RUN THE WORLD: Iceland
The harder the journey, the more beautiful the destination.
NAME: Warren King
AGE: Old Enough
PROFESSION: Trail Event Organiser
Iceland: Land of fire and ice, the midnight sun, the Northern Lights, and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
It’s two thirds of the size of our Eastern Cape Province, and has a population of around 320 000, which is roughly the same as that of East London. Two out of every three Icelanders live in the greater Reykjavik region. It’s the fifth most sparsely populated country in the world.
Sitting astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are moving apart – Iceland is one of the world’s great volcanic hotspots. The country generates 100% of its electricity with renewables: 75% from hydro power, and 25% from geothermal activity. Add to this the low human footprint, and you find an incredibly pristine and unspoilt landscape. You can drink directly from most of its rivers and streams – which makes running on Iceland’s remote and dramatically beautiful trails that much easier.
Kaldbakur Peak, Westfjords
Westfjords is one of Iceland’s most remote regions. Its population isn’t large enough to justify bridges or ferries, so the only way to travel between fjords is to drive around them. Ten as-the-crow-flies kilometres become a torturous 100. There is muscular wind, and misty rain. That said, the scenery is unforgettable…
I arrived at the pretty little fishing village of Þingeyri, and decided to run up Kaldbakur, the highest peak in the Westfjords. The first five kays consisted of a basic jeep track, which snaked its way along the valley floor and climbed gradually.
The landscape alternated between emerald-green lichen, black-and-grey volcanic rock, and brilliant-white patches of snow. On either side of me, mountains soared. Through it all flowed a crystal-clear river. Countless glacial waterfalls – one of the most characteristic features of the country – cascaded everywhere. Fat, shaggy sheep eyed me curiously.
The trail zigzagged up the mountain for another five kilometres, crossing a high pass, and became a razor-thin hiking track, complete with sheer drops on either side, as it turned towards the peak – most of which I found too steep to run on, but luckily I was in no rush.
As I climbed higher, the fjords and valleys on the other side of Kaldbakur came into view. The last couple of kilometres were arduous, but it was easy to forget about the challenge in the face of such overwhelming physical beauty.
The peak was a broad, flattish expanse. In every direction were snow-capped mountains, plunging green valleys and brilliant-blue fjords. I walked around the top of Kaldbakur for over an hour, unable to wipe the stupid grin off my face.
Energised, I decided to test my downhill skills on the way back, cutting across all of the switchbacks and basically running straight down the mountain, stopping only to drink from one of the streams. Once back in Þingeyri, I indulged in unbelievable Belgian waffles with whipped cream – the speciality of the town’s only restaurant.
Vik, Southern Iceland
Iceland’s southernmost settlement lies on the shores of a beautiful black-basalt beach, and is nestled at the foot of the imposing Reynisfjall Ridge. Ironically for Iceland’s rainiest town, the weather was perfect. Brilliant blue skies and warmer temperatures allowed me to run in shorts and a T-shirt for the first time. Conveniently, the path up the Ridge ran right outside my guesthouse.
The first couple of kilometres consisted of a too-steep-to-run jeep track, which switchbacked up the side of the mountain, and continued a while longer at the top to what looked like a weather station situated at the southern edge of the bluff, overlooking the sea. The brilliant blue skies were evidence of a country that doesn’t use fossil fuel for energy.
The landscape itself was fantastically unique – unlike anything I had encountered back home – consisting of volcanic rock covered with thick green lichen. The result was technical terrain that required absolute focus and concentration; but with the right rhythm and foot placement, it was intriguingly bouncy.
I soon worked out that there was a simple trail-marking system, which consisted of wooden poles stuck in the ground, and which generally seemed to follow the same vague counter-clockwise direction around the top of the mountain that I was aspiring to climb. But the poles were few and far between, and many of them had come out of the ground and were lying flat, impossible to see from any distance.
But it all added to the fun. I found myself rambling around this beautiful environment, completely on my own but for the endless vistas and the quizzical gaze of the usual bunch of well-fed sheep, comfortable in the knowledge that it was basically impossible to get really lost.
The theoretical loop that I was following turned into a figure-of-eight, completing the circumference of the northern part of the mountain and bringing me back to my starting point. The southern part of the mountain took me along cliff tops, soaring out of the sea and alive with exotic sea birds. Below was the pretty town of Vik, with its red-roofed church and black-basalt beach. I took the obligatory selfie with the famous Reynisdrangur sea stacks rising from the sea in the background; Icelandic legend has it that they are trolls that were caught out in the sun. Then, happily, I turned in the direction of home.
A wonderful country, all in all – and heaven for trail runners.
Your running holiday in Iceland
There’s no easy way to get there from South Africa. The most direct routes are via most of the big European airport hubs, such as London, Paris or Frankfurt, and then on to Reykjavik.
It’s easy to be self-sufficient, and there’s also no shortage of events. Check out hlaup.is for the calendar (in Icelandic), local Facebook community group Trail Running Iceland, and arcticrunning.is for tailored, guided running excursions.
There are great restaurants in Reykjavik, but options are limited in smaller towns. Excellent seafood. Self-catering is a good option for those on a budget.
Infrastructure has lagged behind the boom in tourism, so there’s a shortage of big hotel chains, and sometimes even a shortage of beds in peak season. AirBnB is a useful alternative, as is camping. Book in advance.
Get down with the locals
Locals are hospitable and friendly. Tourists tend to be outdoorsy, and helpful in the event of any logistical hiccup.
Iceland is expensive for South African travellers; indulging in a post-run craft beer will hurt your wallet.