On the evening we arrived in the East of Iceland, we received some disappointing news. Apparently, in order to reach our planned start point (blue dot below), we would have to catch a bus to a town nearby, then spend a day hiking (over unmarked ground) to reach the start point.
The issue was, we knew we had a tight time schedule. And we had already lost a day due to the fact we weren’t able to catch a bus on the evening of our arrival. So we weren’t keen to lose another day making it to the start. We considered the option of starting from the end of the bus route – a town which was technically still located on the Eastern coast (purple dot) – but we were shot down once again when we found out a new road had been built which passed through an impassable (for pedestrians) tunnel. Having got myself into a spot of bother with this in the past, this was definitely not a risk we could afford to take.
Frustrating, would be the word.
Another look at the map – and we decided we could start from Eskifjörður. This was a small town on the southern coast of the peninsula (the one we were planning on starting from). It cut a few miles off the total run distance – but we could get there by midday the next day and we also concluded that it was technically still on the Eastern coast. Plus it meant we wouldn’t lose another day which may become crucial later on. Decision made. We hit the hay.
Tomorrow would be the day.
The following morning, we got a bit of a feel of how the morning dynamics might be for the rest of the trip. Whilst Ruben was pretty efficient at getting up and packed, we were very slow at getting going. Admittedly, we didn’t have to rush this morning as the one bus that would be coming wouldn’t be arriving for another couple of hours, but I would be lying if I said we got faster as the trip went on. We would often faff for couple of hours before getting going. Mostly due to the fact we knew how heavy our packs would be when we stood up, but also lets face it, also because at the end of the day we were a bunch of girls. And girls just take a long time to get ready.
Faff successfully completely, Cadi (chief come on that’s enough faffing for today), reminded us that we did in fact have a bus to catch – and we stuffed everything away and headed over to the campsite reception to buy our tickets and wait for the bus. Having only been in the country for twelve hours, the majority of which we had spent sitting around in various modes of transport, I hadn’t given all too much thought as to how spectacular this bus ride was likely to be. But boy was it a good surprise.
From the moment we left town, we were constantly uttering superlatives at the scenery that was unfolding infront of us. Interspersed with the occasional mistaken reindeer sighting (we wouldn’t actually see a reindeer until Cadi spotted one high up in the mountains a couple of days later) of course. The bus wound steadily up one mountainous river valley, before levelling out at the top of the pass, and then winding back down with a river on the other side. Dramatic drops in the river’s gradients gave rise to a series of beautiful waterfalls, all visible from the coach, tempting me to ask the bus driver to pull over so that I could take a picture. Reminding myself we would be running through this scenery (and reminding myself that we were already half a day late in getting to the start) I resisted the temptation and just sat back in my seat to admire the view.
Having reached the bottom of the pass, we stopped for petrol in a small town we would have to run back through later on, before heading out on an absolutely stunning road that followed the edge of the fjord. Normally, driving out on a road I knew we would be turning around and running straight back down, would be incredibly frustrating. However, this road was something else. The sea was beautifully blue and the mountains, providing dramatic views on both sides of the water, were still decorated with large patches of snow. This was exactly the kind of road I did not mind travelling twice in one day. It was just beautiful.
About 30 minutes and 10 miles later we hopped off the bus in Eskifjörður. Well, I say hopped. Realistically it was more of struggle – big heavy bags in a small space are never easy – but in our minds (or mine at least) it was an energised and graceful leap into the run. We walked slowly through the town to a point where we could get down and touch the fjord. We dipped a couple of toes and fingers into the water, turned on the trackers, posed for a selfie, and then hit the road. The trip was officially a go go, and we had miles to cover. I couldn’t help but feel optimistic as I watched the others disappear up the road ahead. We had trained hard for this, done all the preparation, now it was just time to get it done.
The road back to the town we had just passed through was approximately 10 miles of winding fjordside goodness. This gave us a handy ‘first stop’ marker which we would slowly progress towards, and hopefully also one where I could purchase some Barefoot Aleks inspired adventure sausage – an essential for any trip. We set off at a walk, completing 5km of solid uphill, before having an early stop at a view point on a bend in the fjord. At the top of the pass, we were already starting to feel the strain of our packs (some of them were weighing in at close to 20kg at this stage), but everyone seemed to be in fairly high spirits. I looked at the road ahead, a long sweeping downhill curve, and I couldn’t resist. It was time to run. And as I set off, despite the awkward feeling of running under a heavy pack, I couldn’t help but smile. We were off, we were running. And remarkably, everything felt like it was going to plan.
This feeling of everything going well continued for a good 6km – at which point nature called and I took myself off the road for the first adventure wee (sorry not sorry) of the trip. On my return to the road, I decided to check in with everyone to see how things were going. Cadi was the first to pass and she seemed to be perfectly happy. Next up was Ruben, who I think was still being a little bit shy and so was a little harder to read, but who also seemed pretty happy to be running along. Two out of three was a pretty good sign, and I turned back around to look out for Steph. Only, the sight of Steph approaching made my stomach drop a little. Already, I could see that Steph was upset, and the unmistakable traces of tears were visible on her cheeks. Damn. I had been so busy running along at my own place, feeling good and checking out the scenery, that I had sort of forgotten that I wasn’t the only person I needed to watch out for on this trip. A quick chat with Steph, and she let me know that the pace had been too fast setting out, so she was worrying that she was slowing us down. I was baffled. We were 10 miles in and we were all together – none of us (as far as I was concerned) were worried about pace. We had just been getting on towards the town. But Steph, bless her, had got herself into a worry that we were all too fast, and I stupidly hadn’t given any thought to it.
At this point, the team naturally regrouped and we discussed how nobody should be left to feel like they are slowing the group down. I felt it important that people move at their own pace (it is incredibly hard not too in these situations) but also that nobody ever felt like they would never catch up. I therefore suggested maybe we agree to re-group every few kilometres – which seemed to be an okay compromise for the group. Regardless, we ran the remainder of the way into the town as a group. This was my first real taste of how different a run like this would be as part of a team. It felt like a bit of a delicate situation for me – I wanted everyone to feel like they could run at their own pace – but also, Steph is my best friend, I also didn’t want her to feel like she was being left behind. Luckily for me, Cadi and Ruben seemed to be aware that Steph was struggling, and they seemed more than prepared to slow down to help her feel more confident. Boom. This team work thing was easy. You just needed a great team to start with.
Eventually, we reached the town. I purchased adventure sausage and some salted peanuts, and also some cokey sugary goodness for the team. We wouldn’t have access to these luxuries for the next few weeks – but there is no harm in making the most of them whilst you do! Coke consumed, everyone’s spirits seemed to rise a little, and we headed off Westwards under Steph’s brilliant navigational guidance, off into the wild and away from the main roads. Here, the adventure properly started.
The rest of the day saw us scaling our first mountain pass – and boy was it a bit of a struggle. I have, in my very short running career, scaled a number of what I would call ‘big hills’. This to me, is anything in the 600m region. Which I know is relatively small, but believe me, when your training ground is North Oxfordshire, anything this size is enough to give your legs a bit of a painful awakening. This pass would take us upwards of 900m above the fjord below, and as such was pretty hard work. And I do not think it was only me who thought so. Ruben, who had been training in the Norwegian fells all year, seemed to cruise effortlessly to the top, whilst Cadi, Steph and myself, panted up step by step, using every excuse to stop and get our breath back.
Eventually, we made it to the snow covered top of the pass, and I was thrilled to see that the smiles had returned to everyone’s faces. Snow is awesome. Everyone loves snow. Also, we were surprised to find that we were not alone at the top of this pass, Ruben had stumbled across a group of Icelandic men, who had been out on their snowmobiles and were now having a beer and a chat by the car. We were delighted when they offered to have a look over our route, and when they said that there weren’t too many difficult bits. Steph, Ruben and myself were even more delighted when they offered us a sample of a local snack – smoked lamb. Despite the fact we had only been on the trail for a day, this tasted amazing, and I made a mental note to eat as much smoked lamb as possible on this trip. A good move for someone who, just 8 months earlier, decided to go completely vegetarian on a trip to the US.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay and chat forever, and we soon found ourselves plodding on and moving away from the group of friendly faces. The top of the pass was awesome. We passed through alternating patches of soft gravel and snow, and every bend brought a new (stunning) view. As the path began to wind down the other side, I decided to let myself run on, enjoying the easy feeling of moving downhill. So lost was I in enjoying the snow, the descent and the false sunset, that when I stopped and looked around I found myself entirely alone. I carried on to a river, put the pack down, and sat and had a drink whilst I waited for the others. We had covered about 20 miles, with a lot of climbing, and when the group caught up, we were all in agreement that we were getting pretty tired.
We continued our descent for another couple of miles and found an ideal spot to camp, just up from the river. Happy with this as a base, we set about making up camp, cleaning in the river, cooking, and then heading to bed. Our change in start point meant that even with out 24 mile total, we would still be falling asleep slightly ahead of schedule, and this felt good.
It wouldn’t get dark at all that evening, but it is safe to say we all got plenty of sleep. It had been a big day of running, and tomorrow would be even bigger. But one thing was for sure, on this first day we had proven ourselves as a team. We had pulled together when it mattered, and everyone had arrived at camp in a relatively happy state.
All we had to do now was repeat this, day in and day out, for the next sixteen days.
How hard could that be?