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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.
The race director of the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, Svava Ásgeirsdóttir, is a lanky, blond grandmother seemingly more inclined to do speed work on the track than bounce a baby on her knee. She sees the event not so much as a race among runners, but a competition against the elements. Even race volunteers from Iceland’s search and rescue team felt the challenge, as they stood in raging, icy rivers for hours to help weary runners make safe passage—although, much like their hearty forebears, they seemed to relish the day.
Though conditions during my race were chilly, summer temperatures in Iceland normally hover pleasantly in the 50s. And with only a few hours of dusk-like darkness, anytime is a good time to head out the door. Running options range from riverside paths in the capital city of Reykjavik to singletrack trails across glaciers. The latter is where, two-thirds of the way through the race, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was wet and cold, surrounded by mountains and had never felt more alive. I also realized I was going to finish a course that most people choose to do as a hike over several days. And finish it I did, even if just under the cut-off time.
Thankfully for modern visitors, early hardships of Iceland’s settlers led to an appreciation for relaxation, like bathing in hot springs and spas. And with more than 170 geothermal pools in the country, soak-ing counts as a national pastime.
If you only have time to visit one, don’t miss the Blue Lagoon. Sitting like a milky opal in the middle of a black lava field, the Blue Lagoon holds 1.6 million gallons of geothermal seawater brimming with beneficial minerals. I know from experience that soaking race-weary legs in the 98-degree water is the perfect cap to any Icelandic adventure.
TIME YOUR TRIP
Due to a favorable Gulf Stream flow, Iceland has more moderate weather than its name implies. Every season offers a particular allure…
More than 200 species of birds nest in Iceland and longer days bring the migratory species back to their nesting grounds, making for world-class birding.
Whale watching, whitewater rafting, scuba diving (really), the long days make it possible to fit in almost more fun than you can imagine!
With almost four times as many sheep as residents, Iceland has an annual sheep roundup that’s a big social event. Visitors are welcome to hop astride a horse and play cowboy to bring flocks down to lower elevations for winter.
Yes, it’s dark, but only until the Northern Lights fill the sky with a show so amazing, it is well worth the off-season visit.
Try one of these events to challenge yourself in Scandinavia’s paradise.
Midnight Sun Run
Set in Reykjavik, runners choose between a half marathon, 10K or 5K and make the most of the midnight sun.
Join an international field for a fast and relatively flat race in and around Reykjavik.
Laugavegur Ultra Marathon
Runners traverse 55K of rugged trail from Landmannalaugur to Thórsmörk.
For more information, visit marathon.is.
In Iceland, fresh fish, lamb, yogurt and vegetables are all easy to come by, but there are plenty of unique foods to sample for adventurous gourmands. Don’t be surprised to see puffin, horse and whale on a menu—island living makes for cre-ative eating. For a traditional taste, pair a shot of schnapps with a bite of hákari (fermented shark)! Sample it all at these local favorites…
This upscale, Reykjavik city center restaurant offers a new take on traditional ingredients in a comfortably funky atmosphere.
Fresh, organic food is highlighted in a predominately vegetarian menu with soups, salads, entrées, and raw and vegan offerings.
Whether you’re touring around the city during the day or heading home after a late night, the hearty hoagies from this downtown walk-up will hit the spot.
Iceland has a population of about 300,000 and is slightly smaller than Ohio.
The longest day of the year is in June with more than 21 hours of daylight.
The shortest day of the year is in December with just four hours of daylight.
Almost 100 percent of Iceland’s energy comes from geothermal and hydroelectric sources.
Most residents speak both Icelandic and English.
Takk means “thank you,” vikomen means “welcome” and skál means “cheers.”