Laugavegur Ultra Marathon


July 14, 2012

at the finish line

There’s an old saying that goes, It’s not a real Icelandic trail race until someone falls into the freezing glacial river.

I guess someone had to oblige.

I guess that someone had to be me.

towards the end of the course

~                      ~                       ~

Motivation, aka The guy who tricked me into this.  I heard about the Laugavegurinn Marathon from Magnús Gottfreðsson, an infectious disease doc from Reykjavik who was a guest researcher at Fogarty.  One of the real perks of working at Fogarty is that there is a continual stream of international researchers who visit us for 1-6 month periods to study their influenza data and liven up the workplace (many of you recall our illustrious Italian visitors, Alice and Isabella).  These visits often generate long-term collaborations, friendships, and excellent reasons to visit our friends in their home countries.  Back in 2011, Magnus’s detailed descriptions of an other-worldly volcanic trail race in Iceland that would blow your socks off, along with the photos from the race website, had greatly intrigued me.  But with work trips planned to China and Nepal already planned for July-August, the summer of 2011 had already saturated its adventure quota.  But with only one major foreign adventure on the books for summer 2012 (Machu Picchu in June), Aaron and I jumped the gun in January to sign up before the race filled (typically in less than a day).  Back then things were looking good for our running: I had nearly kicked my plantar fasciitus and was getting healthy again, Aaron had finished Hellgate (not in his top form, but compared to the Hellgate monster, 55k seemed like it would be an easy pee).  The Americanos were ready to take Iceland by storm.

Doubtsaka Several friends thought they’d never see me again.  But nearly as soon as we signed up, I was quickly brought back to earth.  First, I had my little pukefest at Holiday Lake, introducing the prospect of flying across the Atlantic only to be too busy barfing and sick to enjoy any of Iceland’s spectacular volcanic landscape.  And instead of spending the spring season building mileage and experimenting with stomach solutions, I hurt my IT band at the over-heated Boston Marathon, reducing spring training to skipping and doing pilates (between mid-April and race day in mid-July, the longest run I got in was 15 miles, to Meadowbrook Stables and back).  But when I started to be able to run a little again, Aaron and I bought our flights to Reykjavik and emailed Magnus that the Americanos were a-comin’.

Intro to Iceland, aka Now I get Sigur Ros.  Although Magnus himself was injured and decided not to run Laugavegurinn this year, he and his family were very gracious hosts when we arrived in Reykjavik, welcoming us with a feast of Icelandic salmon.  He also provided a critical pre-race briefing that emphasized (a) not taking the opening 10k climb too fast, (b) not falling down on the subsequent steep downhill, (c) bringing an extra pair of shoes in the dropbag for after the glacial river, and (d) don’t expect much from the aid stations.  I was heartbroken about his description of the aid station fare: only water, poweraid, and bananas.

Magnus also took us around for a day tour of some of the sites around Reykjavik.

our fearless leader Magnus

thanks for the foil

One of Magnus’s great contributions was also providing us with some tin foil and tape so that we could cover the skylight window in our hotel room so that we had a prayer of sleeping through some of the night’s never-setting sunlight.  Aaron and I are still debating which hotel room was worse: our room in Reykjavik or our disaster room at America’s Best Value Inn that we stayed at for Fire on the Mountain.  We booked at this particular hotel in Reykjavik because it was the only one we could find where we didn’t feel like we were hemorrhaging money like a Zaire Ebola outbreak.  The room cost about the same as our hotel room in Lima, only this room was smaller than that room’s antechamber, with only about 6 sq ft where we could actually stand upright. Given that Iceland never actually experiences darkness during July (the sun officially sets for a few hours, but continues to reflect off the sky), we quickly asked hotel staff where the blind was to cover the large skylight window that seemed t0 angle streams of sunlight directly onto our pillows, to which the helpful reply was, ‘Don’t you sleep with your eyes closed?’

Start of the race


Race Morning, aka Gee, it’s way easier to get up at 3:45am when there’s bright sunlight.  It was a 3-hour bus ride from Reykjavik to the race start at Landmannalaugar (don’t even try to get me to pronounce that).  To get there our bus had to ford a glacier river, a harbinger of what was to come.  Along the way we met Aaron’s friend Mitch, who has a connection to Aaron’s friend Kiwi Kris.  (Maybe in 2013 Aaron, Mitch, and I will run the Keppler Challenge in New Zealand.)

Game on!  The race started immediately up a steep slope, with no chance to spread out runners beforehand.  Aaron and I just relaxed and went with the (very slow) flow.  Neither of us were in any kind of fitness shape to be taking the race seriously from a racing perspective.  Which ended up being an excellent thing, as we were able to amble along, appreciating the vistas and enjoying ourselves, Aaron snapping pictures along our other-worldly journey.  Iceland seriously feels like the moon.  So much so that the US Apollo astronauts came to Iceland in 1965 and 1967 before launching to the moon to practice collecting and examining geological samples.  I would use all kinds of fancy adjectives to describe how awesome the Iceland mountain scenes are, but it makes me blush when I try to use big words so you’ll just have to rely on the pictures, which despite Aaron’s amazing mid-race photography skills still don’t quite do it justice.


Crossing the glaciers.


Running through the first glacier was fun, slip-sliding around in the snow.  But by the fourth or fifth glacier I was starting to curse them aloud.  I tried to blame my slipping on my tractionless Nike Pegasus, but that’s not entirely fair.  I think I hated the glaciers the most because there was one dude who always used his hiking poles to pass us on the glacier but then who would nearly poke my belly out with his flailing pole as I tried to pass him back on the narrow trail.  In fact, the greatest disappointment of the otherwise spectacular race was that the fellow European trail runners were decidedly unfriendly, in stark contrast to the great camaraderie Americans have out on the trail.  Aside from a couple obvious asswipes [the guy who nearly poked me in the gut with his pole, a guy who cut off a large portion of the course, and another guy who rammed into my left shoulder while I was carefully picking my way down a descent (it’s hard to get down a steep descent when your knee has swelled to the size of an egg because you fell on a rock in the glacial river — more on that fun event later)] I only could elicit even a marginally friendly acknowledgement of my existence from a tall Spaniard.  I found it so dispiriting that runners weren’t more friendly, that’s always been a big part of trail running for me.   But I’m told by a European friend not to take this personally, that this is the way Europeans are.  Fortunately the cheers from the bands of hikers we came across on the trail (Laugavegur is one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland) were terrifically uplifting.

the Icelandic ‘wasteland’


aaron’s awesome mid-race photography

But Aaron and I had a good time just running the two of us (we ran together the whole race, start to finish).  The course was actually more challenging than we thought it would be, with a lot of scree and tough footing.  One long section was kind of like the Bull Run Do-Loop, full of those dip-see-doodles, only (a) these rocks moved and (b) at the bottom of the dip-see-doodle was slick snow.

more aaron race photos

At around the mid-point of the race you had to cross a treacherous freezing cold, fast-running glacial river that they gave you these giant red waders to slip on to keep your shoes dry.

big f’in mistake

But the current was so strong, I had an impossible time walking in them and the river swept my feet out from under me and I went down hard.  Although the freezing water wasn’t necessarily pleasant, the big problem was that I smashed my left kneecap into a rock and it swelled hugely and made walking and running excruciatingly painful for the rest of the race (and to the current day).

moments before going down

But I figured out ways to hurt it less while I ran (in order to go downhill, I had to canter with my left foot leading, bracing with the right quad — I told Aaron he should have some coconuts running behind me so we could reenact King Arthur in Monte Python) and by the time I got to the last aid station at mile 25 I knew I would be able to finish.  [Brian Greeley would have wept at these spartan aid stations, with nothing more to eat than banana and powerade and water.  Don’t even think about golden oreos.  Lord, if they could see Quattro’s Americano buffet spread!]

last aid station

The volcanic ash towards the end was thick and soft and fun to run in.  Although I couldn’t run very well because of my knee, I had loads of energy at the end of the race, and Aaron obliged my picking it up a bit to pass a woman ahead (even if I’m not racing, it’s hard to resist a sitting duck).

lava dust

The warm soft blankets they gave us at the finish were WONDERFUL.

yay for finishing

The awards ceremony was entirely in Icelandic, so I never got my age group award (I was 5th woman).  The woman who won, Angela Mudge from Britain, obliterated the course record by 20 minutes and is one badass mountain runner, having won everything from the World Mountain Running Championship to the Everest Marathon to Pike’s Peak in Colorado.  You will be absolutely amazed to read Angela’s biography:  I’m tickled that such an amazing woman was kind enough to tell Aaron and me before the race while we were wallowing on the bus that we had to go and check in.

the winners







4 Responses to Aaron and Martha run an Unpronouncable Race in Iceland

  1. Tany says:

    I love the picture you and Aaron with blankets!!!!

  2. Wladimir says:

    Congratulations Martha and Aaron! beautiful pictures

  3. Katherine H. says:

    This was a hilarious posting. Was in Iceland last summer. Your photos and description captured its mysteriousness perfectly! Good job you two! Way to represent!

  4. […] in Iceland for the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, Martha and I came across the storefront for the Handknitting Association of Iceland. I took the […]

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