Race Report: Laugavegur 55km Ultra Marathon
Wow. I know that I say that a lot but I'll say it again, wow! I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to Iceland for the 55km Laugavegur Ultra Marathon with such a rad group of ELM peeps. I am a very proud coach after watching Team ELM progress through their training, persevere in the face of obstacles and reach the start line of this spectacular race. I am so stoked to have had the chance to support them on their ultra journey and beyond grateful that they stepped up to join me for this once in a lifetime adventure.
The Laugavegur trail travels through one of the most spectacular places on earth. Other worldly, the route highlights scenery that will have you thinking your are on another planet. The race course travels through multiple worlds that contrast completely from one to the next from moonscape to an oasis and everything in between. The Laugavegur trail is 55kms with 1400m climbing, 2400m descending and nothing but remote wilderness from start to finish. The race was extremely well organized and considering the challenging logistics of this point to point course in the remote highlands, the race team pulled it off seamlessly. The race takes place on the most popular multi-day backpacking trails in Iceland and normally people come from all over the world to hike it over 4-5 days during the summer months. Bubbling geysers, massive glaciers, a rainbow of colours, lakes, river crossings and volcanic sand deserts, this trail shows off some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. I would not only recommend this race but I would love to run the route again!
The race began at 9:00am in Landmannalauger, a three hour drive from Reykjavik, on rough highland mountain roads. Allowing for a short breakfast stop for five hundred people along the way, this meant leaving town at 4:30am and getting up at 3:00am to begin the long journey. After four hours of travel, we arrived at race central with 20 minutes until go time so it was a quick hustle for bathrooms and a mini warm up before getting called into the race start chute! The race started in waves based on predicted start times and our ten Team ELM members started in small groups at the various times. The start line was just like the race website photos and suddenly it hit us! We were really starting the Laugavegur ultra!
There was a short steep hill at the start and we were forced to cool our jets in a race traffic jam for the first few minutes. This was perfect and kept our energy output in check rather than letting adrenaline and excitement have their way with us. After the short trek, we crested the hill and began the first leg of our run, through a small lava field and then up, up, up on the biggest climb of the course- 450 metres over 10kms and then another over the next 12kms. The climb had some good steep sections that had my calves threatening to burn much too early on in the day. I had not exactly trained as intended for this moment lol.
And they're off!
Colourful traffic jam at the startAfter a crazy few months of whiplash set backs, dropped races and multiple weeks where I could literally not run a step, I arrived at the state line on a wing and a prayer so to speak. Four weeks before the race I had started run:walking with 1min run:2min walk and had a slow return to steady running. Although I was not holding my breathe, I sketched out a 'last chance' plan that would give me some concrete cut offs to determine if I would run the race. After attempting the Grand Canyon Ultra at the end of May and experiencing a major set back I had a zero tolerance policy for racing until I was healed up. And so, I set the bar at completing progressive long runs of 10k, 20k, 30k, then a final test of 35k with race course elevation the week before the race. No need for a taper in my case lol. Any increase in symptoms meant a red light. No symptoms gave me a green to move up the next week. Each week I felt better and although I felt shockingly out of shape (weak legs and lack of endurance after the time off!) I did not experience any negative change in my symptoms. My final cut off was to wait and see how the travel and pre race week adventures (planes, buses, hotels, lodge bunks, day hikes etc) effected my neck, back and hip. It went surprisingly well and with daily stretching and mobility my body cooperated. So, I decided to pick up my package the day before the race! Green light meant go and I was excited and cautiously optimistic. I would be running with sheer bliss as I was thrilled to experience this amazing adventure alongside my team. What a gift!
I was very cautious in the first half of the race, not wanting to screw up and irritate my symptoms in the latter stages of the day. I hadn't run more than 35kms since the start of April and I knew pacing would be the key not just for my Team but also for myself. Slow and steady wins the race...no effort...no heavy breathing...no burning legs...no racing allowed!
The first leg of the race travelled through Mars. Seriously! 10kms with the big climb of the day, we marched upward in a long colourful que for miles. Hot steam rose up all around us and geysers bubbled in blue and teal rings at our feet. The now familiar stench of sulphur hit us in waves as hot gases were released from the earth alongside the trail. Was it Earth? Gem coloured pools, hills painted in rich shades of orange, red and gold, a dark volcanic dirt track underfoot and a dazzling blue sky overhead made for a striking canvass on this first leg of the race. It was impossible not to stop and take a million photos;) A few patches of snow appeared near the end of the leg and we were at aid 1 before we knew it. I grabbed a top up on my water but I didn't bother looking at the food because we were told there were only bananas available at the aid stations! Unheard of for a race of this scale from my experience but hey, I've never raced in Iceland or Europe.
The second leg was 12kms and included some additional climbing followed by a fun, steep and rocky descent. More views from Mars. We had to trudge through quite a few patches of snow and slush at the beginning of this leg and we got our feet wet in the first few river crossings of the day. I am slow on snow and seem to take one step back for every two steps forward but it was fun to play and slide down the hilly bits. Along the way I passed the dude with bright red feet wearing new aged Tarahumera sandals (there's always one in every ultra lol). We had a chat and he was loving the foot numbing river crossings and slush fests by the sounds of things😉.
After one last snowy hill climb, we turned a corner and a massive view opened up for us- we could see the lake! Lake Álftavatn, our 22km mark, sparkled down below and that meant that Aid 2 and the first cut off of the race was in sight. Now we just had to get down there! It looked close but it was still likely 8kms away and there was an awesome steep descent to tackle first. When the trail pitched downward there was a communal braking amongst the racers but I saw free time and fun rather than fear. I picked my way through the cautious racers, working to find the balance between brakes and gas and not shredding my quads with too much of either. You need quads at the end of the race so it's key to save some for the last leg. Fun fun fun descent though! Passing many and letting the legs spin out, before I knew it the descent was over and I was crossing a river on a makeshift bridge made of old skis and running out the flats to aid 2. 22kms completed
Leg 3 was a flat 16km wasteland. Well, ok, not all of it, but the bit in the middle was a mentally challenging 10km section that took us through an Icelandic, black sand 'desert'. Soon after leaving aid we got our feet wet in a shin deep, ice cold river and my waterproof socks lost their charm. Suddenly I had four pound water balloons on each foot but did I stop to drain them? Nope! I knew the big river crossing and drop bags were just a few kms away so I carried on with a little resistance training. We ran through an old farm and over another lava field and suddenly there was the big river crossing that we had heard so much about! It was mid thigh deep and moving swiftly. We had a rope to hold onto and search and rescue were stationed in the river to catch any loose racers. I had my GoPro out for the action and I nearly went for a swim when the river bottom dropped unexpectedly! I got a good laugh out of the safety team as I wrestled to stay upright and on the rope while filming the action. The crossing was refreshing but a dunk wouldn't have been quite as fun!
At 28kms, I found my drop bag on the other side - so well organized by start wave and number- and ditched the waterproof socks. The weather was shockingly warm and sunny and I ran the entire race in a t-shirt to my surprise. My waterproof socks were overkill but they had done their job in the snow. Fresh dry socks and a snack resupply including my happy food for the day - sour cream and onion ripple chips! - and I was on my merry way. Those chips were the highlight of my race lol! I haven't had those in years and they were a salty flavour explosion that perked me right up. Never underestimate the power of happy food in endurance events! Off I ran, munching away on my tasty chips into 'Death Valley', as it was soon be known as by the team, unaware of the endless black sand wasteland that lay ahead. It was a looooong ten k. After the dramatic start and what we knew would be spectacular finish, our perspective was tainted and we had been a wee bit spoiled but so many killer views. The black sand desert taunted us. We would reach the end and climb up over a little hill only to find that another desert lay ahead. The bright side was that we were not backpacking it like so many hikers we encountered along the way-they really thought it would never end! And, the conditions were perfect actually, with rain the day before the sand was packed down and allowed us to move relatively quickly. No rain and no major wind, we had sunshine to accompany us along the way. It was so lovely out that I managed to get a bit of a sunburn as I forgot the screen that morning. Never in my wildest dreams did I see that coming in the highlands of Iceland!
Finally we escaped the monotony of the flat desert and enjoyed a short descent into aid 3. Wahoooo! Last leg to go! 'Only 17kms left?' I asked the aid crew. 'Yes!' they replied with big smiles. 38kms down and I had zero symptoms. I knew I would be ok. It was time to giver to the finish!
Leg 4, 17kms mostly downhill. Out of aid and it was a steady descent with a few very short climbs to mix things up every now and then. This leg had some loose sandy sections, a few river crossings and many beautiful views of the Thorsmork Valley, where we would be finishing the race. I felt great. I had energy to burn and I pulled out my power tools to help me push on with a strong finish. I stuck my earbuds in, cranked my favourite playlist and choked down a caffeinated GU. Delayed gratification is another powerful tool for the endurance racing motivation toolbox. Not only does dangling a carrot keep you moving forward, the longer you wait it seems, the better the reward feels. My music had me dancing and playing all the way to the finish line. It felt great to run hard and know that I was safe to do so...finally.
One final, thigh deep river crossing complete with a peanut gallery and I knew that I only had 4kms to go. Wahoo! Pushing on I forced myself to run all of the hills and kept my head down all the way to the finish. Done and done 6hours 33minutes and completely symptom free - what a relief!
After the race, I enjoyed a short visit with friends from my previous life as a Rapattack Forest Fire Fighter, Jen, Lisa and Corey. They had taken me up on this crazy Iceland adventure and it was surreal to share a meal with them in this wild country. Soon, the rest of Team ELM began to cross the finish line and I held my breathe until I knew where everyone was and that they were all safe and sound. They did so awesome! Fantastic finish times on a surprisingly gruelling race course and everyone surpassed their expectations for the day which is fantastic. Only one ELMer was unable to finish the race, due to a prior injury and a wrong turn, but they were happy to have reached a new distance on course and that their body had carried them to km 38.
A lasagne dinner and then a loooong 3 hour, off road bus trip, complete with mad river crossings and good conversation and we were back in our little downtown Reykjavik apartments. We had plans to celebrate but could barely keep our eyes open after a ridiculously long day, so we settled for brief post run recap in our apartment before heading off to bed.
Team ELM touring Reykjavik by bike the week before the race
Team ELM with the local paper, The CV Record in Thorsmork Valley on our pre-race adventure.
Team ELM rockin the beautiful Highlands!See the rest of the Team ELM images on our Facebook page here:
See my Insta images and Iceland daily journal here:
Thank you goes out to the race organizers for putting on such a fabulous event in the face of some challenging logistics. The race has grown quickly and they are doing a great job accommodating the growth. High fives and big thanks to all of the volunteers who did a stellar job assisting us before, during and after the race! And a huge thank you goes out to my team of healers who helped to get me to that start line on time- Debbie Wright at Bayview Chiro, Kendra Mulligan at Ascent Physiotherapy, Michelle Hughes at Comox Valley Acupuncture and Marian Patterson, Reflexologist. Thank you thank you for your healing energy!
Stay tuned for multiple blog posts on travelling in Iceland!