Now that I returned to Romania, and cold finally got out of my bones after a few days here where it’s warm, I’m trying to rewind the movie of events that took place in Iceland. And I’m glad I allowed a few days to pass by, otherwise you would only hear these words: cold, very cold, snow, sleet, rain, wet clothes. Ok, you’ll hear them quite often anyhow 🙂
Iceland is an island between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, with a surface a little over 100.000 square km and a population roughly the size of that of Constanta county, which makes it the European country with the most rarefied population. About 10% of inhabitants will publish a book during their lifetime and about 80% know how to play at least one musical instrument. And with that, I think I said it all about the level that these people have.
This is a country with no permanent army, crime is a notion that younger generations have to look up in a dictionary, homes are left unlocked and sometimes car keys are left in contact. The island has a lot of active volcanoes and geothermal springs. The interior consists from a plateau with sandy plains and lava, mountains and glaciers, out of which many glacial rivers flow towards the ocean trough the coastal plain. The main surprise for visitors, especially those coming from Mediterranean countries, is the climate, which is totally capricious and unwelcoming. Islanders greet tourists with this saying: “You don’t like Iceland weather? Please wait five minutes!” And this is how it is. The weather forecast is given every two hours, as weather can change several times over 24 hours. It can be sunny when you wake up, then it might rain or even snow, only to have sun again later on and so on. The bus driver who took me to the airport told me they only get an average of eighty to a hundred hours of sun each year! Therefore, if you plan to visit the island, be prepared for changing weather and often bitter winds. But you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views.
About Fire&Ice Ultra
When I chose Fire&Ice Ultra as part of my CaliVita 7 Deserts project, I perceived it even from that moment as a huge challenge, as up until then I ran multi-stage races in warm places only. But it was pretty much the only race of this type in Europe, so I had no choice. And in a way I’m glad I had no choice, as I discovered in Fire&Ice a race that breaks you into thousand tiny pieces and reconstructs you every morning trough its absolutely amazing landscapes that unroll in from of your eyes. So, I knew it was not going to be easy, but then again nothing is, when you have to cover 250 km in 6 days, running with a backpack. Fire & Ice is a race excellently organized, with always-smiling warmhearted volunteers, who suffered alongside us when it was cold (meaning: almost all the time 🙂 ) and who rejoiced with us when we safely made it over the finish line of each stage; people who did their best so we could have a roof above our heads every evening, despite the winds and storms that made it almost impossible sometimes.
The way to Iceland
I left Bucharest for Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, with a stopover in Munich where I met my good friend Ela, an orthopedic surgeon from Germany, with whom I ran Marathon des Sables and Grand to Grand Ultra and who represents for a me model of stubbornness (in a good way) and I’ll tell you why. Despite not managing to train for this race, she had the courage to toe the line and she reached the finish line of each stage with a smile on her face.
Our destination, the small town of Akureyri, lays 400 km from Reykjavík, in the North-East of the country. We got two options to get there: an internal flight lasting 40 minutes or to rent a car and drive all the way. We chose to drive on the way in, to enjoy the sensational Icelandic landscapes, and to fly on the way out, after the race. The first warning when you rent a car is to always park it with its rear facing the wind and to carefully open the door as it can be flown away. The trip to Akureyri was exceptional and I had no regrets for choosing to drive, despite my neck started to hurt from turning my head so often left and right to admire the landscape. We were lucky to enjoy good weather, and when I say “good” I mean about 10 degrees and no rain, but nothing forecast what was about to come during the race.
Once arrived at the organizers general headquarters we checked in and then our compulsory gear was meticulously checked. I mentioned for Running Mag here the content of the backpack for the Iceland race. I received my race BIB and I separated my things, food and all I needed for a one week running from the rest of my stuff.
I ate out that evening and met with old friends with whom I did Grand to Grand (Dirk of South Africa and Terri from the US). It was the last decent meal. I call it “The Last Supper”. This is because for one week, while I’m racing and only having dehydrated food, I think every evening to the taste and consistency of regular food. Now if I come to think about it, I reckon people at these races run because of hunger :)) The perspective of sitting in front of a plate with regular food after 6 days of racing… gives us wings 😀 For the rest, long live dehydrated foods!
Akureyri –> first base camp.
Early morning, with only our backpacks, we boarded two buses which took us 360 km away, to the first base camp, close to the edge of Vatnajokull glacier. With a surface area of 8.300 square km and 400 m thick, it is Iceland’s biggest glacier and one of the biggest in Europe. The drive took 9 hours, and this is because organizers prepared two visits to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Europe. As we approached the glacier, the landscape started to turn into an almost selenary one: plateaus of molten lava, mountains and hills covered in volcanic ash, gheizers. Lord of the Rings fans would have recognized Frodo’s trip to Mordor.
As we descended the bus to get to our tents, we realized how cold it was going to be the next period. There was a -8 degrees forecast for the start next morning and -12 for the night. Perceived cold was amplified by the strong wind. After “checking in” and meeting my tent mates – Christian (Germany), Mike (CAN), Anton (Russia), Brooke (US), Laurence (France) and James (UK) we went into a small hut (the only one in the area) for the next day stage race briefing. I walked back to my tent shivering and hoping I could get some good rest for what was about to come. My plan was to put my thoughts “on paper” after each stage, to better describe the experiences and emotions of the respective day. As time goes by, details which make a race like this memorable surely fade away. So, what comes next are my fresh thoughts, after each day.
Before the race
“After a 9 hours drive (360km) I arrived yesterday at the first base camp, at the edge of the biggest glacier in Iceland (which covers 10% of the country surface area). It is cold. Very cold. I slept in 2 jackets, 2 pairs of pants, hat and gloves. But the landscapes fully make it up. We’re in an area similar to those we see in documentaries about alien planets. Boulders, volcanic rocks, molten lava, craters. Today’s stage is 36.6 km long and we begin at 9:00 local time. Kisses and see you at the finish line. I hope my hands won’t freeze so I could take my GoPro out every now and then to film, as landscapes are simply breathtaking!”
Stage 1 – 36.6 km
I successfully finished the first stage of Fire & Ice Ultra. There were 36.6 km we ran in the vicinity of Vatnajokull glacier, in a landscape which makes you think of other planets. We had it all: climbs, descents on tough and sharp volcanic rocks, volcanic ash, stretches of flat and slight inclines. On brief: not a difficult stage. Maybe just the low temperatures (-6 C) and the wind made it a little harder. As for my running, I cannot pinpoint it but after the 20th km my energy dropped (I was the 6th at the time). 3 runners passed me and no matter how hard I tried, there was no way to catch them up. Honestly I have no explanation for this. I ate well, I rested as much as I could despite the cold, I precisely followed my nutrition plan but from km 20 onwards it just did not work anymore. I got something to think of tonight and I hope I’ll manage to find out what went wrong so I could adjust for the next stages. We have a long week ahead. For the moment 36.6 km, 3h47m, 9th place.
As a digression, I spoke to Ela in the tent after the stage and she told me the cold is a factor in the nutrition plan and I should have allowed for 30% more compared to running under normal circumstances. This is because thermogenesis is done by the liver, which redirects 30% of glycogen normally sent to muscles just to keep us warm. Therefore, to compensate, I should have allowed 30% more sources of carbohydrates in my nutrition plan. Problem is, in races like this all food, isotonic and recovery powders, all gels are numbered and rationed per days. If you made a mistake, there is no other source. I couldn’t take from the next day package, as that would have left me with far less for then. I had to adapt somehow to the situation and to try and run my best under the circumstances.
Stage 2 – 42.6 km – panic, panic, panic
To better describe the overview image of what happened here I have to start with last evening. When I concluded the first stage and I reached the camp it was sunny, cold and very windy. So windy that organizers only managed to install 3 out the 8 tents. Tent 6, where I was supposed to go, wasn’t erected yet. As it was very windy, they assembled all runners who finished so far in the three tents, so we could get out of our wet clothes and change. Later on a storm started, not of sand but of volcanic ash, as this is what we got here. It is very fine and razor sharp. This stuff can take down planes for a reason. On fast forward, time to go to bed. I start inflating my mattress when I notice two big holes in it. I have no idea how they came to be. I covered them with tape and thought I made it but 15 minutes later my mattress deflated. There probably were other smaller holes, not visible to the naked eye. So every half hour I woke up to inflate the mattress, as it was extremely cold without it. I mention I slept in two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two blouses, jacket, gloves and hat. I got into my sleeping bag with all these on. Also inside the bag were the clothes I ran in the first stage. They obviously had no chance to dry, but at least not to put them on frozen the next day. It was heavily snowing at 4:30 when I got out of the tent. Not to mention the cold. And, on top of my mattress being punctured, I also discovered the things inside my sleeping bag got wet, as water vapors in my tent condensed and trickled on my sleeping bag for who knows how long. So we started at 8:30 while snowing and we were also served, on the house, with sleet, rain and strong winds from all sides. And all my gear was wet, from the start. Around km 19 I got a panic attack, like never before. Or at least this is what I think I got. I was afraid not to freeze and I felt hypothermia was just around the corner. The wind was blowing strongly into my wet clothes and I felt sweat just freezing on me.
I was tempted to stop at Check Point 2 as I shivered from all my joints. There were 12 more kilometers to the finish line and I told to myself this is do or die. So I closed today’s stage in 5h41m. There were 42.6 agonizing kilometers. I think today I arrived on 11th but I didn’t check. Given the story above, it really didn’t matter. All I had on my mind was to make it to the finish line in one piece. Now I’ll see what I can do about these wet clothes again. For the moment the weather is sunny and windy, so there is a good possibility they’ll dry. The forecast for tonight is snow, again. One more day gone …
Stage 3 – 43 km
Winter is not like summer, my brothers. This is for sure. Last winter it snowed again. So we started again in wet clothes. I tend to believe that things never get dry in nature in Iceland. You got to have the heater on you :)) Somehow I start getting used to the idea and accepting the fact that I’ll only get rid of the cold and the wet clothes on Saturday, when the race will be over. So we left on the snow, cold and wind. I ran to the first CP 18.9 km away just to get my gear warm. Problem was because of the wind blowing from all sides, I never felt warm. Long story short, I reached CP1 in 1h52m on the 5th place. I felt ok, legs not tired, satisfactory level of energy. One kilometer out of CP1, a front wind started as I never experienced in my life. It literally blew us away. I tried to run on flat stretches but not even that was possible. One could hardly keep his balance. I felt my energy level plummeting. It was hard even to walk. This is how the following 11 kilometers to CP2 unwind. When I got there I was exhausted and upset a little. Other runners passed me and from a point on I didn’t even count no more. I was told I was on the 14th place.
From there we entered some molten lava fields, boulders and sharp rocks on a up-down-up-down route. But, surprise! There was no wind and sleet had stopped , too. So I hit the gas knowing there were only 14 km left. I caught 6 runners who were struggling with the unstable sharp rocks. I ran like a maniac and I constantly overtaken them on descends, but also on flats or even climbs. I reached the finish line in 5h10m on 8th. Now I leave you as I got two ugly blisters to take care of, if I want to run tomorrow. By the way, tomorrow is the long stage – 70km. God bless! :)) I thank you a lot for your support. Unfortunately signal here is very poor and I cannot read your messages. But I’ll reply to all, as soon as I’ll get back to civilization. It works like this: I SMS the stage report to my good friend Razvan and he posts it on my Facebook page. Thank you, Razvan, for keeping my friends updated.
Stage 4 – 70 km. War, bro!
I won’t even bother to tell you how the forth night went, with no sleep because of the cold due to the punctured mattress and wet clothes, as you’ll probably say “ok, ok, we already know this so move on.”
The gun went off at 7 today. Awaiting us, 70 km of lava, dunes in the so called Little Sahara area, then endless kilometers of sharp volcanic rocks to zig-zag against, offload roads dotted by cars every half hour or so, gorgeous landscapes left and right. Aw, and an important detail: no snow, no rain, no sleet. Sunny and cold and decent winds. 5 kilometers in, the first surprise: we had to cross a river knee deep, with a rope to hold on. Wonderful feeling. There were -5 degrees outside and God knows what was the water temperature. Anyhow, this shower woke me up completely. And we got it on the menu again at km 21. The whole stage consisted into a chase between the top 15 runners. We hunted each other down and overtaken like in the Bond movies.
I don’t know what are the effects of sleep deprivation on me, but it seems at every race the more tired I am, the better things go for the next stage. That was the case with Grand to Grand, MDS or Sahara Race. And that was the case here as well. I finished the 70 km in 8h51m, on 10th; my best result in a long stage ever. So I’m extremely happy. Tomorrow 42 km followed by 19 km the day after tomorrow and it will be over! Kisses. I’m dashing to the medical tent now, as I got three more blisters and the yesterday ones evolved into dark purple now :))
Stage 5 – 38.9 km – or how much to crave a hot bath to run like hell for it
I knew from previous editions that at the end of the fifth stage the base camp will be set in a hot springs area where we will have access too! When you wipe for five days only to wear the same cold and wet clothes you wore for the whole week, you have no idea what a bath means, not to mention a hot thermal bath in the wild. And this is how the commonplace home shower shines in a bright new light 🙂
Getting back to the stage: the top 17 runners started at 8:30, and the others at 7:30. We ran hard. The first 10 km were on an extremely difficult cross country terrain with shrubs, rocks, moss and no path. We only needed a machete to be in the jungle. They were followed by 11 k on a hill surrounded plateau with endless ups and downs and a bitter head wind. All I could think of was the hot bath at the end.
I was overtaking and I was being overtaken by runners whose desire for a bath was probably stronger than their self-preservation instinct, as terrain was quite technical sometimes. The hunt continued during today’s stage and in no time we found ourselves in a very beautiful area: steam coming out from the ground, hot springs, an area similar with the Muddy Volcanoes but at a whole different scale. From here to the finish line all I could think of was that hot bath. I finished the 38.9 km in 3h44m, on 8th or 9th, I’m not sure. As soon as I got to the tent, I was thinking how little someone needs after being out in rough weather for a week, to run 38, or better, 230 km already! :)) Hugs!
Stage 6 – the last stage (19 km) and the finish of Fire and Ice Ultra (250 km)
I don’t know what was the arrangement of the top ten runners, if they didn’t feel like pushing anymore or what, all I know is when the gun went off I ran my best and I didn’t look back. I came here to run, to give it my best and to race, and that was what I did. I finished the stage first and on the 9th place in the general table.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me present you the 0.5 kg heavy Fire&Ice Ultra medal … the Icelandic way!
I could not believe in was all over with the cold and the wet clothes and that I managed to finish this race as planned, in top ten. As we arrived in a small town 1h:30 away from Akureyri (so back to civilization), the organizers welcomed us with lamb soup (a local specialty) and beer as re hydration. We were inside a Icelandic traditional pub, warm, with no wind, no snow or rain. After getting in, I closed my eyes for a few seconds and just enjoyed the moment. The satisfaction and the sense of fulfillment one experiences after concluding a race like this cannot be expressed into words. After the meal we were all driven back to Akureyri by bus, for our first shower and normal bed in a week. Aw, and I almost forgot: and a lot of regular food! I told you everything is about food :))
Speaking of food, the festive dinner where official photos and clips were shown as well as the awards ceremony took place on a ship, on the sea. A nice surprise from the organizers, which shows their attention for details and their preoccupation so that this event will be a memorable one, which will make people consider coming back to. Don’t ask me now of I want to do this; given how much I suffered from the cold, the balance tilts towards “No”… Ask me in a month time :)) (runners know why).
Therefore, one more race done in CaliVita 7 Deserts circuit, a race made possible by the help and support of my friends and partners from CaliVita Romania (main sponsor), Xnutrition Romania, Quantum Sport, CEP Romania, Garmin, Trisport, StemSure , Dr.MIT, Pavel Virgil Therapy , Aleo and RunningMag. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart for supporting me with this crazy adventure around the globe and I also thank you all who sent me your good wishes and thoughts during the race. You have no idea how much it helps knowing that dear friends from home think of me.
In less than three weeks I’ll “take off” again. This time towards Chile in South America, where I’ll run 250 kilometers in one of the most arid deserts in the world, Atacama (https://www.4deserts.com/atacamacrossing/).
Translation by SightRunning.ro