In June 2018 I headed to Iceland with the hope of running across the country. Alongside three other people I was to fly to the east of the country and run around 500 miles to the west. Ultimately, due to a teammate falling ill, our trip was not completed. In the six days we were on the road we had some pretty huge experiences.
This is part one of the diarised story of our trip. But there is much more emotion beyond what we did achieve, so I have also written an article on dealing with the feelings on the aftermath of our trip. To read how I dealt with the failure of our challenge click here.
Setting Out – Fri 1st June
My alarm goes off at 1.30am. Time for a quick shower and a cuppa before putting on the clothes that I will be wearing for the next 18 days. Steph’s sister picks us up to take us to Luton where we will meet Sophie. Our last minute panicking has been done the night before. I’m tired and babbling nonsense stories at Steph all the way to the airport.
We meet Sophie at 4am and laughing and joking we start to pack our bags again. One bag is booked into the hold but are aware our hand luggage is well over weight and we’re worried about the huge amounts of freeze dried food getting through customs, so we pay a little extra and check two more in.
Having napped in various contorted positions throughout the flight we land in Reykjavik and hold our breath until we get through customs. Beaming at not having our vast quantities of food confiscated we re-pack once more before heading into town to kill a few hours and purchase Geysir, our team mascot.
The fourth member of our group, Ruben, arrives from Norway. Our bags weigh heavily on our backs as we walk 1.5 miles to the domestic airport to wait 5 hours for our flight across the country. We while away the hours with silliness and beer.
As we fly from west to east we all gaze intently out of the windows, trying to spot the paths we might be running over the next 2.5 weeks and gawping at the stunning scenery and huge glaciers.
Finally arrive in Egilsstaðir at 8pm Iceland time and walk from the airport into town to buy cooking gas before heading to a campsite and our last night in civilisation. We are happy and hopeful. Our little tent is up and we have been awake for 22 hours. It’s time for bed. Tomorrow we get a bus towards our start point.
The Run, Day 1 – Sat 2nd June
We wake at the campsite to unexpected blazing sunshine. Having slept well I enjoy the luxury of a final shower and my first lumpy tea of the trip – dried milk doesn’t often mix well!
Yesterday we chose to revise our start point to save us a long day of travelling. We were going to hike out to Gerpir but now we will start at Eskifjörður. The bus ride out there takes us along the same winding and hilly road that we will run back along later that day.
Departing the bus our bags are hauled onto our backs and I worry about the weight. Mine is coming in at well over 20kgs now I have water and camping gas on board and my teammates are in the same boat. After a group photo by the sea we are waved off by a friendly seal before heading straight uphill out of town.
We pass through Reyðarfjörður and stop for lunch by a small river before starting a gruelling 6km of uphill. As we near the top we begin to be surrounded by snow and waterfalls. We have seen no one for miles but rounding a corner we meet 6 Icelandic men, standing by their snowmobiles drinking beer. Stopping for a chat they pore over our map in astonishment before giving us some tips on the terrain.
After this we start to cross snow. Steph is suffering with her leg and I can feel blisters forming on my toes. We have covered 22 miles and due to our changed start point we are into the miles for day 2. After some debate on our camping spot – too rocky, too damp, too far from the river etc – we set up our tents for the night.
My cup of tea tastes amazing, despite the lumps. I am waiting for the sun to set but it never will; daylight is 24 hours in Iceland at this time of year. We are all tired but still smiling and laughing as we settle for the night to the roar of the river nearby.
The Run, Day 2 – Sun 3rd June
The sun streams into the tent again. Breakfast is oats mixed with chocolate milkshake powder and another lumpy tea. The start of our day is beautiful as we leave the mountain of yesterday behind. We are happy and optimistic but know we have a tough day of climbing ahead.
As we start to climb a local farmer greets us and asks where we are going. We receive the usual bewildered stare at our reply.
Our first climb is brutal and unrelenting, draining our enthusiasm and stringing us out. Just after I spot a wild reindeer I catch up with Sophie and Ruben at our first river crossing. The river is running fast and on a steep hill. It is not going to be easy to cross. A couple of steps in gives us a taste of its power and icy cold temperature. As Steph joins us we begin to assess options.
Ruben disappears uphill in search of an easier crossing point. The river is narrow and one part has a small island in the middle. We know this means the water will be running harder either side of the island but it does mean we can do the crossing in two smaller parts. Sophie takes off her pack and makes it to the island, Steph joins her with the rope and then it’s my turn. I am crossing for less than 30 seconds but the pain of the cold water causes me to roar profanities.
Part two of the crossing is going smoothly until it’s my turn. The water catches my walking pole and starts to spin me around. In order not to lose the pole or my balance I dramatically throw myself back onto the island. For a few seconds Sophie, Steph and I stare blankly at each other from different sides of the river, then they admire my self rescue. We laugh but there is nervousness in our laughter. There will be many more rivers to cross on this trip.
We reunite with Ruben, who admits that going off to cross alone was not a good plan. It has taken a big chunk of time to negotiate this obstacle and we’re aware this could make future days even longer.
A late lunch at 4pm, comes after 17 miles of walking and running. We perch beside a stream and refuel before our final push of the day. It’s also time for a quick repair job…earlier in the day Steph’s tin mug had become detached from its handle; dramatically throwing itself in front of an oncoming car. I knew there was a good reason I packed cable ties! In no time mug and handle are reunited.
Crossing Lagarfljót lake by bridge, we walk past the impressive Hengifoss waterfall before starting up the brutal switch back of road 910. What a finish to a long day! I look up at the zig zagging road ahead of us, clutch my walking poles and plug in my head phones. This is definitely going to be a ‘grit your teeth and keep going’ kind of climb.
In the final 3.5 miles of the day we climb almost 1500ft. Ruben seems as if he could go on forever but the rest of us decide enough is enough. We are near to a river and find dry ground. Having been on our feet for twelve hours, covered over 25 miles and climbed 4500ft we decide to make camp for the night. My feet are damp and blistered. I scarf down my dehydrated food dinner and crawl into the tent to sleep.
The Run, Day 3 – Mon 4th June
Don’t tell anyone but I’m quite enjoying camping. I normally hate camping but it hasn’t rained yet and I don’t have to use cold campsite showers because there aren’t any! We do have to have a cold wash in the river, just to try to keep our smell levels down.
We breakfast and break camp down before hauling our packs onto our backs. My back is starting to suffer. As soon as the weight lands the muscles between my shoulder blades go into spasm. I alternate between using my poles for traction and looping my hands underneath the bottom of the pack to life some weight from my shoulders. Despite waking up feeling good I just cannot get comfortable this morning and feel slow.
Our route takes a smaller path today. The way is marked by stone cairns every 50 ft or so. Each cairn has a stone pointing out the direction the path goes in next. There are no other human footprints out here, just those of reindeer, arctic fox and geese. We cross multiple streams and rivers but despite some of them coming up to our thighs they are not fast flowing and give us no problems besides cold, wet feet.
As we stop for a drink and snack a gosling appears from nowhere. It runs flat out towards us, chirping desperately. Sophie and Steph have been joking about me being the oldest in the group and now I definitely turn into the adult, telling the others not to touch it, that we can’t keep it and to just walk away. The dismay on Sophie’s face in the video I took shows how well that went down.
My hard faced exterior is sorely tested when the tiny creature runs behind us as far as its little legs will carry it. We can only hope its parents come back before an arctic fox finds it. I want to pretend this didn’t play on my mind for the rest of the day but it did!
Mountains surround us and the scenery is stunning. I adjust my pack again and again. Each time I move it the pain shifts from one part of my back to the other. Surprised that we still have a phone signal in the wilderness I decide to call my parents as we walk. I pretend this is for their sake, to let them know I’m safe but really I want to hear their voices.
We stop for lunch beside a lovely river and replenish our water. It is only as we walk away we realise we were only meters from where the river tumbled down into a beautiful waterfall. Today we are taking it in turns to suffer and I have a really low moment now. I confide to Steph that I’m worried I won’t make it, that I am just not strong enough to face another two weeks of this. Steph now has to go from needing support herself to supporting me.
A minute later my phone buzzes. A message from my friend Jenny; ‘Just thought I’d send you a little love as I imagine everything is starting to hurt today’. A tear comes to my eye but I instantly feel better. Sometimes you just need to know people are thinking of you. Finally my back eases and I perk up and feel better.
The final 9 miles of our day are on a quiet road, running alongside the impressive Jökulsá á Brú river. We pass through a couple of small hamlets but there is no-one about. Steph and I stick together alternating between walking and running. One of us breaks into a jog, the other follows, we look for a marker ahead ‘we’ll run until the second post’.
We finally make camp after 27.5 miles. I want to just eat but need to clean my wrinkled and blistered feet in the river and wash some clothes. The sun has glared down on us all day but now disappears behind a cloud. We are too cold for the full body washes in the river we had promised ourselves earlier. We are all feeling a little broken tonight.