It’s the middle of July 2010. I’m driving into the middle of the Icelandic highlands at 6:30 in the morning. After months of hard work and training it has finally come to this, my first ultra-marathon. It’s the Laugavegur Ultra-marathon, a 55 Km trail run between Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork.
I decided to sleep in my own bed instead of lying on a hard and lumpy ground in a tent at Landmannalaugar. That’s why I find myself at such an ungodly hour, sitting in a car with my father and brother. I’m insanely lucky to have them, not only did they agree to wake up and drive into to the middle of nowhere but they will also be driving down to Thorsmork to pick me up. As if that is not enough they will also be giving me moral support and energy drink at the middle of the race.
The drive to Landmannalaugar was long and made surreal by lack of sleep and anxious anticipation. All of a sudden we see an arctic fox trotting on the middle of the dirt road. It didn’t notice us at first but as we got closer it looked back and quickly jetted of the road and into the wilderness. This was the first and only time I saw an arctic fox in the wild, or I think so, I might have been dreaming.
We arrived at Landmannalaugar with an hour to spare which I used to prepare both myself and my gear. I filled my bottles with an energy drink, laced up my shoes and put on a pair of gaiters to help with the rocks, sand and ash which would be plenty of after the eruption that spring. I decided to take all the energy gel I had with me, a decision which I would both come to regret and welcome.
It was a bit chilly there, especially as I was just standing around waiting. I had originally intended to run in my ColdGear mock turtleneck under the official race shirt but as I was shivering I decided to put on a light anorak as well. That was most likely a huge mistake. Last but not least I put on my shades and I was finally ready, well as ready as I was ever going to be.
The race finally started. The first 10 Ks are rather steep and there is a long way to go so I just relaxed and was careful not to go out to fast. That gave me the chance to chat to other runners which was fun.
Although the air temperature was low the sun was high up and shone extremely brightly. Because of that I soon began to regret my decision to put on that anorak. Also the pouch with all the energy gels was too heavy and bounced around, to keep that to a minimum I started holding on to the pouch with my left arm. Only a couple of kilometers into the race I was having serious problems because of bad decision making.
All that heat was causing me to sweat a lot, I perspire more than most and I had prepared for that by being well hydrated and stocking enough water but this was a lot, even for me. My shades began to fog up. I tried to move them around to increase the airflow around them; I even took them of and kept them in me right hand. I was holding the pouch against my waist with my left hand and my shades in my right hand; trying to run at the same time was very awkward.
I was fiddling about with my glasses when I suddenly kicked a large rock causing shots of pain to shout up from my big toe. I struggled to keep my balance and kept on running. I remember thinking “just run it off, it’ll be fine.” I made fists with my toes and thought “At least I can make fists with my toes; that means it’s not broken… right?”
I kept on knowing I had about 50 Ks left. It was sore at the moment but I didn’t feel excruciating pain as I did at first. It will blow off; I will forget this after a few miles. Unfortunately I was right about that.
The first part of the race is in a relatively high altitude and at that point there was still some snow and ice we had to run through. At times there was melt water mixed with all the snow and ice we were slushing through which had good effect on my toe. That also reaffirmed that my choice of shoes was a great one albeit at bit unorthodox, at least at the time. I had opted for the NB MT 100 which were extremely comfortable and newer really got heavy, even drenched they were light as a feather.
About eight kilometers in the race I started to feel my thighs, they started to cramp up and soon enough they were cramping so badly I had to stop running. I had never really had problems with cramping before but I knew what they are and the most common remedies. I started walking briskly, I could not let something like this stop me completely, I had simply come too far. I hadn’t even reached the first checkpoint and already I was in serious trouble.
I drank some energy drink and had some gel. I had been moving a little over an hour and had been drinking and eating gel at a steady rate so all things being equal I should not have been having this problem.
I kept moving and soon enough the cramps subdued and I could start running again until I finally reached the first checkpoint at Hrafntinnusker. I attacked the water station gulping at least two glasses of water and two glasses of Powerade with two or three pieces of banana. My thighs still felt a bit sore but I decided to keep on going, I would at least reach the next checkpoint where my father and brother would be waiting for me. I filled the empty water bottles with Powerade and started running.
I hadn’t run very far when the cramps started again. I continued with the walk run method and tried to drink as much as I could and had some gel. At that point in the race there were a lot of ups and downs when you cross small canyons which have been carved in the ground by melt water. Some still had small streams in them, other were completely dry. That was slowing me down even further.
That twelve kilometer stretch from Hraftinnusker to Álftavatn was extremely painful and difficult. The cramps kept on coming so I had to just run while I could and walk until the cramps subdued. I found out that Powerade did not work very well but the energy drink which I had brought worked like a charm. I could feel the cramps slowly fade away soon after taking a sip. But I had sparse supply of that drink left so I had to ration it. I had plenty of gel which came in handy and even though I had eaten a lot of them the pouch was still heavy and I still had to keep my left hand on it to keep it from bouncing around.
I also noticed that I did not perspire any longer except just after I had taken a sip to drink. That was a very weird feeling, as soon as I took a sip I could feel droplets starting to form on my forehead.
My thoughts were very strange during that part of the race, I kept on replaying a scene from the sitcom Scrubs again and again and again in my head. “Holy inferiority complex Batman; how low is my self-esteem that I’m the sidekick in my own fantasy!” “It could be worse Robin; you could be Alfred the butler.” “Damn you… sir.”
I’m also pretty sure I saw a mirage that looked like a runner, some distance up ahead of me, stop and walk a few meters away from the trail, squat down for a minute before standing back up and continue running. I cannot be completely sure if this is something I saw or imagined but soon thereafter I started to see the next checkpoint and that was no imagination.
It was nice to see my father and brother there waiting when I finally showed up. I told them about my troubles as we filled up all my water bottles. I believe the question if I was going to give up then and there came up at some point but I had spent too many hours training for this, I was not quitting.
I had done the 22 kilometers in just over three hours; the cut-off time was four (if it had taken me more than four hours to get there I would have been disqualified.) I had less than three hours to reach the next checkpoint some 16 kilometers away.
The next ten kilometers would more or less follow a highland road so I would meet up with my father and brother a couple of times along the way.
The short rest had done me good and soon after I started running again I finally began to think more clearly. The heat was killing me and I was still wearing that darn anorak, I don´t know why it took me so long to realize it but as soon as I took it off I started to feel a lot better. The fact that I had to cross the first real river at that time also helped, by cooling off my feet.
The next time I met my father, which was at a camping ground called Hvanngil, I threw him the anorak for safe keeping. By then I was gradually getting my strength back and the next eight or so kilometers were really enjoyable.
There is a river about midway through the race where you can get to your drop bag if you have one (this is a service provided by the race staff, you can give them a bag before the race and it will be waiting for you at the midway point.) I had no bag waiting for me so I simply crossed the river and kept on running.
At that point I was almost at full strength and was even starting to overtake other runners; which was a nice change from others overtaking me. I was so fast that my father almost missed me; they caught up with me just as the trail swerves off the road and onto the desert sands. After that I would not see them until at the finish line.
The next six kilometers or so were supposed to be over black dessert sand but after the eruption earlier that spring it was mostly very fine grained volcanic ash. The ash was very soft and difficult to run on but what was even worse was that it simply seeped through the upper mesh of the shoes I was wearing and even went through the socks. That was causing my feet to ache, like they were covered with finely grained sand paper, which was essentially the case since the ash soaked socks were acting like an abrasive.
All of a sudden a young girl came by my side; she looked like she was twelve, wearing cheap road shoes, khaki shorts, cotton tee-shirt and a running hat. I couldn’t believe she was even in the race, but she had to be, we were miles from any roads or civilization. I later found out that she was nineteen and was an experienced ultra-runner. For some reason we stuck together all the way to the next checkpoint without exchanging any words.
I finally reached the third checkpoint after being on the trail for about five and a half hours. The cramping had mostly disappeared but my thighs were still sore after hours of spasms, my feet on the other hand were killing me. As soon as I had checked in I found a place to sit and tore of my shoes and socks; you wouldn’t believe all the ash I poured from my shoes.
After shaking off most of the ash I had some banana to eat, drank as much as I could and filled up my empty bottles. Then I was off again.
At that point the trail snakes up and down small canyons many of which are very steep and all of which have extremely loose gravel. Using my thighs and heels to dig in wasn’t really working and I couldn’t help sliding in my shoes. Soon enough my toes were all mushed in the toebox.
That meant of course that I was again barely moving, or at least I felt like I was barely moving, and so the girl, who had spent a little longer time at the checkpoint, caught up with me. She would have passed me there and then but each and every time she tried she swerved of the trail. I don’t know why but she was having problems with seeing and following the tracks. I was fine with that since it meant that I would have some company for the first time since at the beginning of the race.
We talked as we ran for a while or until another woman joined our little group. She had no trouble following the trail so off they went, leaving me behind hobbling along.
I remember this last quarter of the race being by far the longest; it felt like it would never end. At one point I took a look at my GPS watch and saw that I had already run a marathon. “Only 10 kilometers left” I thought. But at that speed 10 Ks is a lot to cover.
Meter by meter, kilometer by kilometer I kept on going, running little faster than a brisk walk. The thing that I really hated was that I had tons of energy left and most of my body was ready and willing but my toes ached with each step. It all felt wet and mushy so I was certain that my toes would be covered with blood. On I went, step by painful step.
I finally reached the final aid station. “Almost there!” They said with a huge smile on their faces. “Only about five kilometers left!” There was only a small mountain to climb, a river to cross and finally a short run through the woods.
Well the mountain, which was more like a hill, was awful. With every step there was this shooting pain from my toes. Uphill was bad enough but downhill, downhill was the worst, I could barely walk, hell at that point I could barely stand. I finally hobbled all the way down to the river. It was a fairly big glacial river which the race staff had strung a rope across. I must admit that it felt unbelievably good to get into the water and chill my feet for a moment.
It was a brief relive since I had to start moving as soon as I was out of the water. By then there were more people on the trail, many waiting for their friends and others just photographing and cheering on the few that were still left to come. My feet still hurt like crazy and I could barely move; I must have looked like one of them power walkers.
The run through the woods wasn’t that long but it felt like it took ages. When I finally reached the finish line I was so happy, I wasn’t really all that tired but my feet were aching like crazy. I did it in eight hours; I had originally planned to be between six and seven hours but all things considered I’m really happy with the time. Actually I’m just really happy that I finished at all.
In the end I must have drunk eight or nine liters of fluids and had at least seventeen packets of energy gel.
As it turns out there was no blood but I had huge blisters under my toenails. I have never blamed my shoes exactly; I think it was more a combination of things. The shoes may have been a size too small, I was wearing thick socks and I was sliding a lot into the toebox. Although the toenails were floating on top of these huge blisters I did not lose them until months later.
The blisters healed quickly enough but I seem to have broken my big toe as I kicked into the rock in the beginning of the race, there was a crack in the joint cartilage to be exact. It has taken me years to get over it and today it doesn’t bother me much. Was it a bad idea to run 50 kilometers with a broken toe? Maybe, but at least I finished!