We woke up on day four – our third day on the road – feeling (I think it is fair to say) a little worse for wear. We had been running for just two days, but we had completed over 50 miles and 6,000 ft of climbing, which it has to be said, is enough to make one feel a little off one’s best. Nevertheless, I was still determined to be positive and to have fun, and I think the rest of the group felt the same. What’s more, today would be the first time we would be navigating along a proper trail as opposed to a track, and though I knew this meant we could be in for a slower pace (which was a little bit of a worry since we had not yet hit our 30 mile daily target), I also knew it meant an exciting day of moving off road. Which promised to be more fun, more adventurous and hopefully enough to take our minds off the constant pain that was the weight of our packs.
The morning went off as usual, a bit of procrastination, a wash, breakfast and packing up, but with the added surprise of Cadi returning from the adventure bathroom with goodies. Goodies in the form of various bits of decomposed animal (a skull and a bone just to clear things up – we are not super weird or anything). Deighted with the gifts Cadi had found for us, I (naturally) had a quick game of balance the skull on my head. That is surely enough to get anyone’s day off to a good start.
Shortly after this we set off on the road we had arrived on, and after approximately 500m we turned off to the right, following what we hoped was the right trail, in what we hoped was the right direction. At first, the trail was a mud track which was surprisingly easy to navigate, but equally surprising in its lack of consistency. The mud here looked fluid, and though most of it was actually pretty solid, some bits were most definitely not. A short lapse in concentration, or even just an unlucky foot placement, could lead to a change in shoe colour and a sock full of sludge. Luckily, the river crossings were also plentiful on this morning, so you never had to suffer too long before one got the chance to wash the mud off again. What was fun, was that every time we approached a river, the ground would change from consisting of muddy sand, to being mainly rocks. However, the lack of consistency was a constant source of fun, and you could quite as easily loose your foot to a soft sinking patch of gravel, leading to the accumulation of more grit in your shoes. It was just an endless game of yes, this surface looks great for running, but you are still going to get a blister, sucker.
But, at least it was more fun than constantly pounding on tarmac.
Eventually, the trail began to fade in to the landscape, making it a little more difficult to spot where to go. Thankfully, the Icelandic cairns system is impeccable (well was, before tourists turned up and started building them willy-nilly) and out on this plateau, we found we were never too far from our route as long as we stuck to the cairns. What made this even more fun is that the cairns were shaped very much like Daleks. Something which I liked to point out whenever we reached one by giving my best EXTERMINATE impression – which is probably something that my team mates really appreciated.
We followed the Cairns for 20km at which point we stopped for a little rest and discussed the fact we would need to find somewhere to stop to eat soon. We were scheduled to reach the road that afternoon, and I was keen to push on, so after just a few minutes we set off again, planning to stop in about 3km (where we thought the road was). The group was tired from a morning of tough terrain and there were groans as we lifted our packs back on to our backs. But as we did so, a distinctive chirping noise rose over our groans and Cadi suddenly pointed out that we were being followed.
From the side of the path waddled out a little gosling, the parents of which I had seen fly away shortly before my arrival. My stomach dropped. Given that the ‘big’ geese were now completely out of site, it was unlikely this little guy was going to be found again. I think he realised this too, because he seemed to be on a mission to make us take him under our wing(s). He chirped away, approaching each of us in turn, no notion of fear whatsoever.
It was, there is no other way to describe it, heartbreaking. He was just so sweet. And small. And chirpy. I would have been excited at the best of times, but here, 20km into our third day, I became almost immediately emotional. Tears were coming to my eyes as I fought the urge to bend down and pick him up. Cadi warned us that we shouldn’t touch him in case the parents did come back for him, but it was just so hard not to. Especially as he persisted following us on our route for quite some time, stopping only when the water on the track was a little too vast for him to keep up. Even as we left him behind, his chirps seemed to carry on reaching us in the breeze, making it very hard not to turn back and get the little guy.
Traumatising though it was, very soon after his chirps had faded away, the focus was back on making it to a lunch spot. The trail, at this point, seemed to be sinking back down off the end of the plateau into a deep river valley. I began to feel good and started stretching out my legs a little, finding it easier to run with the pack and allowing myself to just go with the flow. I pushed on, following a trail that was just visible, turning corners, oohing at the view, then carrying on down what was turning out to be a stunning descent. The promised three km mark came and went, and still the trail wound down. I let my legs go free as I ran down the grassy slope. A few bends later, I came across a steep sided river gorge and stopped to enjoy the view. I looked back up the hill long enough to see my team mates appear, then turned around and carried on down the hill. Four kilometres, five kilometres, they seemed to just be falling away. I passed a few sheep (and by passed I do mean accidentally chased), rounded a few more corners, and spotted a great place for lunch (basically, there was access to the stream that had been flowing down the steep gorge higher up). I turned once more to look up the hill, spotted Cadi and a distant Ruben, then made my decision. Better to stop now, and enjoy a bit of an easy, downhill, start after lunch, than to face a climb straight away. I put my bag down, and set off to get water. Today was turning out to be a good day.
Once I had collected my water (and washed my feet in a cool water feature) I headed back up to the track to make a spot of lunch. When I got there, I said hello to Steph, who had just joined us. Strangely, I got no answer, but I presumed it was because Steph was busy sorting out her own lunch stuff, and so got on with sorting mine. During the lunch time, nobody really spoke, and I began to get the feeling that something was wrong. Even when we were really tired, there was usually some level of stupid chatter between Steph and myself, but this lunch time, there was very noticeably nothing. Deciding that lunch was the most important thing, I got on with eating whilst my now washed socks dried in the sunshine. Evidently I had missed something.
After lunch we set off as a group, and Steph found the courage to voice what had been bothering her. The trail we had just been following wasn’t very clear at all, and at times Steph had lost sight of all of us. This had meant that Steph had struggled the whole way down the descent which I had been enjoying too much. A pang of guilt hit me again, I should know by now the psychological cost of leaving someone at the back of the group. I apologised to Steph and we all carried on plodding into the valley and up the other side. Thankfully as we climbed back up on the other side of the river, exhaustion hit us all, and we bonded again over how tired we all were.
The afternoon was to be another hot one and the group started to slow. The rest of the day would see us following a river (above) upstream. Though I was feeling tired too, the scenery spurred me on a little, especially when we went back past the gorge we had followed earlier and it turned out to be a hanging valley, separated from the river valley below by a beautiful waterfall, surrounded by basalt columns. I began to run faster and felt good about it again, until inevitably, a couple of the blisters on my feet burst and left me in pain.
I sat down and cooled off my feet in the stream whilst I waited for the others to catch me. When they did, we made an agreement that I would take the poles and pegs (I already had the tent) and run on ahead (we had about 10 km left) to put up the tent. Having felt good all day, I agreed to this pretty much straight away, put my shoes and socks back on, and ran off down the road. I was now on a mission to make up for my lack of teamwork earlier.
For a good 5 km I ran down the road at a steady jog. Considering how most of our afternoon progress had been made at a walk up until this point, I was really pleased with myself. I was getting more and more tired, but I was ignoring it and tramping on, keen to make it to camp and play my part in making it easier for the team. As my progress started to slow I contemplated sitting for a while to get some energy back. I tried not to for a while, choosing instead to walk/run for a little while. As I started walking, I chose to look back over my shoulder, and noticed that the rest of the group were right behind me. I was baffled. I had been trying SO hard, but they were still right here. Whilst I was pleased to see them looking good again, my brain suffered a hit and as a result began to listen to my body, which was well and truly done for the day. It was like being hit by a wall of fatigue. This was my punishment for going too fast earlier on. Every step was now accompanied by a groan. Especially, when trying to keep up with Steph on the downhills. Steph, remarkably, had seen everyone else finding it tough, and stepped up to make us all feel better. The turnaround was remarkable. As I struggled along the road, she kept reminding me that there was not far to go and that I was doing a great job. Had I been on my own that day, I would have stopped much sooner.
By the time we reached camp that night, I was exhausted. In my stubborn exhausted state, I chose not to eat dinner, but instead to eat a snickers bar that Steph had given to me. I phoned Jon, and cried. We spoke about the duckling, and I cried. Steph’s mum text us, and I cried. I was drained. It had been my turn to struggle that afternoon and I was finishing it off in style.
Shortly after this breakdown, I got in my sleeping bag and drifted off, very quickly, to sleep, hoping that by the morning I would return to my usual emotionless state.