Laugavegur Ultra Marathon – Iceland – July 16 2016

Introduction
After being stopped short last year, there was never any doubt that I’d be back to try again.  In fact I had booked my plane ticket on August 19th, pretty much the day that Iceland Air announced non-stop service out of Montreal.

I had run it last year with my friend Rebecca, but this time around I’d be doing it on my own.

Race Day
Like last year, it all began at the skating rink, where I caught the 4:30am race bus to Landmannalaugar. It’s a scenic 200km trip skirting the south coast, before heading inland and onto the infamous F roads of the Highlands.

We stopped for breakfast about an hour away from the start line.
We stopped for breakfast about an hour away from the start line. Due to road conditions, only busses and 4×4’s are permitted.

At around 8:30, as the bus crept over the final river crossing, the doubts started to surface. “This was a really bad idea”. I then took a breath and changed it to “This is my last attempt, no matter the outcome”. So a little less negative.

It was surprisingly calm, and about 8 degrees. I had my red Nike top (just like last year ) but I had a t-shirt on underneath . And I’d not hesitate to take it off and squeeze it into the compartment on my vest (having tried that the night before ) .

There wasn’t a lot of time to get ready before I had to line up in my corral, and unfortunately I ended up at the back again .

At the back of the corral, feeling anxious.
At the back of the corral, feeling anxious.

It cost me about 5 minutes, but after the steep climb I eventually got cracking.

Not exactly a sprint start.
Not exactly a sprint start.

I admired the views immensely right from the start, however I had a schedule to keep: get to the 38km checkpoint in under 6 hours . My new Garmin would be there to remind me.   I also had my Timex watch timing as well (with my split times written down ) as a backup.

Running up another hill early on, heated by the sulphur vents.
Running up another hill early on, heated by the sulphur vents.

My strategy was to run as fast as I could given the conditions. On flat toad like surfaces I’d try to go at a marathon-like pace.

For uphills, I’d try to run up as much as I could. I was ok with going to “cardio red line” and then back it off, as long as it wasn’t too steep.
There were the really hard parts where even just walking was very difficult and my calves burned with lactic acid .

More hills, more steam.
More hills, more steam.
Took off my long sleeved sweater as I was getting quite hot.
Took off the red shirt as I was getting quite hot.
Runners down below.
Runners down below.
I love all the colours in this picture. One of my favourite views,
I love all the colours in this picture. One of my favourite views.

lv_2016_18

First patch of snow.
First patch of snow.
Cooler, and more snow, but a lot less than last year.
Cooler, and more snow, but a lot less than last year.

It didn’t take me long to remember that we really did try our best last year. I remembered most of the hills as I got to them. There was a lot less snow , but this meant more rocky terrain.

lv_2016_21

Another very steep hill.
Another very steep hill.

“This is not a drill”
It was about an hour in when my first running mantra came to me. I kept repeating it on all the hard parts, until I knew I was in the clear.
After endless climbs , I hit the 10k station (Hrafntinnusker), stopped a moment for a water top up, and kept running.
I wanted to get to the top of the Everest like ascent to eat, hydrate, and take a few pics before taking that long, dreaded path down to the valley . It’s the one segment in the first 38k where I lose my focus. I much prefer wading across knee deep glacial streams that leave your legs and feet “burning” with cold so much you can barely move for a few minutes afterwards.

Selfie from the peak altitude of the day.
Selfie from the peak altitude of the day.
Lake Álftavatn in the distance.
Lake Álftavatn in the distance.
The long windy path down. It was nearly 200m of descent over 1km,
The long windy path down. It was nearly 200m of descent over 1 km.
I'd call this one a medium crossing. There were two bigger ones that had ropes.
I’d call this one a medium crossing. There were two bigger ones that had ropes.

The valley and the path to Álftavatn
I was now 17km in, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances of the cutoff.
It was relatively flat with rolling hills, and no more snow, and I rolled into the 24k checkpoint in approximately 3 hours, 25 minutes.
I again got more water, pee break, and was on my way again.

Flat, joyous flat trails!
Wonderful flat trails!
I'm pretty I take a right turn.
I’m pretty sure I take a right turn.
slight downhill, even better. The cloud cover was welcomed.
Slight downhill, even better.
The cloud cover was welcomed.

Álftavatn to the midway point.
The race is done on a popular backpacking route and they were quite good about getting out of our way . Once I heard someone shout ahead “Lookout for the runner”. Made me chuckle as it reminded me of the show “The Walking Dead” only on this path , the walkers were the humans . The “runners” were more like a group of grunting, shuffling masses, still going long after their bodies had given up on them.

I got to the widest river crossing of the day, which was setup with guide ropes. It was quite high due to heavy rain earlier in the week.

10 minute break”
Just over the river is where the mid-way bags were dropped. I was doing ok, but I’d been running almost non-stop for 4 hours and I deserved a bit of a break. I sat down in the soft moss, changed into a single long sleeved light shirt, ate some food, had a gel, and tried to deal with the mound of wet sand in my shoes.

I totally should've raided other people's bags . next time ;)
I totally should’ve raided other people’s bags . next time 😉

The “final” push to 38k
I then headed out for the final 10k, which was pretty sandy and moon like, largely devoid of vegetation.

Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon...
Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon…

It was cooling down a bit and there was some light mist here and there which was pleasant, although there was a pretty significant head wind. I glanced at my pace a few times and saw that I was managing a respectable pace. I knew that I pretty much was going to make it.

Well probably 🙂 My lower back had been killing me for hours but wasn’t getting worse and my legs weren’t too bad overall. My right quad was a bit wonky and I could feel my gait altering slightly.

The 38k cut off!

Emstrur at the bottom of the hill (and Coke and chocolate too I hope)
Emstrur at the bottom of the hill (and Coke and chocolate too I hope)

You can see the hut from almost a km away and it’s all downhill. It felt really good to run by the stragglers bus. A quick water and pee break and I was off on uncharted territory.

Yay! I've passed the cutoff. *Gulps* Now I have to run 17 more kilometers.
Yay! I’ve passed the cutoff. *Gulps* Now I have to run 17 more kilometers.

Emstrur to Húsadalur (the final 17k)
I had literally given it my physical all to get to this point. Or was it my mental all? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Either way, it was a hard slog over a very technically demanding section. Uphills, downhills the whole way. I even had to cling to a rope on one part. There was a dune of black sand and even the flat part was hard because it was so rocky.

It's hard to see just how steep this sand dune is.
It’s hard to see just how steep this sand dune is.
Glacier off in the distance.
Glacier off in the distance.
In the descent to the canyon bridge you have to hold onto a rope because it's so steep. And you can just about make out the safety chains along the far wall.
In the descent to the canyon bridge you have to hold onto a rope because it’s so steep. And you can just about make out the safety chains along the far wall.

I walked a good part of it: not slow, but at a steady pace .
I got passed by a lot of people. But if I did pass somebody , it was still generally on an up hill.

lv_2016_51

More hills :(
More hills 😦

Like a horse to the barn
With less than 3 k to go, the path got a little easier, and started looking a lot more familiar to me.

Suddenly the vegetation got so lushed. I thought I was dreaming.
Suddenly the vegetation got so lush. I thought I was dreaming.
This looks almost Canadian to me.
This looks almost Canadian to me.

Soon I could hear the speakers from the finishing area. I came upon two hikers who said I had 300 m left and I at least sprinted that part.

And across the line, in 8 hours, 50 minutes.

Tattoo inspiration perhaps ?
Tattoo inspiration perhaps ?

Dinner and the bus ride back
I had a good meal, chatting with various other runners, most of whom seemed to be North American.
A little while later a group of us took the 8pm bus back to Reykjavik. I sat with a fellow from South Africa for the 150km ride back.
Warren had a very positive outlook about the experience, despite the challenges that we all faced that day.

Hotel, Sweet Hotel
I would finally end up back in my hotel room nearly 19 hours after I’d departed. (4am to 11pm). I remember laying out a glass of water and a Cliff bar as a bedtime snack, but didn’t even have the energy for that. The next morning I was more exhausted than physically sore, and so I just took it real easy.

The intense muscle soreness hit me on Monday and Tuesday. I wasn’t injured, just hurt, and in need of some lasting rest and recovery.

Hydration and Nutrition Notes (the boring bit)

The plan was to drink 500ml per hour, with each bottle supplemented with a NUUN hydration tablet (along with two NUUN Active tablets for a bit of liquid calories).

My vest holds two 750ml bottles, but I didn’t feel like I had to carry 1.5L (equivalent of 3.3 pounds), so instead I did this:

Started the race with one filled bottle, and a basically empty other one with dissolved tablets.

Then at every aid station I would simply fill up the empty bottle. At this point I’d have a full bottle, and around a ¼ full other bottle. As soon as that bottle was finished, I’d pop the tablets into it, and then start drinking from the other one. Somehow this system worked like a charm, and would result in me going through just over 6 bottles, which equates to just over 500ml per hour. I also drank a few glasses of Coke along the way.

In terms of calorie intake, my liquids were only providing about 30 calories per hour, with the rest made up of Cliff bars and Kashi bars. I think I ate 6 in total, which if you add up with the liquids, gel, and few pieces of chocolate, gave me about 190 calories per hour. So pretty much perfect.

I felt that NUUN was extremely beneficial to me, and I loved the “Kona Cola” that I had at the midway point. In future runs I might try using them with sugar packets instead, to cut down on costs a bit.

Self-assessment and Lessons Learned.
My South African pal was a 50 something professional trail race organizer who raced neck and neck with a late 60’s Icelandic fisherman so as not to come in last place. Team Garmin Adventure was there, and I noticed that Team Cintamani had their official van at the start line. Michael Wardian finished in second place, and he has his own wiki page. A British woman set a new course record. But I also know that 54 people didn’t finish, and I’m sure they all tried their hardest too. Overall I’m really happy that I was able to finish it, and I proved to myself that I have the stamina and intelligence to run a course of this length.

Here are some stats that I pulled off my Garmin:
Time at rest (Elapsed Time – Moving Time):  24 minutes   (compared to 3 minutes for my last marathon)
Elevation Gain: 2134 meters (7000 feet)
Elevation Loss: 2519 meters (8200 feet)
Min Elevation : 206 meters (675 feet)
Max Elevation: 1070 meters (3510 feet)
Average Cadence (152 due to walking and hills) (vs 190 from last marathon)
My 6th fastest kilometer was my last km.
Kilometer with the most rise: 3km – 151 meters
Kilometer with the most drop: 17km – 197 meters

What’s Next?
This was the most demanding run in quite a long time, so proper recovery is needed before I get back to it. So 2-3 weeks of good recovery, and then I’ll start training for a fall marathon.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for both your blog accounts on the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon. I have read them numerous times, they were really helpful as to help me understand how difficult the cut offs would be and also the race generally. I ran my first ultra marathon there this year, here is my account (although in Norwegian): https://guristreningsglede.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/jeg-klarte-det-jeg-har-lopt-mitt-forste-ultra-lop-laugavegur-ultramaraton/ I m impressed you managed to take that many photos!

  2. Congrats Mike, well done! In August 2016 I trail ran in LMlaugar for two hours to get an idea if I was capable of running the ultra in the future. Maybe, but first the Kustmarathon of Zeeland for the second time this October 7th 👊

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