Navigating down a slushy glacier and around roiling mud pits didn’t exactly make for a typical run in the middle of July. But adding in some sideways snow and pelting rain, really put it over the top. At 55 kilometers (about 34 miles), the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon was my first official ultra (race longer than a marathon), and the interior highlands of Iceland served up an eye-candy buffet of mineral-streaked rock, verdant meadows, icy rivers and sandy banks. The one thing the route didn’t have was trees, so, when the weather cooperated, I was able to get some sense of how far I had to go. It was during one such clearing, about 18K from the finish, that I was overtaken with a sense of joy.
With lava and ice, endless days and long, dark winter nights, intimidating rock landscapes and blankets of blue lupine, Iceland is a bastion of natural extremes. A sun-soaked summer run can turn freezing in less time than it takes to say, “Skál!” (“Cheers!”)—yet this emerald of an island, hovering just at the Arctic Circle, is inhabited by Viking descendants who have rarely met a challenge they didn’t like. In fact, the pervasive attitude of locals is can-do.
Historically speaking, outdoor sports have been interwoven into Iceland’s culture by necessity. The ruggedness of early life (think small villages separated by hoary landscapes and limited roads) meant mountaineering, hiking and horseback riding were all part of island life. As the culture shifted, physical challenges replaced survival, and running is one such pathway to adventure.