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 two of the diarised story of our trip, for part one click here. 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.
The Run, Day 4 – Tue 5th June
I wake up in pain. Everything seems to hurt. I make a list; thighs, calves, feet, neck (soreness and sunburn), back, lips (more sunburn), stomach (hunger). Hunger is easily dealt with via porridge and lumpy tea. This and a good wash in the river makes me feel a little more human. We are learning to avert our eyes from each others morning routines.
I hang my still damp socks from my pack and we set off. The surroundings are truly epic. I feel stronger now as we climb and climb (and climb) before descending into the lava desert. From now on our trail is tyre marks in never ending black sand. I am running a lot more today and get into a good rhythm using my poles to take some of the weight. The animal tracks of yesterday have disappeared now. There is nothing for them to eat in this barren moonscape. I raise my eyebrows at the sight of a large snowfield ahead. Then nod in amusement as it disappears on my approach. It was a mirage.
We re-group at a crossroads – this is basically a road sign in the middle of the sand – and agree to push on a little until we reach a river at 16-17 miles. Ruben and I feel strong and push on. My Garmin shows me where the next river should be but there is nothing there but sand.
It is 18.3 miles before we get to water. All of us are quiet as we eat lunch. At one point I stand to move away for a pee. We have all removed our shoes to allow our feet to dry having walked through the river. The others aren’t looking as I hit my foot on a rock and am sent tumbling to the ground by the pain. My little toe has gradually turning into what I call a blister hood today. All of the skin on the toe has lifted into a hood and hitting it against a rock in incredibly painful. I am grateful no-one saw me tumble but this knock is to have consequences.
It must be unlucky five minutes for me. As I crouch down to pee a jeep appears from nowhere. We haven’t seen anyone for hours. This time everyone laughs at me and I laugh along. We don’t see another vehicle all day.
After lunch I start to struggle again. My feet are becoming incredibly painful and the sun seems at its highest in the late afternoon. It blazes down on us now. Sophie is struggling also. She is getting stomach pains and they seem to be getting worse.
On the upside I learn a new skill! I hate taking my pack off. It’s still so heavy that I really struggle to get it back on each time. This is a pain when you need a pee. There is little cover to pee privately in the desert and to be honest we’ve given up trying to be subtle. I now discover that, with the help of a walking pole, I can keep my pack on and stay standing. Probably not a skill many people would boast of and maybe not one to use back in England but I’m pretty happy with anything that makes life easier!
The next river is at 27 miles. This one is a roaring beast with a bridge leading towards a majestic flat topped peak in the distance. The water is cloudy with grit and minerals but beggars can’t be choosers and we need to replenish here. Large, flat slabs of volcanic rock sit amongst the sand and we choose this as our campsite for the night.
Each day so far has been twelve hours of walking and running. Despite the impressive miles we are covering and the fact we are pushing hard, we are slipping slightly behind schedule. I have chatted with Ruben about this during the afternoon and we agreed that adjustments may need to be made. We are prepared to go through tough times but we still need to get enjoyment from this trip.
I tentatively mention to the others that we could change our route to finish when we hit the west coast, instead of carrying on until Iceland’s furthest point. We didn’t start at the easternmost point and it will still be a coast to coast. I’m glad to see the relief on my fellow runners faces. Even with the revised route we will need to cover 25 miles a day but it will make all our lives better.
We all take some time by the river this evening, admiring our surroundings and reflecting on progress. We may be in pain but laughter still comes easily as we cook, eat our gritty food and head to bed.
The Run, Day 5 – Wed 6th June
This is getting silly now – once more our day starts with clear blue skies and sunshine. If we were on holiday this would be perfect but we really need shade.
I inspect my feet. My little toe is swollen and purple. I have other blisters but this one is something else. It is weeping slightly but I think it’s just fluid from the layers of blister. We are concerned however that it may get infected. With all the river crossings there is no way of keeping it clean and dry all day.
The team gather around my foot for a full inspection and it’s decided that we consult others. We still have a weak internet signal, very surprising when we are so far from civilisation. Working for a sporting national governing body has a big advantage here. A picture of my toe is sent to one of the coaches at our work, he forwards it to the team doctor, I also send it to a friend. Advice comes back quickly. Sophie points out that in the end decision is mine alone. I want to carry on.
In my medical kit is some iodine spray, I give the toe a liberal squirt, dress the blister on my heel and get walking. Or maybe I should call it shuffling. The toe and heel are giving me a lot of pain and I lean heavily on my poles.
Before we came to Iceland I went to the doctor and he prescribed me some Zapain (a paracetamol/codeine mix painkiller). Can we take a minute here to admire the naming of this drug?! I can just imagine the conversation in the lab now; ‘Hey, I’ve got this painkiller and I need to name it. Any ideas?’ ‘What does it do?’ ‘It zaps pain’ ‘Zapain?’ ‘Boom, you’ve cracked it!’
These beasties are pretty strong and I have been holding off using them but now I give in. Ten minutes later I am skipping merrily along proclaiming ‘I love painkillers!’
We reach our first water source for the day, the river Kreppa, but there is a slight problem…a steep drop down a sandbank. It would be a risk to reach it and as with the river from the night before, it’s filled with black sand water. We are not in need of water at the moment so decide to press on.
Each time I stop and start the pain in my feet comes back. I have to shuffle for a few minutes before my pain receptors accept that I’m not going to listen to them. The workings of the human body and mind are pretty amazing. Our nerves send pain signals to tell us there is an issue and we should stop what we are doing. But, if we don’t stop our body accepts that the pain is no longer useful, the mind overcomes it (to an extent), allowing us to carry on.
I am not the only one who is slow today. Sophie seemed brighter this morning but as we travel through the desert her stomach continues to get worse. Steph mentions to me that we may have to stop and make camp if she continues to deteriorate.
Coming across an unexpected lake we decide to stop for lunch. As we settle on the black sand beach of the lake Sophie pulls her coat over her head and goes to sleep. We all know Sophie is a pretty tough cookie and we know it’s not good to see her like this.
Another pain killer and I am ready to go again. I am starting to believe that this run might be possible after all. If I can just nurture my feet for a few days they will hopefully settle down. I am hungry all the time, save for ten minutes after each meal and carefully rationing my treats. I have around 2200 calories a day to eat and we are burning over twice that. My body seems to be adapting well though.
After 15.5 miles we reach the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. This is the second longest river in Iceland and another powerful beast containing roaring, glacial melt water. We have been warned against drinking the water from glacial melt rivers as the minerals can cause stomach upsets but for the last two days we have had no choice.
Consulting the map we can see this is possibly the last water source until tomorrow lunchtime. We have no choice but to collect as much of this gritty water as we can carry. I have a 1 litre water bladder inside my pack and an additional 3 litre one attached to the outside. I fill them both and haul my pack on.
My pack had been feeling marginally lighter due to the food consumed over the last five days. Now I have loaded an extra 4 kg to it and my back and feet protest strongly. The water also takes up the sleeping bag space so i have to carry it, meaning I can only use one pole. Ruben offers to carry the bag and I stubbornly say I am fine. Eventually he just takes it from me. I am relieved.
Sophie’s condition has deteriorated. She has to make a big decision. We are heading to a crossroads in the desert. We are due to turn left, further into the highlands. If we turn right we will have a three day hike out to civilisation. If we turn left each step will take her further from help. When Sophie ran across Scandinavia in 2016 she ended up very ill in hospital with a ruptured stomach ulcer. We could not take risks here.
The tracks we are following are designated as roads but vehicles are only allowed along them at certain times of the year. These ‘roads’ are not due to open for another ten days. There will be no vehicles along here.
We were going to keep going until the crossroads but the wind has picked up, Sophie is struggling and life is uncomfortable. For the first time we make camp with no water nearby. We try to use the few rocks as shelter for our tents as we make camp on the black sand. That evening, for the first time, all four of us huddle in the porch of the tent Sophie, Steph and I share (Ruben has a seperate tent). As we shelter from the wind, using solar panels to protect our cooking stoves from blowing out, we chat through options.
As there are three of us sharing a tent it would be very tricky to split the group. Sophie suggests her going alone and the three of us carrying on. There is no way we would allow her to hike out alone.
The run is over.
Getting Out, Day 6 – Thur 7th June
I hardly need to tell you that we woke to sunshine. As we eat breakfast Ruben tells us that he is going to pack up and get moving. He has had an upset stomach in the night and is low on water. I offer him some of mine but he says he will be fine. He is only carrying a 0.5 l bottle and wants to hurry to the next water source.
We are going to aim for a mountain hut tonight. It may well not be open but it is beside a river. When we get there we can decide whether to walk further today. Ruben tells us he will wait there for us.
I leave pulling on my trainers until the last possible moment. When we are resting I wear a pair of Sealskinz socks I bought with me. They have been a godsend on this trip. Too thick to be worn with my trainers they have proved their worth in other ways. Sealskinz are waterproof so they have been perfect for strolling around in at lunchtime and evenings. During the day they have been stuffed under the straps of my backpack, giving my shoulders extra padding and much needed relief.
The first few minutes of walking are painful again. My blisters are simply not getting a chance to heal. When I get going and the painkillers kick in I feel as though I could walk forever again.
It is around 3 miles to the crossroads and another 13 to the mountain hut. As we reach the crossroads Sophie says ‘this is it’. This is the moment we turn right and leave our planned route. It is not easy for any of us.
We move on, the scenery never changes. We have all come to despise one sand mountain which has been in our eyeline, from various different sides, for the last two days. We joke that it will haunt our dreams for many years to come.
To pass the time Sophie starts us on her alphabet game. We have played this most mornings. She suggests a topic e.g. bands, puddings etc. We work our way through the alphabet, each coming up with an answer for each letter. The puddings one makes us all hungry.
Black sand is all around us and in everything we eat and drink. We pour it out of our shoes. At one point I use the mixture of sweat and sand on my face as an exfoliating scrub.
Steph is struggling with the lack of shade again and walks with a towel draped over her head. Sophie has peaks and troughs. As the water goes down my backpack finally feels a more manageable weight and my back hurts less. That could be due to the painkillers but I can also feel new muscles developing in my shoulders.
The sun is so high in the sky that even the few rocks dotted about cast no shadow. We stop for lunch and Steph tries to protect Sophie from the sun with a ‘tarp’ constructed from walking poles and a sleeping bag liner. She proclaims this a great success. I’m not so sure.
As we pack up our gritty lunch kit I hear a noise. In the desert we have all hallucinated noises. At one point I heard something drop from my pack into the sand. I looked and looked but there was nothing there. This time however the noise is real. ‘A vehicle’ I shout. We all gawp as the jeep flies towards us, kicking up dust in its wake. We’re so shocked that we almost let it go by but Sophie raises her hand at the last minute.
It is the people who look after the mountain huts. They are out to do a recce of the huts and roads. ‘No’, they tell us, ‘we don’t come out every day. Probably not for another week or two after today’. Sophie tells them she needs a doctor and they willingly agree to collect us on their way back in an hour or so. But they have a question for us ‘How did you get here?’. We tell them we have come from Eskifjörður. ‘But how did you get here?!’ They are baffled. We have come 130 miles in six days.
We tell them we have a fourth member of the party waiting at a hut back the way they came. They have seen Ruben and even spoken to him but he didn’t mention us. Instead of sitting under Steph’s excellent tarp and waiting we decide to carry on walking until the guys come back for us. I have run out of water now and am keen to find a river.
An hour and a half later we reach said river and are just restocking on water when our rescuers come back. There is such relief in our faces as we sit in the back of the pickup. But there are certainly mixed feelings inside.
We collect Ruben from the hut. He has had a bad day. Dehydrated and suffering he can’t believe he didn’t ask our rescuers for help when he saw them. Since then he has had a chance to drink and swim in a mountain stream and is feeling revived. As the four of bounce along, jammed against each other in the vehicle he suddenly says ‘Stephanie, can you smell the chocolate in my pants?’ and is met by roars of laughter!
An innocent question to Ruben, due to having got melted chocolate down his running trousers, sounds very different to us. Especially as he had an upset stomach this morning. Perhaps we are all a little delirious!
During the journey out to the ring road it becomes apparent just how tough hiking out would have been. We would have had at least one day without any water source.
Our saviour’s stop a couple of times to show us the sights, including an area where Tom Cruise filmed one of his movies. These guys really are lovely people. They are concerned about having too many passengers when they reach the main ring road but decide they can’t abandon us. Instead they drop Steph, Ruben and I at a campsite in Mývatn, taking Sophie on to the next big town, Akureyri, where she can see a doctor.
At the site we can finally relax. In Iceland you can only buy alcohol over 2.5% in the town liquor store or a bar but the campsite is selling 2.5% beer. Ruben, Steph and I collapse onto the grass with a cold can each. We still can’t believe our luck at the rescue but I am feeling terribly sad that we will not be running tomorrow.
There is no denying that our first shower in six days is a much wanted and needed one. This trip has taught me many things but something I have really enjoyed is my lack of reliance on makeup and other beauty products. In the desert there was no judgement and no mirrors!
As we head to our tent for the night I start to think that I should have gone on. That somehow I didn’t fight hard enough to keep going. Now we are out it would be a three day walk/run back in and we would be days behind schedule. It is going to take some time to process this.
Akureyri and beyond
The next morning Ruben, Steph and I get a bus to meet back up with Sophie in Akureyri. She has an appointment to see a doctor in the afternoon. He doesn’t examine her much but prescribes antibiotics for a suspected water infection. She will need to get checked out more thoroughly when she gets back to England.
We spend a night in Akureyri, where I get engaged again. This time to a rather exuberant Icelandic guy. I’m not sure either of my engagements are going to work out but it’s good to have choices. That evening I also discover I have arm muscles! Six days of hauling the pack, assisted by poles has made my arms more toned than ever before.
The decision is made to hire a car and spend a few days driving around Iceland before heading back to Reykjavik. But before we leave Akureyri we need clothes! We only have the ones we had been running in and quite frankly they smell! Anyone who knows me knows I love a good charity shop bargain and now we head to the local Red Cross shop to get outfitted for the next few days. I also purchase flip flops; a blessed relief for my poor battered feet!
Over the next few days we have a great time on our road trip of Iceland. Plans are made and changed as we go and we see some wonderful sights. I am aware that my heart is not really in it though and I am not always easy to be around. Mentally I am struggling with the loss of the trip we had planned and trained for over six months. I also struggle to be around people all the time. Back at home I love to be sociable but also happily spend a lot of time on my own (except for Brew Dog).
Sophie and Steph are very close friends and sometimes I feel like an outsider as I retreat into my own thought process. I know it is important that I keep running. It always helps my mental wellbeing.
I have rebooked my flight to come home nine days early and Steph will be flying back two days later. Steph and I discuss going back to work. We work together and our colleagues were incredibly supportive before our trip, giving us a great send off. We joke about being shunned for our failure and our embarrassment at walking back into the office a week early but there is real emotion behind our jokes.
On my last night we go for a meal at a lovely Vietnamese restaurant in Reykjavik before meeting up with the lovely Mel Moore, an ex-pat and travel writer who contacted us through the Facebook Adventure Queen’s community to offer us support whilst in Iceland. I swear I’m going to bed early but Mel is great company and it’s well after midnight when I roll into bed.
My alarm goes off at 5 am. It’s time to start the long journey home. I whisper good-byes to Steph and Sophie before heading to the airport. There I say good-bye to Ruben too before heading off to spend my last few Icelandic krona on a strong coffee.
Time to go home.
But what next?
When we were unable to complete the run the messages of support were wonderful. The one thing we all found hard was when people said ‘you can always go back and try again’. At that point we really couldn’t think about going back. The six days had been fantastic in many ways but also so tough. We were all brought close to breaking point. Even my trainers had had enough and were falling apart!
Back in the UK I was greeted by my parents and a very happy Brew Dog. I didn’t know what to do but keep running. Sometimes we try too hard to come to terms with things, when really we need to just give them time. I knew I was disappointed in our failure and decided to give my mind a chance to process. At that point I wrote my article Turning Failure Into A Win.
There is great power in letting go. Holding negativity inside you never allows you to move forward. I wish we had completed Iceland but I am ok that we didn’t. Maybe one day I will go back, this time with a support vehicle and try again.
In the meantime new challenges are on the horizon. I am waiting for my map of Luxembourg to arrive. Perhaps I can run across a country this year after all!
Never Miss An Adventure!