjar where we stayed overnight. Most of the runners I spoke with got little or no sleep due to the pre-race excitement. I was no exception, but managed to sleep from about midnight to 4am somehow.
On Saturday morning, we took a bus to the starting line at Landmannalaugar, a remote camping and geothermal area in South Central Iceland.
Landmannalaugar, near the starting line
After the usual frantic pre-race preparations and a ten second countdown in Icelandic, the gun went off and 79 people began the trek.
Within the first mile of the course we began to realize several things about the race that we were not prepared for. First, the trail was a LOT steeper in many parts than we had envisioned. Second, there were a LOT more short steep hills along the trail than we had envisioned. Third, the course was as beautiful as we had hoped for. And fourth, did I mention the part about all of the steep hills?
The first leg of the course consisted of a 1200 ft. climb through geothermal areas, the scent of sulfur and brimstone all around us. Steam vents and bubbling pools of water lined the entire trail, and the landscape in this area is brilliantly colored. At the higher elevations, we ran into a long fog covered stretch of white snow fields surrounded by black volcanic soil. We made the first water stop at the Hrafntinnusker hut in around 1:35 even though it is only 6-7 miles from the start.
The second leg of the run consisted of many more short steep hills going up and down into ravines on the mountaintop. The ravines are carved by the many streams and glacial runoffs. In the bottom of these ravines was often a stream, in several cases covered by "snow bridges" (deep snow in the bottom of the ravine through which the streams had cut a path for themselves underneath). While crossing one such ravine, a large hole had opened up through the snow down to the river bed below! We couldnt see it until we were right on top of it and it would have been quite easy to fall into, yet somehow 79 people ran past this hidden trapdoor without mishap. After that we were a bit more cautious when crossing the snow bridges!
After a few miles of this ravine/cliff/snow/steep hill climbing we came to the most scenic location on the entire course the Jokultungur ridge overlooking the Alftavatn valley. The view from there is indescribably breathtaking, and I unfortunately do not have a photo of it, so you will just have to go there and see it for yourself! One reason the view is so spectacular, is because the trail drops nearly straight down at that point, perhaps 1000-1200 ft. The trail was so steep in some parts of this descent, and our quads so sore from all the steep downhill sections we had run up to that point, that we actually turned around and proceeded down the hill backwards on several occasions to negotiate the trail without falling or overworking our quads.
At the bottom of this escarpment, we were treated to a grassy plain and a short mile or two run to the second water stop at the Alftavatn hut. We spent far too much time at this stop, arriving there at about 3:10 and leaving about 30 minutes later. We changed our clothes, loaded up on fluids and carbs, and prepared our already fatigued bodies for the nontrivial 20 miles of unknown obstacles that still lay in front of us.
Drinking Gatorade at Alftavatn
(Click on the picture to view an enlargement.)
The third leg of the course contained a long flat stretch along a dirt road and we made good time on this leg, since this was what we had actually trained for. There were several stream crossings in this leg of the trip, and at one of these an attendant told us that the next water stop at Emstrur was only 4km away. After about 8km of running we STILL did not see the Emstrur hut and we conjectured that he was telling each runner a different distance based on how tired they looked. The last part of this leg consisted of running in some very soft silty black sand, which was not as easy to run on as the dirt road we were on in the first half of this leg.
Eventually, we arrived at the Emstrur hut, now feeling quite exhausted after 5 1/2 hours or so of running. Neither Mario nor I had run longer than about 4 ž hours in the past, so we were now pushing our bodies into uncharted territory with about ten miles to go. We spent perhaps 10-15 minutes at the Emstrur hut, and then continued on our way.
The last leg of the course brought back the steep hills we had encountered in the beginning of the course. At this point we were no longer surprised or shocked by anything, and the course could have had anything from stairs to rappelling over cliffs and we would have just shrugged it off as a typical Laugavegur encounter. Not to disappoint us, we soon encountered a steep hill/cliff leading down into a raging river gorge, complete with a knotted rope to hang onto while descending backwards down the slope.
After what seemed to be an infinite sequence of climbs and descents through beautiful scenery with glaciers in the distance, we came upon the final river crossing which was about knee deep. We just ran right across and instantly realized how frigid the glacial runoff waters are! My feet went numb instantly! But the finish line was not far away now and the realization that we were going to successfully complete the run was such a joy that I really couldnt care less about my wet numb feet at that point!
We entered the Ţórsmörk area (one of Icelands few wooded areas) and knew the finish was near!.
(Click on the picture to view an enlargement.)
We have only about 1 km to go in the above picture (which accounts for the smile!). The photographer caught me in the middle of taking off my jacket. The valleys and hills we have come from behind us give a good indication of the kind of terrain that was typical of most of the course.
The final hill up to the finish line consisted of... yes, you guessed it... climbing several flights of stairs! We crossed the finish in 8:07, tied for 53rd place out of 79 finishers. Gisli was there already and I shouted to him jokingly, "That course was EASY!".
Fortunately, everyone who started was able to finish. (You can view the entire results for the 1998 race.) Despite having run almost twice as long as we had ever done in training, we never hit the wall or got muscle cramps or pulls of a serious nature. I weighed myself both before and after the race and my weight had not changed at all (it actually went UP 0.4kg) so I think my over-cautious hydration at the stops (about 40 ounces per stop) and the cool temperature along the course helped to prevent this.
The Fjallamenn team came in 12th out of 18 teams, and our teammate Gisli did quite well finishing in 6:15 and 18th place overall. I kidded him after the race that he still had to run almost two more hours so he would have the same length of workout that we did.
The Fjallamenn: Ken Monks, Gisli Asgeirsson, Mario Matriccino
This picture was taken at the finish in Ţórsmörk after the race. You can see part of Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the distance over my right shoulder.
There was a nice barbecue of grilled lamb after the run. All of the runners we met along the course and before and after the race were very friendly, perhaps a universal trait among long distance runners that comes with a sport where conquering yourself is the real challenge.
The Laugavegur runners at the finish line (wheres Waldo?)
We spent the rest of our week in Iceland touring the major sites... the Blue Lagoon, Ţingvellir, Seljalandafoss, Skógafoss, Vík, Dryhóleay, Gullfoss, Geysír, and ate some puffin in Reykjavik. It is a beautiful, clean, friendly, and extremely modern and educated country and I hope to visit there again some day.
All in all, the Laugavegur was the most enjoyable running event of my life and I thoroughly enjoyed every agonizing minute of it. I am now hooked on trail running and am already thinking through all of the "beginners mistakes" I made and how I can improve in the future. We will probably look for trail ultras that are closer to home, since the Icelandic trip was fairly expensive, but I would not be surprised if I returned to Iceland ten years from now on my 50th birthday to see if I can break my 8:07 time at the Laugavegur!
At Ţingvellir after the race
(Click on the picture to view an enlargement.)
Other links: Some excellent photos of the entire 2004 Laugavegur
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